All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Seventy-One: The Third Man

“She’s ready to see you now.”

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

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

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

“You’re telling me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, kid.”

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

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

Wait, no, that didn’t—  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Then where’s Allie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was about when Alberto gave up on remaining calm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He said he could get you out.”

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

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

Alberto grinned. “Fair enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“John.”

“Yes, Alberto?”

“Death has better bedside manners than you.”

“Granted. Nevertheless—”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What would you do with the girl?”

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

“You’re eight years old.”

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

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

“Oh no,” Alberto said flatly.

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

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

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

“Enlil I think will be far enough.”

“…Where?”

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

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

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

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

“Problem, Doctor?” Alberto asked cooly.

“Do you know how far Enlil is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the plan, Davie.”

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

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

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

“Then I’ll be a king.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

David didn’t have a retort for that strategy.

“…And then what?” asked Valour.

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

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

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

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

He’d played against worse odds.

“…You’re bluffing.”

Alberto’s smile wobbled. “I’m what?”

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

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

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

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

Move.

He opened his eyes, staring defiantly at Timothy Valour.

Be seen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But amongst the pandemonium, David was bent laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

“You bastard.”

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

David laughed again, crowing, “Flying Man!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell.

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

“Is that a spell?” asked Mabel.

“Nope. Just force of habit.”

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

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

Fuck!

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

Over mountain, over sea, over city…

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

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

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

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

“Probably,” sighed the DDHA chief.

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

“I never thought…”

“He’s real!”

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

“…Yes?”

The Watercolours crept in between the grown ups. 

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

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valour noticed the movement. “Look out!”

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

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

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

“It’ll be alright, Allison.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the—”

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

Allison scowled. “Alberto!”

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

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

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

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

“She did it first!”

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

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

Alberto grinned woozily. “Shows you.”

“For fuck’s sake!” yelled Valour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had to try someone else.

Billy had returned to hugging Mr. Thumps’ side.  

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

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

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

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

Oh.   

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

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

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

She could take it, couldn’t she? 

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

“Sorry, Thumps.”

She stepped towards the drone. 

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

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

“Good God…” whispered Tim.

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

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

“It—it’s not his fault.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just leave us alone.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Seventy: The Rumble at Royal Exhibition Building

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

“Took your sweet time,” Valour muttered loudly. 

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

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

Alberto wanted him gone.

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

Penderghast obeyed. “Fair enough.”

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

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

“…Shit,” Arnold said aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re bloody demi terrorists—”

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

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

The boy just shrugged. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is,” Tim answered quietly. 

The marble turned white in Penderghast’s hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…No.”

It was worth a try…

The eye remained blood red.

…No it wasn’t. 

“Thank you, David,” said Penderghast. 

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

“…That was unnecessary.”

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

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

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

“None taken, Miss Kinsey.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Piss off!”

Everyone stared at David.

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

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

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

The stone turned white. 

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

“David,” Arnold said timidly, “you don’t have to—”

“Yes I do! They’re not splitting us up again!”

“…I understand your concerns,” Penderghast’s face hardened. “But please don’t make me do this forcefully.” He began to twist and contort his fingers like he was building a cat’s cradle. “Non in Tartareo latitantem poscimus antro, adsuetamque dia tenebris, modo luce fugata descendentem animam. Primo pallentis hiatu haeret adhuc Orci.3

All warmth in the hall fled, replaced by the scent of charcoal dust and pomegranates.

David scowled. “What are you up to?”

The only answers David got were screams: Herbert Lawrence was getting to his feet.

Billy peeked out from Mr. Thumps’ suit-jacket. For just a moment, he could hope again. He’s not dead! Nobody has to get in trouble now!

But the old man’s gait was all wrong. He staggered towards Penderghast in lurching stumbles, like he had a fishing hook lodged in his chest and the warlock was pulling him in. The back of his head was a mess of bone and blood. Blood David couldn’t feel moving. Lawrence was still dead, just walking. 

Lawrence stopped in front of Penderghast. His eyes were still closed, but his mouth twisted into a strained mockery of a smile. In a rasping, faltering sing-song, he said, “Thank you, sorcerer. I had forgotten the gentle touch of the living sun, even across a frame as worn and broken as this.”

“Spirit,” Penderghast said sharply, “whose body is this?”

He already knew the answer, but there was a protocol to talking with geists. Howard suspected it would be far less irksome than summoning Herbert himself, anyway. 

The corpse hissed, “Herbert Lawrence.”

That done, Penderghast asked, “And who sent his soul down to your master’s kingdom?”

Lawrence’s body pointed right at Arnold. “Him. The spirit-touched boy. He’s the killer.”

Arnold squeezed Mabel’s hand tight. David screamed.

The water-sprite became fluid. His water spheres plunged down from the ceiling and slammed into him, the boy’s shape lost as it bulged and reformed into a hulking, amorphous giant. David’s new form froze solid as he charged at the warlock, utterly silent but for the thunder of his footsteps. 

As the hostages shouted and fled for cover all around him, Alberto pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. “For shit’s sake, David. We were this fucking close.”

Penderghast didn’t miss a beat, quickly tracing the shape of a man in front of him with his staff. Translucent, boxy gold armour formed around his body, just in time for the ice-giant to swat Lawrence’s corpse aside and ram right into him. 

Penderghast peeled his face from the ice’s surface, pinned there by David’s momentum. 

“For God’s sake, boy!” he shouted. “You’re not helping your case here!”

David didn’t answer. Not surprising, really. He didn’t have a mouth.

Have to get the hostages—  

The pair crashed through the front of the hall, the wall exploding into a cloud of dust and masonry. David’s titan tripped over Penderghast’s indestructible doors, sending the wizard hurling onto the lawn as its feet snapped off. 

Howard landed on the grass with a thud, his air-armour shattering around him. The ice-giant was sitting atop the doors, clumsily reattaching its own feet like pieces of a doll, when a barrage of bullets started chipping away at its mass. A childish voice of singing crystal snickered.

“Don’t shoot, you fools!” Penderghast screamed at the cops girting the building. “You can’t hurt ice!” 

David paused in reassembling himself. Why was he bothering with feet? On the spur of the moment, he reshaped one of his broken feet.

Time to stop thinking like a human.

The policemen had around half a second to turn and run before a thirty foot javelin of solid ice pierced through the side of one of their cars. Penderghast looked at the boy. His torso was floating in mid air, his arms and lower body splitting into chunks and fragments that orbited his form like miniature comets. He already had the other foot raised, shaping it into a sword. 

“Damn it, kid,” Penderghast groaned, as he pulled a dagger from his belt. “Fencing isn’t my forte.” 

What? David thought. He thinks that’s gonna stop me? 

He sent the sword hurtling at Penderghast. The warlock swept his own blade (sharpened on the wings of dragonflies) through the air and sliced a tear in the space in front of him. The ice-sword sailed through it, into the velvet canvas of the space outside space.

David’s soul groaned. 

Bloody cheater! 

He noticed the Exhibition Building’s fountain4: three disks supported on the backs of four concrete merpeople, upon which danced the traditional nude allegorical children, while their peers played at the edge of the water below5
.

Inwardly, David grinned. 

The fountain’s streams redirected, lashing like anemone tendrils at Penderghast, their tips freezing solid and sharpening moments before they would have struck his skin, if the warlock weren’t so effectively dodging them.  

Penderghast leapt backwards as one of the watery tentacles stabbed down into the grass where his right shoulder had been. The boy was fighting smarter by the second. He had to end this quick. 

Narrowly avoiding a skewer through the leg, Penderghast pointed his staff at the fountain: 

O artes, a lapidea vincula vos vindico!6

The sculpted boys sprang to life, leaping off their plinths as the merpeople suddenly strained and shook from their burden. They ran out onto the grass, giggling as they jumped between Penderghast and David’s icy whips, which shattered against their concrete bodies. 

Penderghast used the respite to shout out another spell. Mourning cloak wings sprouted from his back as he took to the air.

David wanted those dancing boys smashed. It was like Penderghast was using his own image against him. A geyser burst from under the fountain, shattering and sending it high into the air. The cops all scattered, looking for cover before the chunks came back to Earth. 

The column of water bent in the air, lunging towards the airborne warlock, but Penderghast kept swooping and diving out of its path. He was pulling handfuls of white powder out of his belt, throwing it in clouds behind his back. Instead of dispersing, the grains formed into white doves and flew off in seemingly random directions, slowly eroding with every beat of their wings till they were reduced to nothing.

The hell is he doing? David asked himself. 

Penderghast hovered above what remained of David’s ice-titan, arms outstretched:

Yemọja! Our Lady of Navigators! Womb from which all seas, springs, and rivers spill!7

David’s ice fell to the ground, inert. The wyrm he’d made of the fountain’s pipes collapsed into a wave on top of the cop cars. 

I beg you, bind your son! Remind him of his flesh!

The titan’s body melted rapidly, revealing David curled within like a thawing Neanderthal boy.

He felt so weak. Like he couldn’t lift so much as a drop of water. But there was a peace to it. Like his mother was stroking him after a bad dream. He closed his eyes…

Above the child, Penderghast’s eye twitched. This boy was a god, whatever Herbert Lawrence had thought. The warlock didn’t know how long he could hold him like this. 

Something long and sharp whizzed a hair’s breadth past his ear.

“The hell—”

Mabel Henderson stood frowning in front of the Royal Exhibition Building, her manerfish toting an empty harpoon gun beside her, backed up by the shark-bear and the chainsaw-panda. 

They weren’t alone either. A crowd of cracked, peeling gods and goddesses lined the stairs behind them. The frescos from inside the hall. 

“Leave my friend alone.”

“I’m sorry,” Penderghast told the girl, his eyes still on David, “but I can’t let this continue.”

Mabel nodded, before turning to her army of summons. “Get him.”

The gods charged. The sylphs of the seasons shot up at Penderghast, scarring the ground below with bands of fire, ice, and blossoming flowers. Dark-robed Winter flew ahead of her sisters, running her pale fingers across Penderghast’s wings as she passed. They instantly froze solid, sending Howard plummeting. 

The warlock clapped his hand over one of the patches on his sleeve: the alchemical symbol for earth and air as one. The air below Penderghast became thick as syrup, slowing his fall. He managed to land on his feet, but only had a second to get back his bearings before some giant in a white robe  swung a great oak club at him. 

“Damn it, missed!” shouted the god as he violently parted the air where Penderghast’s head had been. 

Poor Hercules, Howard mused as he strafed around the hero. Bastards didn’t even give him the lion-pelt

None of the Institute files had mentioned the girl—clearly one of Lawrence’s under-the-table acquisitions— but it didn’t take a genius to figure out what her power was. 

There was only one logical course of action. Penderghast ran towards the torn open Exhibition Hall. He reached into one of his belt-bouches and threw a handful of gunpowder over his shoulder:

“Maitre Carrefour, conceal me!8

The black powder billowed into a thick cloud of darkness. Gods shouted in anger and confusion as Penderghast ran unseen through their number. 

He was almost inside when a blinding light burned away the magical shadows. Penderghast squinted up towards the sky. The sylph of morning shone above, her veil glowing a radiant-sky blue. 

 Leopard-skin clad Mars pointed his sword at the wizard. “After him!”

Penderghast ran through the ruins of the hall, weaving around panicked hostages as he headed towards the patch of light beneath the dome. Arnold Barnes struck him uselessly with his lightning, more out of reflex than anything else.  

As soon as he was in range, Penderghast pointed his staff at the pendentives and lunettes, tracing a fiery glyph in the air. One by one, the frescos burst into flames, their bright colours darkening and burning away. Howard could hear screams from behind him.

Something cold and sharp jabbed the back of the warlock’s neck.

“Turn around, mortal.”

Penderghast obeyed, finding a tall, red-robed woman in a crested helmet holding him at sword-point.

“It’s good to see you, your highness.”

Howard knew immediately that it wasn’t the real Athena, or Minerva, whatever name this rendition went by. For one thing, her skin was too pale. For another, King Athena wouldn’t have bothered with the warning. 

Before he could think of anything else, he felt a small hand tap his. 

Penderghast’s staff slipped from his hand.

Allison Kinsey stepped out from behind him. “It’s okay guys,” she called behind her. “He’s safe now.”

Mabel and Arnold approached cautiously like mice in the presence of a dying cat. David Venter formed out of mist, shaking slightly. Billy had managed to tear himself away from Mr. Thumps.

The little girl with the burning eyes smiled wickedly. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a pet wizard.” 

Penderghast couldn’t bring himself to utter a spell, or even move. He couldn’t even struggle. Nothing in Allison’s file had mentioned anything about that. 

Then he remembered what Baron La Croix had told him at the Institute, considered the strange little girl’s bearing and speech…

Howard Penderghast was a witch by blood and by training. That didn’t protect his mind completely, but it did let him shout, “Alberto Moretti!

Allison Kinsey flinched.

“…What?” asked Mabel. 

Howard tried to point, but his arm was pinned to his side. But for now at least, he could still talk. “Your friend is possessed!”

The Watercolours all looked at Allison.

“…Tell me you’re not buying this,” she said indignantly.

“You know,” remarked David. “You have been acting kinda… weird lately. Really weird.”

“You called Lawrence ‘Dad’,” said Arnold. “Seemed a bit… yeah.”

Alberto sighed. He really thought he could’ve kept it up longer than this. “In my defence… she started it.”


1. A Greek goddess or spirit of truthfulness and sincerity. In truth, the eye belonged to a much older goddess, and it wasn’t even an eye. “Ovary” would be more accurate, if still largely a comforting lie.

2. For various thaumaturgical reasons, magicians are generally excluded from the search for the hypothetical general telekinetic.

3. Roughly translated: “I ask not for one already hiding in the depths of Hell, long banished to the darkness of death, but one just now escaped to life, still lingering at the ghastly gate of Orcus.”

4. Known as the The Hochgurtel fountain.

5. While the rumours regarding direct Olympian inspirations have never been confirmed regarding the Exhibition Hall’s interior frescos, it is known that the godling Palaemon posed for the sculptor Josef Hochgurtel. Specifically, he became the basis for the little boy at the base being spat at by a turtle.

6. “Oh art, I free you from your cage of stone!”

7. A major water goddess of the Yoruba people, often syncretised with the Black Madonna by the African diaspora. Aside from water, Yemọja also presides over domains pertaining to women, including parenting and child safety.

8. Kalfu, or Carrefour, is a loa of the crossroads, ruling over sorcery and the night. Some have accused him of being a demon, but he denies this most strenuously.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                    Next Chapter

 

Chapter Sixty-Nine: A Red Halo

The Physician’s people1 had long reached post-scarcity2 and perfected genetic engineering back when human beings were just figuring out that the little stones in fruit could turn into new plants. His culture had abolished hierarchy and fixed identity. Death and birth were as everyday life events for him as brushing your teeth. 

Naturally, this made Timothy Valour’s petty realpolitik a tedious listen:

“Yada yada yada national security…

“Yada yada yada you owe Australia that much…”

At least Herbert had the decency to blow that ghastly modernist lump the DDHA occupied back in Canberra, the Physician tried comforting himself. As far as he was concerned, Walter Burley Griffin designed buildings exactly like he did rubbish incinerators. Sure, the Royal Exhibition Building3 was a bit of a dump these days—more suited to high school matriculation exams and weekly dances than the business of government—but at least it’d been built before human architects swore off aesthetics. The Physician dreaded the day when humankind tried building spaceships.        

“Yada yada yada—Dr. Smith, are you even listening?”

The Physician had been sitting stock still and grinning in his chair for the entire meeting. It made Valour feel like he was practising with a mannequin.

“Oh, I’m listening,” Dr. Smith lied, not bothering to move his lips. “So, about those bodies, I was thinking—”

Tim sighed, resting his elbows on his desk and running his hands over his face. “Smith, please tell me Chaoskampf4 is nearly ready.”

The Physician’s fingers writhed along the edge of the desk. “Still after that? I thought you were moving over to the DOPO model. Training up super-squads and all that.”

Timothy straightened himself and swallowed. “Yes. That’s the plan. Sadly, there haven’t been many applicants yet.”

“I suppose it’s hard to lure in flies with honey when you’ve spent the last three years leaving out poison. That and you killed half of the good ones last week.”

Valour inhaled. He’d learned it was best to ignore many of the things John Smith said. “That being said, if and when we get super-corps up and running, we still feel it prudent to have a… deterrent.”

Dr. Smith seemed amused by that. “Ah, I see. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

Sometimes it bothered Timothy that the Physician knew more Latin than him. Reluctantly, he called over to Mister Thumps standing in the corner. “Translation, Thumps?”

The hulking manservant drawled, “Literally translated, ‘Who guards the guards themselves?’ but commonly rendered in English as ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ ”

Dr. Smith’s head swiveled around to regard his creation. “Good lad, Thumps,” he said, before spinning his head back to face Valour. “Told you he was worth the money.”

Tim sighed. “Dr. Smith, please, what’s the status of Chaoskampf?”

The Physician wobbled in his chair. “Very promising, Valour, very promising.” 

Chaoskampf was proving to be a most edifying project for him. The first honest challenge he’d faced since the 50s, aside from the obvious, eternal exception. It did ask for the expenditure of some very unique resources on his part, and if it turned out half as well as he hoped, it would certainly disrupt the balance between the nations of man. That was alright, though. Didn’t want the game to get stale.

Besides, he was sick of Ivanova rubbing her science cities in his face.

“Finally got the brain-machine interface working smoothly. Not a small feat, given that I’m working with dead—”

Valour threw his hand up. “I don’t need the details, Smith.”

“I do at least need to tell you that the final product will be much better if I have access to the NHI cadavers.”

Timothy lay his hands on his legs, silent for a spell. “…They’re children, John.”

The Physician kept smiling. “Yes, Tim, they are children. Children whose brains I will dissect and make think again with electricity. Children whose bones I will carve into marvelous weapons to protect you from scary economic systems. Children who you had shot.” The doctor let out a peal of staccato, many-voiced laughter. Timothy didn’t even think it meant mirth anymore.  

“Maybe I’ll even spin their flesh into new children to guard your house at night. Domestication is one of your people’s great strengths, Valour. You take predators and make them hunt your food for you. Lawrence almost figured it out—you’ll have to as well, Timothy. Unless you want your grandchildren to grow up in those kennels instead. Only one species gets to be free.”

Talking to the Physician always made Timothy Valour feel small. Provincial, and stupid, and so very grubby. Like he was selling his soul—maybe everyone’s souls—for table-scraps. 

Sometimes, he wondered if Earth was the only place fit for an aberration like John Smith. Other times, he feared Earth was the only place where men like him pretended to care about people. Over and over, John Smith and so many others asked him to make someone’s life worse, and every time, he said yes.

Maybe this time—      

Tim found himself saying, “…I could say no. I could bury those kids. I could send you away and never do business with you again.” 

“You could,” conceded the Physician. His grin fissured his cheeks. “…But then I’d take my work to someone else.”

“…The bodies will be ready for you by the end of the day.”

“I’m happy to hear it.”

In his corner, Mister Thumps shook his head. Nobody noticed.

The shell between his duty and his heart back in place, Valour said, “I meant to tell you, earlier Penderghast reported—”

The roar of a thousand exploding windows thundered across the face of the Exhibition Building. 

Wartime instincts and engineered reflexes sent Valour and Thumps ducking for cover a split second before the office window shattered. When the rattle of broken glass subsided, Timothy peered out the teal carpet and his own bracing arms. The whole room rang with a sound like screaming wine-glasses. “Fuck!”  

He cautiously got to his feet. Thumps appeared unharmed, dusting off his suit. The Physician though was riddled with shards of glass, dozens of wounds seeping dark green blood5. A jagged blade had impaled him square in the face. He was still grinning.

Timothy shouted, “Jesus Christ, John!” 

“Oh, it’s fine.” The Physician absorbed the glass missiles with a grinding slurp. “You can always find a use for silica.”  He looked around at the spray of glass. “Is it New Year’s already? I love fireworks, Valour, but a little warning would be appreciated.”

Valour shook his head in bewilderment. “No it’s not—we’re under attack you fool!” The DDHA chief swung around and stuck his head out the empty window frame over Carlton Gardens, just in time to spot a procession of children and monsters marching in through the blasted off front doors. A man trailed behind them, carrying something dark and bulky over his shoulder. A gun-case? A grenade launcher? And what was that hanging off him? Explosives? The armed guards that had been stationed at the entrance were pinned beneath mounds of ice or crystal.

Realization burst inside Valour like blisters of acid. “Oh, God,” he half-whispered. “I think they’re from the Institute.”

With a crunch of glass underfoot, Dr. Smith joined Timothy at the window, still beaming. “Maybe they’re here to apply for your super-squad!”

For five minutes, nobody in the office spoke. What was there to say? All their contingency plans for an invasion were written for the Canberra building. The only sounds were muffled shouting from neighbouring offices and the nearing sirens of emergency vehicles. The Physician sat back down in his chair and silently grinned like a dolphin. Mr. Thumps efficiently checked Tim over for injuries. Unfortunately, he found none.

Eventually, Valour resumed his place behind his desk. He had no doubt they would come for him, and in the face of an angry god, dignity was the only power mortals could hope for. 

In the space between breaths, there was a knock. 

“Come in,” said Valour.

The office-door opened, and in stepped a woman from the future. She wore a red, ludicrously skin-tight spacesuit with a fishbowl helmet. Her whole body had an odd, painted sheen. 

She also had a gun.

“Mr. Valour,” she said in a vaguely American accent, “You’re wanted in the main hall.”

She sounded vaguely regretful. Timothy could relate. 

“Very well.”

The spacewoman herded Valour, Thumps, and Dr. Smith through the halls and stairways of the western annex at gunpoint. The Physician cracked and crunched with every step, chatting all the while. 

“You’re one of Mabel Henderson’s projections, aren’t you.”

“Yes,” the spacewoman admitted.

“Mabel who?” asked Valour.

“You don’t know all of Herbert’s students, Timothy?” The Physician waged a long, bony finger at Tim. “For shame.” His head revolved to face the lady astronaut, making her—and Valour—flinch. “I’ve always wanted to ask, are you pure fabrication, or does little Mabel use pictorial references to access the multiverse?”

“How the hell should I know?”

“If you were killed on this plane, dear, do you think you’d return to life where you came from? Or would Mabel be summoning a new version of you from then on?”

“I swear to God, I’ll shoot.”

“Go ahead. It won’t stick.”

Alberto stood in the sunshine raining in through the Royal Exhibition Building’s Italianate dome, admiring the decorative pendentives and lunettes. Minerva, king of the gods presided over the arts of war in her chariot, while Juno reclined next to a lion, improbably representing peace. Hercules, Venus, Mercury and Mars soared in little slivers of sky. Local legend had it that the Olympians themselves descended from Heaven to pose for the artists. Alberto didn’t know if there was any truth to that, but he was glad he’d picked a pretty place for a siege.

A few clusters of unlucky civil servants cowered under the sylphs of night, spring, and winter, guarded by a spear-toting penguin riding a shark-bear, flanked by growling pandas with chainsaws for legs and a fish-man in an oilskin menacingly waving a harpoon, which Mabel unfortunately called a manerfish. 

Billy was picking over the hardwood floor, spreading his mirror-mist over chunks of broken door and masonry reducing it to water for David, who’d earlier been kind enough to replace the flesh and blood of the people hit by the shrapnel. 

The tiger-boy glanced sympathetically at one of the pockets of hostages. “Sorry about this,” he said with all the sincerity in the world. “I promise we’ll let you go when we’re done. It’s for a good cause!”

“Billy,” Alberto groaned, “Don’t be nice to the hostages.”

“But we—”

A man with a face like a coal-scuttle shouted, “You fucking freaks are gonna get it! Should’ve gassed the lot of you…”

One of the smarter hostages clapped her hands over the man’s mouth.

Alberto tilted his chin towards the east mezzanine, where Arnold and Mabel stood guard. “Arnold,” he said cooly, “send that idiot directly to Jupiter.”

The boy lit up with absinthe sparks, pointing down towards the tussling hostages. “My pleasure.”

One of the people smothering the upstart cried, “Wait, please—”

A bolt of lightning lanced down at the two. They vanished, only to instantly reappear in a heap in the centre of the hall, screaming frantically before realizing they hadn’t been deposited in the clouds of a gas-giant.

The children laughed, all except Billy, who settled for quietly shaking his head and tutting.

Alberto walked up to the teleported hostages. “Sorry about that,” he said to the one on top. “Crossfire, you know. You can go back to the huddle now.”

The woman scarpered off, leaving the man with the Neanderthal brow staring wide eyed up at Alberto.

“Next time,” he hissed, “Jupiter.” 

The man nodded frantically and ran back to the others.

Alberto looked around the hall at the rest of the hostages. “That goes for the rest of you, too.” 

That bit of intimidation theatre done, Alberto took on David’s song and misted over towards its source at the head of the hall.

“Doors sealed?” Alberto asked as he resolidified. It was surprisingly refreshing, like a full-organ sluice. 

Two globes of water thrice the size of David orbited the boy like planets blown from glass. Toolbox and ammo belt all in one. He ran a hand over the thick walls of ice he’d replaced the front doors with and rubbed his fingers approvingly. “Nobody’s getting in unless I say.”

Satisfied, Alberto went to check in on the honorary sixth Watercolour: Carl Jessop, the cameraman they’d borrowed from the Melbourne ABC6.  

“We good here?”

The ginger cameraman gave Alberto a thumbs up, coupled with a vacant smile.The double-reel camera resting on his shoulder and the mess of wires, cables, and sound equipment hanging off him made the boy look like a cut-rate cyborg. “Ready to roll, little miss.”

Alberto nodded slowly, lest Karl think his head was about to fall off. “Good work, Karl,” he told him gently.

 The whammy Alberto put on Karl wasn’t the psychic’s best work. Poor bastard probably thought he was covering a flower show. Still, Alberto couldn’t feel too sorry for him. Today would probably make Karl’s career. 

Assuming he survived.

“They’re here,” called Mabel.

The Watercolours all assembled as the spacewoman marched her captives into the hall. Mr. Thumps was stoic as ever, the Physician was grinning what passed for his heart out, and Timothy Valour appeared completely resigned. 

Fucking predictable, Alberto thought to himself. Wrap yourself in duty tight enough, you never have to bother with anything so messy as fear in your whole life.

“It’s gonna be alright!” one of the hostages yelled with desperate jubilation. “Valour will sort these—”   

Alberto shot the worker a look.

“…kids… out!”

“Not today, son,” Valour said quietly. “Not the way you want, at least.”

Mr. Thumps caught sight of David and Allison and bowed to each child in turn. “Hello, Miss Kinsey. Hello, Maelstrom.”

“Hi, Mr. Thumps. It’s David now.”

“My apologies.”

“S’alright,” David replied softly. It felt weird, talking to someone both younger and taller than him. “Not your fault you didn’t know.”   

The Physician was looking around at Mabel’s creations. The shark-bear growled at him. The Physician waved back. “Oh, these are charming,” he said, glancing at Mabel up on the mezzanine. “Did you make these? If so, I’d love to collaborate sometime.” 

“Thanks,” Mabel said, forgetting the situation for a moment. “I’m trying to use my own stuff more.”  Quickly she added, “No offense, captain.”

The spacewoman didn’t look at her summoner. “Can I go now?”

Mabel looked taken aback. “…Okay.”

The astronaut disappeared without a whisper.  

Alberto wished away his sunglasses, revealing Allison’s magma eyes. “Hi Tim.”

Valour sighed. “I know you won’t believe me, Allison, but I’m glad you’re alive.”

David’s eyes flashed a green-tinted white. Valour bent and wretched as bile forced its way up his throat like an angry snake. 

Alberto grasped the water-sprite’s hand. “We need him, David.”

David’s eyes returned to their resting green. Valour fell gasping to his knees. 

“I know,” said David. “Just reminding the git what happens if that changes.”

Mr. Thumps helped Tim to his feet. “He is trying, David.”

Valour stared at his manservant. This had to be the first thing he’d ever heard Thumps say that wasn’t about his job. Even the Physician looked perplexed, assuming that’s what it meant when his eyes migrated to the side of his head like a flatfish, shifting across the surface of his skull until they were staring at his creation. 

David looked flatly at the drone. “Thumps, most people don’t have to try not to shoot kids. Or my Mummy.”

“I didn’t want—” Valour trailed off. What was the point? Arguing with his daughters had never got him anywhere when they were this age. And they hadn’t been right. “I suppose you kids have demands.”

“Damn right we do,” Alberto said. He pointed towards Karl and his camera. “First, you’re gonna tell the nice cameraman all about what you do here at the DDHA.”

This for broadcast or blackmail? Either way, these kids were clever. Maybe Lawrence was onto something.

Valour stepped in front of the camera. The boy the children had drafted to man it looked over the viewfinder at him, wearing a broad, slightly drunk grin. “Smile for the camera, Mr. Jenkins!”

Timothy Valour did not. Instead, he looked towards the other hostages—still gazing at him with woefully misplaced hope—and breathed deep. Time to dispel all illusions.

“I thought it would be easy, fixing all this. I thought I could shut down the asylums, convince the supers to come back into the fold, after what we did to them. To make us stronger. I thought the DDHA was a creature of pure, dumb panic. I still don’t think I was wrong about that. But people like me—men of action, I suppose—we think we can push past all the fuss and red-tape by ignoring the world and using ‘common-sense’.” Valour scoffed. “No such thing. I thought I was stronger than a country’s fear. I wasn’t. I drowned in it, same as everyone else.”

“Get on with it,” said David. “You’re starting to sound like Lawrence.”

Valour glared right at the camera. Time to be the monster. “As chief of the DDHA, I made many legally, ethically, and morally dubious deals with an extraterrestrial creature calling himself John Smith.”

The DDHA employees lucky enough to have never met the Physician gasped.

“He provided the frankly torturous super-restraints used in several DDHA facilities, often on children. Dr. Smith also provided the government with what I believe are artificial men. Drones grown to serve. Slaves, in other words.” He gestured half-heartedly towards Mr. Thumps. 

“In exchange for these and other pieces of technology, I personally allowed Dr. Smith custody of many DDHA inmates for the purpose of human experimentation.” He inhaled. “I don’t know the full extent of what these experiments entailed. I tried to avoid finding out. I know enough however, to say that Dr. Smith is a blight upon this earth. A blight I helped to cultivate.”

The Physician muttered to Thumps, “I think Valour’s got it confused about who was doing the cultivating here…”

“You’re not done yet,” said Arnold.

“No, I’m not. For years, I allowed the psychiatrist Herbert Lawrence to run a private care-home for superhuman children. Part of me hoped he could offer us something better than the asylums. Something more humane. Another part knew we’d save money by letting him take on some of our less containable inmates. Under my watch, Herbert Lawrence bred those children like cattle. Raped them. When I was told, I could have had him arrested on the day. I wanted to. I wanted to kill him, even. But I didn’t. I let him fester and plot. He orchestrated the terror attacks in Canberra. I ordered a raid on his school. This raid resulted in the death of good soldiers, children, and the loss of two superhuman assets.”

Don’t have to tell me, thought Alberto.

“You also killed Francoise Barthe,” Alberto cut in, his voice acid. “You ordered your men to shoot her. In the head. While she slept.”

Behind him, David’s fists were clenched, his knuckles white.

“I did.” Valour looked down at the floor. “Less than half an hour before this recording, myself and Dr. Smith were in my office, negotiating the exchange of those children’s corpses in exchange for biological weapons. For something to kill more children.”

Some of the hostages were weeping. Others were shouting questions or swearing at Valour, or declaring it all lies. Some, Alberto noted, were silent. A few quietly thinking it justified. Alberto almost laughed. Some Nazis never died. He supposed it must be a thrill for such mediocrities, finding out they were cogs in a decent atrocity.  

Timothy had ran out of words. He’d confessed everything—probably enough to bar him from ever stepping foot outside of some dank cave, but he didn’t feel any worse for it. Despair was so clean.

“I think that about covers it,” said Alberto. He took Valour’s hand, pulling him backwards. “Now be a good boy and stand quietly in the corner.”

“You’re letting me live?” Valour asked, sounding completely disinterested in the answer. 

“Of course. Nobody would believe any of this mad shit if we didn’t. Hell, half the hostages think you made it up.”

Alberto approached the Physician next, running a small finger along his jaundiced hand. “Your turn, Smith.”

The Physician smiled his plastic smile down at Allison, no doubt about to say something deeply condescending, when he found himself lurching towards the camera. He couldn’t stop himself His head twisted around to stare at the little girl.

Alberto grinned and nodded at the alien.

The girl’s powers had expanded, Dr. Smith realized. He was completely under Allison’s control. For the first time in his long earthly sojourn, the Physician was at the mercy of a human being.

Suddenly, he knew exactly how Captain George Pollard felt7.

The Physician came to a stop before the camera, spotting his reflection in the lens. An earth-person would’ve said he looked like he was trying to sell something. The Physician, however, knew that he looked bloody terrified. 

His whole body rattled like he was a wind-up toy set on a bumpy surface. If that bothered Karl Jessop, he didn’t let it show.

“You’re live, buddy!”

“I’ve been playing you all,” the Physician blurted. “Me, myself and I have been supplying information and assistance to every nation of men worth mentioning. It’s a game I play, setting you against each other. Like Risk.” 

The Physician clapped his hands over his mouth. The skin on his forehead bulged and tore, revealing another mouth:

“I’m also not very good at this!” it said in a wheezing falsetto, inspiring giggles from the Watercolours. “I barely qualified for the Physician’s Guild! The only reason I’ve gotten so far with people is because of how easy it is for humans to get powers!”

John Smith’s form began buckling and changing, his features shifting to those of Dr. Johannes, complete with fungi moustache. “This is what I look like when I’m working for the Americans.” Then he grew a grey beehive, while bloodied bone forced its way out of his head in a parody of eyeglasses. His nails grew long and orange. “And this is what I look like in Russia—”

Valour stalked towards the Physician. “You fucking traitor!” He punched the alien in the side of the head, only to shout when his knuckles came away bloody. 

The Physician regarded the DDHA chief cooly, shards of glass poking out the side of his head. “Told you you can always find a use for silica. Traitor to what? Did you ever honestly consider me Australian? And at least I gave your backwater something.” 

Their two prize bucks busy locking antlers, Allison approached one of the hostage-patches, asking casually, “Anyone have a pen and paper?” 

Nobody answered. Even the ones with pens visibly sticking out of shirt pockets.

“Pencil’s fine too, I’m not fussy.”

Still no answer. 

Fucking hostages, I swear.

Alberto huffed and put Allison’s hands on her hips. “Look, the sooner I get something to write on, the sooner you can all go home.”

“…I have a pad and a good ball-point,” offered a reedy voiced old man. “It’s red, though.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Alberto stretched out Allison’s hand. “Come on, hand it over.” 

Trembling, the elderly clerk rose from the floor and pulled out his pad and pen, treading through the seated crowd to pass it to the little girl with the red-eyes. 

“Thanks,” Alberto said as he started scratching at the paper. A thought occurred to him:

“Hey, lady who tried to get the moron to stop talking, come on up! Don’t worry, I won’t bite.”

The hostage in question—a plump, dyed redhead with a carnation pinned to her breast—crept cautiously from where she was cowering like a spooked rabbit. “Y—yes?”

Alberto finished his missive with a very sharp full-stop. “Look, I’m sorry about the crossfire thing earlier. I really didn’t want to punish you for stopping someone being stupid. That’s the opposite of how civilization’s supposed to work. Tell ya what. For being helpful, you and Methuselah get to go home early.”

“…Thank you,” said the old man, trying not to look at any of the other hostages. Some of them were already glaring. 

Alberto shoved the paper into the woman’s hands. “All you have to do in exchange is deliver some of our demands here to the coppers outside.” He looked up towards the mezzanine. “Arnold there will teleport you a ways off so they don’t go nuts and fill you with lead. My advice is to put your hands on your heads before we send you, so no one gets too jumpy. Understand?”

The hostages nodded vigorously.

Smiling, Alberto said, “And if you don’t give them our demands, you get to drink drain-cleaner. Trust me, you will. But only if you don’t deliver, got it?”

Much more nodding. 

“Blast ‘em, Arn.”

The pair whipped up in a quick green storm.

“… What’d you ask for?” Mabel asked from the mezzanine.

“Just some small stuff,” he replied. “Refreshments. A book or two, and Herbert Lawrence.”

“Think they’ll bring him?” asked David.

In his head, Alberto watched the storm of futures move in one direction. “Bet my life.”

Allison’s life, at least. 

It took a couple of hours for the Watercolours’ guest to arrive. After much begging, Billy was allowed to try and raise the hostages’ morale. He chose charades.

The tiger-boy hopped on one foot, holding his arm in front of him like he was a crane8.

“A flamingo?” suggested one hostage. People had gotten more into the spirit of things after the snacks arrived. And after David offered the winner their freedom. 

“Getting closer,” Billy answered charitably. At least the discourse had moved towards animals since they’d started. People had been pointedly avoiding the subject in the presence of the chainsaw panda. 

“A land-sea-serpent,” the maner-fish gurgled. 

“…You mean a snake?” asked Arnold.

“No, boy. Land-sea-serpents swim through the rock and soil, pulling unwary truck-captains down into the depths of the mantle.”

Arnold shot Mabel an amused smile. The girl returned it, shrugging. 

“A crane! One of those long-neck dinosaurs!”

“I don’t know why you won’t let me play,” the Physician said sullenly from his corner. “My people perfected charades.”

“Hush you,” said Alberto. “It doesn’t work when you actually turn into the thing.” 

“A frilled-neck lizard!” 

“A chicken,” said Thumps.

“It’s a bloody elephant!” Tim Valour yelled. The Watercolours had been nice enough to provide the war hero gin for the duration. 

“You got it!” said Billy.

“Yeah,” said David, “but you we’re not letting go.”

Valour fell onto his back. “Why was he hopping?”

David could feel three men walking close together towards the front entrance. The one in the middle was much bulkier than the other two.

“He’s here.”

David marched purposefully to the head of the  The ice in the centremost doorway melted and evaporated, revealing Herbert Lawrence standing on the stairs like a penitent. Two policemen were backing away towards the bank of police cars behind Exhibition Fountain. 

The old man was dressed in a striped prison uniform, and his beard had been shaved. Raspberry bruises circled his eyes. 

“Maelstrom…”

David didn’t bother correcting Lawrence. His name would mean nothing from his mouth. “Get inside.”

David pulled Lawrence into the Exhibition Building as the steam reformed into ice behind him. 

Lawrence tried to embrace the boy. “I thought you’d—”

David pushed him away, his body suddenly ice. His voice echoed cold and verrillon, “You don’t get to hug me, Laurie. You don’t get to talk to me. I’m done with you.” He pointed at his friends. “But they’re not.”

David led Lawrence roughly under the dome and threw him in front of the other Watercolours. “Do what you like with him.”

“Please do,” said the Physician. “Show me for buying free-range…”

Alberto had his hands on Allison’s hips, sneering at the sight of his old teacher. “God, I see why you never shaved, Laurie. Your chin is really weak.”

Lawrence gave Allison a weak shadow of his infuriatingly paternal smiles. “Ah, but I’m not the only one who’s gone through a change, am I?” He regarded David and Allison’s costumes with woozy bemusement. “Interesting plumage. And your eyes, Myriad…” He glanced to his sides. “There isn’t some new posthuman you’re copying, is there?”

Alberto struck Lawrence across the face with as much of Allison’s strength as he dared. “Now why would I tell you that?” 

“You tricked me,” shouted Arnold, his cheeks flushed. “You made me bomb all those people!” 

Lawrence seemed welcome. “Elsewhere, my boy, you couldn’t have known. I kept you innocent.”

“Laurie,” said Alberto, “never talk about keeping kids innocent.”

David raised an eyebrow at that. That sounded a lot more like something a grownup would say.

“I didn’t see you declaring yourself the bomber,” said Valour sourly. 

“I did what I had to do for my children,” said Lawrence. 

Mabel’s eyes narrowed on him. “Like what you did for Adam?”

“Wait,” said Valour. “Who’s Adam?”

“Boy Laurie poached,” answered the Physician. “Had him euthanized. Bloody nuisance, too. He was promised to me alive.”        

Valour stared at Lawrence. “Jesus Christ.”

“Adam was a threat to the new human race, Timothy. Men like you would’ve used him to snuff them all out,”  Lawrence said. He looked up at Allison. “I loved Adam. I still do, same as all of you.”

“For God’s sake!” shouted Alberto. “Stop the bollocks, Lawrence! You don’t love us! You can’t love anything outside your own head!”

“If I must be your Cronus, children, so be it. The future is not for me. It’s not for any of us.” Lawrence sighed. “I hoped I could ease the transition for your kind. Show mankind how to pass on with dignity. But maybe this revolution is necessary for you. Like blood pumping through a butterfly’s wings when they tear—”

Alberto shook his head. Dear God, he still didn’t get it. The old bastard had replaced his soul with speeches. “It’s not a revolution!” screamed Alberto. “We’re not doing this for your fucking future. We’re just angry! You fucked up our lives! Over and over!” He violently shook Lawrence’s shoulders. “Christ’s sake, Laurie.” His voice cracked. “Can’t you just say ‘I was a shit dad, I’m sorry’? Is it that bloody hard?”

A look of realization struck Lawrence. He tried to stand up, to strike Allison.

He couldn’t. Just like that awful chat in his office…

He smiled and leaned forward, whispering into Allison’s ear. “It’s good to see you again, son. Tell me, Tiresias, do the other children know who wears their friend’s face?”

Alberto shoved Lawrence back, forcing silence upon him.

The fucker needed to die. That Alberto was certain of. 

Maybe he could break his neck? Or burn him? He tried to imagine himself actually killing Lawrence, but the image didn’t come. Why not? He hated him. It should’ve been easy…

Alberto decided he was being greedy. He walked over to David and took his hand, pointing at Lawrence. “Kill him,” Alberto half-begged. “Get rid of him.”

Lawrence closed his eyes and sighed. Billy was staring open jawed at Allison.  

 “Come on, Dave, he’s no good for anyone. Nobody’s had to deal with his bull more than you…”

David looked Allison right in her eyes for a moment, seeming to consider something. “…Pass,” he said eventually. “Me being like this is already killing him. Won’t judge if any of you want to.”

Alberto growled in his throat, before looking at Billy, grinning just a bit too hard. “What about you, Growly?” he asked. “You could turn him into a statue of himself! Laurie’s always wanted to be one of those anyway.”

Billy just shook his head, eyes screwed shut. “Stop it, Allie. Please.”

“Well that was a sucker’s bet,” Alberto said to himself. 

He thought about just making Billy doing it, but that felt wrong. He was better than Lawrence. He could at least offer them this choice.

“I could do it,” The Physician offered cheerfully. “I could use some replacement biomass.”

“Or me,” said Valor, glaring at Lawrence with pure loathing in his eyes. “Trust me, kids, you’d be glad I did it later.”

“Shut up!” Alberto spat at them. He wasn’t giving either of them the satisfaction. 

Alberto moved onto Arnold. The boy caught Allison’s gaze, and raised his arm, lightning already crackling at his fingers.

Alberto nodded. 

Well done, little fag. You’re my new favorite. 

Arnold glared at Lawrence, fingers flaring. He didn’t fire.

“He made you a killer, Arn,” said Alberto. “He used you to kill hundreds of men, women, and children!” The psychic slammed Allison’s fist into Arnold’s shoulder. “Remember what he was going to do to your family? Just because they wanted to send you letters!”

Arnold’s whole body crackled. He clenched his fist. Unclenched it.

Then he imagined how his mother would react. Would she cry? She never cried.

Arnold dropped his arm. The lightning went out. 

Alberto scowled at him. “Weak.”

He walked up to Mabel. “We’re just wombs with legs to him—”

There was a crack of thunder above everyone’s heads. 

The old man let out a high, short-lived scream as he plummeted from the dome. He hit the floor with a hard thud. Dark blood pooled beneath his head like a red halo.  

Herbert Lawrence, would-be architect of the superhuman soul, was dead.

Nobody spoke. The only sound beyond the echo of police sirens was Arnold breathing hard and sharp, his whole body heaving. 

Alberto knelt before Lawrence’s body and closed his old teacher’s eyes. “At least someone fucking finished this…”

Billy started hyperventilating. Then he started screaming. The walls shook. Dust and plaster rained like snow. The windows in the dome popped and shattered. Cracks opened in the frescoes and stenciling. 

Arnold seemed to break out of a trance that had nothing to do with Alberto Moretti. He looked quickly between his victim and the weeping Billy. 

“Billy… I’m sorry.”

Billy started trying to run, to get away from that thing that had been a person a second ago, but he collided with Mr. Thumps. He instinctively hugged the drone, mewling quietly for his nanny, or Mary Gillespie, or anyone who could make this better.

“It will be alright,” Thumps said in his deep, soft voice. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.”

He was embracing the tiger-boy, but he was looking right at Arnold. 

The teleporter felt something with thin legs land on his arm. He looked down to find a butterfly, dark wings edged in yellow with bright blue spots9

 Whispers and shouts broke out amongst the hostages. Arnold and the other children turned to see a many-splendored cloud of butterflies where the ice-doors had been. At ease in that cloud stood a dark skinned man holding a long staff. 

“Good evening children,” Howard Penderghast said. “I think we need to have a talk.” 


1. The squishies, as they came to call themselves in English.

2. At least, compared to Earth.

3. Built in 1880 for the Melbourne International Exhibition, the Royal Exhibition Hall also hosted the opening of the first Australian Parliament after Federation 1901. However, the building would fall into disrepair in the first half of the 20th century, narrowly avoiding demolition in 1948. By the end of 1965, the Melbourne City Council was somewhat relieved to be able to offer the space to the DDHA.

4. Literally “struggle against chaos” in German, referring to folkloric narratives centred around deities or culture heroes battling and slaying “chaos beasts”, commonly dragons or serpents. Examples include St. George and the dragon, or the battle between Horus and Set.

5. Not all of God’s children have hemoglobin.

6. Australian Broadcasting Company, not to be confused with the American commercial network of nearly the same name.

7. The captain of the whaleship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, providing the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick thirty years later.

8. He wasn’t a crane. Mabel had already guessed that.

9. Nymphalis antiopa, known as the Camberwell beauty in the UK, or more pertinently, the mourning cloak in North America.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Chapter Sixty-Eight: The Metropolitans

A green flash deposited Alberto and the Watercolours in a dingy alley, all holding hands in a chain. That was one advantage of telepathy: everyone was on the same page regarding their destination. The scent of salt, soy, and fat mingled with stale urine and dry-cleaning chemicals, swirling together into an awful, bracing stew. 

Mabel yelped. She’d materialized right next to a gutted sturgeon. Her eyes shot daggers at Arnold and Allison. “Really, guys? You couldn’t find us a better landing spot than fish-alley?”

David shrugged. “What’s wrong with fish?”

Alberto didn’t hear any of that. He was too busy peering out from the alley, watching the residents of Chinatown stream past them unawares. He looked down at his feathered super-suit. It occurred to him that maybe him and David should’ve found some street-clothes for this excursion. 

Although, the Santa-clothes were meant to be psychic… 

Alberto concentrated on the suit, trying to layer shorts and a blouse over his mental image of the suit. It began to glow, quickly reshaping into a perfectly ordinary pairing of blue pants and an orange top, along with very dark sunglasses for Allison’s freak-eyes.

“Look, David, new trick! I really suggest you try it too.”

David huffed. “Fine.” He screwed his eyes shut in concentration. His watery second-skin became sand-coloured bather trunks and a green t-shirt with a blue-haired mermaid on the front.

Alberto raised Allison’s eyebrow for her. “She needs a bra, Dave.”

A pair of clamshells appeared over the mermaid’s bosom. David muttered, “First clothes, now clothes with clothes…”

Next Alberto called over to Billy, who’d dumped himself in a sad heap against a dumpster. “Billy, go invisible before anyone sees you! But keep a hand on Mabel. Last thing we need is to lose ya in the crowd.”  

David wasn’t sure he liked how bossy Allison was being today. Who cared if someone saw Billy? They could take anyone who tried to mess with him.

Billy nodded, but instead of disappearing, he looked up at Allison. The fur around his eyes was still damp with tears. Even with mind-control at his disposal, it’d taken Alberto ages to calm the tiger-boy down enough to even explain the plan.  

“Allie… is this right? I thought superheroes only went after baddies. Isn’t being nasty to the government more… the other kind of super-people?”    

“Just because they’re government doesn’t mean they’re aren’t baddies,” said Arnold. “Heck, my dad always said it was part of the job description.”

“The Nazis were a government, too,” added Mabel, “and the Crimson Comet killed loads of them.”

Billy sniffed and nodded again. “Okay.” He shook his head, steeling himself and repeating more firmly, “Okay.” 

Billy vanished. Mabel felt a furry hand taking hers.

Their oddities hidden, the children emerged from the alley into Chinatown. English, Mandarin, Cantonese and their pidgin descendants blended in the air beneath paper lanterns. The Watercolours walked past brick storefronts and restaurants, their windows filled with bilingual hànzì advertisements, terracotta lions and laughing gold Hotei statues beneath. A set of four electric lanterns hung from each curling lamppost like bundles of grapes. Coiling dragons clung to every second piece of signage. The street was filled with the descendants of hopeful gold-prospectors and railway workers. Australians going about their lives, but doomed to forever be considered foreign even to folks whose roots barely stretched back to World War Two. 

Alberto could feel Billy’s awe in the back of his head. He couldn’t help but smile. 

“Ch—AU grew up here,” he said idly. “Before Laurie, I mean. Can’t imagine their hometown hero’s done them any good.”

Alberto remembered Chinatown well. Lawrence had brought the whole gaggle down to visit Chen’s folks right after the war, back when the old man could still suffer the involvement of human family.

God, that hadn’t lasted long, had it?

David sidled up to Allison and whispered in her ear, “Hey, Allie.”

“Something the matter?”

David squinted up at the mid-afternoon sky. “Maybe? You said you parked the ship over the city.” 

“I did.”

“Then where is it?”

Alberto rolled his eyes. “I cloaked it, obviously. Big flippin’ spaceship floating over Melbourne? The Flying Man would come running.” He quirked a shoulder. “Honestly, there’s like a one in four chance he’ll show up when we start the party anyway.”

“…Just one in four?” 

“I guess the Flying Man isn’t too worried about the gits who shoot up little kids.”

High above, a pigeon slammed into empty air, flattening out against nothing and falling to the earth. 

“…Hope nobody’s going on a helicopter tour today.”

They passed beneath the decorative hip-and-gable arch at the corner of Russel and Little Bourke, and the crowds rapidly became much more caucasian. Christmas and Boxing Day had only just passed, but that didn’t slow the city’s pulse. Hundreds of men trod the streets in near-identical suits and hats, their individuality funnelled almost entirely into the colour of their ties. The women at least got their pick of dress-patterns.  

What did liven up the fashion-scene were the scattered pedestrians wearing red, finned helmets like head-mounted cadillacs: men, women, even babies in strollers. The sight baffled the children, but not nearly as much as the fact that nobody but them were giving the helmets a second glance.

“The hell are those?” asked Mabel, arm stretched behind as she held Billy’s unseen hand. 

“Minerva-3000 mental privacy harnesses,” Alberto answered. “Came out a few months back. They’re supposed to protect you from esper powers.”

David tilted his head. “Huh. Do they work?”

“I got that from reading their minds: you tell me.”     

Melbourne’s thought-scape was interesting, in an itchy, cortisone soaked sort of way. The Canberra bombing still cast their ashen light over everything, but it had been over a week. People had lives to attend to. Money and school-runs still needed to be made, meals prepared; even holidays celebrated, lest their children realize the world was falling apart. It reminded Alberto of Milan back in ‘44. A whole city—maybe a whole country—pantomiming normalcy in the face of an invasion they just knew in their guts was coming. Every passing scrap of mundane bullshit was cross-faded with lurid, martyrdom-hungry fantasies of big-brained supermen goose-stepping down the streets, whips in hand.  

Alberto grinned. He was happy to oblige. 

The children were cutting through another alley when Arnold saw something that stopped him dead. Amidst a bark-skin of fliers for local clubs and bands, along with thinly-veiled offers for female company, there was a wanted poster. 

A monochrome and vacant-eyed Arnold Barnes stared out at himself, his hair freshly shorn, weakly clutching a placard with his name, vital statistics, and DDHA serial number to his chest. The boy could barely remember taking the mugshot. Must’ve been before the sedatives wore off.

INFORMATION WANTED ON DEMI-HUMAN FUGITIVE ARNOLD BARNES; WARNING, EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, DO NOT APPROACH IF SIGHTED

Arnold backed away from the poster against the alley wall like he was in danger of falling into it. He remembered what he’d said his first day at the Institute:

“What can I say? I’m a dangerous man.”

“Um, guys!”

The others (including, presumably, Billy) gathered around their friend.

“What’s wrong, Arn?” Mabel asked, before catching sight of the wanted poster. “Oh.”

“Huh,” said David. “Guess the Physician wasn’t lying.” He looked at Arnold with some admiration. “Kinda badass.”  

“It’s not badass!” Arnold wailed. Panicked tears were beading under his eyes. “Why do I have a wanted poster?”

“Because you exploded Canberra, Arn,” said Alberto.

“That was Lawrence!” Arnold slid down the wall till he was sitting, wrapping his arms around his legs. “He tricked me…”

The psychic tapped his foot impatiently. “And who knows that besides us and Lawrence? Besides, pretty sure you’re still an accomplice.”

Arnold made a wounded groaning noise. Billy briefly flickered back into sight next the boy, ready to apply his living plush powers, but Alberto raised a finger.

“Invisible, Billy.”

“But I—”

Invisible.”  

Billy vanished again, though Arnold’s shirt ruffled and creased like the air itself was giving him a hug. 

“I shouldn’t be down here,” he murmured. “Someone will recognize me.”

“Because there are so few white boys with black hair in Melbourne. I mean, not as many with legs that skinny…”

David frowned. “Don’t be mean, Allie.” 

Oh, so murder’s okay, but not jokes about Arnold’s chicken legs?

“Whatever. And so what if someone spots ya?” Alberto pointed at the poster. “Says right there: ‘Do not approach’.” 

Alberto’s joke didn’t do much to cheer Arnold up. All he said was, “God, Mum’s going to see me on the news…”

Alberto saw how much effort it took Arnold to not to call her “Mummy.” The entire bloody country was gunning for the kid, and he was more scared of Angela Barnes.

Figures.

“He kind of has a point,” said Mabel, rubbing her foot into the grimy alleyway asphalt. “People are really, really going to hate us after this.”

Alberto took a breath. “Like they don’t hate us now. Come on.” He started walking again. The others followed, all but David curling suddenly sore fingers into fists.

Alberto knew he wasn’t being particularly persuasive. But he didn’t have to be: the Watercolours would fight for him whether they really wanted to or not. Well, aside from possibly David, and he seemed pretty into the plan so far.

Still, the esper couldn’t help but think the kids would fight harder if they had true, honest rage on their side, enough to evaporate fear and the childish beginnings of morality.

What could he use to angry up their blood? A newspaper letters section? A G-Men comic? Asking random passersby for their opinion on demis till David made them explode? Alberto scoured the storm of futures and the star-cluster of human minds he was wading through for options. 

 Oh. Oh, that was good.

He looked over Allison’s shoulder at his compatriots. “Hey, you guys mind taking a detour?”

Shortly after the Canberra bombings and the beginning of the New Human Crisis, many observers wondered (loudly, nigh-hysterically) if the National Museum of Melbourne1 would close their popular demi-human exhibit at McCoy Hall. The museum’s response—its representatives subtly but unmistakably puffing out their chests—was that they would not be cowed by a few mutant radicals. That the recent demi-human attacks only strengthened their mandate to educate the people of Melbourne about these strange, wondersome aberrations. 

In hindsight, they probably should’ve brought back the dinosaur skeletons and stuffed lions.

Even so late in the afternoon, so soon after the holidays, McCoy Hall was packed. Tourists, eager super-chasers, parents looking to cheaply entertain their bored children.

And today, five and-a-half genuine demi-humans. 

The museum floor was littered with dioramas of infamous Australian supervillains. Mistress Quickly2 aiming her duster-gun at passing museum-goers. Pemulwuy standing impossibly tall atop Uluru with moulded light-up flames3 sprouting from his hands, for that double-dose of colonial smugness and extinction anxiety. Ned Kelly in his armour4.  

And of course, sitting on a desert rock, counting gold bars lying in piles at his feet, clad in glammy, shiny plastic armour: AU. 

Alberto gripped the velvet rope around his old friend’s display tight, his thin, pale arms shaking with barely restrained anger.

Hope you’re happy, Chen, he thought. Bloody well ruined everything.

Or maybe that had been the Flying Man, standing in minature before JFK in an exquisitely detailed scale model of the White House that late October morning in 1962, pinned under the storm-grey gaze of a giant boy.

Before he did something rash (and incendiary) to the AU diorama, Alberto tore himself away and walked over to Arnold.

He looked down at the little Flying Man model. “Do you think it’s fun, being him?” Alberto asked.

“Don’t know,” answered Arnold, not looking up from the display. “Seems to spend all his time cleaning up after the naturals.”

“Yeah, but I bet he does that for kicks. Just to show he can.”

“Why not us, though?” Arnold spoke slowly and quietly. “Why doesn’t he help us?”

Alberto decided to play devil’s advocate. “He did come to the Institute.”

Arnold scuffed. “Yeah, after the soldiers shot everyone.” He squirmed like he wanted to punch something—anything—with his whole body. “It’s his fault, you know? The only reason the freak-finders go after us is because they can’t get him.” He looked down darkly again at the miniatures on the fake fabric grass. “I thought they were meant to be grownups.”

Alberto tried to keep his face smooth and sombre. He patted Arnold on the shoulder. “Don’t worry Arn,” he reassured the boy. “They’re getting what’s coming to them.”

Check one. 

Alberto moved to find the others in the crowd. 

“I wish I had superpowers,” said a boy with a cotton-candy encrusted mouth gawking at a statue of Hel in her custom-designed Hugo Boss SS uniform5, with shockingly more generous cleavage than her flesh and blood model had boasted. He looked up at the blonde woman standing next to him.  “What about you, ma?”

The woman answered quickly, “No. I don’t think you do either, Angus. They’re an awful burden.”

Bloody liar, Alberto thought as he passed.

Aside from the supervillains, the exhibit also boasted many purely informational displays. On a raised dais were two stalks topped by two plastic human brains. Unless you were a neurologist or an x-ray machine, the only apparent difference between the specimens was that the one on the right was tinted green for whatever reason. The demi-human brain. As the informational plaque explained, the prevailing scientific consensus regarding the violent tendencies of many demi-humans—obviously demonstrated by the hero/villain paradigme—was that the part of their brains responsible for regulating their deviant abilities took up neural real-estate that in normal humans was dedicated to empathy and impulse control. 

Out of nowhere, the human brain tipped to the floor. 

Alberto skipped a ways. Check two.

He was disappointed to find Mabel staring at a model of Circle’s End in the corner of the hall. The recreation of the little mining township was restrained, only suggesting mass-death. It was also making sickly green guilt burn in Mabel’s skull. Alberto didn’t need that. 

He took the little girl’s hand and turned her around to face the swarming crowd.

“It’s funny,” he said. “They’re so happy not to be us. But they’re also really, really jealous. There but for the grace of the Man but-why-couldn’t-he-have-picked-me, you know what I mean?”

Mabel let out a small laugh. Allison was showing off her big-people words a lot lately, but she couldn’t say she wasn’t right. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s pathetic.” She laughed again. “Wish Automata was here,” she said with a sad fondness. “Imagine if she used her power on all the mannequins…” 

“You’re gonna outdo her later,” Alberto assured her. He glanced around the hall. “Know where David is?”

David was the important one here, really. Even if he hadn’t been a powerhouse, if the other children wavered, Alberto could pull them back into line. Not him. 

“Ooh!” exclaimed Mabel. She started pulling Alberto through the throng. “Wait till you see what they’ve got on the other side!”

The Parliament House display had been included in the exhibition for reasons of balance. To show what good and beauty demi-humans could do for society, so long as they were properly regulated. A plasticine boy and girl, pretending that glass was ice and fibreglass was wood, frozen still in the middle of their dance, watched approvingly by two old plasticine men. 

It was more perfect than Alberto could’ve hoped for. David was glaring poison at the poor, ill-proportioned recreation of his old, blue-eyed self. The version Lawrence wanted. It was so inaccurate, nobody noticed the original boy standing right in front of it. The models of Robert Menzies and Herbert meanwhile were exacting. Loving.  

When they were close enough behind him for the boy to hear them over the humans, Alberto said, “Funny, isn’t it? They care more about two old men in suits than the people making miracles.” 

“I hate it,” said Mabel. “They keep trying to make us into things. ” 

“Yeah,” Alberto agreed. “Monsters or pets.”

David turned and looked at his friends with his grandfather’s eyes. “We’re gonna get a new display,” he said firmly. “I want to be a monster now.”


1. This being before the paradoxically named museum moved in the 1990s to Carlton Gardens from the city-block it shared with the State Library on La Trobe, Swanston, Little Lonsdale and Russell Streets.

2. Real name Maude Simmons, usually known as such due to her hesitance to commit to a super-nym.

3. His actual powers were earth related.

4. There is still no historical evidence that Ned Kelly was in fact a superhuman.

5. Nazi super-soldier with uncertain powers, generally believed to be either sonic in nature or mediated by sound. Her bottle-blond status was a state-secret. Killed in action during the fall of Berlin by the Crimson Comet. Ralph Rivers did not receive a display at the McHoy Hall exhibition, or even a mention on the plaques for Hel and her comrade Baldr, the man who couldn’t die (until he did).

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

                                    

Chapter Sixty-Seven: The Ship Moves

David Venter-Barthe stood at the shore of the saltwater lake, its waves gently licking at his heels. A dark stone ceiling stretched high above him, almost hidden from sight by a dark forest of heavy clouds.The stinking hot air wept with humidity.

David was in Heaven. A normal child would’ve passed out from the heat ten minutes ago, if they could even breathe the sodden air. But David was no such thing. And neither was Allison Kinsey.

David turned to look at the pale little girl, standing behind him like a ghost on the pink sands that rimmed the outer edge of the chamber. He grinned at her, saying, “The Physician’s bedroom sure is big,” before looking back out over the water, curiosity replacing humour in his smile. “Does he really live under there?”

“He has to,” replied Allison. “Years and years back the Physician’s lot hit a wall trying to make themselves smarter. They’d already gotten their brains to work as good and fast as they were ever going to—hell, they’d turned their whole bodies into brains. Only way they were gonna get smarter after that was if they got bigger.” She gestured at the lake. “And there’s loads of space underwater…”

“What about Dr. Smith? The Commodore and all them? The little Physicians?” David giggled at his choice of words. Sounded like a toyline.

“They’re just pieces of him. They crawl out of the water to experience the world for him. Then when they’re done, he eats them back up.”

David frowned. “And they’re okay with that?”

Allison shrugged. “Why would they have a problem with being whole again?”

David looked around the chamber. “Wait, if this is the Physician—the real one—shouldn’t there be… I don’t know, guns or something?” He stretched his imagination. “Water-dragons?”

Allison started wading into the water. “This ship’s his slave, David. If you had a slave, would you keep a gun next your bed?” She stopped, turning back to her friend with a smile. “Besides, the Physician is a water-dragon. Wanna come mess with him?”

David nodded vigorously. Allison had been weird all day. More talkative, but removed somehow. Constantly pursuing things David couldn’t name. Like she and the rest of them were walking through worlds that only barely met at the edges.

Still, he couldn’t say she wasn’t being fun.        

The two children ran into the lake, the water rising around them with every step, till they were hanging beautifully weightless between planes of mud and the dim light of the surface.

David breathed in the water greedily. How had he lived so long without salt on his tongue?

He hadn’t, really.

Allison took the lead, kicking forward towards a phosphorescent glow in the distance, where David could feel massive amounts of water trapped and woven into organic patterns. They flew over carpets of kelp.  Shaggy, but oddly fish-like insects and water-snakes armoured in bone-plate with mouths full of rusticles swam with them through the dark. David wondered if they were the Physician’s lunch.

Mud, sand, and seaweed gave way to banks of coral. Spindly, branching trees of staghorn. Tall, rainbow sea-pens like peacock tails and bushes of pulsing blue globules. Red and yellow gorgonians swaying with the current like giant, moth-eaten hand fans.

And eyes. Thousands of unblinking, china-blue eyes, all staring up at the young interlopers.

A thought rang out through the water:

Cover me.

Before David could think a response, Allison swooped down towards the reef, running her hands over its coral. 

…Okay

Before David could wonder why Allie was fondling a coral reef, a deep, resounding groan echoed through the lake. The whole cavern shook.

An enormous ball of pallid flesh tore its way out of the lakebed, rising on a hairy umbilicus to loom over the children, shucking off sand to reveal a gaping maw ringed by orange tentacles. 

Allison didn’t even look up at the thing. 

Can you take care of that?

David’s face screwed with determination, and he shot up at the monster… right into its mouth. 

The water-sprite burst from the other side of the creature with a gout of green blood pluming like acrid smoke in the water: a bullet made of ice. 

Sometimes, David had learned, it felt good to be him. 

Mabel Henderson was torn. On the one hand, she physically needed to sketch Commodore Spoketooth’s mermaid. On the other, that would require not swimming with the actual-for-real mermaid. 

So, the young artist settled for occasionally excusing herself from the splash fight to swim over to her sketchbook lying open at the edge of the pool. 

She was detailing the mermaid’s fluke when a fat splat of water hit the drawing.

Mabel scowled, even as the paper drank the water like it’d never been there. She turned and glared at her friends. “You guys! I’m trying to draw here!”

Arnold was floating at the centre of a vortex, churned and stirred by shards of lightning from his body. “Don’t moan!” he retorted, voice cracking and rumbling with thunder. “Who the hell draws in a pool?”

Mabel rolled her eyes. “It’s called drawing from life, Arnold.” 

The Commodore shouted from his deckchair, having been pulled out of A House of Pomegranates1. “Play nice, ya scallywags.” 

The mermaid glanced worriedly between the two children, before looking pleadingly at Billy floating beside her. She’d lapsed back into silence when Mabel laughed at her accent.

Billy reached over and squeezed the mermaid’s hand. It was kind of neat meeting another kid with claws. “It’s okay,” he said. “Friends argue like that all the time. Took some getting used to for me, too.”

The mermaid nodded warily, but was quickly distracted by the texture of Billy’s sodden fur, rubbing his arm with undisguised fascination.

It was funny, Billy thought. The mermaid thought he was weird—who didn’t?—but she thought Arnold was, too. A furry boy was no stranger than a naked one.

“Hey,” he asked, “do you have a name?”

The mermaid bit her lip.

Before she had a chance to answer, David and Allie strolled back into the pool-chamber, still as dripping wet as when they’d left. Allison was striding with a confidence that looked frankly comical without clothes, whereas David was clearly trying to smother giggles. 

The mermaid waved at the pair, crying, “Avast, mateys!” It didn’t feel exactly right for a style of speech so similar to Spoketooth’s to come out of someone so small, but it hardly registered in this place.

Allison mimed tipping her hat at the others in the pool. “Hi, guys.” She turned and gave the Commodore a cat-like smile. “Ahoy, Spoketooth.” 

The Physician waved his hook in salute. “Mighty fine to see ya two again. Where did ya minnows swim to?”

David rocked back and forth on his heels. “Oh, nowhere.”

“We were just visiting you,” Allison added.

Spoketooth flashed the signature, lip-tearing Physician grin. “Oh, which one? Johannes? Nurarihyon-san?2”  

A deep bass note resounded through the ship. A cracking rumbling noise broke through the hull: the sound of long-sleeping stone being roused. 

“We weren’t talking about your scrapings,” retorted Allison, grinning herself. “We meant you. All of you.”

For a second, the children all felt something like a light hand pressing down on them. The water in the pool vibrated and sloshed about, before settling again. The Commodore actually stumbled, slapping his remaining hand over his pirate-hat to keep it in place. 

“The hell was that?” Arnold asked loudly.

“I could ask the same question, lad!” Spoketooth shouted, staring at Allison and David. His grin had collapsed into a basset-hound frown.

“That would be the inertial dampening kicking in,” Allison answered. “You need it if you want to get from Antarctica to Melbourne at a decent clip.” She was still smiling at Commodore Spoketooth. “I think we’ll be plotting the ship’s course for the time being, Commodore.”

The Commodore quickly considered his options. Clearly, John Smith’s little wastrels had somehow subverted the navigation and propulsion systems. Such a feat required no less than the subversion of himself. His parent, birthplace, and afterlife all in one. That should’ve been the Physician’s biggest problem—it wasn’t.

Had this girl even cloaked the ship? Was he coming for them?

“Well,” said Allison, “got anything to say to that?”

The Commodore let out a dry, rattling howl, designed to scare off predators from the other side of the galaxy, and raised his hook to strike. It stopped pretending to be ratty old plastic, reforging into a barbed spear dripping with neurotoxin. 

The alien tried slashing at Allison, but the little girl burst into flames. The physician’s makeshift stinger still hit her, in a sense. It just melted in the heat. Then, a blast of magma shot from her chest, embracing Spoketooth.

The Physician shrieked as his flesh burned and melted, nearly harmonizing with the shouts of shock and terror from the children in the pool. His body writhed and twisted, mutating and spagettifying in every direction as it tried to flee from the fire consuming it. 

The children’s screams outlasted Spoketooth, who eventually fell sideways into the pool, extinguishing with a hiss as the water around it bubbled and steamed.

Allison and David were both laughing.

The mermaid keened and wailed, diving back down into the depths. Mabel yelled, “The fuck, Allie?”

Billy screamed through tears, “You killed him!”    

David looked confusedly at his friends, before blinking from sudden comprehension. He threw his hands up reassuringly. “It’s alright, guys,” he explained. “That wasn’t all of him. We can make another Spoketooth later.”

Alberto Moretti let the fire in him die. It felt good, finally having a power that could break things. Bradbury was right. It was, in fact, a pleasure to burn.

“Why—” Arnold stammered. “Why’d you do that?”

Alberto stepped to where he’d left Allison’s super-suit, slipping it on. Conveniently, the lava stunt had dried him off. “Because he was just going to tell us what to do.”

To Arnold’s horror, this sounded perfectly normal from his friend.

“Get dressed, everyone,” Alberto ordered, his will thrumming along the strings that connected him to the Watercolours. “Mabel, grab your scrapbook. Might as well take your atlas too, Arnold.”

“Wh—where are we going?”

“Melbourne. We’re going to give Tim Valour what’s coming to him.”


1. A 1891 collection of short stories by Oscar Wilde, including stories such as “The Star-Prince” and “The Fisherman and his Soul.”

2. Dr. Nurarihyon, an instantiation of the Physician stationed in Japan, named for his physical resemblance to the large-headed yōkai of Japanese folklore. Went for that angle after he realized his particular brand of transforming hero wasn’t going to market well.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Sixty-Six: Of Bottled Boys and Mermaids

The fish-fin door swept open, revealing the latest stop on the Watercolours’ self-guided tour:

Billy went, “Woah…”

“Neat,” said David. 

Mabel’s nose wrinkled. “Gross, you mean.”

The water-sprite shrugged. “Why not both?”

Alberto simply wondered if he’d hit the jackpot. 

The room wasn’t large in terms of absolute floor space, maybe about fifteen metres end to end, but it was tall; almost arena-like in its dimensions. Similar in its architecture, too. The walls subtly beveled inwards, lined with odd ridges of purposeless shape and form. The furniture, on the other hand, put one in mind of a cluttered boutique shop. They stretched out from the middle in rings, tight enough alongside one another to leave too small of a gap for even Billy to slide through, but for a wider indentation every two or three metres.

They were pods. Wide glass cylinders as baroque as the rest of the Physician’s equipment, capped at both ends with what looked like hand-molded bone-china, the glass inlaid with a brassy metal filigree that shifted as the eye moved across it. David could feel all sorts of fluids flowing beneath the floor. They made the whole place smell faintly of trophy rooms and shoe polish.

What lay inside the pods were children. Dozens of athletic, milky skinned boys of about eleven or twelve floated curled in a viscous, yellow fluid as if trapped in lava-lamps. Their faces were caught between baby-fat and sharp, Nordic definition, and with their eyes closed, the only thing that distinguished them from each other was the colour of their hair, in which were tangled coronets not unlike the one Arkwright had worn during his transformation. The term “educator crowns” popped into Alberto’s head.

Billy had his eyes averted, uncertain whether he should look upon the bottled youths’ nakedness. Arnold was also avoiding looking at the tubes. His face was very red.

Little checca, Alberto thought to himself.

“Are these…” Billy struggled to find a plausible explanation. “…Baths?”

“Don’t think so,”  Alberto said with a studious frown, rubbing Allison’s chin while squinting at the tubes. “I think these are wombs.”

“Ewww,” said Arnold.

David was getting a closer look at one of the test-tube kids: a blond. His eyes widened. “Holy heck,” he said, forcing Alberto to stifle a cackle. “This one looks like he could be Mr. Thumps’ son.”

“More like little brother,” Alberto said archly, “and they all look like that.”

“The Physician can make people,” Mabel said, sighing. “Can anyone else remember when we woulda been surprised by that? At all?”

“Not really,” answered David. Glancing upwards, he noticed holes in the ceiling, each corresponding with one of the pods below. “Wonder what those are for.”

Much to David’s surprise, he actually got an answer:

Alberto pointed at the metal floor. “See the swirls? Like in the Wizard of Oz?”

Indeed, the floor was inlaid with ribbons of what passed for carnelian, turquoise, and yellow fire-opal. They winded through the tubes and converged on a circle of rainbow hematite in the centre of the nursery. Alberto stepped into the circle and spun on his heels. 

There was a solid clicking sound. The whole room began to slowly but unmistakably spin.

No, not the room; just the floor and ceiling. As they spun, the pods rose up from the floor, riding on cushions of shimmering air up through the apertures in the ceiling.

“The room’s like a merry-go-round,” explained Alberto, pointing out the grooves in the walls being eaten by the floor. “Or the plunger in a syringe. The pods use antigravity stuff to stay out of the way.”

New pods emerged from the holes left by the last set. There was another click, and the room stopped spinning. 

“The floor delivers nutrients and stuff to the pods.” Alberto stepped out of the circle and gave a snide grin. “You guys ever notice the Physician’s lot build everything like they can’t pick between an adventure playground and a modern art gallery?”

The children were too busy examining the new pods to appreciate Alberto’s wit. The occupants were more mature than than their predecessors—about sixteen or seventeen. The only other difference was that their filigree was closer to gold than brass.

Alberto huffed a little. He wasn’t sure why being ignored by a bunch of little kids bugged him, but it did. “These guys are all getting sold to gangsters and politicos like Valour. A few of them are going to Vietnam.” He shrugged. “Not sure why they still draft real people, but whatever.”

Arnold looked back at Allison. “How do you know all that?”

“Those metal lines on the tanks? That’s what the Physician uses for writing.” Alberto made a show of checking Allison’s fingernails. “I can read it now.”

Arnold whistled. Alberto stood back on the rainbow circle and spun again. 

The next layer of pods all contained full-grown Misters. The layer after that held full-term fetuses.

Babies!” Billy cried in delight. None of the other children seemed to share his reaction.

Then there were toddlers, and preteens, more adolescents, and finally another batch of grown men, this time vaguely East Asian.

“Huh. The North Koreans are buying these ones1.

The cycle of childhood repeated over and over as the Watercolours descended through the clonal-nursery. Brass became gold as boys became men before they ever opened their eyes. Even unborn, the drones all had songs, composed and shaped by their educator-crowns. Some were being sleep-trained up into bodyguards, assassins, or just all-purpose muscle. Others, though, were for the Physician’s own use: operating his equipment or helping maintain his reluctant spaceship.

Alberto paid those drones’ songs special attention. 

“Wonder how long it takes the Physician to make a grown-up,” David mused. 

“About three months,” answered Alberto. 

“I think it’s sad,” said Billy, watching another young drone pass up through the ceiling.

“Why’s that?” asked Mabel.

“They never get to be kids.”

David nodded in agreement. Alberto, though—staring down the barrel of a second, female puberty—couldn’t bring himself to weep much for the drones. 

“At least they don’t have to go to school,” pointed out Arnold. “Or get bossed around for years by people like Laurie…”

Mabel looked flatly at her friend. “They’re slaves, Arn.”

“But being a kid slave would be way worse.”

“Point.”

Alberto was only half-listening to the conversation. He was busy imagining himself (or herself, sadly) in one of those pods, hopefully doped to the gills, being rushed to adulthood; hair sprouting, hips flaring, breasts rising like dough—  

Alberto felt Allison shake in her cage. He wondered how much of that was the prospect of being changed in of itself, and how much was the general horror of womanhood Lawrence’s stirpiculture was so good at engendering in his female students.

Would such a growth spurt even help matters2? Even if Alberto could find a shortcut back to maturity, it would be as a woman. Even now, in Allison’s still mostly boyish frame, he felt horribly incomplete. Would he still like girls, or would Allison’s biology override his own tastes? Maybe he could force Eliza—  

Alberto banished the thought from his mind. There was no way he was going to throw himself on that witch’s mercy.

The Misters gave way to more varied broods. Werewolf cubs grew up into hulking beasts, lizard hatchlings became ghastly serpent-men, and surprisingly, geodes became crystal golems. 

Shockingly, there were even some girls. 

“Why doesn’t the Physician make more of us?” Mabel griped to Allison.

They left behind the little girls as they dipped down into adolescence. Alberto grimaced at the script on the teenagers’ tanks. “Be glad he doesn’t.”

At least they were spayed.

No more pods replaced the last batch of females. The ports in the ceiling closed, and the carousel ceased revolving.

“This the bottom floor?” asked David, 

The grooves in the walls swirled into whirlpools and coalesced into five dark tunnels.

“Looks like it,” said Alberto. He found himself hopping from foot to foot. He’d never done that in his own body. “I think this is the floor where the Physician keeps all his special projects.”

“Think” his rump. Alberto knew the ship’s layout like the back of his old hand. There were songs wafting from all the tunnels: mostly animal, but a few were broadly human.

More importantly, one of them was a Physician. 

Alberto ran into one of the tunnels, calling over his shoulder, “Going exploring. Meet back here?”

Mabel started down another, Billy bolting ahead of her with his cape fluttering behind him. “Sure,” she answered. “Tell me if you find something worth drawing.”

Alberto heard David and Arnold’s footsteps behind him. He didn’t mind. Might be good to have backup. 

The tunnel reminded all three of them of the Nocturnal House at Perth Zoo: a dark, winding hallway with peculiar habitats cut into the walls, partitioned by what Alberto guessed were either transparent forcefields, or panes of glass. One played art-studio for crystal-spiders weaving red hot webs of molten steel. An aquarium brimmed with cuttlefish whose skin flashed mute, colourized reruns of I Love Lucy3.

“The hell are those for?” Arnold asked.

“Construction and communications?” Alberto shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not sure the Physician needs a reason to do anything.”

There was a herpetarium filled with softly glowing orange lantern-turtles, the very sight of which made David pout.

“What’s got you?” Alberto asked. He hated that he had to do that with David now. “I thought they’d be your style.”

“They are,” David grunted. He kicked at nothing. “The aquarium thing’s too small for me to swim in.”

Cells carpeted with snoring human faces. Arboretums of trees that bloomed with half-ripe bluebirds4. Some of sort of squid-like biological manipulation tool inexplicably labeled “Dandelion.” A great, four-winged roc5, fashioned from leather and polished bronze, spread its art-deco wings atop a plucking post of petrified coral. Its song was borderline sapient.

Alberto paid these wonders and horrors little mind, focusing only on the Physician’s song.

The tunnel forked, leading off towards an Olympic swimming pool set beneath an artificial, azure sky. A Physician was lounging in a deckchair, reading a dog-eared copy of Undine6.

David stared at the pool, practically salivating over it. He sniffed.

Salt water

David’s suit melted off him. He ran towards the pool and dive bombed, laughing all the while.

The Physician rose from his chair. This one wore a red long coat and a Monmouth cap. One of his eyes was covered by a cheap, plastic eyepatch, and his right-hand had been replaced by a similarly cheap and nasty plastic hook. It even had a tell tale seam running along its length. His leg tapered off into a thick tree branch, complete with leaves.  “Aha, me hearties! I take it you’re the scalawags the good Doctor Smith is giving passage?”

Arnold giggled and shook his head. “This is a joke, right?” He looked around the chamber. “The Physician’s got cameras set up, doesn’t he?”

Alberto ignored the boy. He was finding the Physician’s song far less upsetting than he had been, even at this close range. It would be a while before he’d try dancing to it, but he could manage to rattle off its virtues at a trendy coffee bar. More encouragingly, it was having a feedback effect with his telepathy, making the alien’s lights become more distinct and legible.

“Let me guess,” he said, “Doctor…”

The new Physician waved his hook. “Ahh, none of that. I’m Commodore Spoketooth!” 

“And where do you work, Cornwall?” Alberto asked, a little too proud of himself for the joke.

Arnold added, “And why are you all pirate?”

Commodore Spoketooth chuckled nautically. “Nay, lass, I usually plow international waters.” He looked at Arnold. “As for your question, lad: why shouldn’t I?”

It was the first time anyone had directly called Alberto a girl. It stung

The surface of the pool bubbled and frothed. David’s head emerged from the water, and he wasn’t alone. A girl surfaced beside him, raven-black hair clinging to her face. She had darker skin than David, and vaguely Polynesian features. Her eyes though were large and black, with no visible pupils. A manic grin revealed some very sharp teeth.

David sputtered with excitement. “I—she…” He turned to his companion and exclaimed, “Show them!”

The girl dived back under the water. A red-scaled fluke surfaced like a sea-serpent, waving at Arnold and Allison.

David shouted, “Mermaid!” and dived back under.

Alberto and Arnold both blinked at the pool. 

“Ah, what was that?” asked Arnold.

Commodore Spoketooth put his hands on his hips proudly. Alberto had to admit this Physician had a better than usual grasp of human body-language. Anything for a gimmick, he guessed.

“That’s me mermaid.”

Alberto glanced sideways at the pirate-doctor. “Your mermaid.”

“Yes.”

“Where did you get her?”

“I made her.”

Arnold asked, “Why?”

“Do I need a reason?”

“Told ya,” Alberto whispered to Arnold. 

“You land-lubbers came up with such a pretty yarn, I did ya the courtesy of making it real!”

Alberto’s curiosity was rusty, but it was piqued. “Can she breathe underwater?”

“Would be a lousy mermaid if she couldn’t.”

“I thought there wasn’t enough oxygen in water for mammals?” Sometimes, Alberto was finding, it felt good to be smart.

“Aye, lass. But I figured out these special blood-cells made out of diamonds for her7. They carry more than two hundred times the oxygen your landlubber blood.” Spoketooth smirked, revealing alternating silver and gold teeth. “Makes gills perfectly feasible for her.”

“Why is she a kid?” asked Arnold. “You can make grownups.”

Spoketooth laid his hook on the boy’s shoulder, making him flinch. “Aye, I did cook the little fry past the really fiddly years. But, sometimes, laddie, I just like to watch you children grow…”

Mercifully, David surfaced again. “Why are you guys standing around? There’s a mermaid!” 

There was no way in hell Allison Kinsey could resist going swimming with a mermaid, Alberto realized. Oh well. He walked over to the pool’s edge and started lowering himself in—

David frowned. “What are you doing?”

“…I’m gonna swim with you and the mermaid.”

David looked bemused. “In clothes?”

Oh. God. Alberto wondered how believable Allison growing a sense of modesty in two days would be.

Not bloody likely, he thought.

“Um,” he said, before remembering Spoketooth, who’d wandered back to his chair. “I didn’t want to weird out the Commodore.” 

The pirate looked back up from his book. “Shiver me timbers, lass! You think I care about what you scurvy dogs look like under your kit?”

“See?” said David. “Do you really want to deal with drag?”

Alberto really, really wished the little shit had picked a different phrasing.

“Don’t tell Allie to get naked if she doesn’t want to.”

Alberto turned to look at Arnold. The boy was nearly as red as the mermaid’s scales. Discomfort radiated from him like a physical force. But there was also a sense of guilty anticipation. 

Hmm, Alberto thought to himself. So Arnold has some red blood in him, too. It almost seemed stranger to the psychic than the boy being a plain old fag. Say what you want about Ralph Rivers, at least he picked a team and backed it all the way.

Still, Arnold’s mortification couldn’t help but amuse Alberto. On the other hand, being lusted over by a nine year old didn’t exactly thrill him. Whatever. For now, he would avert suspicion however he must. 

There was a green flash, and Allison’s super-suit fell on top of Arnold’s head. He sputtered and yelled as he threw the costume off, blanching as he got a look at Allison.  The boy’s mindscape shifted. An odd swelling of pride, tinged with a relieved kind of hope as a tingling warmth spread all throughout his body. 

“Huh,” Arnold said, more to himself than to Allison. “You’re just as cute as David is.”

Inside her skull, Allison Kinsey turned red as a balloon. Under Alberto Moretti, however, she also giggled.

“Perv,” Alberto said with a wink. He turned back to the pool. “Come on, you’ll miss out.”

Alberto dived. The young mermaid greeted him with an enthusiastic wave. A lime flash flowed over the water, and Arnold plunged flailing into their midst

Alberto was almost proud of the little queer.

The children frolicked with the mermaid for hours. Like everything else on the Physician’s ship, her pool was incredibly over-designed. Its bottom and walls were shrouded by beautiful, false holograms of vibrant coral reefs and tractless blue wastes in every direction. Whenever they threatened to scrape the habitat’s limits, they stretched away from their hands or feet (or fins) like a 3D treadmill.

Alberto kept up well enough with David and the mermaid, Allison’s eyes glowing almost purple with the combined glow of her and the water-sprite’s powers. Stolen grace and aquatic mastery  was definitely a step up from desperately dog-paddling behind Fran back in the river. 

He spun in the water, before curling into a ball and letting the world tumble around him. An unexpected glee buoyed him. It was embarrassing, but he couldn’t help himself. The cool, flowing weightlessness yielded gloriously to the strength in his new limbs as he kicked through the water. Swimming, after all, is the cousin of flight.

Maybe being a kid again wasn’t so bad. The main downside of childhood, Alberto reasoned, was that most kids were stupid. He wasn’t. Most kids were weak. He wasn’t.

Webbed hands wrapped Alberto’s chest. He twisted around to find the mermaid hugging him, nuzzling his neck.

All in all, her mind wasn’t terribly different from a human girl’s. Her lights were dominated by dull, beige brown, alternating with angry pulses of strong, bright pinks and greens, painfully fluorescent like neon-highlighters. Poor thing was stir-crazy, and quite desperately lonely. 

Alberto wasn’t surprised. Poor, dumb thing was bred for the open ocean, from a species of tribes, and the Physician stuck her alone in a glorified fish-tank. 

He found himself sinking into the hug. Even her scales against Allison’s legs didn’t bother—  

Wait, Allison liked mermaids, didn’t she? Enough to spend a week painting them on the side of a barn. Was this feeling his, or hers? Were he and Allison… synthesizing?

Would that be so awful?       

A green bolt vanished the mermaid. A second later, she plunged shrieking back down through the water amongst a plume of tiny bubbles. 

Alberto kicked his way back to the surface to find Arnold trying to keep afloat as he laughed himself silly.

David and the mermaid surfaced, sharing a look of mutual annoyance. Then David grinned and took his new friend by the hand. A wave swelled beneath them, sweeping up the pair and washing them over Arnold. When it subsided, Arnold was squirming and kicking in the two’s arms as they cackled and pushed him underwater.

Between dunks, Arnold shouted, “I need to breathe you guys!” 

In the innocent cruelty of both gods and children, both David and the mermaid ignored him. 

Arnold’s skin lit bright green. His tormentors were suddenly ten feet in front of him.

Their victim grinned wickedly. He crackled. 

A large pond’s worth of water showered down over David and the mermaid’s heads, hard enough to force them under. David and the mermaid resurfaced swearing and spitting at Arnold.

“Come on,” said Alberto, floating nearby on his back. “You kinda earned that.”

Something seemed to occur to the mermaid. She ducked under and started poking at David’s legs.

David tried to resist giggling as he grinned smugly. “Wondering how I keep up with ya with the legs? My granddad’s kinda—aah!”

The mermaid poked him somewhere tender.

Spoketooth chuckled, watching the children like an indulgent grandfather. “You must forgive her, lad. She’s never seen a landlubber-shaped boy before…”

David glared at the Physician. “She should be free.”

The mermaid surfaced again, only to blink when she saw how hard David’s expression had gotten.

Fuck, Alberto thought. He’s giving a shit. Why’s he still doing that?

The Commodore stood up. “What’s that, lad?”

David pulled the mermaid in close. “She shouldn’t be cooped up here. She belongs in the sea.”

The mermaid suddenly clung tight to David, looking at her creator with something between fear and hope.

“She’s never been outside that pool. She’d be dead inside a week.”

David waved his arms around the cavern. “You could build her a sea-palace if you wanted!”

“I could,” conceded Spoketooth. “But why should I? I made the lass, she’s my project.”

A sudden current swept the mermaid away. Like Glaucus or Poseidon (or his grandfather), David rose on a Grecian column of water, looming over Spoketooth. His eyes burned sea-form white. “I could make you.”

The Physician showed no hint of fear. “If you’re planning on sending me down to Davy Jones’ locker, lad, you should know my kind breathe water.”

“You’re also made of water.”

Arnold surreptitiously swam over to Allison. “Allie,” he whispered, “should David be doing this? I mean, I don’t want Mer-y stuck down here forever, but we kinda live here now…”

Alberto got an idea. “Let me handle it.”

The psychic climbed out of the pool and walked over to Spoketooth. He took his remaining hand and looked up at the pirate with his best impression of a guileless little girl. “Mr. Spoketooth,” he said, “I know it’s hard giving away something you love.” Bit of a strong word, but Alberto doubted the Commodore cared enough to object. “But this could be a real opportunity for you!”

Spoketooth’s eyepatch twitched. “What are you saying, lass?”

“Did you like making your mermaid?”

“I did. Best project I’d had in years.”

“Well, I think you’re right. She wouldn’t last a day alone in the sea… so why not make more of her?”

“…Go on.”

“You could make like, a whole class of mer-kids! Build them a nice village in the Bahamas or somewhere, stick some cameras about and watch them as much as you like! They’ll fight and grow up and—” Alberto looked at the mermaid, watching him and Spoketooth warily. “Can she have babies?” 

“Aye, I didn’t want to half-arse it.”

“Then you’ll never run out of merpeople to watch!”

Alberto squeezed the alien’s hand.

“…Sounds like a plan!” 

The psychic let go of Spoketooth, trying to dampen the grin forcing its way onto Allison’s lips. 

David beamed down at the mermaid. “We’re going to make you some friends!”

The mermaid trilled with delight. “Ye be a good soul, matey!”

“…Huh,” said David.

Alberto closed his hand. He knew how the Physician’s mind worked. He knew how the ship worked. “Hey, Arnold, you mind keeping the little mermaid there company for a bit. I want to show David something.”

Arnold wasn’t sure why he couldn’t come and look at whatever, but he couldn’t really complain about hanging out with a literal mermaid. “Sure.”

David’s column of water stretched into a bridge for him. He caught up to Allison as she walked, still dripping, back into the dark hallway.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

Alberto answered, “We’re going to see the Physician. The real one.”    


1. For reasons of racial sensitivity, we will not be showing you the Physician’s Asian instantiation.

2. In fact, it is very difficult to accelerate an organism’s growth except from scratch. More than one of the Physician’s drones were stranded in childhood due to interruptions in the process. What became of them does not bear thinking about.

3. Still in syndication in 1965, with the notable exception of “Lucy and Superman.”

4. The Physician was always interested in alternatives to his growth chambers.

5. A gigantic bird of prey in Middle-Eastern folklore, somewhat similar to a phoenix.

6. A well loved German fairy-tale written in 1811 by fantasist Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

7. Later human researchers would refer to this kind of nanotechnology as “respirocytes.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Sixty-Five: The Wolf Cub

Well, that was easy.

Maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised. Allison may have been a refined superhuman collation of the knowledge and expertise of thousands, but she was also nine. Alberto could still hear her, screaming at him from deep in the back of his head.

Calm down, Allie. If you’re not comfortable in there, I can always import playmates for ya. David, maybe?

The screaming died down to a resigned whimper: the psychic equivalent of a buzzing light fixture. Annoying, but tolerable until Alberto found himself an ice-pick. He looked at Allison’s super-suit—a depressed rainbow lying in a heap on the brass floor—glanced down at the girl’s pyjamas, and sighed. Time to bite the bullet.

Alberto undressed like he was peeling off his own skin, silently thanking God that Allison had gotten back into the habit of wearing clothes. He’d felt like a pervert whenever the kid looked down. He didn’t even want to consider what he’d do when he had to shower or take a piss. Maybe his prepubescent sweat-glands and newfound indifference to alcohol were a blessing. 

Alberto pulled on the suit. It had its own song, he noticed, a strange tonal echo of Allison’s own, like a second voice harmonizing with her. He flinched as the suit shone bright white and shifted over his skin. When it settled, the esper found himself wearing a maroon-feathered body-sleeve. The torso though was smooth and black, except for a white raven in flight over his chest.

Alberto blinked down at the new look… he kind of liked it. At least the alien Santa clothes had taste.  

“Your suit changed.”

Alberto jumped. David was lolling over the side of the spiral staircase. He started down the steps, minutely tripping over one of them, before glancing down quickly at the girl below in case she noticed. It was cute, especially the way his dark locks—    

Alberto brushed the thought from his mind and shook his head. The last thing he needed was one of Allison’s second hand puppy-crushes. They made for an unsettling dual perspective on the little shit.

   David was in front of Alberto now, leaning forward to get a better look at his outfit. The water-sprite had submerged his thoughts again. That was what Alberto got for waxing nostalgic over his mother.

The boy’s arsenic eyes drew upward. “So, how did this happen?”

Fuck, Alberto thought. He wants me to say something. He tried to purge the Italian from his throat. British but sexy, American but drunk…

Alberto shrugged. “Dunno. I guess I was using Alberto’s powers a bit…”

Luckily for the psychic, Allison Kinsey was a skilled impressionist. 

David straightened, seeming to consider his friend’s half-explanation. “Makes sense.” His lip curled. “Looks cool, but I think I like the normal suit better.”

Says the nudist sea-goblin, Alberto grumbled inwardly. 

David tilted his head. “You alright, Allie? Your heart’s beating really fast.”

Shit, was this boy bred for horror movies? Well, bred for something, at least…

Alberto imagined a cartoon love-heart, pictured it slow down its tempo. He felt Allison’s heart ease in her chest in response. “Yeah, just had some bad dreams,” he answered.

David clicked his tongue. “Yeah, sucked having nightmares.”

“Whatcha come over here for anyway?”

David smirked. “I need a reason?” 

Alberto wasn’t sure if he preferred this over Mealy.

Thankfully, David got to the point, “John wanted me to get everyone for breakfast.”

We’re calling him ‘John’ now?  

  They ate in the planetarium again. The Physician had been a touch surprised when Allison requested a view of Enlil for their meal. 

“I’m curious,” she said simply. “Laurie said Alberto was from there.”

“Ah,” said Dr. John. “Rainmaker rest that poor boy’s… soul, isn’t it?”

Like most of the humanish worlds, Enlil could have been mistaken for Earth by a casual observer, if you didn’t pay much mind to the number1 and shape of its continents, or the enormous inland sea that dominated one of them. And the bright, silver-purple rings that looped the planet like a halo, of course.

“Nice rings,” Arnold said, mouth full of breakfast. Unlike at Christmas lunch, the Physician had settled for serving the children cereal that morning, albeit from a clear glass box covered in odd, unfamiliar text. 

“I agree,” said the Physician, still not eating. 

“I didn’t even know earthy planets could have rings like that,” added Billy. 

Dr. Smith said, “Any planet can have rings, William, but Enlil is the only the only one with rings like that. They’re made of some mineral from an eternity or two ago—mutated all the local fauna and human inhabitants into psychics. The locals say it also makes them more cultured and peaceful, but trust me, pure propaganda.” He looked across the table at Allison. “Like what you see, Allison?”

Alberto didn’t answer the doctor. He was too busy looking down at the world of his forebears. A world of espers. Would he have been a normal man down there?

Then he remembered his long dead, hated ancestor. The people down there had flung him across the stars, just to make him someone else’s problem. Who did that to a normal man? A man, Alberto knew, not unlike himself.

And then there was Ophelia. She wouldn’t fit in down there. She couldn’t fit in anywhere. Lawrence had seen to that.

The Physician didn’t let the lack of a response trouble him, if he even noticed. “What do you think, Mabel?”

A few feet from the dining table, Mabel lay on her stomach above the ringed world like God’s granddaughter, furiously scribbling at her sketchbook with pencils that couldn’t dull.

“Mabel?”

The girl looked up like a startled wallaby. “It’s great! Can you spin the planet ‘round for me? I’m doing a study.”

Alberto morbidly wondered what would happen if Mabel tried animating Enlil. A spinning, ringed desk globe? A whole, full-sized planet dropped right into Earth’s gravity-well? That could make for an entertaining few minutes. Or perhaps Mabel’s brain would just melt out of her ears.

The Physician grinned, raising a finger and swirling the air. Enlil spun half an orbit. 

“Thanks!” 

“Never change, Mabel. Unless you get better at drawing, you’re allowed to change that way.”

John Smith seemed to be in a good mood. That was his default, sure, but it felt more genuine than usual. Alberto decided this was his moment.

“Dr. John?”

“Yes, Allie?”

“Could you… turn off your psi-dampener?”

The children were all looking at Allison like she’d just asked for broken glass in her breakfast. Even Mabel had been diverted from her planetary sketching. The Physician was sitting stock still, grin fixed, eyes even more glassy and blank than usual, as if his brain had stalled to compute such an unprecedented query.

His mouth eventually creaked open. Without affect, he asked, “But Allie, don’t I revolt you?”

Alberto swallowed. How to put this? “I—you’re song’s hard to listen to, yeah. But I think that’s a… me-problem? You shouldn’t have to hide yourself just because I’m not used to you.”

Arnold looked hard at the girl. “Um, Allie, are you okay? You’re not usually so…” 

“Nice?” suggested David. 

“Yeah,” replied Arnold. “That.”

Alberto deeply wished Barnes was in arms reach.

Billy folded his arms. “Guys, don’t be rude because Allie’s being nice.”

Most of the time, Billy was simultaneously Alberto’s most and least favourite Watercolour, pretty much for the same reason. Right now, he was leaning towards “most.”

Alberto continued, “It’s also—my power’s about learning, right? And you know so much more than anyone else in the world, I think. I shouldn’t let being childish get in the way of this kind of opportunity.” 

Did that sound like Allison? God, it sounded like Laurie.  

Flattery is the true interstellar medium. The Physician let out one of his true, flooded engine chuckles. “It’s true. I do know more than anyone on this world. I’d be happy to pitch in to your education.” He put his hand over the piscine-cockroach combo pinned to his chest. “You ready?”

Alberto gripped the edge of the able. 

The broach writhed and chittered, its many red-jewel eyes going dull.

Allison’s knuckles went white as Alberto was hit with the full force of the Physician’s song. He’d known what to expect, but he’d never experienced it in the driver’s seat. It was like being water-boarded: everytime the psychic thought he’d latched onto its chord structure, the song went in a new, sonically bizarre direction. Its instruments were sawteeth and fingers on styrofoam. Its entire baseline was E7 shrieked by violins stringed with chalk. Its tune was like someone tried to match the rhythm of rot and bloat. And it was so vast. A human being couldn’t accumulate so much knowledge if they lived eight lifetimes. 

Everything in Alberto tried to recoil from the song, especially the part of him that was still Allison, but he forced himself to keep listening, to make it part of himself, even if it was like pouring aniseed and bile down his throat. He needed this. Already, he knew things about physics that made Einstein and Oppenheimer look like mercury gargling alchemists. He knew more about the human body than Eliza. That alone made it worth it.

Alberto let out of a long, gasping breath. “Turn it back on!”   

The Physician dutifully switched the psi-dampener back on. Alberto went limp in his seat. He could feel the super-suit leech the sweat off Allison’s skin. Seemed it wasn’t only emotions it ate.

Mabel had come to Allison’s side, holding her by the shoulder, looking into her burning eyes like she expected to find broken blood vessels. “You okay, Allie?”

“Yeah,” Alberto huffed like the chainsmoker he’d once been. “I’m fine. Just… intense.” 

He couldn’t take it all in. Not all at once.

Dr. Smith golf clapped. “I think that was a very good first try?” One of his eyebrows crawled up his forehead like a starving caterpillar. “Which planet is the current throneworld of the Southern Spiral?”

“The throneworld isn’t a planet.” Alberto replied automatically. “It  just has a planet in the middle. Barely liveable because the gravity of the royal palace squashed it into a disc. No one goes down there unless they want to be torn apart by atmospheric rotation. Or the Empress2 wants them to be. The throne’s in orbit.”

“Palaces have gravity?” David asked, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“They do when they’re bigger than Saturn’s rings3,” Alberto muttered. “Like a giant, marble Koch snowflake. Gaudiest thing you’ve ever seen.”

“I don’t know,” said Mabel, “sounds kinda brilliant.”

“You would say that,” said Alberto, almost fondly

“You’re close,” The Physician allowed. “But I’ll have you know the planet itself does have a thriving ecosystem. Some quite impressive birds there. Six winged things that could fly straight as an arrow through a hurricane. Color of fire. Quite striking.”

“Play your song again,” demanded Alberto. “I want to learn more.”

“I don’t think that’s the best idea,” Dr. Smith said as he rose from his seat. 

“I want it!”

That sounds like Allie,” Arnold muttered to himself.

The Physician was walking towards the planetarium exit. “I know nobody’s ever had to tell you this before, Allison, but you need to pace yourself.”

“Where are you going?” Mabel asked.

“Didn’t I tell you? I have some business in Australia. Should be back in a couple days.”

Arnold looked perplexed. “You’re leaving us alone on your spaceship?”

Canned laughter. “No. I’m leaving you alone with the other six mes hanging about the place, not to mention the Misters. Not like you can ever be alone inside this ship anyway. Just call out if you need anything.”

“Can I come with?” asked Alberto.

“I don’t think bringing a wanted fugitive to work would be the best idea, Allie.” From anyone else, that would’ve been obvious sarcasm. From the Physician, it just sounded like plain fact. 

Remembering something else, he turned to look at Arnold. “Arn, you’ve topped the ‘most-wanted’ list! Even beat the Coven.”

Arnold felt very queasy. “Oh.”

“Don’t worry, Arnold—even if they caught you, I’m pretty sure they’d just put you in their living-weapons program. Valour isn’t that wasteful.”

Says you, thought Alberto.

The Physician left the children alone in his 4-D planetarium, Enlil and her rings turning slowly and silently beneath them while their cereal went soggy.

David grinned around at his friends. “I’ve got so much to show you.”

Alberto and the Watercolours rode the ship’s root network, whizzing up and down and left-to-right like they were riding Willy Wonka’s glass elevator4. Their range of motion wasn’t the only similarity between the two elevator cars: the Physician’s was also made of glass, giving the kids an excellent view of the surrounding wood-grain. Apart from that, it was H-shaped—with plush chairs and a raised podium in the middle bridge5 sporting a rainbow of multicoloured buttons, which David pressed with the confident air of a boy who had no idea what he was doing.

Alberto made sure to brush against all his “friends.” 

The first room they stumbled on was a dimly lit storeroom: a city of towers built from featureless silver cubes stacked almost to the ceiling, which was lined with hundreds of metallic, perversely humanoid arms.    

Billy gawked at the stacks like it was the actual big city. Someone popped an idea into his head. “We should play hide and seek!”

“Sure!” Alberto piped enthusiastically. Hide and seek was perfect. He could—nay, was expected to—get away from the little brats and finally hear himself think.

Or listen to other people think, that worked too.

“Sounds good,” said Mabel. She glanced at David and Allison. “But you guys don’t get to seek.”

Even better. Now Alberto barely had to move.

David didn’t share his opinion. The boy made a choked, mortified noise and hopped angrily. “But that’s not fair!”

Alberto glared out the corner of his eye at David—though with Allison’s new eyes it hardly looked more malevolent than when she was mooning over him. Reflexively, the psychic tried tugging on a string that’d long been cut.

Maybe Lawrence had been good for something.

Mabel scoffed. “You two can just know where we all are with your eyes closed. That’s the opposite of fair!”

“He’s got a point, David,” said Alberto. 

Arnold didn’t expect to hear that from the high-queen of Harvey’s playgrounds. “Since when did you care about being ‘fair’?”

Alberto sent a pulse of indifference into Arnold. “I’m trying to turn a new leaf.”

The boy shrugged. “Fair ‘nuff.”

“But Billy turns invisible!” 

Mabel ignored David and looked at Billy. “Billy, you promise not to turn invisible when you hide?”

Billy swept his cape in front of his face and bowed. “You have my word.”

David shook his head, disgusted. “Like he’s not going to cheat!”

A small smile played across Mabel’s lips. “David, you really think Billy’s gonna lie?”

“…No.”

Behind his cape, Billy grinned.

Fittingly enough, the tiger-boy got to start off “it”. His friends scattered amongst the towers of crates while he stumbled in place with his cape over his head and counted to fifty.

Alberto ran to the far corner of the storeroom, coming to a stop and crouching in the middle of a tightly packed cluster of towers. He closed his eyes, and listened. 

The Physician wasn’t lying when he said the children weren’t alone. John Smith was gone, but Alberto could hear the alien’s other rearrangements wandering around the ship, along with dozens of drones, and what might have been a few actual human beings, none of whom sounded very at ease.

And then, of course, there was the ship herself, straining against her chains and shouting for all the astral-plane to hear:

Slaver! God-slayer!

Look, lady, we’ve all got problems.

Disgust like cold slime shot up Alberto’s spine:

Rapist! Tapeworm!

Bit harsh. 

Alberto tried his best to tune out the ship and craned his ears for more snatches of the Physician’s song. After the massive blast of John Smith’s song, the distant polyphony of the Physician’s other shards was much more bearable, insulated by the Watercolours and the ship herself. It was the subtle difference between sitting at the back of a club while a hot jazz number played, and being chained up inside in the piano. 

Disparate facts revealed themselves as facets of gleaming empirical diamonds. Bitter seeds of wisdom grew into a trees of synthesis, their branches meeting and weaving together to form a forest. Alberto shuddered. Every note was a bitter, unsweetened pill, but he could feel the margins of his mind widening with each new chord, like his brain was stretching to fit them. If he actually was the little girl whose skin he wore, it would have been the most work she’d ever put into learning anything.

“Found you!”

Billy’s shrill, eager voice broke Alberto’s reverie, knocking him onto his back. Swearing in his head, the psychic forced a kiddish smile. “Sure did!”

Would Allison have been grumpy at being found so quickly? Eh, probably, but Alberto wasn’t feeling very method right then. 

Billy was standing in the gap between two towers—legs spread and hands planted on his hips in the official superhero-cum-Charles Atlas stance. “You hid well, fair citizen!”

Alberto let out a surprisingly genuine laugh. “Thank you, brave hero!” Sarcasm sounded far gentler with the new vocal cords. “Can I go hide again?”

Billy’s pose wilted, his tail twitching agitatedly as he scratched his neck and frowned. “Um, Allie, can I talk to you about something? You’re smart.”

Alberto sighed. “Alright.” Might as well throw the kid a bone.

Billy sat down beside Allison and wrapped his cape over his knees. “…I miss Betty.”

“Oh.”

That was it? Alberto supposed he couldn’t blame Billy. Sometimes he missed the boy’s nanny, too. She was the last girl in a long while Alberto hadn’t had to brainwash into giving him the time of day. “Sounds rough, Billy but, you know, we all miss our folks. It’s natural, I guess.”

Alberto hadn’t missed his “folks” in twenty years. Wherever they were, he doubted they spoke of him, lest he hear them somehow. As for the girl Billy thought he was talking to… Alberto wasn’t sure. Did Allison miss her parents? Yeah. But from the looks of it, every day it got more and more distant. They were just human, after all.

Alberto was beginning to wonder if he hadn’t done the world a favour.

Billy sighed. “But that’s not what’s getting me. Not really. It’s the people I don’t miss.”

Okay, mildly more interesting. “…Go on.”

“I don’t miss my mum and dad. At all.” Billy banged his fists against the floor. “I tried to cry about them last night! I pinched myself: nothing! But I cried when I thought about Betty.” His head drooped. “I’m a bad son.”

Alberto considered his response. “…So what?”

Billy looked at the girl, blinking back tears. “What?” 

Alberto stood up. “Exactly! Why should you miss your parents? They didn’t give a shit about you!”

Billy felt like he should’ve been offended. Instead, he was still just confused. “But—but they took care of me…”

Alberto rolled his eyes. “They paid someone to take care of you, Billy. Now Betty, she gave a shit.” He tapped at Allison temples. “Trust me, the bloke in here, he could see under her hood.”

Billy was honestly relieved. He’d never had serious reason to doubt Betty, but a mind-reader was a hell of a character witness. Still, the sense of gratitude she’d instilled compelled him. “But mum and dad spent all that money on me! They paid for my house, and my clothes, and my food, and Betty—”

Alberto scoffed. “Oh, I stand corrected: one of the richest couples in all Australia put in the bare minimum of giving a shit for any parent who doesn’t dump their kid at the fire-station!”

Billy shook his head. “Why are you being so mean?”

“I’m not being mean to you, I’m being mean to the lazy fucks who kept you in the boonies like you were bloody Quasimodo! You know, it probably would’ve cost St. George and his hag a lot less money if they’d let you live in their house.”

Billy repeated a line that’d been fed to him every time his mother and father deigned to visit. “There’d have been a scandal… Daddy employs a lot of people…”

“Don’t be an idiot, Billy,” said Alberto, not unkindly. “Rich gits decide what’s normal. I’m pretty sure the only reason ladies wear white when they get married is because Queen Victoria or someone thought it looked neat. If St. George had wanted to, he could’ve had every posh wannabe in the country gluing tiger-fur to their kid.”

Despite his best efforts, Billy giggled. 

Alberto nodded approvingly. “See what I mean? You were hard done by, Billy, you don’t owe the St. Georges anything. I don’t think anybody owes anyone anything, but if you have to miss someone, Betty’s a good choice. Hell, I’d pick Żywie over your parents, and she straight up killed a boy.”

The reminder stung Billy, but Allison was making strange, Tom Long like sense. He should’ve expected it—she was the smart one.    

“You gonna try to not give a shit about not giving a shit, Bill?”

Billy sniffed. “I’ll try.”

Alberto flopped down beside the boy and patted him on the shoulder. “Good on ya.”

It felt nice doing a good deed for a change.

“Allison?” 

“Yeah?”

“You can see the future now, right? Like Alberto could.”

“I see likelihoods, but yeah.”

“Do you think I’ll see Betty again?”

When you asked Alberto to look into the future for you, it was a bit of a crapshoot whether he’d actually bother. But right now, the esper was feeling well-disposed to the tiger-boy. He looked into the mess of probability…

Well, shit.

“Not very likely right now, sorry.”

Even less likely if Alberto pulled off what he was planning. It almost made him feel guilty.

“Oh. Thanks anyway.” 

Alberto was saved from witnessing a crying jag by distant shouting. A medium-sized dragon knocked over a tower while dodging green lightning, which in turn vanished one of the blocks near the centre of another. The falling silver pillars fell against others, turning the entire chamber into a gigantic, very expensive looking game of dominos.

“The fuck?” Alberto cried as he and Billy formed quicksilver umbrellas over their heads.

When the chain reaction had run its course, the one and a half children could make out Arnold and Mabel yelling at each other.

“That was my hiding spot!” Arnold shouted.

“I’d called it first!” retorted Mabel.

David yelled over the both of them. “Fat lot of good it’s gonna do you both now.”

The entire storeroom let out a sigh, as the waving metal arms stretched down from the ceiling, plucking up the boxes and reassembling the tower. 

Alberto and Billy looked at each other.

“I think we’re gonna have to find somewhere else to play,” said Billy.

Bloody kids.


1. About nine, depending how you counted one of the larger islands.

2. Tiaearys (roughly translated, “she of the cold stars”) the 106th, who succeeded her father Hazoric the Bloody after his death by supernova fighting a Geroy infestation in 1957.

3. The Throneworld of the Southern Spiral: A radial megastructure believed to have been constructed half a billion years ago by a group of star godlings as part of a contest. The contest in question being to see who could create the largest contiguous series of self-perpetuating structural motions. The palace is the only part of this contest that survived to the present day, and itself is only 1.348% marble, mainly the exterior. The interior workings are actually a mixture of metal counterweights and ionized compounds necessary to keep a 20,000 mile wide structure in stable rotation without it collapsing in upon itself. Rube Goldberg would be proud.

4. Eliza—an early and vocal champion of Roald Dahl’s works—had taught Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in her English class the year before.

5. The elevator-car sometimes also did double duty as a planetary expedition vehicle.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Sixty-Four: The Third Way

Allison Kinsey flew far from her body—away from Alberto’s wheedling. Listening to him felt like letting mold spread through her brain. Her shade passed through vacuum-armoured bulkheads as easily as curtains of smoke. She followed the enormous tree roots that riddled the starship like veins and arteries. Or, perhaps more accurately, like elevator shafts.    

She eventually came out into an open space. It was about the size of an average master-bedroom, made larger in Allison’s eyes by its Spartan emptiness. The smooth metal floor was covered in irregular glowing lines: neon-chalk outlines for murdered furniture. 

The girl wasn’t alone, either. Dr. Smith—thankfully still wearing his psi-damper—was looming over what looked like a chaise lounge upholstered in albino crocodile skin. David’s super-suit was draped across it like an unusually well behaved puddle, while the boy himself stood behind the Physician, tapping his foot impatiently with his arms folded. 

“Do I really have to be here for this?”

The Physician didn’t answer him. His attention was all on the suit. He was wearing a pair of large, brass goggles. They would’ve made anyone else’s eyes seem bulbous and bug-like, but if anything they made the Physician look more normal. His long fingers were capped with silver thimbles, which he waved over the suit like a priest consecrating holy water. When Allison got a closer look at the devices, she immediately regretted it: their divots were all filled with tiny eyes.

“I knew it!” Dr. Smith exclaimed, mostly to himself. His neck cracked as his head swivelled round to grin at David. “Life-fibres! From Alqbryth!1

David didn’t even blink at the display. “That supposed to mean something?” he asked.

Allison was waving her astral-self’s arms in David’s face. “Hellooo, Davie, Allie standing right in front of you!” 

Her friend paid her no more mind than he did the air.

The Physician kept expounding, “Life-fibres are symbiotic organisms! They latch onto powered creatures and adapt to their abilities; feeding off your thoughts and emotions in exchange for putting themselves between predators and your gonads.”

David grimaced. “You mean that thing is in my head?”

The Physician wibbled. “I wouldn’t go that far. It just basks in the waste-heat of that suspicion like a lizard in the sun.” He swung his head back to the suit. “Here, watch.” 

Dr. Smith made a few squeaking, clicking noises. Thinly wrought black iron vines grew from inside a bright pink circle next to the examination bed, forming into a pair of shears at their end and cutting an inch of fabric from the suit’s sleeve, offering it up to the Physician like a cat with a dead bird before retreating back into the floor. With his free hand, the doctor grabbed the rest of the costume and tossed it at its owner.

The suit splashed against David, flowing over his skin and reforming around him. The boy examined his shortened sleeve with a frown. “Great, now I’m uneven.”

Allison gave a small smirk. “I thought you didn’t care about—”

The girl trailed off as David’s suit began to glow, the sleeve’s hem regenerating before it subsided. 

David whistled. “Okay, that’s pretty neat.”

“I expect you and your friends won’t ever need to worry about replacing the suits,” commented the Physician. He was fondly twirling the hoop of fabric he’d cut around his finger. “I’ve wanted to play with life-fibres for ages, but the !Quell2 guard Alqbryth like their virgin daughter.” His grin unwavering, the Physician added, “Bunch of slimy Russian nesting dolls.”

David snorted. Space racism was even weirder than regular racism. “What are you going to do with it?”

“Well, if I can get this sample to grow…” The Physician closed his hand around the life-fibres. “Don’t tell Arnold and Mabel, I want it to be a surprise.”

Allison was jumping up and down next to David. “Come on, you gotta know I’m here a little! Aren’t you a god or something?”

“Sure,” said David. “Might be funny.”

Allison scowled. She wasn’t sure why David not being able to see her right then was so annoying, but it was. Excruciatingly so. Then she realized…

“So, why’d you kiss Arnold? Do you think he’s pretty now? Is he a good kisser?”

David didn’t answer, of course. He just bounced from foot to foot, clicking his tongue boredly while he waited for the Physician to tell him he could go, or he ran out of patience and left anyway, whichever came first. Allison didn’t know why asking those questions felt good, but it did. It made her lungs feel less tight. She stepped a little closer, asking into his ear, “Would you kiss me? Wait. Would I kiss you? Hmm.”

A thought floated to the surface of David’s mind. Their pirate fight back in the river. Except David was winning, spearing Allison’s ship with needle-fangs of ice.

The real Allison frowned. “Sore loser.”

In David’s daydream, he swam over to Allison, pulling her close and pecking her on the lips. For some reason, her hair was very, very vivid.  

Allison blushed, hard. Then she blew a raspberry at the boy and wafted out of the room, laughing. 

Billy and Arnold were both in the media room, chasing each other over spongy sofa-mounds (or bean-bags) while on the membranous screen3, Doctor Who poured out champagne for his friends and wished the audience at home a happy Christmas4

It was Boxing Day, Allison remembered suddenly. Christmas had only been yesterday. Part of her felt like the air ought to feel a little different, but it didn’t. Did holidays really only exist in people’s heads?

Billy leapt out from behind one of the sponges, making gun noises at Arnold while flicking his pointer fingers at him. It seemed he had slept in his costume.

Boys, Allison thought, as though she wouldn’t have done the exact same thing in his position.   

Mabel was still in her fish-tank room, at the centre of a paper carpet as thick and white as the snow outside the ship. She was was drawing feverishly in Father Christmas’ sketch-pad, tearing out pages and hurling them away as soon as she was done. Allison thought it rather wasteful, until she noticed the book’s pages were regrowing as fast as Mabel could remove them. 

“Neat,” Allison said to herself. She descended to the floor and reflexively bent to pick up one of the drawings. Predictably enough, her hand passed right through them. 

Allison grunted in annoyance, before scouting around for some pictures facing up. She quickly found a depiction of Asteria in her coffin, all heavy, dusky pinks and purple shadows. 

Just looking at it made Allison sad again. But it was also so good. Better than anyone could have expected from a child who wasn’t her.

She found more. The Physician’s ship, embedded in Mt. Erebus. A few mermaids. A redheaded boy it took Allison a few seconds to realize was Adam Sinclair. She even found herself back at Harvey Dam, burning bright in front of an awed Jenny and Matthew.

That had been a good day.

Allison looked over at Mabel, still scribbling away. “Looking good, Mabs!”

Mabel stopped drawing for a moment, and smiled.

Allison passed through cavernous storerooms, piled high with everything from canned beans to capsulized singularities. She crossed a clamshell chamber, past what looked like an aurora borealis carved out of solid ivory, undulating like a swimming manta-ray, or an eagle beating its wings. An uptick drive, Allison knew somehow. For sneaking around the light barrier. 

Then she rose up through an artificial salt-lake, in which rested a bizarre coral reef, full of waving polyps and staring, china blue eyes. Allison would have remembered to tell David about it, if the place wasn’t so thick with the Physician’s song.

Soon enough, the ship fell away completely. Yesterday’s blizzard had blown over, leaving the air as still as the snow that charitably hid most of the barren black stone of Ross Island, like fresh ash from the sleeping heart of Mt. Erebus. Terror lay in the distance, sullenly regarding Allison and its twin. 

Technically—thanks to poor Stratogale—Allison had been able to fly for nearly a year now, or at least had the option within earshot. She’d hardly done it, though. It made her look like the idiot who put them all in this mess anyway.

But if nobody could see her…  

Allison whooped, swooping down over the icy plains until they were racing barely three feet below her face, before spinning and launching back into the fluorescent blue sky. 

It was scaldingly cold. She could feel the frigid air slam into her like she was smashing through broken panes of jagged glass. But it couldn’t hurt her. Her body was safe and warm back on the ship. Allison had the vague expectation that astral projection would be like being water, but it wasn’t. David’s power made her shapeless and vast, but Alberto’s left her as herself, but woven from wind and will, separate and untouchable.

She dropped to earth, kicking grandly at a snow mound. 

Her foot passed right through it.

Separate, untouchable, and insubstantial

All Allison’s elation curdled instantly. She kicked wildy at the mound over and over, like she hoped to catch it off-guard.

 Angry growls erupted from her like incoherent steam.

Stubbornly, the little hill remained still, waiting for the next blizzard to snatch it up again.

Allison stamped silently at the unyielding snow, scowling and wrapping her arms around herself. What was the use of flying and being invisible if you couldn’t mess with anything? The frustration pricked at the girl like flies crawling on the inside of her chest.

“Fucking hell!” she screamed toward the sky. It did not echo. 

Some childish instinct made Allison cringe, like she was expecting a rebuke or a slap. She glanced around the rocky, snowy wastes as if Captain Scott5 was going to step out from behind a crag and clip her ear.

Then she started to laugh; loudly, with her entire body. What was she worried about? She was a ghost. And even if she wasn’t, the ship was miles away, and the only grownup in there was the Physician6.

Allison grinned. As loudly as her metaphorical lungs could muster, she shouted, “Shit!”

Her only answer was her own laughter, so she shouted again. “Fucking cunts!”

She wondered if this what Fran felt like when she was little.

Her blue streak was interrupted by an off-key, warbling chorus of low chirps and almost spectral moans.

Allison swung around, coming to face a small crowd of emperor penguins waddling about with ridiculous, butlerial nobility, a few gray-pyjama downed chicks milling among them. 

A small part of Allison wondered if her swearing had attracted the birds like a psychic beacon. A much bigger part of her shot towards the penguins, yelling, “Pengies!” 

She ran amongst the waddle, falling on her belly and excitedly poking and petting whichever ones wandered within arms reach. Her intangibility didn’t cross her mind, not with the suggestion of penguin feathers against her feathers. 

She was cooing over a particularly large hen (not that she could tell) when—  

Allison abruptly found herself standing upright, but too low to the ground. The cold felt closer to her, but strangely comfortable. Familiar, even. Her nose and lips meanwhile felt deeply wrong, and she couldn’t move her fingers. She let out of confused chip—  

She was standing over the hen again, which was waddling off with haste. Penguins always look a little confused, but this one did in excess. It took Allison a moment to realize what had just happened.    

I was a penguin.

Allison let out a confused giggle. She didn’t know she could do that. Alberto didn’t know he could do that, and he’d been him for nearly thirty years!

It made her wonder what else she could do now.

Parliament House—its past and its present—flashed in her secondhand memory. There really were more directions to move in than most people realized. 

Allison stepped backwards through the elastic sheet that hugs space. Above her, the sun wobbled east and west, trying to wrench itself free of the protracted day. The penguins regrettably flickered away. The wind picked back up, streaming backwards around the girl.

In less than a minute, Allison was looking at herself, staring down the Physician all aglow while her friends shivered behind her. She wished she knew how to read the Physician’s lights, and finally know for sure if he was just screwing with them.

So she could travel back in time. Sort of. Allison decided to try the other direction.

If going backwards in time was like backing deeper into a corridor, going forwards was like stepping out into an open field. It was honestly daunting. There was one past, but so, so many futures. Time was an infinity of fibres being woven together by the quick fingers of seconds and hours. 

Like a tightrope walker, Allison crept across one of the twines, up into a possibility of next week.

She and David were playing in the snow, making it boil and dance around them, while emperor penguins fled futility from their affection. 

The girl leapt sideways. David and her future self vanished… along with the Physician’s ship.

Allison tilted her head. Better keep an eye on that

She was about to head in search of Scott’s cabin when she felt a twitch. It was hard to identify at first, like someone was tugging at her veins.

Then she realized.

Her body was moving.

Alberto somersaulted the length of Allison’s bedroom. Or Allison somersaulted the length of her own bedroom per Alberto’s strict instructions—depending on how you looked at it.

The esper stuck the landing, suspending the little girl’s body he wore by just her hand. After a few seconds, her muscles began to protest, but Alberto silenced them with a blue circle in his mind’s eyes. He held the position for nearly a minute before getting bored and leaping back to his7 feet. 

Allison body was amazing. Its movements were effortlessly graceful. Alberto felt more energised than he’d seriously believed was possible, like he could run a marathon three times over and go for seconds. Her senses were crisp and clear, and Alberto could swear her eyes came with a zoom. Even his thoughts felt faster and more fluid, running on her brain. Most surreal of all, for the first time in nearly two decades, Alberto didn’t want a smoke, or even a drink. For him, it was like waking up one day and finding he no longer craved food or air.

On top of everything, Allison’s body came preinstalled with so many extras, and that wasn’t even including her powers. It almost made up for the loss of height and certain… anatomical deficiencies.

Alberto clenched his new, small fist, just for the sake of feeling skin against skin again. 

It didn’t matter, he thought to himself. The height thing would sort itself out, given time, or maybe he could make the Physician do whatever he did to those drones. As for the other problem, maybe he could find a decent shapeshifter to eat. 

A cold, pale smile. Bet a mind-blind git will be less trouble than me.       

“What are you doing?”

Alberto turned to find Allison’s astral self glaring at him with ill-disguised fear. You would think that would be easier with a projection, but apparently not. 

Alberto smirked at Allison with her face. “Hello, Allie.” It was the first time Alberto had spoken in Allison’s body. His Italian lilt sounded odd shaped from her high, hoarse voice, even to him. He wished he could imagine how it sounded to Allison. He made a show of stretching her arms and legs. “Just breaking in the new digs. Not like you were home.”

If it had been possible for her—in the flesh or otherwise—Allison’s face would have paled. She mustered some anger to her features. “Get. Out.” 

Alberto grinned and spun on his toes. “I think before I do that, we should work out a timetable. I can’t stay cooped up inside your head forever, you know. I need some time to myself now and again.”

Allison snarled, marching towards her body. “You don’t need anything!”

Just for show, Alberto raised his hand. The girl’s spectre was forced backwards.

“Oh, silly me, I forgot.” The arch smile broke. “I’m worthless, aren’t I, Allie?” 

Phantom tears were trailing down Allison’s face. She pressed her hands against it the force that kept her from herself. It felt more solid than diamond. She was locked out. When she spoke, her voice came out very small. “Alberto, please…”

Alberto’s smile returned as he swept his hand, flinging Allison into the dark. Into the house without windows.


1. A moon of the gas giant Scrool in the Eastern Spiral. Unlike most worlds, where superpowers only appear after the evolution of sapient creatures, powers developed very early in Alqbryth’s biosphere. Thanks to natural selection, every native Alqbryth organism now possesses some form of super-ability, making it of great interest to both exobiologists and metaphysicists the galaxy over.

2. Approximately 20,000 years ago, the !Quell’s sun began emitting harmful radiation, threatening their world with extinction. Having developed neither practical solar engineering nor interstellar travel—the !Quell en masse transferred their consciousness into a hardy nanite substrate, which could be introduced into any manner of artificial body, both biological and robotic in nature. This new versatility of form would serve them well as they expanded into space, forming into the preeminent polity of the Eastern Spiral.

3. The visual displays on the Physician’s vessel are based on chromatophores—sacks of pigment granules similar to those found in cuttlefish.

4. From the Christmas 1965 episode “The Feast of Steven” from the twelve part “The Dalek Masterplan”, which had only aired the previous day. It would go on to become the second Doctor Who story never aired in Australia, perhaps contributing to its long absence from the BBC archives. For many years, it and much other BBC programming (including their coverage of the first Moon landings) only existed in the eternity crystal of the Physician’s spacecraft.

5. Specifically the Arctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who despite his name, is not thought to have been a superhero.

6. There were also the various Mister drones, but they were all younger than Allison. Or maybe Arkwright, but he himself would probably hate to be called “grownup” at that point in his life.

7. For the sake of clarity, we shall henceforth treat Allison’s body as Alberto’s own for the duration, not that this should be misconstrued as endorsing any claim on his part.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                 Next Chapter

Chapter Sixty-Three: Spirits

For once in his life, Herbert Lawrence realized how foolish he was being.

“Oh, silly me.” The old man switched to slightly stumbling Italian. “Buongiorno, il mio nome è Herbert Lawrence.”

The young Alberto raised a hand, scowling at Lawrence’s mangled accent. He cast a vaguely Shakespearian aside at Allison, before telling Lawrence, “I speak English, mister.”

Lawrence’s smile returned. “Ah, very good. Glad to hear they’re educating you.”

“Not really,” replied the boy. “But a lotta spies speak English.”

“I picked up a lot of things from the people I saw,” the elder Alberto told Allison absently. “Not as fast as you would’ve, obviously, but I never met a liquor cabinet that wouldn’t open for me.”  

Lawrence nodded understandingly. “That would be the case, wouldn’t it?” He twisted in his chair to look at the Blackshirts still standing guard behind him. They waved their bludgeons at the old man, but Alberto stilled them with a casual raised hand:

Tutto a posto1

Even after all she now knew, Allison still found the sight of Alberto wielding such authority unreal, let alone grown ups so readily obeying a boy her age. 

Lawrence turned back to the child with a dry smile. “They’re very accommodating towards you.”

Alberto gave a schoolboy’s shrug. “We’ve got a…” He squinted at Lawrence. “Is the word ‘rapport’?” 

“It works.” He pointed his thumb back at the blackshirts. There was a slight tension in both men’s arms as they resisted reaching for their bludgeons.  

“Do these fine gentleman speak English, too?”

“Nope.”

“Mhmm. Multilingualism is usually a blessing, but I think this time we can make an exception.”

“They think you’re an Anglo spy,” said Alberto. 

Lawrence chuckled. “I think His Majesty would have sent someone who could manage a decent Italian lilt, young man.”

“They want me to find out what you’re here for.” 

Lawrence tapped his forehead. “Why don’t you tell me?”

“…Me,” said Alberto. “You wanted to see me.”

Lawrence titled his chin in acknowledgement. “Exactly right. I’ve long held an interest in the wellbeing of young fenomeni.”

Alberto laughed. “You’re telling me you snuck into Milan to check on me?” 

The old man looked right into the little esper’s eyes, as if he were trying to offer him a direct window to his thoughts. “I’m an adult. Why shouldn’t I feel concern for the young?”

“What a crock,” muttered Allison. 

“He means it,” said the young Alberto quietly. “Or he thinks he does.”

The latter-day Alberto sighed. “You’d think mind-reading would let you get a bead on someone. But most of what you get is the picture they’ve built up of themselves. Nobody really knows anyone.”

Allison glowered at the memory of Lawrence, sitting there trying to talk like he was some kid’s granddad and not a stranger from far away. Whatever Alberto said about him, she couldn’t bring herself to imagine a sincere Lawrence. 

Or maybe sincerity didn’t mean anything.

“Have you been… doing what you do long?” Lawrence asked.

“Dunno. Since I was five, I think?”

Lawrence shook his head solemnly. “It’s awful how we grownups drag children into our messes. I can’t imagine what you’ve had to see. Children need space to be young.”

“Yeah, right,” said Allison. “Unless he wants a baby.”

“Oh, be fair, Allie,” said Alberto. “I was, what, nine back then? That’s five whole years younger than Sadie when she had Ophelia.”

Lawrence reached his hand across the desk, taking Alberto’s in his. The Blackshirts didn’t react. Their eyes were conveniently sheened over with daydreams, Allison noticed. She could see their shadows. Pretty girls. Money they were owed. Men with deeply confusing moustaches.

“Did Lawrence know you were messing with the Blackshirts?” the girl asked. “I know they don’t know what he’s saying, but he’s being kinda touchy right now.”

“Not really,” said Alberto. “Bertie always had a bad habit of forgetting his audience when he speechified.”  

“At least he was trying,” the younger Alberto said. His eyes were downcast, looking at the gloved hand holding his.

“No one sane would blame you for anything,” Lawrence said gently. “I’ve seen what some would have your kind do for them, and nobody expects a boy to say ‘no’ to a man with a gun.”

After a long while, Alberto spoke again. “Italy’s done for,” he said with quiet bluntness. “The Germans are going to retreat. Your lot will have Milan in a fortnight. Il Duce is going to be hanging from a petrol station before May.”

Lawrence was taken aback. “That’s… very specific.”

“I can see the future,” admitted Alberto. “Sorta.”

Allison expected Lawrence to lash the boy with questions, interrogating him about everything from the range of his foresight to when the glorious race to come would erect a statue to their beloved educator.

Instead, he just said, “That must be a heavy burden for you.”

Alberto’s face was very still, but tears were starting to crawl down his cheeks. “If your guys catch me, they’re gonna—they’re gonna…” He broke out into a wail. “They’re gonna do the same thing to me!”

Allison looked up at her Alberto. “Really? But you were so small…”

“Amazing what little a murderous army-raid can do to a child. Trust me, there were plenty of widows and orphans in Milan who would’ve kicked the stool from under my feet.”

Lawrence gripped both of young Alberto’s hands. “I’m not going to let that happen. I don’t care what you’ve done. You don’t deserve a mob because of some narrow little man’s awful, cruel idea of the world. We’re both going to get out of here.”

Alberto sniffled. “You mean it?”

“My hand to God,” said Lawrence. He sighed. “I hate to be another adult asking you to solve their problems, but your talents—is there anything you can do to clear our way to the entrance at least?”

Alberto took a deep breath. 

The Blackshirts looked around wildly like hounds catching a scent. They both started shouting about partisans in the grand foyer. One of them barked, “Restate qui2
” over their shoulder at Alberto as they ran out of the office.

Lawrence watched them go, clearly impressed. When he turned back to the little psychic, Allison thought she recognized a little of the man who had once wondered over her and Arnold on the train. 

“Was that an illusion?”

Alberto managed a shaky smile. “Yeah. Made them think they were hearing the PA.”

Allison looked up at the child’s future. “Was it really just illusions?”

“Mostly. You know, in all the years we knew each other, Bertie never asked why a couple of Blackshirts left their pet psychic alone with the English spy…”

Lawrence ruffled Alberto’s hair. “Clever lad! Now, how about we go and meet my friends?”

The older Alberto raised the bottle (a tall-necked whiskey cylinder) he was holding up to his lips. “I think this calls for a toast!”

He downed the spirit in one almost superhuman skoll, his throat bulging like a duck trying to swallow a chocolate bar. Within seconds the bottle was empty. It was the finest feat of alcoholism Allison had ever witnessed.

Alberto let out a great belch, the sound of it vibrating the world until it shattered.

When it reformed, Allison and Alberto were standing in another of the Palace of Justice’s painfully polished hallways. Lawrence and the psychic’s past personages appeared around a corner, marching their way up to a faintly out of place metal door at the end of the hall.

They passed right through their future observers. After so much of Alberto’s (and Elsa’s) magical mystery tour, it hardly phased Allison. It was like being Haunt, but actually invisible. 

“It wasn’t hard getting Laurie through the Palace,” said Alberto.

“I made him look like one of the Blackshirts,” his younger self piped up.  “Andrea I think he was called.” He looked up at Lawrence with a kind of bemused, mournful sadness. “Wasn’t too hard. Both mostly beard.”

Lawrence banged on the door with his fist, bellowing, “Open up, camerati! The Cervellone wants to speak to the Anglo’s little bastards!”  

The young Alberto looked back at himself and Allison. “It meant ‘egghead’. More or less.” He frowned. “Pretty easy to swallow being called ‘Tiresias’ after that.”

The door opened, but instead of revealing one of the Palace of Justice’s many blackshirted glowerers, there stood a young Chinese teenager, grinning broadly at Lawrence with very slightly crooked teeth3
. His white buttoned shirt was stained with specks of blood. A gold bracelet coiled around his arm like a contented snake.   

“I bloody heard that, Laurie,” the boy jeered cheerfully with his thick Australian twang. “Why so mean?”

Lawrence laughed. “Sorry, Chen my boy, just playing a part.”

It was like watching the Devil and… if not an angel than a finer breed of demon break bread.

“God,” said Allison. “He’s smiling at Lawrence.”

“Why not?” said Alberto. “He wasn’t a bastard back then.”

Chen looked at the young Alberto, his smile brightening even more. “You must be that mind-reader Laurie dragged us here for. I’m AU.”

Allison blinked. “…I thought Chen hated that name.”

“Nicknames are a lot more bearable when you can fall back on your real one.”

Chen offered the young Alberto his hand. “Put it here, mate.”

Alberto didn’t take the hand. He was staring wide-eyed at its owner.

Chen didn’t have a Socii, or any of the other marks of power Allison had seen in her short career as a telepath. Instead, he had filigree, a fine second skin of gold covering him from head to toe, visible even under his clothes. 

“I can’t imagine what it was like suddenly seeing your buddies the way I do,” said Alberto. “Well,” he added, “I can. I was there. Because you ate me.”

“Get to the point,” said Allison.

“But even if I wasn’t, I can still kinda relate. I’d never seen another super before Chen, and then suddenly—bam! Glamy soul-armour. It was like that bit in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy stumbles into the technicolour.”

Chen was examining the awe-struck little boy with some concern. “You alright, mate?” He snapped his fingers in front of Alberto’s eyes.

He shook himself. “I’m fine. You just look… amazing.”

A tight, smug smile. “Don’t I know it.”

Chen lead Lawrence, Alberto, and their unseen voyeurs into the palace’s makeshift dungeon. It was a suitably gloomy realm. Flickering light globes in wide-brimmed hats dangled from long stalks, spilling mustard-stained light over the cavernous space. The floor was interrupted often by empty cages. Beneath them, Allison could just make out rectangular, dustless shadows. The scars of torn out filing cabinets, maybe.      

“This used to be an archives wing,” explained the young Alberto. “They started chucking my ‘guests’ here because it had already had a security door. And the cages.”

They weren’t alone in there. Blackshirts writhed and groaned on the floor. Some clutched at their mouths, their fingers sticky with blood. Others lay in pools of sick, their faces covered with angry, bulbous blisters like venom sacks. The two groups had quite a bit of overlap.

Lawrence frowned tersely. “I hope you and Żywie haven’t been excessive.”

Chen was striding in front of the group, his hand held out flat as chinks of metal zipped into his palm like hungry golden fish. “Lighten up, Laurie, we didn’t kill anyone.” His smile faltered slightly. “I think.”

“Remember kids,” said the elder Alberto. “Don’t kill fascists, kill ten year old boys.”

“Don’t joke about that,” said Allison quietly.

“Aww, don’t be—”

“Just don’t.”

At the far end of the room, a dark shape crouched over a moaning Blackshirt. A night-hag. A demon. Looking at it made Allison’s skin buzz, like she was staring at a tiger.

“What is that?” she whispered to Alberto. 

“At the time,” he answered, “I thought it was a living corpse.”

The shape narrowed and stretched upwards. As the languid light of the dungeon fell over it, Allison caught sight of a slightly hooked nose, like a witch.

“Laurie!” the shape called out in a heavy German accent. It glided towards the old man like a gust of acrid smoke. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Eliza,” said Lawrence. 

Allison gawked at the dark shape. “That’s Żywie?” She looked at Alberto. “Why does she look like a monster?”

The psychic didn’t answer. All his attention was focused on Eliza. Allison was a little surprised she didn’t literally melt under his gaze.

Eliza—fourteen and just beginning to grow gawky—stood on her toes and gave Lawrence a daughterly peck on the cheek. “There’s some—how you say?—germs in the air I don’t want you catching.”       

Lawrence was smiling again. “Thank you, my dear.” He put a hand on little Alberto’s shoulder. “The Blackshirts were kind enough to introduce me to—”

Alberto knocked the old man’s hand away, stepping back so hard he fell to the ground. Without stopping, he kept scrambling away from the cloaked girl. “Don’t let her near me!”

Concern was written across Eliza’s so very young face. “Little boy, I don’t—”

“Your not real!” Alberto howled, hysterical tears again forcing their way out his eyes. “You’re empty!”

“That’s what it looked like, at least,” said the older Alberto, a little calmly. “Flesh and blood, moving and talking, without a glimmer of soul.”

“Why not?” asked Allison.

“No power works on Eliza,” Alberto told her. “Not directly, at least. Sure, if Sadie punched her in the face”—a morbid little smile—“I bet her head would go flying, but Fran could never touch the water bound up in her body, and she might as well have been a brick wall to old Haunt.” He looked down at Allison. “Actually, you’re the only one I know who can do anything with her power…” He shrugged. “Lucky you, I guess.”

Eliza was still walking towards the frightened Alberto, her hand outstretched towards him. “Are you unwell? Do not worry, I can make it better…”

“The antipodes of mind and body, Laurie called us…”

Eliza managed to touch the boy’s cheek. Allison was suddenly filled with a vivid sense-memory of the healer’s wires running through her body.           

“…Except she could touch me, and I couldn’t.” A green bulb of absinthe appeared in Alberto’s hand. “Story of my fucking life, as you’ll see.”

He threw the bottle like a grenade. When it shattered at the floor, the scene was washed away in a summer sea.

When the tide subsided, Alberto and Allison were standing somewhere deeply familiar: the bank of the Avon River, at the New Human Institute. 

It felt like late summer. The fields of dry yellow grass looked like they had been painted with a fine, delicate brush. The waters of the river meanwhile were strangely still, like an inlaid vine of blue-grey glass. Allison spotted Alberto, perhaps a year or two older than he’d been in Milan, building tiny castles out of the riparian mud.

“Aren’t we skipping a lot?” she asked wearily.

“Eh, there’s not much to say about right after the war. We stopped by South Africa for…” Alberto waved his hand. “…I don’t remember, sue me. I think it was to do with the Physician. Eliza made Laurie bring Hugo with us like a stray cat, and Lawrence spent a while giving free counselling to blitzed out Londoners. How he met Mrs. G, actually. Make of that what you will.”

“Why’d you come to Australia?”

“Don’t know. Bertie said John told him Oz had a load more super-babies. Like, one in a hundred thousand births or something. Honestly, I think he just missed the warmth in his bones…”

Alberto allowed the strong but distant sounds of hammers and saws to drift down to the riverbank. 

“So Eliza healed the King—”

“Wait, she healed who?” 

“…Got us all citizenship while Lawrence found himself a private little kingdom in the Wheatbelt. Then he waited for us to flock to his palm like little lost birds.”

There was a splash in the middle of the river. 

“Didn’t take too long, it turned out.”

The young Alberto didn’t even look up from his castle. Splashes happened all the time. Probably just some happy fish. But then a hand—small and pale—reached out of the river. It pawed the air for a moment, before grabbing hold of the water’s skin like it was at the edge of a cliff. A little girl, maybe six or seven, with slick, water-dark hair pulled herself up onto the river’s surface, which froze beneath her feet. She was completely naked, and her eyes were two chips of lapis. 

“Huh,” said Allison. “So that’s where David gets—” The girl remembered what had become of Françoise, and couldn’t bring herself to say anything more. 

Alberto didn’t seem to notice (or care about) his companion’s sudden silence. “You should’ve been there when Lawrence had that bloody portrait made,” he said wistfully. 

His younger self had spotted Françoise. “Uh, hi?” the boy called across the water. “Are you a super or something?”

He didn’t really need to ask. Even if she hadn’t emerged from the river like Nimue’s daughter, through the lens of Alberto’s memory, the little water-nymph existed as flesh, mist, ice and water all at once. The lights of her thoughts glowed like abyssal fish risen from the depths to feed.   

“Are you a super or something?” the girl shouted back at Alberto.

“She copied people a lot back then. Still learning to talk. Echolalia I think they call it.”

“Ah, yeah, I am.” The young esper slipped off his shirt and sandals before wading into the water up to his waist. “I asked you first.”

Without warning, Melusine melted into the river.

“Weirdo,” muttered Alberto. 

“You don’t seem very surprised by the naked water girl,” commented Allison.

Alberto let the younger version of himself field that one. The boy looked back at the shore and said, “I live with a walking, faith-healing corpse and a teenager whose sweat melts metal, sue me.” Resuming character, he started trudging and splashing back towards his mud-earthworks, when a small geyser erupted in his path. 

Alberto yelped and leapt backwards, but the waterspout wilted as quickly as it sprouted, falling back into the river to reveal Fran; head tilted, hands on her hips, regarding the boy with an imperious shade of curiosity.

Alberto clenched his fists and tried to stand very straight. “Look… girl, I don’t know what you’re—”

Fran—now clear as glass—knocked Alberto onto his back with an open-palmed blow to the chest. 

“Didn’t see that coming, Tiresias,” Allison said, smirking a little.

“Hard to predict a girl made of whim.” 

Before Alberto could get back to his feet, Fran dissolved into mist, forming back into flesh on top of his chest and shoving his head underwater. Bubbles frothed from his mouth as the boy thrashed beneath her.

Allison watched it all with fascinated horror. Fran didn’t look angry. Allison wasn’t even sure she could guess at what the girl was feeling. She was smiling, yes, but it wasn’t a bully’s smile. There wasn’t any sadism, just pure, giddy amusement, like she’d found a particularly shiny rock.

Allison looked at the older Alberto. He didn’t seem all too perturbed watching himself drown4. In fact, he was smiling, too. A melancholic smile, but a smile. 

    “Why’s she doing that?” 

“I think she liked the faces people made when they breathed in water.”

Allison gestured wildly at Françoise. “But she’s killing you!” 

“I wouldn’t have been her first. You’ve got to remember, Allie, Fran grew up in the sea. Her father was the sea. She rode waves and sunk ships the way you or me played with blocks. Lawrence hadn’t squeezed her into a person shaped box yet—hell, I’m not sure if she was a goddess, or an animal.” Alberto stared at the girl in the water, her hand still effortlessly keeping him from the taste air, oh so long ago. “She was wild.” He looked back down at Allison. “Free. You ever wonder what that feels like?”

Allison had; all her life. 

Alberto bent his legs till he was level with the little girl, putting a hand on her shoulder and pointing towards his near-death experience like they were on safari. 

“This is the best part.”

The younger Alberto’s hand broke the surface. It found Fran’s thigh, and he raked her skin with his fingernails.

The nereid squeaked with pain, her smile screwing into an angry pout. She pressed down on Alberto’s chest with both hands, clearly making an effort to squeeze the breath out of him. The boy jerked spasmodically.

Alberto whispered, “One touch, that’s all it ever took. To get the little snots in Bovegno to leave me alone, to make my father buy me Turkish delight when we were barely making rent—”

Allison’s nose scrunched in a grimace. “Turkish delight?”

“Shut up. But I couldn’t sink my fingers into Fran. Getting a grip on her mind was like leaving a handprint on the ocean…”

“…David’s like that too, now,” Allison admitted. She kicked at the half-remembered dirt. “He won’t even let me read his mind.”

“You don’t sound happy about that.”

“What’s he got to hide from me?”

Alberto rolled his eyes. “Were you thrilled when you heard I could read your mind?”

Allison didn’t answer. Not that she ever had to with Alberto.

He continued. “The black spots were dancing in my eyes by now. So I fought back the way all the other boys in Bovegno had to…”

The younger Alberto swung his fist up at Fran’s chin, knocking the girl off of him. The little boy shot right to his feet, screaming, “Stronza5!”

He stalked towards the little girl, striking her in the face with clumsy, inexperienced blows. Allison reckoned she’d seen better punches from the Petey the asthmatic back at Harvey Primary. Françoise meanwhile just looked confused. She wasn’t even throwing her arms up or trying to get away from Alberto, like she’d never been in a fight before.

“I don’t think anyone had ever hit her back,” said Alberto. “I mean… did Fran ever tell you about Palaemon?”

Allison shook her head. “Who’s he?”

“Nobody important6.”

The young Alberto was still hitting Fran. The little girl’s expression changed from bewilderment to rage. She turned transparent again, lunging at Alberto and slashing at his face with sharp talons of ice.

Alberto pointed at his cheeks. “I will admit, there were some upsides to living with Eliza.”

As though on cue, Lawrence and Mary appeared over the hill. They were walking and chatting with a dark-haired giant of a man, with shoulders like the hull of a ship. He was holding a pale blue dress.

“I’m sure she’s just playing in the river,” he said, a little apologetically. “It’s been a while since she’s been near—”

The enormous man spotted Françoise and Alberto battling in the water. He ran down to the river, picking up speed like a freight train. 

Fran! No!”  

With one hand apiece, he effortlessly parted the children, lifting them both into the air like they were a pair of dumbbells. He looked sternly at the girl as she wriggled and reverted to human form, frowning into his warm, beetle black eyes. 

“We don’t claw people, girl.”

The water-nymph huffed. The man turned his face to Alberto. “Sorry about that.”

“You weren’t the one who tried to drown me!” cried the boy.

“I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen pictures of Ralph Rivers out of costume,” said his adult self.

Allison stared at the man stood in the river. “That’s the Comet?” 

“Yep,” said Alberto. 

“What’s he doing here?”

“He took care of Fran down here a while after the war. Gave her to Lawrence because, well, major checca and all.” He shook his head. “God, imagine if he hadn’t.”

“You and Fran must’ve hated each other.”

 “Nope.”

Alberto didn’t bother with an alcohol transition this time. Maybe his showmanship was waning. Maybe he was trying for montage. Either way, Ralph Rivers was gone. Fran had the blue dress on, and she and Alberto were lounging about the shore, quite at ease. Alberto was dangling a green tree frog by one of its thin legs. Fran similarly was peering at small, panicked fish she had trapped in small orbs of water above the river. 

“I’d never met anyone like Fran. She wasn’t… hollow like Eliza, but she was utterly her.” He smiled, mostly to himself.

The tree frog exploded in the young Alberto’s fingers, splattering the boy’s face with splotches of red and strips of moist green skin. 

“She surprised me. All the time. You’ll find out how rare that is.”

Fran was laughing like mad. To Allison’s surprise, Alberto broke out in giggles, too.

She looked flatly at the man the boy would become. “Really?” 

“Oh, don’t tell me you and Arn never tore the legs off bugs.”

Now they were standing on Northam’s main street7, and Fran and the young Alberto were watching and cackling as a man in a sparkling white server’s uniform fled down the sidewalk from a gurgling, misshapen mass of half-melted ice-cream.

“Now, I know you and Arn—or, Dave I guess—never did that, because you’re boring.”

As Allison watched the ice-cream golem menace the screaming townsfolk, she hoped Alberto couldn’t see the part of her that wished she’d thought of it.

A noon-drunk wandered out of a public house, stumbling over an Italian folk-song8 and waving a bottle of malt in his hand. It flew out of his hand, smashing into the middle of the road. Almost predictably, it unleashed a wave that roared down the street. Allison didn’t even flinch when it hit them.

They found themselves somewhere Allison was very surprised Alberto was familiar with: the bottom of the Avon river.

She looked around the riverbed. It all looked right. The mud, the way the sun rained broken caustics of light through the river’s roof, the subtle greenish tint to everything. But it didn’t feel right. The water was as weightless on her limbs as air. Pure scenery. It reminded Allison how false it all was. Alberto wasn’t standing next to her. He was just information in her head that felt chatty. That she was letting decide what she saw…

That information was looking up towards the surface. “There we are.”

Françoise was darting through the water like a tiny, towheaded dolphin, chasing after segmented gold water-snakes. Alberto was following gracelessly far behind her, waving flailing through the water like a deeply confused seagull, cheeks bulging with air. Looking at him made Allison deeply appreciate her power. 

“I mean, weird god-brain aside, me and Fran—it was just nice, you know? Basil was way bigger and always trying to keep busy so the black dog wouldn’t get him, Eliza was a German depressive zombie, but Fran… sure, I was older, but Fran barely knew what that meant. Most of the ‘people’ she’d known were immortal! And we’d both grown up a bit short of friends…”

Allison spotted a shadow on the surface. It could’ve been a teenage boy lying on his back. “What about Chen?” she asked, pointing to the shape. “Basil said you and him were close.”

The world stopped.

“We are not talking about fucking Chen,” Alberto snarled.

“Fine,” Allison huffed back. “What’s your point, then?”

The young Françoise and Alberto melted away. The surface began to lower towards the riverbed. The whole river was draining like a bathtub with the stopper pulled out.

They were back at the riverside. Alberto and and Fran—now both very adolescent—were ambling along the water’s edge with that particular bored teenage gait. Alberto though was eyeing his companion like she had a pimple he wasn’t sure whether or not to tell her about.

“You’ve already seen this part of the story,” the future Alberto told Allison. “Just in reverse.”

“What do you mean?”

Alberto waved his hands at the teens. “Just look at this…”

“Me and Eliza are heading into town Saturday,” the past Fran said. “Getting our nails done.”

“What’s the point?” said the teenaged Alberto. “The paint will just flake off next time you turn to water or something.”

Fran shrugged. “It’s the chat that’s important. You wouldn’t get it, girl stuff.” A small, knowing smile. “Besides, maybe I just won’t change for a while…”

Alberto almost spat the words, “She let Lawrence and the rest make her into a person! Domesticated her! Made her boring. Like turning water to mud.”

The teenage Alberto stopped walking for a moment, staring at Fran’s back. Then he caught up with her, surreptitiously brushing her hand with his.

The young woman swung around and kissed him right on the lips. A very grown up kiss, Allison thought. She winced at the sight.

Fran pulled back almost immediately, wiping her face and flashing Alberto the kind of nervous, apologetic grin the six year old sprite in the river never could’ve. “I’m sorry. Don’t know what came over to me.”

The young Alberto forced a smile. “Hey, I’m not complaining.”

Fran shook her head. “Practise makes perfect I suppose.”

Allison glared up at Alberto. “You made her kiss you.”

“She did what I told her,” he hissed. “I could make her do whatever I wanted.” 

“You made Fran kiss you,” repeated Allison.    

The psychic ran his hands down his face and groaned. “What was the point after that? You can’t be friends with a puppet.”

Allison folded her arms. “I have your powers and friends.”

“You’d had my powers for less than a week, sweetie, don’t get carried away.”  Alberto produced an amber Jo Jo flask. It had no label, just the embossed image of Saturn devouring his child. “There’s one more thing I need to show you.”

Alberto pulled out the cork. Allison braced herself for whatever flood or plume of remembrance it produced.

Instead, the flask started sucking in air. Alberto and Allison stretched and contorted as they were pulled through its neck like genies being sucked back into their bottle9

No wonder he wanted to play Prospero, Allison thought to herself.

When everything was its proper shape again, the pair were standing in Lawrence’s study. The man himself was standing with his back to his desk, looking out the office’s great clock face window. The only real difference made to the Oxfordian was the length of his beard. On the other side of the desk, a sixteen year old Alberto was staring at his sandshoes in the centre seat. 

It almost amused Allison. It was like God saw the scene in Milan and realized he’d gotten Alberto and Lawrence mixed up. 

The elder Alberto did not look amused. He was staring at the back of Lawrence’s green checkered suit with pure, undisguised hate.

“Mr. Jefferies from the off-licence phoned me today, Tiresias,” the old man said quietly. All too steadily. “He was very confused. And angry.”

Alberto looked up at Lawrence in confusion. “What, you mean Crackbone Pete?”

Lawrence swung around and snapped, “We do not use vulgar nicknames here, young man.”

That earned a quick bitter laugh from both his future students. To Allison’s immense surprise, the young Alberto bent his head. 

“Sorry, Lawrence.”

His older self shook his head at the display. “God, I was such a pussy.”

“Do you know why Mr. Jefferies called me, Tiresias?”

Allison hated when grownups did that: the toxic combo of rhetorical questions and using your name like they thought you would forget it.

Although, she guessed, that wasn’t completely out of the question at the Institute. 

“No.” 

Lawrence sat down, resting his elbows on the desktop and rubbing his fingers on his forehead like he had a migraine. “Don’t lie to me, Alberto.” He used the boy’s human name like it was an insult, or maybe a serial-number. “Mr. Jefferies told me he handed you an entire slab of beer, free of charge. And ‘by God’ he can’t remember why.”

Tiresias tried to shrug. It looked more like his shoulders were breaking. “Maybe he felt charitable and he’s regretting it?”

“I’ve lived in the Avon Valley for a long time. I know for a fact ‘Crackbone Pete’ feels no such urge.” He looked Alberto hard in the eye. “What did you do to him, Tiresias?”

The man who’d been called Tiresias nudged Allison in the side. “Watch me think on my feet.”

“…Okay, I’ll confess. It was an illusion. Made Mr. Jefferies think I slipped him a tenner.” He tried to smile. “I can pay him back if you want.”

Lawrence swallowed hard. “No, Tiresias. Mr. Jefferies didn’t tell me his money vanished, he told me he gave you the beer.” He clenched his fists. “Why did he do that?”

“Now watch, Allie,” said Alberto. “If I was smart, I would’ve leapt at Bertie and blanked his memory, like I did back at Adam’s house.”

“I know,” she muttered.

Alberto sighed. “I was not smart.”

“…I can make people do what I want,” Tiresias admitted. “When I touch—”

Lawrence slapped him across the face, hard and sharp. 

Tiresias’ hand went to his cheek. He was staring at Lawrence, more shocked than anything. 

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I—I thought you might not want me if you knew.”

Lawrence took a deep breath. “Tiresias, that is an ugly, abominable ability. Have you ever… manipulated the others this way?”

“…Once or twice.”

Another smack. “Never do this again, not to anyone, but especially not your brothers and sisters. This kind of coercion isn’t fit for new humans. It’s pure mental violence.”

Tiresias’ eyes were wet. “Are you going to tell the others?”

Lawrence shook his head. “No.”

“Gotta keep a card up your sleeve,” whispered Alberto.

“I don’t want them to have to look at you like this.”

“And that’s the only way Bertie ever looked at me again,” said Alberto. He looked down at Allison. “Lawrence didn’t see us as different people, you know. Not really. He thought of us like some big superorganism. Pun fucking intended. A beehive. And I was a bee that steals all the honey or something. A big fat—”

“Shut up.”

Alberto blinked at Allison. “What?”

“Stop trying to make me feel sorry for you. You’re a bad person.”

Alberto thrust his hands at Lawrence, now frozen mid-lecture. “Look at what I had to work with!”

Allison didn’t look, neither at Lawrence or Alberto. “Laurie was bad to all of us. Didn’t make us all evil.”

Alberto laughed without mirth. “Evil? Chrissakes, is this a Sunday matinee?”

The little girl finally looked up at the esper. “I’m nine. What’s your excuse?”

“I don’t have to prove anything to you.”

“You’re trying really hard to.”

“I lived with Bertie’s complete and utter fucking hatred for half my bloody life!” Alberto shouted, abandoning his earlier protestations. “What do you want from me?”

“David lived with Lawrence’s crap his whole life. He didn’t turn out like you.”

“There’s no fucking comparison! David was Bertie’s golden boy! His masterpiece! What the shit did he have to deal with, hmm? Bertie blowing too much air up his arse?”

For a long time—whatever that meant inside her and Alberto’s shared head—Allison didn’t answer. Then she drew a bottle from the aether. Tequila, with a fat worm curled up at the bottom.

She took a long, hard draught. It burned her throat raw. The office shook and shattered.

They were in the spare bedroom. The married day bedroom. Alberto, technically the younger, but only by less than three years, and the former Stratogale were both lying on the bed. Sadie Jones was painfully exposed, her skin pale. Her face was the kind of blank mask children put on when they didn’t want to weep. She looked far younger than her fifteen years.

Beside her, Alberto took a draft of his clove cigarette. He glanced at Sadie, staring at the door like it was the last one we all pass through. “Hey, at least it’s done.” 

He sounded like they were filing taxes, or closing a bank account.

“If you hate Laurie so much, why did you screw Sadie for him?” 

The words felt strange in Allison’s mouth. Grownup, but only for a child.

Alberto tried not to look at Sadie. “Laurie wouldn’t shut up about it. Guess he decided my ‘abomination’ was worth having in his next generation…”

Allison glared at him. “You could’ve said no. You were the only one of us who could’ve said no.”

Alberto half-stammered. “Hey, it wasn’t fun for me, either!” He pointed at Sadie. “She doesn’t even like fellas!” 

“She was a kid. You were twenty-six.”

Allison forced herself to take another long, stinging gulp of Alberto’s shame. The scene shifted to Panoply’s cenotaph—the grave of a boy who never was.  

“You brought Adam here. For a joke.”

“…He was a threat! To all of us!”

“Not to you. You brought Adam here so he could hurt us. Hurt David. Just to play a joke on Lawrence.” Allison’s artificial calm broke. “To make Eliza a murderer!”

“Eliza was a killer long before she met me.”

“Does that make Adam less dead?”

“Like you ever cared about him!”

“So?” Allison took another slug from the bottle. She’d managed to down almost all of it.

They were in Françoise’s bedroom. Private Wilkins’ rifle was still smoking. What was left of Fran was still warm flesh.

Alberto blanched at the sight. He stared at Allison with white fury. “You little cow.”

“Says the bloke who shot his best friend.”

Alberto pointed at Wilkins. “Does that look like me?”

Allison scoffed. “He was how you did it. You let the raid happen. You could’ve made Tim leave us alone, and spent the rest of your life brainwashing girls and drinking yourself to death.”

“He—he knew about my power!”

A sip this time. The room shifted back to Lawrence’s study. The old man was staring pleadingly at Alberto, with a banana pointed at his temples.

“Lawrence knew about your power, but you could still do that to him. You cared more about a dumb, sick joke than you did about Fran.”

Alberto couldn’t answer the girl. 

They returned to Fran’s room. Allison was smiling wickedly. 

“You know what’s amazing?” she said, her voice cracking. “The absolute funniest thing about this?”

“What?”    

Allison laughed. “This isn’t even the worst thing you’ve ever done. Raping a girl and shooting your friend in the head is, like, third baddest!”

The little girl swallowed the rest of the tequila. When the bottle was bone dry, she shook out the worm, crunching it between her teeth.

They were in the barn, in the middle of the night. Alberto was in his dressing gown. David—or maybe Maelstrom—was standing in his pyjamas under a shower of moonlight pouring in through the barn’s skylight. His eyes were still as blue as his mother’s, and they were streaming with tears. He was also holding a pair of wooden skewers.

Alberto was pacing unsteadily back and forth in front of the boy, his cheeks flushed with Enlilian hexagons. Allison could almost smell the booze on his breath. The psychic was the kind of drunk that he normally reserved for parties, or his deepest funks.

Perhaps this was both. 

Alberto was stumbling, both over his own feet and his words. “You don’t know how fucking lucky you’ve got it, Mealy.”

Maelstrom nodded. Allison didn’t know if that was Alberto’s doing, or just the instinct Lawrence had hammered into him.

“I remember when I was the future.” Alberto mimicked an explosion with his hands. “The ‘mental marvel’ Bertie fucking called me.” He stalked in close to David, his spittle hitting him in the nose. “But now he’s got you. His own personal Poseidon, with all the edges ground off.”

David whimpered. 

Alberto hit him. Allison couldn’t imagine it meant much to a boy who’d been flogged with what might as well have been a mace, but he still shook like his bones were jelly. The up-to-date Alberto was shaking too. Adults did that sometimes when you called them out.

“Fucking hell,” the previous Alberto slurred. “You know what your mum would think of ya, back when she was worth something?”

Maelstrom shook his head. He’d heard it all before, but he was a good boy, and good boys didn’t play smart when grownups were trying to tell them something. 

“She’d be bloody ashamed. Probably wouldn’t even bother to drown you. You’re Lawrence’s shitty picture of her.” 

Alberto tested the tips of the skewers with his thumbs, raising tiny beads of blood from his pores.

Maelstrom didn’t have to be told. He drove the skewers home. 

He didn’t scream. He wasn’t allowed to. He did whimper, though. Blood and worse mixed with his tears.

Alberto tried to look away, but wherever he turned, there was Maelstrom. There were those ruined eyes.

“Oh, quit sniveling,” said the other Alberto. “You’ll be fine. Now, open the doors for us. We’re gonna go get Windshear.”       

 Maelstrom, retreated into ice, pulled the barn doors open. He followed Alberto out into the night.

Alberto watched them go, before turning to look at Allison.

“That’s what I see whenever I look at my best friend. Thanks.” 

“He never remembered!” 

“He did. He just didn’t know he did. I held him while he screamed.” Allison’s mouth twitched curiously. “Is that why you killed his mum? In case he remembered?”

“Shut up.”

“Lawrence was wrong about… pretty much everything. Except for you.” 

Shut up.

Allison’s voice climbed higher. “You’re worthless, Alberto! The whole world would be better if you’d died inside your mum. Lawrence was right to hate you!”

Shut up!

   They were back in the Physician’s quest quarters. Back in reality. Allison was sitting upright in her bed, regarding Alberto with almost bored disdain. His image meanwhile was hyperventilating. 

Allison lay down. “We’re done,’ she said, closing her eyes. “I’m going out.” Allison hadn’t tried astral projection yet, but right then she just wanted to be away from Alberto. She rose out of her clothes and body like a sylph of the air. She was a spectre now, a reflection of herself. The girl floated up towards the metal ceiling. 

“I—”  

“Get back in the dark.”

She passed out of sight. Alberto got shoved back into the house without windows, alone. The psychic was a little surprised. He’d half-expected to find himself dragged along wherever Allison was frittering off to. 

At least this future was unfolding right.

Alberto opened Allison’s eyes. Exhaled air through Allison’s lungs. Moved Allison’s lips, and tapped Allison’s teeth with the tip of Allison’s tongue.

“Dumb little bitch.”      


1. “It’s fine,” more or less.

2. “Wait here!”

3. The children of the New Human Institute were subject to many abuses, but they were at least spared braces.

4. To be fair, you couldn’t expect him to feel suspense.

5. “Turd” or perhaps more relevantly, “piece of shit.”

6. This—coincidentally—was Françoise’s exact assessment of Palaemon.

7. Fitzgerald street, to be specific.

8. “La Leggenda del Piave” written by E.A Mario in 1918 to commemorate the Italian victory in the Battle of the Piave River.

9. Contrary to popular Western conception, most djinn are not bound to obey humans—indeed, it takes a powerful magician to compel to do anything they don’t want to do. What mortals take as “wishes” can often be more accurately called “favours.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter    

 

Chapter Sixty-Two: The House Without Windows

“The ship woke you up, didn’t she?” Alberto blew out a puff of cloven smoke. Allison could smell it, real as anything. “Always throwing a pity-party, her. But I guess I don’t have a gaggle of Physicians crawling around inside me.” The psychic looked at Allison with a questioning smile. “You’d know the word for a group of physicians, right Allie? A herd? A college?”

Allison had drawn her bedsheets protectively up to her chin. The red glow of her eyes changed to ocean green.

Alberto put his palm to his face, shaking his head in annoyed embarrassment. “Don’t be stupid, Kinsey, you know I’m not really here. You left me bleeding out my eyeballs in the fucking bush. I’m a…” He rolled his tongue over his teeth in thought. “A metaphor. I’m your brain trying to make sense out of me.” Alberto glanced at his cigarette. “I’m not sure if I should thank you or be insulted.”

“Why are you here?” Allison asked in a whine. “You’re not—” She grabbed the sides of her head, eyes pointed down at the wrinkles of her duvet. A small, confused voice said, “…You’re not supposed to talk.”

Alberto scowled. “What? You think you can take my powers, my memories, everything except my nuts, and not get me in the bargain?” He crawled up the length of Allison’s bed till they were less than an inch apart. “You fucking ate me.”  

The girl could feel the man’s breath on her face, hot and burning with alcohol. His face was flushed with hexagons. Exactly as she remembered Alberto. Exactly how he remembered himself. She almost wanted to reach out and touch him—test his solidity. She wasn’t sure if it would be better or worse if her hand passed through him. “You—you were shot. I wanted to save you…”

Alberto leaned back, face deadpan. “Yes, because most vital organs are located in the right shoulder.” He scowled. “You were just hungry.”

Allison protested. “I wasn’t—what does that even mean?”

“You know what it means, Kinsey.” Alberto got up off the bed, circling it slowly as he examined Allison with bitter, mock curiosity. “It felt good, didn’t it? Like you were full for the first time in your life.”

Allison’s only answer was a glare: hard, but glistening with gathering tears.  

“Must be nice, finally being a real super.”

That broke Allison’s silence. “I was always a real super!”

“Yeah, when some of us were around for you to plagiarize. Nosferatu wasn’t as much of a parasite as you.”

“I know everything!”

Alberto was looking at his fingernails. “So do most University Challenge teams.” He sighed. “Shouldn’t be surprised you’re a massive thief. Jesus Christ, stuck in a Gypsy brat forever. My once in a species psionic powers will serve you well in making tourists think you’ve got a limp.”

“You keep making me feel yuck,” muttered Allison, arms wrapped around herself. “When I think about my mummy, or Valour”—a tense, itching heat—“…or Fran.”

“I’m sorry I’m giving you indigestion.” Alberto bent and hissed into Allison’s ear. “It might seem like I’m standing here smoking and whispering to you, but I’m not. I’m sitting alone, in a house without windows, with only our thoughts for company, shouting at the dark.”

“…I don’t care,” Allison said, mostly to herself. “You were a bad man, and I don’t care.”

Alberto straightened and drew up an eyebrow. “Is that what you think?”

“I have your memories.”

“Only when you can’t avoid them,” countered Alberto. “Take a closer look. I dare you.”

“How the hell am I supposed to do that?”

“You read our own minds! It’s like a memory-palace, but better.” Alberto let out a grunt of a laugh. “Got that from your head, by the way, ‘memory-palaces.’ I never used that trick much. Introspection is a shitty hobby. Buuuut I figure we should get to know each other now we’re headmates, hmm?”

“…Will you shut up if I do this?”

“Cross my heart. Wherever that is.”

Allison sighed and closed her eyes. 

It wasn’t hard. It was almost second nature, in fact. Allison turned her newest senses inward and—

She turned inside out.

For a second Allison thought she and Alberto were in space. Inner space, perhaps. They were floating high above a Milky Way of blood-red stars, streaked through with wisps of white.

“What’s that?” asked Allison.

“Another metaphor. All those lights are memories.” Alberto squinted. “I think the red ones are mine.”

Allison stared down at the galaxy of thought, at the cobwebs of herself. Her bones thinned and hollowed inside of her. She felt small, weightless. A flake of paint on someone else’s portrait.

“There’s so much you…”

“You’re nine, I’m twenty-nine. Of course there is.”

They drew closer to the lights, or maybe the lights came up to meet them. As they neared, they began to see through the glare. There were objects hidden within the lights. Keepsakes and mementos. Old teddy bears, well-worn pencils, or—in the case of most of Alberto’s memories—bottles of spirits. 

Alberto snatched a deep-blue coffin flask out from the whirling mess of booze and children’s toys. He squinted at the bottle’s embossing.

“Shitty hometown, vintage 1939. Good a place to start as any.”

He popped the bottle’s cork, and a whole sky flowed forth.

Alberto let go of the bottle, allowing it to drift off and pop like a soap bubble. He spread his arms out and exclaimed, “Welcome to Bovegno1!”

The pair were standing in a cobbled street on a cloudless winter afternoon. A humble steeple protruded above snow-powdered, dull red rooftops, dwarfed in turn by the grey-treed mountain slopes that cradled the little spit of town. But as cozy and provincial as the town should’ve been, every cottage and townhouse had been monstrously magnified, looming over Alberto and Allison like skyscrapers. Everything from the stones of the road to the frost in the windows was either broadly sketched or painstakingly precise, with greater resolution than reality itself could support. The colours were bright enough to make Allison’s eyes water. The whole place seemed somehow composed of smells: fresh bread, pasta, and woodsmoke. 

“It’s a bit… impressionist,” said Allison. 

“Not surprised,” replied Alberto. “I think I was about three at the time.” He pointed up the road. “There’s me now.”

A little boy wrapped in a chrysalis of woolens and scarves stood alone and distinct amidst a swirl of brushstroke people. Allison could just make out the red hexagons on his winter-flushed cheeks. 

“Huh,” she said. “You were sorta… cute.”

Alberto shrugged. “S’pose I was.” 

The younger Alberto vanished. Most of the colour went with him, along with the vague shadows that passed for people. Now his older self and Allison were standing in an empty, washed out Bovegno—alone, except for a tall, dark figure where the young boy had been. He felt familiar. Like a whispered of but never seen uncle.

Alberto spoke like he was reciting the oldest story in the world. “A long time ago, a stranger came to Bovegno. Nobody knew where he came from…”

Dr. Smith’s voice echoed over the memory-scape like the arch, indifferent voice of God. “…Definitely from Enlil. They like kicking their troublemakers off world. ‘Compassionate exile’ they call it.”

Alberto went on. “He was beautiful, they say. And cruel.”

Suddenly, the dark man was surrounded by fawning will-‘o-wisps.

“Nobody even recognized his language, and he never bothered to learn ours. He didn’t have to. When he spoke, you knew what he was saying. Exactly. And whatever he asked, you gave it to him. Didn’t matter if it was money, your daughter, or your own beating heart.”   

“He was like you,” said Allison.

“Yes. Maybe even more.”

Now the dark man was enthroned, receiving tribute from a line of bedraggled wooden puppets, their strings all leading to the man’s palm. It looked more Czech than Italian to Allison, but then it wasn’t her imagination. Or was it? She wasn’t sure.

“For nearly twenty years, he ruled Bovegno like a king. Or maybe ‘god’ is a better word.”

The dark man tugged at the strings held. The puppets prostrated themselves, weeping.

“But then, one day…”

Another shadow—this one feminine—crept behind the throne. The man turned his head just in time to see her drive a knife into his neck.

“Someone finally told him no.”

“Why couldn’t he stop her?”

“Simple. She was his daughter.”

The man’s blood was seeping into cobblestones, running down through the cracks between till it reached Allison and Alberto’s feet.

“She was far from the only one. The stranger might have been gone, but his get would be part of Bovegno forever.”   

“Including you.”

“Yep. And the good people of Bovegno weren’t keen on a repeat performance. Telepathy—the kind I’ve got at least—doesn’t always pass on the way other powers do, but it did keep popping up. Usually they drowned us—”

Allison grimaced.

Alberto chuckled. “Naturals being shitty to us supers. Shocking, innit? Still, if we were cooperative, sometimes they bundled us off to the Church to keep us safe and celibate.” A surprisingly warm laugh. “Trust me, Allie, there are some nuns2 and priests in Lombardy you do not lie to.”

Everything went dark. A thin strip of light slid open in the black. A harsh, pitiless whisper said: 

“I know that’s not all you have to confess, boy.”

Daylight returned, and the two were back in 1936. The younger Alberto was being shoved around by a pair of bigger boys—or human sharks, as his memory cast them.

“Now, I’m sure a lot of us snuck under the radar. Pretty sure my ma could read papa’s mind, at least.”

Bigol3!” one of the boys shouted gleefully as they pushed little Alberto at their friend.

The other child grabbed the small boy and shook him, grinning maliciously. “Sürlin4!” He slapped Alberto’s cheeks. “Paiaso5!” 

The boy threw Alberto to the ground, laughing as the small boy smacked against the pavement. 

Alberto looked up at his tormentors. He noticed that his nose was bleeding, dapping at the trickle of blood and rubbing it curiously between his fingers. Then he smiled.  

His older self smiled, too. “But I don’t think laying low was ever going to be an option for me.”

The boy who’d thrown Alberto stopped laughing, switching his attention to the ground until he found a weighty stone and plucked it up, walking towards his friend.

The other child blinked at him. “Ohi, set dre a fa?

The boy slammed the rock into the side of his head. Over and over. Now Alberto was laughing. Both of them.

Allison winced. 

Alberto noticed, frowning down at his companion. “Oh, come on, I was three.”

“You’re not three now,” the girl retorted.

“Please. Do I have to bring up Judith Felini?”

An anachronistically dressed little girl ran screaming out of an alley, drenched head to toe in school paste.

“And that’s not even mentioning Major Yellick…”

Allison clenched her fists. “Okay, I get it, you got picked on. So did David, but he never—” She remembered what David had told her at the dam. “You know what I mean!”

Alberto nodded slowly. “The bullying was part of it, sure. And knowing my great-great-great granddad was a space-rapist. But mostly it was knowing that I had two futures ahead of me: priest or apple-bobbing casualty.” He clapped. “Then the Blackshirts found me!”

Night fell instantly, and Alberto and Allison were standing in front of a townhouse, wary eyes in yellow lit windows watching a pair of Blackshirts shepherding a sleepy, five year old Alberto into their equally black Alfa Romeo. 

“Il Duce or somebody had caught wind of what I could do—some of it, that is—and decided they could use a boy like me.”

“What about your mum and dad?” asked Allison. “I know you had those.”

Alberto looked down at the girl with genuine surprise in his eyes. Then he broke into a cackle. “Oh, oh Allie, you’re a dear sometimes.”

Alberto stuck his hand into the night air, shattering it like the surface of a pond. He pulled out another bottle: this one a red, sterling-silver handled oval labelled “Milanese Shame.”

The psychic grinned with poisonous mirth. “Here’s to Mama and Papa Morreti, and the medal that replaced me on their mantle.”

He poured the bottle out on the ground. And kept pouring. And pouring. The cherry liquorice spirit now pooled around Albert and Allison’s ankles, rising rapidly.

“Um, Alberto?” Allison said as the stuff reached her knees. “Bertie?”

Alberto shushed her. “I’m paying tribute, Allison.”

The liquor swamped them both, plunging Allison into sharp, wet darkness. Panicking, she reached for David’s song, panicked some more when she couldn’t find it… and then remembered where she was: still lying in bed, soaking in drama-queen metaphor.  

She kicked upwards, out of the flood and into the shadow of a monumental building. It was a massive, Novecento-style slab of off-white brick and steel-framed windows, separate and removed from the city around it, with waves of stairs spilling out from three arches cut into its centre. 

“There used to be a church here,” said Alberto. “They tore it down to build this. A church for the state. The Milanese Palace of Justice—” He smiled. “Sounds like a superhero lair when you say it in English, doesn’t it?”

Allison could just make out someone walking up palace’s steps, like Jack on the giant’s threshold. The feeling she had felt when she glimpsed her and Alberto’s entwined memories made a keen, unwelcome return. “Makes you feel small…”

“Fascist shit does that. Makes you feel like just a drop in the ocean.” Alberto’s gaze went soft. “But the ocean washes away everything, in the end.”

Allison felt something inside the man. A lonely spark of nostalgia, dancing in the cold wind of Alberto’s heart.

“Come on,” he said. “We’ve only got forever.”

With a few impossible steps, they were inside the palace. They crossed marble floors speared through by great square columns. They climbed wide staircases and strolled past bas reliefs celebrating biblical, Roman, and fascist justice: the carved classical figures of the third panel blissfully ignorant of the paradox in their subject matter. 

“Over twelve hundred rooms: fascists never do anything small.”

Alberto lead Allison into a small side-office. It could’ve been any 20th century lawyer’s study: thin green carpet, a heavy looking darkwood desk in front of rows and rows of near-identical legal tomes. Except the office was strewn with children’s books and wooden toys. A seven year old Alberto was sitting behind the desk like a boy left alone in his father’s office. But instead of shuffling paperwork and pretending to boss about the secretary like a wholesome child, he was sullenly bouncing a rubber ball, idly running his eyes over his copy of Cuore.

“This room was where I spent half my childhood, waiting to justify my daily bread.”

“Still better than marching around with the Balilla all day6,” the young Alberto said, making Allison jump. His young voice was even more thickly accented than his older counterpart.  “Buncha Napoleon looking midgets.”

The door opened behind Allison, and an old, Gepetto-looking man complete with apron was shoved into the room, stumbling through Allison like she was the dream and not him.

The old man caught sight of the younger Alberto, and flashed him a fragile, appeasing grin. “You must be the fenomeno 7everyone’s been talking about.”

“Guess I am,” said Alberto. He glanced lazily at a list on the desk. “What’s your name?”

“Umberto Marino.” He forced a laugh like air escaping stab-wound. “No relation, if you’re wondering.”

Alberto looked flatly at Umberto. “Sit down.”

Marini obeyed, settling in the bare sandalwood chair before the desk. “Look, kid, this… it’s all a misunderstanding. I’m just trying to run a good inn, you know? It’s bad manners to turn away guests…”

Alberto ignored the man’s pleading, instead silently studying his face. Or what lay behind it, as Allison knew full well. 

“Tell you what,” Umberto pulled a green and white banknote8 from his apron pocket and slid it over to Alberto. “You clear this all up for me, and you get to keep all that money for yourself.” He winked. “And when you’re old enough to drink, it’s all on me.”

Alberto took the money and stuck it in his desk drawer. Then he rang a bell. A Blackshirt poked his head into the office.

“This fella’s been letting the partisans use a couple of his rooms. His son’s been going to meetings.”

Umberto’s face went slack. His eyes were wide and empty. Just that moment, Allison could guess, he could see his future as clearly as Alberto. 

The Blackshirt strode in and pulled Umberto out of his chair. “Up you go, camerata,” he said with false, mocking cheer. “We’ve still got talking to do.”

The spell over Marino broke. He spat at Alberto, “You murdering little shit! You freak—”

The Blackshirt struck him across the temples with his bludgeon. “That’s enough of that.”

“He tried bribing me, too,” Alberto said in passing as he returned to his book.

Allison was staring aghast at the boy’s future. “What happened to him?”

“What happened to all of them,” answered the young Alberto.

Through the window, a hanged man’s shadow fell across the office wall.

“…You could’ve lied,” whispered Allison.

Alberto shrugged. “Maybe I could’ve. But what about the next poor bastard? And the one after that? Trust me, Allie, there were a lot.”

“You could’ve lied about them, too!”

Alberto laughed. “And what do you think the Blackshirts would’ve thought of that?”

“That they were doing a good job?”

“Fascists know there’s always someone out to fuck with them: they’d stop being fascists if they didn’t.”

A young woman was pushed sobbing into the office. The young Alberto didn’t even look up before he rang the bell and told the Blackshirt:

“She’s keeping her daughter outta the Balilla. Thinks it’s too ‘violent’.”

No sooner was that weeping lady roughly ushered to her fate than a teenage boy took her place.

“Planning on running away with his girlfriend.”

And so it went, on and on. Days flickered past out the window, lengthening and contracting as summers decayed into winter, while the Alberto behind the desk grew like a sapling in spring, unceasingly handing down dooms:

“Partisan.”

“Spy.”

“Draft-dodger.”

“Tunes into enemy-radio.”

“For God’s sake!” cried Allison. “You can read minds! You’ve got to have known they weren’t bad people!”

“Everyone else around me thought they were all traitors and cowards.” Alberto shrugged. “Who was I supposed to believe?” He looked back at his younger self. “It’s funny. They always bumped people off far away from me. I think they wanted to ‘protect my innocence’ or some shit. But I could see them dying in their eyes. And sometimes, when they actually brought me someone who hadn’t done anything, they still killed them. When it kept happening, I started making stuff up. Told the Blackshirts what they wanted to hear. Kept everyone happier, I think. I’d rather not be shot after being found innocent…”

Allison shook her head. “You didn’t think making stuff up was wrong?”

 “Truth is just what the biggest guy in the room says it is.” He scowled. “And you’re one to talk. Hiding in the Physician’s bloody spaceship like you don’t know what he is…”

Allison’s eyes narrowed. “What? That he’s an alien?”

“That he’s a monster.”

“I don’t—”

“Oh, come on,” said the now nine year old Alberto. “You know he’s a bastard. He wallows in it. Never stops rubbing it in your face.”

The older Alberto picked up the baton. “Why do you think the ship’s screaming in your ear, Allie? Do you think John Smith really just found a dead goddess? I mean, the guy was mates with Bertie. Doesn’t that tell you everything?”

Silence.

 “…We don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“And you think I had all the options in the world?” the younger Alberto asked. “At least the Blackshirts could keep me safe…”

“I mean, that’s what I thought,” said the present Alberto. 

There was a sound like thunder falling to Earth. The office window shattered, sending the past Alberto screaming under the desk.

“Then Gorla happened. Nothing had been going right for years. The Allies had taken most of the country back in ‘43. The Nazis had to whisk Il Duce up to the North. They propped him up for the rest of the war. Everyone went on and on about returning to the glory of Rome, and we were taking orders from fucking Germans!”

Alberto’s younger self crawled out into the open, treading the broken glass to look out the empty window at the rising smoke.

“The Allies bombed on a fucking school. They blew up four hundred kids and nuns. Nuns! The only survivors were a couple of kids who weren’t even in the shelters! That was when I realized I was on the wrong side: the one that was losing.”

The glass flew back into the window, and little Alberto was back behind the desk.

“Luckily, the Blackshirts were kind enough to offer me an out.”

Two burly Blackshirts sporting their best Mussolini pouts of authority marched in an old man by the arms and shoved him down in the chair like a sack of rotten potatoes. 

The skin around his eyes was black and bleeding, and the red of his beard was more vivid than Allison had ever seen it, but she recognized the man immediately.

Dr. Herbert Lawrence looked at the boy behind the desk and flashed him an honest, open smile. “You must be the esper.”

The older Alberto sighed and pulled another bottle out from nowhere. “Settle in, Allie, this is a whole ‘nother cellar.”


1. A small mountain town in the province of Brescia located in the Val Trompia valley. Currently believed to be the source of nearly all of Earth’s natural espers.

2. One monastic order that drew heavily from the town of Bovegno were Our Ladies of Still Grace, famous for both their strict vows of silence and their conversation.

3. A Lombard insult meaning roughly “moron.”

4. Essentially “little idiot.”

5. “Clown.”

6. The Opera Nazionale Balilla, the official Italian fascist youth organization operating from 1927 until its absorption into the Italian Youth of the Lictor ten years later. Similar organizations include the German Hitler Youth, the various Young Pioneer organizations throughout the communist world, or the Nova Australian Starbursts.

7. Meaning “wonderful” “amazing” and “incredible.” Can also become fenomeno da baraccone, or circus freak.

8. A 500 lira note, to be precise.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                        Next Chapter