Category Archives: Book Four: The Utopians

Chapter One Hundred and Sixteen: St. George and the Vampire

“It looks nice, Billy,” said Drina carefully. “I like the leafy parts. I bet Mr. Liu would be pleased to see it.”

Jack Lyons nodded. “You should come and show everyone.”

Billy made to step forward, but paused with his foot in the air. “Wait, are you trying to grab me? Like Tom tried?”

Allison shot a glance back at Tom. The older boy threw his arms up. She turned back to William. “Billy, what are you doing?”

“Me and Myrddin are going to save England!” Billy had clearly practised saying the wizard’s name many times. Hastily, he added, “And Wales.” He looked at Myrddin. “We’re going to save Scotland too, right?”

“It would be hard not to,” answered Myrddin. “We are the same island.”

“What about Ireland?” asked Billy.

“If we have time.”

“Save England from what?” asked Allison. “Republicans?” She was a touch too proud of herself for that one.

“Nuclear war!” cried Billy. “And the bird!”

“The bird?” asked the Crimson Comet, still holding the Carnacki battery. He looked at Myrddin. “And you know what nuclear war is?”

“Do you know what an onager1 is?” Myrddin asked back.

“No.”

“Then I can know what nuclear weapons are.”

“You’re a bit late!” called Mistress Quickly, hands cupped around her mouth like a jeering football2 fan. “Me and the Flying Man took care of the nukes! I made the bloody uranium into glassware!”

“Really?” asked Close-Cut.

“For special occasions,” clarified Mistress Quickly. “But you get as many rads from a plane ri—”

Myrddin’s voice hissed in Maude’s ear, “Eschaton has been dead for a year. You are a fool if you think the nations of the world won’t split the atom again over and over.

Maude shuddered. “Eschaton” had been her suggestion for Joe’s supernym. He’d snobbishly refused to take one, and now people would forever be calling him “the Flying Man.” 

“And how are you going to save Britain from nuclear war, Billy?”

“Myrddin says he can take the island to Fairyland!” 

Billy was grinning, which told Allison she knew more about fairy tales than he did. “You’re gonna kidnap gazillions of people to Fairyland?”

“They can come back if the world doesn’t explode!” Billy insisted. “Or once it gets better after, I guess.”

“It will no doubt be a difficult adjustment,” said Myrddin. “But I believe William has the heart and courage to lead us through.”

“We could take Catalpa, too,” suggested Billy. “Then we’d all be safe! And neighbours!”

“Hell no!” shouted Allison. 

Jack Lyons raised his hands. “Let’s try and stay civil, everyone.”

“Right, that’s it.” Tom’s outline barged through the police line, filling in again as he approached Billy and the others. “Come on, Billy, we’re going home.”

“No I’m not,” said Billy. “Myrddin needs me!”

Tom scowled. “You’re not even a Pom! How can you be king of England?” 

“He is still a child of Albion,” said Myrddin. “Even with the Saxon blood in his veins.”

“I should remind everyone,” said Jack Lyons, “the throne of Great Britain and all her possessions is currently filled.”

Billy tilted his head. “Oh yeah.” He looked up at Myrddin. “What are we going to do with Princess Elizabeth3? I heard she’s nice.”

“We shall discuss that matter later, my king.”

The Crimson Comet shook his head, mouth agape. “He’s nine years old!”

Billy pouted and pointed at Allison. “Allie’s ten and she’s the boss of Catalpa.”

“And you know what?” said Tom. “That’s a bit nuts, too!”

Drina gave a small nod of assent.

“Hey!” Allison cried. 

“But at least Allie isn’t dragging us all to the Dark Ages to hang out with the bloody fairies! Whatcha going to do, Billy? Make everyone till the fields for your barons and lords? I thought you were better than that crap.”

“It won’t be like that!”

“All shall have a part to play,” intoned Myrddin calmly. “All shall know their place.”

Billy frowned at the wizard. “You’re not helping.”

Miri cleaved from Allison. “This is stupid! You have to come home, because if you go live in another dimension or whatever, we can’t play together. So there!”

That was the first thing that seemed to give Billy pause. “I mean, you could visit. Myrddin says people from here have been going to Fairyland since forever.”

Miri put her hands on her spectral hips, mimicking both Allison and Arnold’s mothers. “First I have to ask Allie if I can hug you, now I have to go to Fairyland to see you?”  

Billy sighed. “Miri, this is important…” 

Miri huffed. “Everything’s more important than me.”    

Billy gasped as Miri merged with his body. Excalibur glowed in its scabbard. He retched as Miri’s smokey form erupted from his mouth, glaring as she pulled her image back together. “You tried to possess me!”

Drina gave Miri a chastising look. “Miri!”

“He was being dumb.”

Ralph Rivers took a step forward. “Billy—”

Billy growled. That alone sent the Comet, Tom, Jack and the Kinseys all flying backwards. The Carnaki battery fell onto the driveway. Someone listening closely might’ve heard it grunt in pain. 

“Stay back!” shouted Billy. 

Allison watched Jack Lyons dust off his suit. When she rolled over in the grass, she found her mother groaning and rubbing her side. Allison rose off the ground, glaring fire at Billy. The air around her shimmered in the siren light.

“Whatcha gonna do, Allison? Use your Alberto powers on me?” 

The grass combusted under Allison, bright crescents of lava spinning around her. “Maybe! After I beat some sense back into you! You hurt my mum!”

Billy spotted Mrs Kinsey, only now sitting up. His eyes widened. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Mrs Kinsey—“

“You’re gonna be!”

“It really isn’t that bad, hon—”

“I’m gonna grab you by the tail and spin you ‘round my head!”

“If you’re so intent on violence, young lady,” said Myrddin, “I might have a way of settling this dispute quickly and cleanly.”

Billy and Allison both looked at the wizard. “What?” they both asked, nearly in unison.

“Simple,” he replied. “The way champions have put rest to conflicts since men discovered the hardness of wood, bone, and metal. A duel.”

⬗   

Rock Cannon/Gawaine stood on the lawn behind the hotel. Thick trails of black powder snaked through the grass from either side of him, curving and meeting again to form a wide circle. He jumped backwards as the circle exploded into a rainbow ring of fireworks. When the sparks and smoke cleared, they were left with a circular trench. The terms of the duel were simple: single combat, with no outside assistance for either Billy or Allison. Billy had insisted it not even be till first blood4. Instead, the first child knocked into the trench lost. If Billy won, the Catalpans would return to Bròn Binn empty handed. If Allison won, Myrddin would free Roundtable and submit himself to custody. 

The two children sealed the deal with a spit handshake, Myrddin watching intently. It put Allison on edge. How could Myrddin think this would turn out well for him? Allison had the combined fighting skill of dozens. Her flesh and bone were thoroughly posthuman. She could conjure lava and make the air boil. She could fly. She could control minds. Billy wasn’t even good at soccer. He wasn’t even using the magic sword. Myrddin had to have a trick up his sleeve. The fact Billy was still wearing Excalbur’s scabbard made her uneasy, too. It was either pointless, or secretly clever. Still, this was her best chance of ending things quickly. 

Myrddin bore Billy into the ring on invisible wings. Allison simply leapt across, her flight lending the movement a kind of eerie grace. Torchless flames bobbed and floated around the ring. On Allison’s side of the ring, the Catalpans were watching gravely. Mrs Kinsey was torn. On the one hand, she was obligated to support her daughter, and she was fighting for a good cause. On the other, she was also beating up a sweet, smaller boy. Nobody who loved either child wanted to see this. Meanwhile, on Billy’s side, Myrddin’s band of possessed superheroes were whooping and cheering:

Long live the king! Long live the king!

Myrddin, though, was silent. As a gesture of good faith, Bedwyr was presently binding his hands and covering his mouth, lest he work his sorcery. Billy and Allison stood opposite each other, feet fixed to the ground, Allison far more expertly. “I don’t want to hurt you, Allie,” Billy said.

“Then give up,” said Allison. Honestly, she couldn’t quite return Billy’s sentiment. He was being dumb. She would beat him sensible again. Her pleasure. And he’d hurt her mum. 

As part of the negotiations, Mistress Quickly had won the right to start the duel. She raised her multi-gun into the air. Her mask amplified her voice when she shouted, “En garde!”   

At the flash of the laser blast (to which Bedwyr gasped), the children screamed and ran for each other. Allison had expected an easy fight. She was surprised to be the first to be knocked flat. She charged Billy with all the speed her legs could muster, going for an easy clothesline to send him sprawling from the ring. The first shockwave simply took her legs from under her with a yelp.

And then he kicked her in the face.

… What?

She barely felt it, but still. Allison was thankful Billy was wearing shoes. Myrrdin’s knights cheered. The Catalpans were gripped by a stunned silence.

Billy looked down at her, his eyes glassy.

“I have to win, Allie,” he said, his tone apologetic. “I’m sorry.”

She would have answered, if another bark of sonic force hadn’t sent her scrambling to the side. She reached out for a song. Comet. Tried to blast herself towards Billy with Ralph’s tempestuous flight power. Nothing happened. The song was there—inside her—  but she couldn’t touch it. She tried for Arnold’s. Same thing. “Time out!” she shouted.

Against all reason, Billy halted.

“What?” he asked.

“Why aren’t my powers working?”

Billy looked back at Myrddin, frowning. “You said you wouldn’t mess with Allie.”

“She may use whatever power or skill is within the ring.” Myrrdin explained, his mouth momentarily unbound by Bedwyr. “No more, no less.”

“That’s not fair!” cried Allison. 

“So you should be allowed to pilfer the might of all your friends, while my king must fight alone?” He shrugged. “Make do with the three strains of enchantment inside you. My liege shall still best you.”

Allison glared.

Like hell he will. Allison frowned hard. “Time in.” She took a hold of Billy’s song, letting the electric riffs vibrate through her. Mercury matter-mist bloomed in her hand just long enough to twist the air into sand. She flew at Billy, throwing the sand into his eyes. Billy screamed, throwing his own shimmering field up in front of him like a wall. It evaporated to reveal an actual wall of rough stone. It stopped her short, but only for a moment, and he still had to clear his eyes. 

Allison circled back while the boy-king rubbed them clear, then tackled him from behind. Billy reached behind him and grabbed her by the hair, pulling hard enough to pull follicles free. A complete schoolboy move, but effective. Allison screamed before she drove her knee between his legs. He dodged with a frankly impressive degree of agility, but she still made contact. He squeaked.

Why am I doing this? Allison asked herself. She managed to get a hand on the nape of Billy’s neck and tried to worm her will into him—  

Allie, don’t—  

It was like touching a live electrical outlet with her tongue. Inside of her, Miri and Alberto grew faint, like shadows withering in candlelight. She flinched away, remembering Miri’s attempt to get inside Billy.

Did you not see Miri’s fuckup, Allie?

There was no time out this time. She hesitated, and that gave Billy enough time to sink his claws into her wrist, hard enough to draw blood. Her fingers flexed instinctively, and his neck was free. Billy snarled at Allison. “Cheater!” 

Even that was enough to rustle her hair. 

Billy vanished. Allison couldn’t even figure out where his song was coming from, as though the ring was equipped with surround sound playing Billy’s soul. Somewhere to the left, she heard a deep breath. She took flight, just in time to brace herself against Billy’s voice. She threw her internal momentum against the onslaught of sound. It was like walking backwards against a hurricane. She turned around to see Billy pop back into being, still roaring. Slowly, Allison was pushed back, the ground beneath her being stripped of grass and topsoil. When she was just over the edge of the pit, Billy ran out of breath and bent over gasping. Allison looked down and smiled grimly. “You really think you can get me down there?’

Billy knew Allison thought he was dumb, or at least not as bright as her. For once, he was glad for that. He dug his feet into the ground. Matter mist crept out from under his shoes, weaving  between particles of soil and rock and flowing out from the trench wall. In the deep shadow, you couldn’t make out the scattering of silver glitter. Allison didn’t notice when she inhaled it. Inside her lungs, oxygen turned to nitrous oxygen. As it worked into her blood and brain, she started to giggle, her flight becoming shaky. Billy raised his hands, more matter-mist erupting from in front of his palms. It reared above Allison, condensing air into something much heavier. 

The Crimson Comet shouted, “Look out, Allie!” but the sound of his voice didn’t make it past the trench’s outer wall. That would be helping, after all. Heavy chains dropped on top of Allison. If she’d been in a fit state, she could’ve kept afloat. Right now, they threatened to overwhelm her. She thrashed and yelled like Marley’s ghost, and that was when a final, ragged shout from Billy shoved her hard down onto the trench floor—  

Allison felt grass beneath her cheek. Grey, weary light momentarily dazzled her wide, dark-drinking pupils. Allison tricked her body into thinking she was lifting a car off her mother or best friend and threw the chains aside with a grunt. When she got up, she found her friends, Lyons, and the SAS troops milling confusedly about her. They were back on Bròn Binn. The Phare was swinging its arclight blade across the sky. Allison couldn’t tell if it was early morning or evening. It reminded her of falling asleep sick in the afternoon, and waking up not knowing if she’d slept for a day or an hour. 

“Good going, Allie!” cried David. “You lost to Billy.”

“He had a dumb magic sword thingy helping him! Like to see you try!”

“Sure, I’d win!”

Mabel was looking up at the sky. “Does anyone know the time difference between Scotland and Cornwall?”

“Officially, there is none,” answered Jack Lyons. “Nature disagrees, but not this much.”

The sound of hurried footsteps and martial, circular breathing. A fresh batch of soldiers were running up to them, aiming their guns at them. Allison threw her arms up indignantly. “Hey! We were invited!”

The soldiers parted for a disheveled looking Sir Edwards. The skin under his eyes was grey for lack of sleep. “And where the hell were you?”

Jack Lyons fielded that one, “Tintagel, if you’ll recall, Sir Edwards. I’m afraid we failed to capture Myrddin or secure the St. George boy.”

Sir Edwards shook his head. “You’re telling me! You’ve been gone eight days! The country is on the brink! We’ve had to send the royal family to Canada! We’re governing out of regional fallout shelters!”

“But we were just—” Allison grit her teeth, then snarled, “Friggin magic!” At least she knew what Myrddin’s trick was. Except, that didn’t make sense. Allison still had to lose first. Maybe that was the trick. Assuming Billy was a complete pushover. Allison suddenly felt both mean and foolish. 

Mistress Quickly did the sums in her head. “I’d say we could’ve made that with a light jog? Assuming we could walk on water”—Maude raised a finger as David opened his mouth—“all walk on water.” She sighed. “I’ll say this, he didn’t factor in breaks.”

“Wait,” said Jack. “You’re saying he made us walk back?”

Who bloody cares?” Sir Edwards yelled. “What are you going to do about London?”

One by one, the new arrivals turned to look at him.

“…What’s wrong with London?” asked Allison.

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1. An ancient, torsion-powered Roman catapult.

2. American, European, or Australian, take your pick.

3. A force of habit on Billy’s part, as Elizabeth the Second had ascended to the throne in 1965.

4. Not that that would even work, given the scabbard’s properties.

Chapter One Hundred and Fourteen: The Tiger of Albion

On a peninsula they called an island, Myrddin Wyllt sat in front of a cave. The seer had visited the place many times. Spent hours squatting in its dark mouth waiting for the tide to come in, a seed daring to be swallowed. For when the cave drank the sea, the future washed over him. Not today, though. Right now, Myrddin needed the winter-weary sun. A pile of books lay in the sand next to him. They were strange to the grain. They were written in a script Myrddin had until now glimpsed only in visions. Their paper was white as pearl, yet painfully thin and flimsy. His fingers kept tearing the page corners. He could tell the text within wasn’t the work of human hands. A monk could spend a year on the thinnest volume and not produce such miniscule, immaculately consistent marks, with less than an ant’s width between each letter. And some of these books were more than a thousand pages long. Myrddin knew this for a fact. They put numbers on them. Had men forgotten how to count? 

Myrddin did not like much of what he read. The world he’d slept through was a swamp of pain and violence. Wars that would once have consumed hundreds or thousands now boasted deaths in numbers Myrddin had never needed to know. Human craft now surpassed even his greatest magics. Now men could end the world by accident. Worse still, some would do it on purpose. Who should be able to boast that power but God? One god, though men today were afraid to use the word, had tried to take away that power. Tried to save every man, woman and child in this world.

They’d killed him for that.

Right now, Myrddin was reading about himself, albeit under the name the Romans had given him. When he was young, he would have been thrilled to hear men sing of him. Every bard wished for that. To be transfigured from singer to song. Now it was a cruel joke. It wasn’t even the slander. Calling him a cambion, the fruit of diabolical outrage. People had been whispering that behind his back for years. Fools who could only think what their priests told them. The kind who couldn’t name what came between day and night. It was what had happened after Nimuë put him in the earth. 

Myrddin watched the dusty silver waves crash onto the shore. He remembered the morning they’d carried a naked babe to his feet, warm and alive in those cold waters, his red shock of hair a flame they could not extinguish. He remembered raising the child to the sky and weeping. “Here is an heir for Uther!” Tennyson had him shout. 

The poet was wrong. Uther—Uthyr—couldn’t have been further from Myrddin’s mind. All that mattered was that he had a prince. A prince who would bring peace to the land. Myrddin wasn’t surprised that people called him a devil. Easier to believe his power and madness—and Myrddin had gone mad—was born from the pit, not mere human violence. From watching his lord and his brother be slaughtered in front of him. Myrddin’s allies and beneficiaries claimed his visions came from God. That He had given Myrddin leave to practise his magic. Myrddin couldn’t believe that. Not unless God lived in the shadows of trees. In silence so deep, Myrddin could hear his tears hit the ground.

All his efforts. All his sins and miracles. They had not lasted a single lifetime. 

Myrddin felt something rushing towards him across the sea—  

A boy with a mask like a bandit stood in the surf. His skin was concealed by short, black-striped orange fur, a cat’s tail waving behind him. He was holding a sword shakily above his head. Caledfwlch. Myrddin slowly got to his feet, dropping the Idylls of the King. His mouth fell agape. In the same moment, Caledfwlch slipped out of the boy’s clawed hands into the water.

“Sorry, sorry!” cried Billy St. George. He looked about the beach. “Um, excuse me, sir, am I still in France?”

Myrddin ran into the water, embracing the strange child.

Billy patted the man’s side awkwardly. “Ah, hi.”

Once more, the world had delivered Myrddin a prince. Once more, he wept.

“Are you okay mister?”

⬗ 

The gaol on Bròn Binn wasn’t meant for long-term confinement. It was a simple brick building with five cells, each with an old-fashioned iron barred door. Any member of Roundtable could’ve torn it apart all on their lonesome. Metropole could even politely ask the cell doors to open themselves. It was a drunk tank, a place for hot tempers to cool. If the Ministry of Paranormality needed to properly imprison a superhuman, they had another island for that, a bleak place between the Outer Hebridees and… somewhere else. Today, though, escape was impossible. At least, if Allison Kinsey said it was.

Sir Cai sat brooding on the cell bench. They hadn’t given him back the helmet. He liked the helmet. Sir Cai itched without it on, like there were archers aiming for his head. A weakness inherited from the flesh he wore. He’d spent a few minutes experimenting with the strange water-powered latrine, until he heard the red-eyed girl laughing at him. He had tried to stop for the sake of his dignity, but it became a compulsion as urgent as breath. His actions weren’t his own. Sir Cai could not even beg for release. He was only able to pull himself away when the witch-child tilted her head and wrinkled her nose, as though a ghost had whispered a bad joke in his ear.

“Come on,” said Allison. “Just tell us what you were doing in the forest.”

The girl looked like Nimuë’s spawn. Bloodless as a fish. Bending men with only a touch and her voice. Sir Cai wanted to see the girl’s bones break from the weight of the air on her shoulders. He wanted to bury her in the rubble of this building. But his new magic lay still inside him, as though an iron horseshoe had been hung around his neck. Glaring back at the girl and her black-clad companion was all the spite Sir Cai could muster.  

Allison rolled her eyes. Alberto was going to gloat for days. “Spit it out.”

“I was left to guard the sword,” Sir Cai blurted, unable to stop himself.

“And why did Merlin stick his magic sword in a French rock?” asked Mistress Quickly. “Seems like a waste of good metal.”

Sir Cai grit his teeth. “His name—isn’t…” He screwed his eyes shut, tremoring, before the answer fled his lips. “…It was our land before the whore put Myrddin in the earth. He didn’t realize that had changed until he drove Caledfwlch into the stone. Said he didn’t have time to pull it back out…”

Sir Cai flinched at Mistress Quickly’s laughter. It was the mirth of wasps. “Oh, I’ve been there, mate.”

“And they just left you. All by yourself.”

Sir Cai stood tall. “Only I was worthy.”

“Did they tell you where they were going?”

Sir Cai frowned. “Great Britain, of course.”

Allison huffed. “Did they tell you where in Great Britain?”

“…I did not need to know.”

“Course not.” Allison squinted at Starry Knight’s mind, bricked up behind the edifice of Sir Cai. Anthony Peake was trapped in a ship that shouldn’t have existed for nearly fifty years, beyond the reach of one world and falling short of another. The stale, four day old air stank of sweat and fear. Warning claxons blended with screams. Over and over, they fell to Earth. A memory prison built of despair and self-recrimination. Merlin hadn’t lacked for building materials. 

“You know,” said Allison, “I’m not surprised Myriddin left you to guard the sword.”

Sir Cai smiled. “I see my reputation has not withered with the ages.”

Allison shrugged her shoulders. “You mean people still remember you’re a prat? Yeah, they do.”

Anthony Peake’s lips and eyebrows twitched as Sir Cai searched his host’s vocabulary. His face went red when he realized what the girl called him. “Mind your tongue, you pale little slattern!”

“Oh come on, everyone knows you were a dickhead.” Allison glanced up at Mistress Quickly. “Mistress, do you remember what Robert Graves called our guest?”

“Afraid I don’t, Allie.” It was the truth, but Maude tried to make it sound ironic.

Allison smiled acidly at Sir Cai. “A buffoon. The chief of cooks.”

Sir Cai’s hand flew to a sword that wasn’t there. “I’ll have his head!”

“Remember when Percival broke your shoulder? Because you slapped a lady!”

“She had it coming!”

Allison tutted.

“No wonder your dad liked Arthur more.”

“That’s a lie!”

That was one use for precognition: knowing what insults would land. 

“Is it?” asked Allison. “While you’re answering questions, why’d ya kill Loholt? Your own nephew<a title=”A piece of genuine slander found only in Perlesvaus, an Old French Arthurian romance from the 13th century.” href=”#fn1″ id=”ref1″>1…”

Sir Cai stammered. The red rage in his cheeks became white hot. An old wound opened inside him. He remembered his brother’s son fading away, after what they did to him at Din Guarie2. How Arthur and Gwenhwyfar had wept… 

“As I live and breathe, girl my sword shall be your bridegroom.”

Mistress Quickly grimaced behind her mask, but Allison just giggled. “I bet Arthur only let you in the club because he felt sorry for you. You bent the knee to your own squire.”            

Sir Cai roared. “I am a prince of Dyfed!”

Allison folded her arms and raised her chin. “You’re a Welsh warlord nobody even remembers, gone a thousand years.”

Jack Lyons stood guard outside the gaol block, shaking his head at what he heard. This wasn’t interrogation. Just childish cruelty. He heaved a sigh. It wouldn’t be working so well if her words weren’t true. Sir Cai probably deserved every word. He wished he could let his mind slide off it, like the children cavorting in the air above him: one spectral, the other icy mist.     

They were playing tag. While their friend tore her way through a dead man’s psyche. While their friend was God knows where, probably in the company of a murderous wizard. No wonder the Catalpans hadn’t seen him as strange. He was the least of it.

“When did this all get so normal for you?” he asked, more to himself than to them.

Miri stopped mid-air.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “This is normal.”

Jack chuckled.

“No, little miss. It really isn’t.”

David dropped out the air, bare flesh again, and shrugged. “Says you.”

“Says reality, precedent,” Jack countered. “Behind me, a little girl is interrogating a man from a fairy-story for the Crown. I’m a dead man recreated by alien technology again and again in a lighthouse basement, and even to me, this is too much. When did you get so numb to it all?”

The children looked at each other.

“I mean,” Miri said, “An alien made me too. It’s not that weird.”

“All of this got pretty normal after some arsehole shot my mum,” David added. “Hard to top that. Besides, who wants to be normal? You’re like, immortal. Even more immortal than me!”

Jack shook his head. “No, Mr. Venter. I’m not immortal. I get to die as many times as Queen and Country ask of me. And if someone wrecked the contraption under our feet, Jack Lyons would be gone forever in less than five weeks, even this animate cadaver that stands before you.”

“You’re a Frankenstein?” asked David. “Neat.”     

“You mean the monster?” Jack corrected3. “No.” Never use metaphorical language with children. Especially ones who forgot to dress. “I’m more like one of Miss Henderson’s creations. Simply one that can only be sent away by time.”

There was a quiet, then Miri spoke.

“Um,” she asked. “What does dying feel like? I think I died once. I kinda wanna be sure.”

He looked at her, one eyebrow raised. “The first time—when the real Jack Lyons died—was like being turned inside out and set on fire.. Machinery commiting my cells and atoms to memory with basilisk eyes.” 

David frowned. “People used to call my dad that. Dumb name.” 

“My apologies. Never mean to offend. Dying is not a standardized experience. In France—after my scrape with Mr. Rivers, of course—Jerry dropped a bomb on me. Didn’t feel a thing. One second there was a whistle in my ears, the next someone was handing me a towel and some trousers in the cavern. I believe they were sending me to Suez.”  

“What’s it like when you just… don’t die long enough?” asked Miri. 

Jack sighed. “I grow numb, Miss Kinsey. I’m told for most dying people, touch goes last. For me it’s the first. Sometimes I think it’s purgatory washing over me. My echoes only last a month or two. Most of them are spent in airplanes and offices. How can they merit paradise or damnation?” Jack Lyons shook himself. He was getting poetic. Never a good sign. He looked sharply at the fae children. “I must ask, how can you two play while your friend is missing?” He pointed at David. “And where did your costume go?”

“Got bored of it,” David answered, running into Miri’s own reply:

“You heard Allie,” she said, again, perplexed. “Billy’s fine. His futures are still pretty much okay.”

David kept talking, “And I don’t get cold anyway. Well, I do, but it’s fun.”   

Jack Lyons almost envied the boy. Not so much the shamelessness—Jack was proud of his tailoring—but these days, differences in temperature weren’t even interesting to him anymore. As relevant to his well being as his elevation above sea-level. He remembered being seven years old, heading to boarding school in Scotland for the first time. He’d felt like his bones would shatter from the cold. He missed that. 

“Way I see it,” said David. “You’re lucky. You got off the human train, and now you can take bullets to the chest—”

Miri thrust her arm through David’s head. Jack winced at the sight.        

“You’re it!” she yelled, plunging through the scrubby ground.

David swore gleefully. “Bitch! I’mma getcha for that!” 

The boy collapsed into water, his remains soaking into the cold soil like it was the height of summer. 

Maybe that was his problem, thought Jack Lyons. He was a man with a monster’s life. These children resembled only themselves. Perhaps that was a blessing. 

Allison and Mistress Quickly exited the gaol. Allison had a peeved satisfaction, like someone who’d swatted a spider but now had to clean it up. 

“Doesn’t sound like you had much luck in there,” commented Jack. 

“Nope,” Mistress Quickly replied with mechanical flatness. 

“Was hoping he’d lose control if we got him really mad,” said Allison. “But he’s wedged inside Mr. Peake pretty tight.” She looked up at Jack. “You ever had to open a drawer, but it’s so full of junk it gets caught?”

“Afraid I haven’t had the pleasure, but I think I understand the principle.”

“Let me guess,” said Mistress Quickly. “The kitchen was the domain of the servants?”

“…Yes,” admitted Jack Lyons. 

Allison continued, “And you’re afraid if you pull too hard you’ll break something and your dad will smack you…”  She trailed off, eyes snapping to Maude. “Couple of nights ago, could you see me in your bedroom?”

Jack Lyons glanced sideways at Mistress Quickly. She tried not to meet his eyes. “…Yes. Yes I could.” She tapped the lenses of her mask. “Contacts.”

“Can you see ghosts?”  

“Yes, actually.” Maude titled her gloved hand. “Ghosts kind of live on the border of science and magic. Bit like jaffa cakes.” She looked between Allison and Jack Lyons. “I mean, are they cakes, or biscuits? Does it matter?”

“I believe the answer’s in the name,” opined Lyons. 

“They’re biscuits,” said Allison. She would’ve argued the case further, but there were more pressing matters. “Can you catch ghosts, Maude?”

Mistress Quickly rubbed her chin and clicked her tongue. It sounded like a soda-tab being pulled. “I had been looking into making Miri a timeout corner…”

“And then what happened?”

Billy shrunk slightly in his chair. The thing nobody told you about round tables was how easily everyone’s eyes fell on one person. It made Billy ticklish. All these heroes—these real knights—staring at him, waiting for him to speak like he was Jack Lyons. Or King Arthur. Billy swallowed. “We made the prison disappear with everyone in it. Then we built our town around it.”

The knights let out a great cheer. Some were still in their new superhero gear, a bit grubby after two weeks of continuous use. Others had tried to adapt modern fashion, to limited success. Sir Gawaine, clad in the flesh of the Welsh hero Rock Cannon, had covered himself with belts; around his waist, his shoulders, and across his chest. He slapped Myrddin on the shoulder. “Now why didn’t you ever pull that trick for us?”

Merlin—Myrddin, Billy didn’t want to be rude—wasn’t what the boy had expected. Billy had always pictured the legendary wizard as a spindly, white-bearded old man in a blue robe and pointy hat. Sometimes the robe or hat (or both) was bedazzled with stars. But Myrrdin… well, he was old, Billy supposed, but only as much as Mr. Rivers. His beard was short and black, with only the smallest flecks of grey. Solidly built, too. He could have been mistaken for a knight himself. Unlike them, though, he was dressed quite acceptably for his place and time in a brown tweed suit. If Billy had been more exposed to the world’s stereotypes, he might’ve said he looked like a secondary school maths teacher. Myrddin sipped his wine evenly. “Clearly our young king’s powers are beyond even mine.”

Billy felt himself blush beneath his fur. They kept calling him that. King. Far as he knew, neither his mother nor father were any kind of royalty, even if they were rich. The sword must be broken. “It wasn’t really my powers,” he insisted. “Mau—Mistress Quickly was the one who disappeared the prison. A lot of people made it happen.” He shrugged. “I didn’t do much…”

Disbelieving laughter.

“Do not sell yourself short, William,” said Myrddin. “By the sounds of it, this Mistress Quickly wouldn’t have been able to smuggle in her tools if it weren’t for your bravery. No, you did not liberate the fortress alone, but no king rules without a retinue. Arthur didn’t. Your modesty and generosity with credit due speaks well of you.”

“Uh, thanks,” said Billy.

A few seats down from Billy, Sir Bedwyr raised Ironclad’s hand. With Sir Cai and Starry Knight absent from the table, Sir Bedwyr and the form he’d stolen most looked the part of a true knight, clad in armour seemingly shaped from old British automobiles. “If you’d pardon the request, your highness, could you show us your alchemy again.”

Billy had gathered that meant his matter-mist. He nodded. Billy didn’t think saying no would be smart. These people were baddies—even if they had the same names as brave knights—and Billy supposed he was their prisoner, even if they thought he was the king of… something. Besides, saying no would be rude. “Sure.” He spread his arms and wriggled his fingers. A ribbon of shiny fog weaved between Billy’s hands. He squinted, tongue poking out the corner of his mouth. Red, blue and green plumes of flame whistled out from the mist, flaring rhythmically to “Click Go the Shears.”

The knights applauded. Sir Bedwyr had his hands under his chin in awe. “I spent years trying to transmute the elements. Our king does it on a whim…”

Billy found himself smiling. In a city of wonders, it was easy to forget you were special. He shook himself. Bad people, Billy reminded himself. He’d seen what they’d done to those people in Brocéliande. Billy looked straight at Myrddin, trying to channel some of Tom Long’s steel into his gaze. “Mr… Myrddin, why did you kill all those people? In the forest I mean. Dr. Merlin had freed you, and you killed him.”

A hush fell over the table. A few of the knights hung their heads.

“Your highness,” said Myrddin, “Dr. Merlin and his compatriots did not wake me out of kindness. They wanted to use me. Make me into a weapon in a swollen, far away war, waged not for the good of the Britons, but that of their rulers. I would not be made a tool of selfish men. I’m sure you can understand, if what you’ve told me of this Lawrence is true.”

Billy guessed he did… sort of. He knew Lawrence’s plans made Allison and David mad. Billy knew it should’ve made him mad. But the idea of married days had never scared him. Babies were cute. There were a bunch of girls at the Institute he liked hugging and playing with. The prospect was too far away to even be real, like old age or the year 2000. 

“I will admit that I perhaps… acted hastily,” said Myrddin. “But rest assured, your highness, I and my knights have not shed any innocent blood since then, either here or in the forest.”

“You sure?” asked Billy. “Starry—Sir Cai seemed… mean.”

“Do not trouble yourself. I ordered Sir Cai not to harm any civilian he came across. One of the conditions of his new life—for all your knights, William—is that they cannot disobey my commands.”

Some of the knights muttered assent. 

“He tried to kill Arnold,” Billy said.

“He attacked first. I couldn’t leave a knight unable to defend himself.”

A thought occurred to Billy. “Wait, if I’m the king, shouldn’t they be listening to me?”

“Our king has a good point,” said Galahad. He had been sleeved into the form of Gloriana—a lady super of considerable strength. Her white body glove had gone grey with grime. Galahad held himself incredibly stiffly, Billy thought. He (she?) looked like David when made to wear… most things. “We swore our oaths to Arthur, not you.”

Myrrdin nodded. “An oversight, yes. When I put your souls into their new forms, I didn’t know if anyone living was still worthy to pull Caledfwlch free.” He looked earnestly at Billy. “But do not worry, your highness, I am sworn to your service, and through me, your knights.” 

Lanslod4—lodged in the body of Weathermonger—slapped Billy on the shoulder, almost knocking him out of his chair. “Your highness, you haven’t touched your wine!”

Billy regarded the dark red glass next to his dinner dubiously. “I’m a kid. I’m not s’posed to drink wine.”

The knights all laughed, bar Galahad. “Wine is a vice,” he said. “Our king is wise to avoid its influence.”

Lanslod laughed. “Do loosen up, daughter.” He leaned to his other neighbour. “My, this new tongue has such funny phrases.”

Galahad suppressed a grimace. “I am not your daughter.” Under his breath, he added, “And you’re still loose enough for the both of us…” 

“What do you drink then?” Lanslod asked Billy. “When your tongue bores of water?”

“Orange juice?” offered Billy. “Coke?”

“I’ve tried that,” said Bedwyr. “The bubbles sting the tongue.”

Billy struggled to imagine a knight being hurt by coke.            

“Come on, your highness,” said Lanslod. “A little wine has never hurt a growing boy.”

Billy glanced around the table. Everyone was looking at him expectantly. Even Myrddin was cooly observing him. Billy gulped. Didn’t want to look like a wimp in front of the evil fake knights. He snatched up the glass of wine and threw it down his throat. It tasted like cough medicine. Burny cough medicine. Billy sputtered, pink spit splattering against his dinner plate. The knights cheered and laughed. It didn’t strike Billy as cruel, though. More like how Betty would laugh when he messed something up. Like he was telling a brilliant joke. Billy noticed he was smiling again, and again, he tried to banish it. This wasn’t real. They were like Lawrence, pretending to like him—  

Except Lawrence had never been good at pretending he liked Billy. He’d seen how the old man refused to look directly at him. He knew he’d wanted Miss Żywie to change him. Make him look normal. That idea had scared Billy way more than married days.

Myrddin raised a hand. The mirth subsided. “I shall leave you good knights to your revels,” he said. “Your highness, if we could talk in private?”

Billy nodded. “Okay.”

The pair left the knights to sing and drink at the King Arthur’s Castle Hotel5’s replica roundtable. It was actually more accurate than most such recreations: it was made of wood. Centuries of treasure-hunters had been searching in vain. Of course, King Arthur’s roundtable had never rested anywhere near Tintagel. The Pendragon in fact hadn’t spent much time in the area at all: only his conception and a few days after his birth. But pilgrimage sites and tourist-traps had been built with less reason. The hotel was fortunately in custodianship for the winter. As they made their way through the halls of the hotel, Billy wondered if he should be trying to escape. It seemed like what Allison, or David, or especially Tom would be doing. Stupid idea, Billy decided. Allison could fly. David could slither through water-pipes or swim through the ocean. Tom could just walk right through the walls. Billy didn’t even know really where he was, aside from probably England6. And he couldn’t well ask for directions, looking the way he did. Best sit tight and wait for the others to save him. 

The thought of that made him angry with himself.

Billy sat on the four-poster bed in the hotel’s most expensive suite. Myrddin had occupied it until he arrived, but he was eager to hand it over to his liege. At the moment, he was gazing out the room’s window, into the night.

“Mr. Myrddin,” said Billy. “What do you want me for?”

Myrddin was silent for a moment. “William, do you know why I put the first Pendragon on the throne?”

“You mean Arthur? Because he was the rightful king.”

“But why was he the right king?”

“…I don’t know? He seemed like a good bloke.”

“He was,” said Myrddin. “But he needed to be strong, too. To unite the Britons. To protect them from the deprecations of invaders and the petty tyrants within our borders; and sometimes, to protect the people from themselves. From their own pride and ambition. These islands once ruled more of the world than Rome at her height.” Myrddin shook his head. “So much cruelty. And for what? So they could moan over past glory while their country rots around them.”

Billy suspected Myrddin was talking about Grown-Up Stuff. He could just make out the corners of what the wizard was saying. “Um, sir, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but England still has a king”—Billy shook his head—“Queen, now. It changed last year.”

Myrddin grit his teeth and tried to ignore the part about England. Far too late to do anything about that. “I am aware of the House of Windsor, William. Layabouts. Had to change their name so people wouldn’t notice they were German. Is it true that each year, their current chieftess reads out a speech written by her ministers and pretends they’re her words7? Her ideas? She is a figurehead. A puppet worked by very small men.”         

“Maybe?”

Myrddin strode over to Billy, kneeling so he was eye-level with the boy. “There’s a war coming, William. One that will engulf this country and the rest of the world. It will drown these islands in fire. Sour the sea and soil. Poison the people’s very bones. More folk live in the British Isles now than any other time. I can save them all, but it will mean… a change in the way they live. In the country itself. They’ll need a leader to guide them through it. A ruler; kind, strong, and wise I know you’re kind, Billy. It drips from your words. You’re strong, too. And I can help you be wise.”

Billy gulped. “But I’m just a kid.”

Merlin thought he was strong. Merlin. Wasn’t he supposed to be smart?

“Your friend Allison, she’s not much older than you. And she’s protecting her own corner of the world.”

“You… like what Allison’s doing?” Billy asked. 

“She is trying to build a better place. It is admirable. I only wish all the peoples of the world had someone like you or her to guide them. It is providence you two met. You have seen how one so small can bear the burden of power.”

“…I don’t want to leave them.”

“We all must make sacrifices. I’m sure Allison has.”

Allison had. But she also had one thing Billy didn’t. “Myrddin, you know stuff, right?”

“Many things. Never enough.”

“Could I ask you something?”

“Of course, William. I am your servant.”

“Betty. The lady who took care of me. I’ve been waiting for her to come to Catalpa for ages. Can you—can you see if she still wants me?”

Myrddin closed his eyes. “I will try, my king.” Omens put on mystery plays behind the wizard’s eyelids. He sighed. “I see a woman with a pink-skinned child in her arms. She is… content.”

Billy sat there on the bed. He blinked. His breathing lost its rhythm as he started to sob. Myrddin put his arms around the child. Sometimes, Myrddin wondered, if things had turned out differently, could he have been kind?

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. A piece of genuine slander found only in Perlesvaus, an Old French Arthurian romance from the 13th century.

2. A Celtic fort in Northumberland, later the site of Bamburgh Castle.

3. A distinction without a meaning, as clearly the creature from Frankenstein would bear his father’s surname.

4. Commonly rendered in modern English as “Lancelot.”

5. It was later renamed Camelot Castle Hotel—an even less accurate name.

6. Specifically the Atlantic coast of Cornwall.

7. Myrddin is referring to the State Opening of Parliament, which includes a speech by the current British monarch detailing the government’s plans for the coming year.

Chapter One Hundred and Thirteen: A Cavourite Knight

The North Sea storm imposed itself on the mediterranean winter just long enough to deposit Jack Lyons and the Catalpa supers in Brocéliande Forest. The roaring waves and moaning wind fell to birdsong and a crisp breeze whispering through bare oaks and birches. Billy St. George shuffled his feet, enjoying the crunch of fallen leaves. “This is nice,” he said.

“Says the boy with fur,” said Mabel, awkwardly trying to rub her hands together without dropping her picture binder. A pair of comic-panel gloves grew over them from her sleeves.

David sighed happily and spread his arms, hints of frost in his costume. “Ah, my homeland.”

“Your mum spoke Occitan, didn’t she?” asked Allison, taking in their landing site. “They’re more southeast of here.”

“Same thing,” said David.

The Crimson Comet looked up through the trees. The sky was showering down the kind of exhausted sunshine that only comes after a rainstorm. The sigh of the heavens. “You know, back in the War, I don’t think I ever noticed how beautiful this country is.”

Close-Cut threw his arm around the superhero, twirling his Saint George’s Cross umbrella in his free hand. “That’s probably because you were busy being shot at.”

Wally,” Ralph said out the corner of his mouth, tilting his head towards Jack Lyons. “Not in front of the hundred year old straight.

“Can we please get on with it?” snapped Arnold. “My mum is waiting for us!”

Jack Lyons clapped. “I must agree with young Mr. Barnes here. His mother isn’t the only one.” He looked at Allison. “Does our little oracle have anything to add before we set out?”

Allison looked warily at the man. Who are you? “So we all know the expedition was looking for King Arthur and Excalibur.”

“Should’ve asked me,” said Mistress Quickly. “King Arthur died years back.”

Jack Lyons arched an eyebrow. “Isn’t that something of an understatement, Mistress Quickly?”

She shrugged. “Depends. How long ago was World War 2?”

Jack Lyons blinked, shaking his head slightly. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

“King Arthur returned in 1941. Surely a good candidate for ‘Britain’s Darkest Hour’ don’t you agree?” 

“What happened to him?” asked Close-Cut.

“Blown up in the Cardiff Blitz. Turns out a king isn’t much on his own.”

“Good lord,” said Jack Lyons. “You didn’t think to tell anyone?” 

“When is a good time during a war to tell a country their legendary hero king lies dead under a pile of Welsh rubble?”

Jack Lyons bowed his head. “God save the King…” 

“Could’ve gotten ugly if He did,” said Mistress Quickly. “England’s out of practise with civil wars. It would’ve been a bad time for a succession crisis.”

“Look,” said Allison, “we already knew the Poms were wasting their time.” 

Jack Lyons frowned. “Now hang on a moment, young lady—”

Allison raised a finger. “I think Starry Knight is why the expedition’s missing.”

“Why’s that?” asked Arnold.

“His file said he had… problems,” answered Allison. “Also, we fight him in six—seven—out of ten versions of today.”

“Great,” said Mabel. “Got that to look forward to.”

“Poor guy,” said Billy.

“We can take him,” added David. 

“Also,” said Allison. “If we walk that way for about four miles”—she pointed eastward—“we’re gonna see something horrible. I’m guessing it’s got something to do with this?”

“You guess?” said Close-Cut.

Allison grit her teeth. “I don’t get context, guys.” 

Miri appeared beside her sister, giving everyone a small wave. “Good morning!”

“Miri,” said Allison, “your range is better than mine. Go scout for Starry Knight.”

Miri nodded. “Okay.” 

She vanished. As she did, Allison quickly shouted after her, “Do it invisible!”

Allison knew for a fact there was only a fifty-fifty chance she’d listen. “Right,” she said. “Let’s go.”

The party made their way through the forest, Allison leading the way. They walked through fields of dead leaves and melting sleet; rough diamonds hidden in gold and amber. Billy had to be stopped from running after a doe he spotted. It started to rain a few times, but only enough to tickle the partys’ skin. Close-Cut didn’t even bother opening his umbrella. For a few metres, the trees off their right opened to reveal a large pond, winter-black with slicks of sunlight playing across its surface. Any other day, it would’ve been a pleasant country ramble. Jack Lyons kept humming. They tried to avoid the many paths and roads that snaked through the forest. People called it a “fairy wood” but Brocéliande was hardly wilderness. Folks of all sorts had been going about their business in Paimpont since the Stone Age. The woods were dotted with cottages, manors, and even old industrial forges. If fairies had ever lived in Brocéliande, they had probably moved out even before the abbey was built. 

As Allison walked, the horrible thing loomed larger in the swarming futures. Clouds of possibility converged together, swallowing other alternatives. She tried to look past it, to the glittering, golden future she was working towards. A crowd of thousands—millions—cheering for Allison and her friends, Billy, for some reason, holding a gleaming sword above his head. Catalpa building higher and better. The sun, hiding behind the storm. That had to be worth some fights and grossness… 

“Bon sang1!

The supers swung around to find three sets of eyes staring at them—one man and two women. Twenty-somethings. They were all dressed in winter hiking gear, collapsible trekking poles in hand. They looked terrified. Jack Lyons stepped forward and spread his arms, smiling benignly. “Bonjour! Nous ne vous voulons aucun mal2.”   

The three screamed, dropping their walking sticks and fleeing into the trees. 

“Well that feels like a bit of an overreaction,” said Mistress Quickly. She looked at Close-Cut. “Maybe they saw your umbrella.” 

Close-Cut grunted. “It’d probably have helped if you weren’t wearing a bug-eyed gas-mask, my dear.”

Allison looked at Jack Lyons. “I’m guessing your bosses wouldn’t want them telling the coppers we were here?”

“Well, no—”

“I’ll handle it.”

Allison kicked off the ground, zooming after the hikers. She closed in on the man, wrapping her arms around his head. “Don’t squirm!” she shouted in French, sending Alberto’s hooks into her prey. He quickly went limp. Allison had to lower him gently onto the leaf-littered forest floor. She called back to her fellows, “Get the other two!”

The Crimson Comet looked sadly at the two fleeing women. He sighed. “Arnold, I really don’t want to risk hitting the poor ladies.”

“Sure thing, Ralph.”

The Crimson Comet appeared in a green flash directly in the women’s path. They screamed anew, turning to run in the other direction only for the hulking superhero to pull them into a very glum bear hug. They thrashed and beat their fists against his invulnerable chest:

Enfoirés! Bande de malades!3

“Enculé4! Espèce de cinglés5!”  

Ralph grimaced. “I’m very sorry, ladies.” Luckily for him, Allison was soon over to send the women to sleep with a touch. They laid the three hikers side-by-side on the softest patch of forest within reach. David had wanted to draw some moustaches on them, but was overruled by way of a smack from Ralph. 

“Will they be alright?” asked Jack Lyons. 

“Yeah,” said Allison. “They’ll wake up in like, ten minutes. Won’t remember us, either.”

“Find anything useful in their brains by any chance?” asked Mistress Quickly. 

“Yes, actually. Nothing first hand, but people and the papers ‘round here have been talking about a bunch of supervillains tearing up the place. Guess it isn’t just Starry Knight.”

Jack shook his head. “Doesn’t sound like Roundtable to me.”

“Have you ever met Roundtable, Mr. Lyons?” Allison asked sharply.

“I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure,” admitted Jack Lyons. “But I’ve been told they’re all good tommies.”

Mistress Quickly laughed. “British people causing a ruckus abroad, who’s ever heard of such a thing?”

“Huh,” said Mabel. “I thought you guys all worked at the Phare.”

Jack smiled. “I come and go.”

They moved on. After half an hour, Allison raised a hand at the edge of a clearing. Everyone stopped. “The horrible thing’s just ahead. Billy, you might want to stay here?”

Billy looked at Jack Lyons, thankful he didn’t notice. He wasn’t going to look like a wimp in front of him. Billy puffed his chest. “I can take it.”

Allison sighed. “Fine.” 

They walked into a campsite.  A young nation of flies buzzed about the stench; decay mixed with rain and new growth. Like compost. Rain pooled on the roofs of tents. Sodden books mouldered on workbenches. Equipment rusted like broken swords in the dirt, the archeological arms of corpses lying strewn in strange ruin. Some were missing their heads or had holes in their chests. Others looked like they’d been torn apart by wild dogs. A few people had been reduced to puddles of crushed flesh and bone, as though someone had dropped a marble block on top of them. 

At the centre was a pit of crystals next to a flat slab of rock. Its lid, no doubt. A man stood at the edge of the pit. Flowers grew from around his eyes, leaving dried trails of blood and dew. Beetles crawled in and out of the grass that erupted out his mouth. His neat philosopher’s beard had been colonized by moss. The only thing keeping him upright were the roots that had shot up through his body.

All Jack Lyons had to say was, “God rest their souls.”

Allison was very glad her mother and Mr. Barnes had stayed back at Bròn Binn, even as glorified hostages. She examined the standing corpse. His waistcoat was tyrian purple. Dr. Merlin. She heard Billy vomiting on his shoes. He was crying, too. 

Told ya. “Could someone take care of Billy?”

Close-Cut put a hand on Billy’s shoulder, gently leading him away from the scene. “Come on, boy, it’s alright.”

Mistress Quickly scanned a few of the corpses, electronic text dancing in her visor optics. She had reduced Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Peroit, and Miss Marple to a few circuits in her helmet.  She pointed at a headless young woman. “This poor girl looks like she was decapitated with one strong cut, but my spectographics can’t detect any metal particles.”

“Gloriana,” said Allison. “She makes swords and stuff out of light.”

Mistress Quickly turned to face one of the mauled bodies. “Teeth and claw marks are consistent with a wolf or wild dog, but the saliva in the wounds has human DNA.”

“Animal Kingdom. Turns into animals.”

Mistress Quickly stepped over to one of the gory human pancakes. “White male, mid-forties. If I’m reading this right, he either took a brief trip to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or a planet about five times the size of ours. Looks like you were right about Starry Knight, Allison.”

“You know,” said Close-Cut. “I can believe one superhero going nuts and murdering some archeologists. Two, on the same team? Bit less likely, but maybe it was a Bonnie and Clyde thing. Three of them, though? Something’s sus.”

“I don’t see any other superheroes lying around here,” commented Mabel. “Could’ve been more.”

“Maybe,” said the Crimson Comet. “But they also could’ve been in plainclothes.” He thought back to the hikers. “Come to think of it, maybe we should be.”

“I don’t dress down for anyone, dear,” said Close-Cut.

“There’s another thing,” said Allison. She tapped Dr. Merlin on the sleeve, immediately regretting it. It was like touching furry cheese. “Nobody on Roundtable can do this.”  

“I assume you’re going to check the yesterdays?” asked Mistress Quickly. 

“Yep,” said Allison. “Miri!” 

Miri appeared again beside her sister. “Yeah?”

“I’m going to look at the past. Mind the shop.”

“You know, sis, you’re getting kinda bossy lately—”

“Just do it.”

Miri rolled her eyes. “Fine.” Miri vanished. Allison’s costume morphed into her sister’s. 

Once she was sure Miri was firmly in the driver’s seat, Allison stepped out of their shared body. It disappeared behind her, carried away by the flow of days. The sun and moon flickered above Allison’s head like a dying candle. Raindrops flew up into the sky. The corpses rotted in reverse. Flies settled on their birthplaces to shed their legs and wings, before crawling back into their eggs to be collected by their mothers. Then Allison hit the massacre. Robots forged from cars and trucks tore people apart like shoddy dolls. Hail and wind scoured skin and flesh from bone. People were captured and devoured by gigantic globs of coloured, waxy goo. Allison tried to ignore the victim’s faces. Their screams. The shadows of fear and suffering they left on the ether. Instead, she focused on counting their murderers:

Ironclad… Weathermonger… Pāhoehoe… 

Dr. Merlin was begging at the feet of a broad, hairy man in tattered brown skins. His beard was black, riddled with leaves and twigs, his ears faintly pointed. He held a staff carved of light apple wood.   

“Why are you doing this?” moaned Dr. Merlin. “We’re your people!”

In an old tongue—one that made Allison wonder who she’d learned it from—the man spoke. “Stand.”

Apparently, Dr. Merlin understood the command. He rose on shaking feet. He only came to the man’s chest. 

What do they call you?” 

“Al—Alphonsus Summers…”

That’s not all they call you, is it?

The wizard laughed hysterically. “Dr. Merlin! They call me Dr. Merlin.” 

The man tapped his staff against Summers’ chest. “You are not Merlin.” 

Alphonsus screamed as the roots strangled his veins and broke his bones. The man looked right past him. At Allison. In perfect English, he said. “Don’t think I don’t see you, Gypsy child.” The man raised a calloused hand— 

Allison gasped as she was forced back into her body.

Hey! Miri cried inside her. Little warning—  

“They’re being controlled,” blurted Allison. “All of them.”    

“By whom?” asked Jack Lyons. 

“I—I think it’s Merlin.”

“What,” said Close-Cut, pointing at Dr. Merlin’s body, “him?” 

Allison shook her head. “No. I mean the real Merlin.” 

Jack Lyons and the Catalpans spent the next fifteen minutes searching the campsite and the human remains. After that, Jack had Arnold teleport the corpses to Bròn Binn, eyes turned skyward the whole time. Lyons said it was for autopsy and eventual burial. Allison was sure those reasons were true. She was also sure it was so the French police didn’t find anything. She doubted the archeologists and their staff had asked to be buried with their tents and equipment, but they sent those back, too. One thing they found was an itinerary of sites the team had planned on visiting. The flat stone that had ended up spelling their death was near the bottom. Below it were locales such as the Tombeau du Géant, a tumulus said to be the grave of a giant felled by the Knights of the Round Table; the Fontaine de Barenton to the west of the forest, whose waters were said to cure madness; and finally the Tombeau de Merlin. Or In English, the Tomb of Merlin. 

“Surprised it’s so low on the list,” said the Crimson Comet. 

“Perhaps they thought it was a touch obvious,” commented Jack Lyons. “If they were truly trying to find Merlin, that is.”

“Of course they bloody were,” said Allison. “Why do you think they had a bunch of superheroes with them?”

“Language, little lady.”

“Don’t call me that,” snapped Allison. “Never call anyone that. And the reason the tomb is so low is because it’s too old to be Merlin’s. It was built by like, cave-people.”

“Well,” said Jack Lyons, “learn something new every day.”

What Allison wanted to learn that day was how much of this was news to Jack Lyons. Or why a dead man was less of a ghost than her own sister. “We’re going to the tomb,” she said. 

“Why?” asked Close-Cut. “You said it didn’t have anything to do with Merlin.”

“It doesn’t,” agreed Allison. “But most of the futures where we catch Starry Knight involve us going there.”

“You still seem very fixated on Mr. Peake, Miss Kinsey,” said Jack.

“He’s the only one I see us fighting today. I think Merlin took the others somewhere else and left him here.”

Jack Lyons rubbed his chin. “Interesting. Why do you think he did that?”

Allison shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe he’s guarding something. Maybe he’s just annoying.” 

“Well,” said Jack. “I suppose we’ll find out.”

The group set forth again. 

“Billy,” Arnold said as they walked. “I can zap you home if you want. It was pretty nasty back there.”

Billy shoved his hands into his very practical pockets and looked down at his navy-blue shoes. “Why are you only asking me?”

“You just looked upset, is all…”

Billy looked Arnold in the eye. “You didn’t like looking at the dead people either. Are you going home?”

“I—I need to be here. For my mum.”   

“So I don’t need to be here? I’m just… what? A stuffed tiger?”

Arnold stammered. “No. I mean—you’re not…” 

“Everyone treats you and Allie and everyone like you’re grownups. Why do they treat me like a baby?”

“I mean, we are bigger than you!”

“A year! You’re like, a year older than me!” 

“More like eighteen months,” said Allison from the front. 

“That’s still not much! Miri’s not even one! You don’t treat her like this!”

“Miri doesn’t have a body,” said Arnold. “She can’t bleed.”

Allison can,” muttered Billy. “You all can…”

They managed to avoid running into any hikers or bewitched superheroes, soon reaching the tomb. It was likely a tomb6 built long before the age of writing and kings. Then, like Troy before it, treasure hunters and what could loosely be called “archeologists” decided it belonged to Merlin, and dynamited it. Now it was little more than a pair of rocks encircled by flagstones and a log fence. Tourists and neopagans in search of an authentic anchor for their new faith left gifts and notes for Merlin. 

Someone had also stuck a sword in one of the stones. It looked like an Iron Age relic that had ignored time itself. Its hilt was gold with two roaring chimeras for the guards. Its long blade glinted in the winter sun.

“My God,” whispered Jack Lyons. “Excalibur…” 

“Nah,” said Allison. “King Arthur got that from the Lady in the Lake. This is the sword in the stone.”

“Does that one have a name?” asked Billy.

“Yep,” answered Allison. “Caledfwlch. Or Caliburnus. Depends what language you’re using7.”

Billy stepped forward. A shift in futures made Allison throw her arm out in front of him. “Don’t touch it.” 

Billy looked at her. Quickly, Allison added, “Nobody touch—”

The storm roiled. The golden probabilities Allison hunted receded. Many evaporated altogether.  

Why—      

A roar echoed over the trees. A great silver meteor dropped from the sky, landing with shocking lightness between the Catalpans and the sword in the stone. Starry Knight rose from his crouch. His ancestral spacesuit was stained brown with dirt and dried gore. In an imperious, if slightly muffled voice, he said, “Who dares approach Caledfwlch?”

The supers exchanged looks. By some silent agreement, Jack Lyons stepped forward:

“Starry Knight—Mr. Peake—I’m Jack Lyons. Sir Edward sent me to check up on you and your pals. What’s happened here?”

Starry Knight laughed. “I am no ‘Starry Knight.’ I am Cai8! Son of Cynyr Ceinfarfog, king of Dyfed9! Brother to the Pendragon himself—” 

“Foster brother,” Allison muttered under her breath.”

“…First Knight of the Round Table!”  

“He at least looks the part, give or take a couple thousand years,” said Mistress Quickly. 

Jack Lyons nodded. “Anthony, I can see you’re not well.”

Allison could confirm that, if not in the sense Jack Lyons meant. Starry Knight had two songs warring within his suit. One was played on a giant’s organ, carved out of a mountain, echoing over forests of coral. The other was a piddling, human tune, martial and little else. It was like listening to a battle of the bands that had forgotten to take turns. Allison had little doubt which one was doing the talking   

“None of us blame you for what happened at the campsite. We just want to get you some help.”  

“I need no help from the likes of you.”

Jack Lyons’ face darkened. “Please don’t make us hurt you.”

Another aristocratic laugh. “Hurt me? You think I fear a crowd of mummers, jesters and children?”

“You should,” said Allison. 

Arnold raised his hand first—a mistake.  At the same time, Sir Cai raised his own heavy-gloved fist. The air between them stretched and warped. The lightning that lashed from Arnold’s fingers fell far short of the astro-knight. It was meant to cross ten feet, not ten miles. Sir Cai chuckled. A grey beam from his palm struck Arnold in the chest. For a moment, nothing happened. Arnold patted himself up and down. Finding nothing amiss, he jeered at the knight, “A nothing beam? What kind of superpower is that?”

Behind Starry Knight’s helmet, Sir Cai smiled. Arnold jerked as silver wires spider-webbed from his body, striking rocks, trees, and even Mabel, binding them all together into an earthly constellation before fading away. Mabel staggered into Arnold’s side, almost knocking him over. A pebble flicked up into the side of his head. “Ow!”

The trees Arnold was hooked to started to shake. Allison could hear their roots strain in the soil. She yelled at Ralph, “Get him in the air!”

The Crimson Comet leapt at Arnold and pulled him into his arms, absconding into the sky. A few seconds later, a dozen trees and a cloud of rock and dirt wrenched themselves out of the ground and raced after them. Mother Nature’s own V-2 rockets.

Mabel screamed as she was pulled into the air after Arnold. She shut up quickly. It was like trying to swallow a leaf-blower business end first.  Mabel sometimes envied Miri and Allison’s flight. This was proving a great vaccine for jealousy. The beginnings of rain battered against her. She and a small, angry forest chased a shooting star over Brocéliande. 

To Mabel’s credit, she didn’t drop her binder; it was practically a body part. Allison came flying to her side. Some of Billy’s mercury smoke bloomed in her hands, evaporating to reveal a branching metal chain with a thick spike on one end, and two manacles on the other. 

“The heck is that for?” Mabel tried to shout over the wind. She could barely hear herself. Allison fell back slightly, slipping the mannacle around Mabel’s ankles and closing them with a long pin. 

“What’re you doing?”

“Grounding you!” Allison pulled Mabel downward by the chain, her unnatural momentum warring with Arnold’s swollen, discriminating gravity well. Twigs and branches scraped and snagged at Mabel as they descended through the forest canopy. When her feet were only an inch off the ground, Allison used Żywie’s old tricks to flood her muscles with adrenaline, forcing the spike-end of the chain deep into a tree trunk.

Mabel floated at a slanted angle, chain taut, picture-binder held tight against her chest. She frowned deeply. “You couldn’t have put me facing the right way?”

Allison flew back towards the Tomb, calling back, “Make us some monsters, will ya?”

Close-Cut was taking on Sir Cai hand-to-hand, the dynamic circuitry of his suit multiplying his strength ten fold, eating blows from the possessed superhero and turning it into might. He whacked his umbrella against Starry Knight’s helmet, electricity crackling across his helmet with every blow. Sir Cai managed to land a hit in Close-Cut’s chest. The bottom fell out of his stomach as he floated up into the trees.

“Goddamnit!” he shouted, trying to push himself down by flapping his arms as Sir Cai pointed and laughed. A laser-blast  hit the knight’s shoulder. He screamed as molten metal and fabric fused to his skin, swinging around to find Mistress Quickly aiming her multi-gun at him. She fired again. This time, the bolts of light were caught in a gravitational lens, warping their spectra to uselessness. Sir Cai roared, two points of cold light burning behind his helmet visor.

The air around Mistress Quickly shimmered. Her shoulders grew heavy as her suit glowed with the strain of spreading gravity’s impact on her across the multiverse. Maude rolled to the side just in time to see the grass where she’d been standing flatten, twigs snapping as rocks were ground into powder, as though the air had become a millstone. She spotted David. The boy had turned himself into an ice sculpture. 

“Don’t suppose you can suck the blood out of his brain for a second?” 

Nope,” David hummed in his glass harp voice. “Can’t touch anything inside his stupid spacesuit.”

“Of course,” said Mistress Quickly. She reminded herself to try and replicate the effect, assuming they beat this idiot. 

Sir Cai was only a little disappointed by the black lady’s escape. Sure, it was satisfying to watch people… collapse under his invisible weights, but this new body still had such wonderful magic. He wondered if this was what Myrddin and his fellow blasphemers felt like. No wonder they risked damnation—    

Sir Cai’s revelry was cut short by a punch to his side by a ruddy-skinned cyclops. Before he could regain his bearings, a time-lost crusader slammed a mace into his back, forcing him to the ground. Sir Cai looked up at the monster and knight, with his strange helmet and vivid blue cloak.

“Surrender?” asked the crusader in a Pepé Le Pew accent. 

Sir Cai was awash with nostalgia. It was like questing with his brother again. He answered this unexpected kindness by charging at the figures. He soon found they—and the other beasts and monsters that soon joined them—ignored the magic of his host. He had no sword, only his fists. That was alright. It was like being a boy again.

Near the fence, Billy invisibly watched the mad superhero fight Mabel’s minions. “Sir Cai” was laughing. He was having fun. And he wasn’t helping. He was a super. A new human, even if that was now a bad thing to say. Wasn’t he supposed to be strong? Brave? His friends were. What could he do? Starry Knight was sick, or possessed, or something. He couldn’t just turn him into something shiny. His roar could hurt everyone. He was useless. Dumb. A baby.

He still had to try. Billy looked at the sword in the stone. It was some kind of magic. Merlin put it there. How couldn’t it be? 

Sir Cai had a giant ant in a chokehold10 when something hard and fast struck him in the visor. His world cracked around a metallic yellow pit. The glass didn’t shatter completely. It was designed to remain airtight on the surface of the Moon. 

Jack Lyons stood in front of Starry Knight, his pistol still smoking. “Be gentle, Mr. Barthe,” he said. “I still think a good man is inside there.”

But then, it wasn’t designed to be shot, either

Mist seeped through the fissures in Starry Knight’s visor. It coalesced into water, forcing its way up Anthony Peake’s nose and down his throat. Sir Cai’s broken world melted. He staggered and sputtered, grabbing the stone without a sword in it and blindly hurling it. He managed to hit Jack Lyons, sending him hurtling into a tree. It snapped in half behind him—   

A strange sound. Iron sliding smoothly out of rock. Caledfwlch was hovering shakily in front of what was left of the Tombeau de Merlin, blade raised skyward. 

The water inside Starry Knight’s helmet went still. At the same time, Sir Cai fell to his knees. “My God…”

Billy appeared beneath the sword. “Um, is this supposed to happen? Did I break it?”

“A new Pendragon… a new king…”

Billy vanished in a swirl of autumn leaves. So did the sword.

The water in Starry Knight’s ears shrieked. “Billy!

The Crimson Comet swooped above the scene. A streak of green lightning forked down and hit Starry Knight square in the helmet. It vanished, water spilling out and revealing a middle aged, scarn man with grey temples. Allison burst screaming out of the trees and wrapped her arms around Peake’s head. Sir Cai gasped, “We shall have a king again…”

Allison hissed in his ear. “Sleep.”

Sir Kai slumped forward. Allison didn’t bother catching him. The sound of many trees falling on the woods did not go unheard. Close-Cut yelped as he fell to the ground. Allison straightened and dropped to her feet. She was smiling. The golden probabilities had brightened again.

“That wasn’t too hard,” she said. She looked about at the other supers. “Everyone okay? Where’s Billy?” She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Billy! You can stop being invisible now! It’s over.”

David reformed into flesh and blood beside her. “H—he’s gone, Allie.” 

“What?”

Close-Cut dusted himself off gravely. “He pulled the sword from the stone. It… took him away.”

“Oh. Oh, God…” Allison bit her lip. “I told him not to touch it…” 

Mabel emerged into the circle. Her costume had already regenerated from her trip through the skies and trees. Her nose, however, was bleeding. “Did we win?” she asked. “Where’s Arnold? And Billy?”

“I’m sure Arnold Barnes is still safe with the Crimson Comet,” said Jack Lyons. “However, I’m afraid William has been taken, and we don’t know where.”

Allison’s patience ran out. Billy was missing. Billy. God’s favourite. There was no room in her universe for any more mystery. “Lyons,” she said. “Can you just tell us what your deal is?”

Jack Lyon’s face twitched uncharacteristically. “My deal?”

“You died in 1902. Your gravestone said so. What are you doing here?

Everyone looked at him. 

“Questions have been raised,” said Mistress Quickly. “And we’re in no mood for secrets.”

“Unless you eat suckling babes or something, I’d just cough it up,” said Close-Cut. “We’ve probably seen odder.”

Jack Lyons sighed. The Crimson Comet descended into the circle, Arnold still in his arms, much to the boy’s clear embarrassment. 

“Crikey,” said Ralph, “hope they aren’t all that tough.”

“Ralph,” said Jack. “Do you remember France? You and me, I mean.”

Ralph frowned. “Yeah,” he said, “You were brave.”

Jack Lyons looked right at the superhero. “I’m not the Jack Lyons you met in the war, Mr. Rivers. And he was not the first.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. Literally “Good blood!” usually used to express shock or anger.

2. “Hello! We mean you no harm!”

3. “Bastards! Bunch of sickos!”

4. Insult meaning roughly, “person who has been fucked in the arse.”

5. “You psychos!”

6. Specifically a Neolithic dolmen, a kind of single chambered burial chamber.

7. Welsh and Latin, respectively.

8. Commonly rendered as “Kay” in modern English.

9. A petty kingdom in southwest Wales during sub-Roman Britain.

10. Well, for a human. Starry Knight didn’t have enough arms to cover the creature’s spiracles.

Chapter One Hundred and Eleven: The Phare

The Houses of Parliament got Westminster. The Crown got Buckingham Palace. The Ministry of Paranormality got the Phare. 

Bròn Binn1 was a green eye set in grey Atlantic waves. It was a bare, exposed place. Two people standing at either end of it could almost look each other in the eye. Its ancient veil of trees had been stripped for firewood and grazing land. Now, the only things that grew tall on the island were built by men. For centuries, Bròn Binn’s chief export was light. Coal, then whale oil, then finally arc-lamps cut paths for ships through night and fog. It was a strange post. Though no man, woman, or child had ever passed away on the island, more ghosts nested at Bròn Binn than seabirds. Keepers and their families would spot strangers walking along the island’s cliffs. Food and drink went missing. Chores and maintenance would seemingly perform themselves. Draught horses and sheep would sicken and die, their carcasses decaying with peculiar rapidity. Childless keepers would hear young laughter on the wind. 

The stories had come to a bloody end in 1902, when a keeper butchered his wife and children. He was waiting at the dock to make a full confession when the supply boat pulled in, claiming his family had been stolen and replaced by Sithchean. Fairies. Changelings. Whatever the keeper claimed, the bodies had certainly looked human: inside and out. The investigation that followed (conducted, rumour had it, by Jack Lyons himself) blamed the keeper’s madness on the liquid mercury the lighthouse’s lens assembly floated in. Escaping the gallows, the keeper was consigned to an asylum, but died not three weeks later. The mortician—when plied with a few pints—would claim he’d started rotting before he died. 

The lighthouse remained after that, if increasingly automated. Horror and tragedy didn’t banish the night or close the roads of the sea. However, Bròn Binn also became home to the Phare. A beacon and watchpost for those Britons caught between the human and the fae. The uncanny turned to the service of Queen and Country. 

Sir Edward Blyth stood at the southern end of the island, coat pulled tight around himself. The wind was a pack of biting, howling wolves trampling across Bròn Binn. He was flanked on each side by four armed SAS, winged Excaliburs wreathed in flames on their tan berets. By definition, these men were the cream of the crop. However, to be posted to Bròn Binn—especially with what was happening in Berlin—they were also very slightly curdled. The bottom ten percent of the 99th percentile. Sir Edward wasn’t too bothered by that. The best soldiers in the world would be unlikely to be much help against their guests.

Sending Jack Lyons was a desperation move on Sir Edward’s part. One that’d cost him a lot of political capital and the government an expensive prototype. He’d half hoped it’d fail. If it didn’t, he’d likely still be paying interest on it till the day he retired. 

Then, the night before, an envelope had appeared in a flash of green light on Edward’s desk. He’d had one of the soldiers open it: 

Tomorrow, at the southern cliff face. Please prepare snacks.

Sir Edward looked out to sea, then at his watch. It was noon. That time of year, it might as well have been dusk. There was no sign of that flying saucer the Catalpans flew around in. He hoped the bloody convicts hadn’t gotten their time-zones mixed up. He was startled by the unit’s CO barking: “At the ready, men!”

A moonstone marble had appeared in the air in front of Sir Edward. The aging civil servant staggered backwards as it began to grow. The roiling grey sea and clouds off Bròn Binn were eclipsed by a clear, blue sky. A strange, silver tower topped with what looked like a spaceship from Venus loomed over fields of rusted buildings. The future, surrounded by a slum. The smell of fresh rain on dust flowed from the portal. Before Sir Edward could compose himself again, trumpets blared as ten knights in full plate appeared, marching out the portal in two lines and turning on their heels to face each other. A red carpet unfurled like a great tongue onto the scraggy grass, down which a medieval herald in a deep purple tunic walked to meet Sir Edward. The SAS troops aimed their rifles at the anachronistic figure, but his only reaction was to raise and unfurl a scroll. The herald cleared his throat.

“By the authority of the Free City of Catalpa,” he said in a parodic English accent. “I present to you, good folk of the Phare, the Catalpan Embassy!”

The trumpets sounded again, this time joined by drums.

“Presenting, Allison and Myriad Kinsey, chief songstress and guardian spirit of Catalpa, and their mother, the good lady Drina Kinsey.”

A corpse-pale little girl with fiery red eyes, wrapped in tye-dye rainbows with a nine-pointed star emblazoned on her chest stepped into view. Another girl that could’ve been her living sister in what looked like a pearlescent swimsuit flickered into being on her left. A few of the SAS flinched. There was something about living on a haunted island that made a man a mite twitchy about seeing ghosts. They were joined by an olive skinned woman in a grey winter coat. She took the red-eyed girl’s right hand, and the three of them stepped through the portal, the young girls striding while the woman tried to keep up, waving and smiling timidly at the soldiers. If Sir Edward wasn’t mistaken, the sister with the colour in her skin was actually walking a quarter of an inch above the carpet. 

“Sir Edward, right?” asked the rainbow girl when they reached the man.

He nodded. “Yes… Allison Kinsey?”

She folded her arms confidently. “Yep. Call me Symphony, if you like.”

Sir Edward thought he’d stick to “Miss Kinsey” for now.

The other girl smiled broadly. “I’m Miri!” she chirped, before looking at her sister. “Does my name have to have ‘Kinsey’ in it? I’ve never even met your—”

Allison raised a hand. “We’ll talk about it later. Promise.”

The presumed Mrs Kinsey shook Sir Edward’s hand. “Thank you for having us,” she said, like this was a social visit. “I hope we can help you.”

“As do we, Mrs Kinsey.” Sir Edward wondered what this woman could do. She had to have done something special, to produce such odd children. From the look she gave him at the word ‘Mrs’, he decided to switch to ‘Ms’.

The herald spoke again, “The court courier, Arnold Barnes, and his father, the honourable  Corporal First-Class Fredrick Barnes!”

A stern, legless man in the dress uniform of Australian Army was pushed down the carpet by a boy in a black cloak riddled with fork lightning. The man tossed off a salute to the SAS troops, who responded in kind, if only through force of habit.

“Mabel Henderson, Mistress of Ceremonies, creatrix of men, giver of life, queen of—”

“Give it a rest, Mabs,” Allison Kinsey called.

“Spoilsport,” said a slightly large girl with bushy auburn hair as she made her way down the carpet, blowing kisses like a movie star at a premiere. She was wearing a suit that could’ve been sewn out of discarded copies of the Beano.  

“The Crimson Comet and Close-Cut, sheriff and court tailor of Catalpa!”

Two colourful old men walked through the portal side by side. Sir Edward of course recognized the Crimson Comet—stormer of France and Berlin—even if his metal wings were new. He even recognized Close-Cut from his brief but eventful time on the UK supervillain scene. By name, of course. Close-Cut never wore the same costume twice. Today, he was wearing slacks and a suit-jacket patterned with the Union Jack, with a ruffled collar reminiscent of a lion’s mane. Sir Edward could only wonder what had possessed the Crimson Comet of all people to throw in with these freaks.

“Mistress Quickly, court scientist and artificer!”

Sir Edward held his breath as Mistress Quickly stalked down the carpet in her sleek black battlesuit, the lenses of her mask as large and cold as an insect’s eyes. He dreaded thinking about what she could do with the Skylon prototype2.    

“David Barthe, grandson and prince of all oceans, rivers, lakes, large puddles, and taps!”

Water streamed down the carpet. It rose and coalesced into a grinning brown skinned boy—clearly basking in the attention—still covered neck-to-ankles in a green-blue liquid membrane. Sir Edward did not know how lucky he was. Or how much convincing that had taken.

“And finally, brave adventurer William St. George, accompanied by the English emissary, Jack Lyons!”

Jack Lyons emerged from the portal with his usual easy confidence, prompting a wave of salutes from the soldiers. Jack Lyons returned the gesture with one hand. In the other, he pulled along a cart laden with suitcases. At his side was what appeared to be a tiger shaped like a boy, in what looked like a cross between a superhero costume and a scout’s uniform. The child (if that was the term) was vibrating with clear excitement. Jack Lyons slapped Sir Edward on the shoulder.

“Got to hand it to the Australians, they know how to make an entrance!”

“Indeed,” Sir Edward replied flatly.

What had he done?

There was some debate about who would attend the briefing. Apart from half the “embassy” being literal children, Drina Kinsey and Fred Barnes were clearly civilians; even if the latter objected strongly to the description:

“I served for ten years, goddamnit!”  

Allison had put her foot down. If the Brits wanted their help, nobody was being left out of the loop. Sir Edward had relented, the humiliation tinting his thoughts a satisfying blue. Jack Lyons and the Catalpans had piled into a meeting room in the tower house that had replaced the old lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It was a grey, dusty kind of space with a large blackboard dominating one wall. It could’ve been a classroom in a boarding school for rich folk who thought Eton wasn’t miserable enough for their kids. Arnold wasn’t impressed. He bet Penderghast and all them American super-people had a way cooler secret base3. An SAS man manned a slide projector, much the way the year seven kids at Arnold and Allison’s old school would at morning assembly. 

Sir Edward wasn’t particularly remarkable to look at. Not that telling him that would cause him any offence. His was a cultivated anonymity: a three-piece suit chosen for the precisely uninteresting shade of stormcloud grey, bespoke tailored to look respectable, but not flattering. A face kept habitually clean of stubble, but with an unobtrusive ministerial moustache. A set of spectacles just wide enough about the rim to conceal some measure of his brow.  A bowler hat sitting on a centre parting dyed to a muddy shade of brown. Grey hair would imply infirmity. Anything else might make him stand out. Sir Edward had designed himself to blend into the background, and thus, render the machinery of state invisible.

“This is Roundtable,” he said, waving a long white pointer at the projector screen, his thin shadow an intruder in a colorful crowd of thirteen grinning, laughing superheroes. The picture appeared to have been taken at some kind of high-class function. Drina and Mistress Quickly swore they could see the back of Princess Margaret’s head. “A team of superhumans who have dedicated themselves to the protection of Queen and Country.”

Allison raised a hand.

“Yes, Miss Kinsey?”

“So, they’re like Paranormal Response Squads the Americans have?” The girl examined her fingernails theatrically. “Me and Miri beat up one in Perth last year. They weren’t that tough.”

Drina looked sternly at her daughter. “That was you? What were you doing? Running around picking on Americans?”

“They were trying to kidnap a kid!” Allison protested.

That was kind of a side-thingy,” Miri’s voice echoed from nowhere and everywhere.

Thanks, Miri,” Allison said dryly. 

Sir Edward sucked in a breath. “To answer your question, no, Roundtable is no military unit. They are a fully independent organization of patriotic men and women. All the Crown did was introduce them to one another.” 

Close-Cut and the Crimson Comet exchanged a dubious look in their chairs. 

Mistress Quickly’s machine filtered voice asked, “And do you pay those men and women?”

“…They are remunerated,” admitted Sir Edward.

A strange, synthetic chuckle.

Sir Edward shook his head. “We did not ask you here to discuss our relationship with Roundtable.”

“Well, get on with it,” said Allison. She tilted her head to her slightly. She could hear a song. Like jazz being played at the centre of the Earth. “And I can hear that super standing in the hallway. Why’s he got a dog? A sick dog?” 

“Doggies don’t like me much…” said Billy from the back of the room.

“Me neither,” said David, shrugging. “Not a big loss. Dogs are just crap land-seals anyway.”

“Don’t be vulgar, David,” Drina said.

Mabel laughed. “How many dogs have you ever met?”

“Oh, and I bet you’ve hung out with tons of seals,” David retorted.

Sir Edward inwardly pondered whether a nuclear response wouldn’t have been less fuss and bother. He cut in over the babble. “Continuing.” He gestured at the soldier operating the projector. Its carousel clicked. Roundtable was replaced on the screen by a map of France. An arrow emerged from a point deep within the Brittany, helpfully labeled “Paimpont.4” “On January 20th, 1967, Roundtable accompanied an archeological expedition by Cambridge University to western France—”

“Um,” said Arnold. “Why did a bunch of dinosaur hunter guys need a bunch of superheroes to babysit them?”

Sir Edward shut his eyes for a second, composing himself. “The expedition wasn’t searching for fossils, young Mr. Barnes—”

“Yeah,” interrupted Allison. “Those are paleontologists, not archeologists.” 

“…Yes, indeed,” said Sir Edward. “The expedition was building on recent evidence suggesting that the Matter of Britain—”

“King Arthur and junk,” Alllison explained to her friends.

“…May have more historical basis than previously considered. ”

Billy grinned, his shoulders bunching with excitement. King Arthur’s real! Then a thoughtful frown crossed his face. He raised his arm. The gesture made Sir Edward want to weep. “Yes, young man?”

“Why would you be looking for King Arthur stuff in France?”

Sir Edward looked at Allison. “I assume you would like to explain this to Mr. St George, Miss Kinsey?”

Allison twisted around in her seat. “Britain’s borders—you know, the lines on the map—used to be a lot different. Like, back when King Arthur was supposed to have lived, Scotland wasn’t part of Britain, but a bit of France was.”

“Oh,” said Billy. “Okay.”

Allison nodded. “Good.” She turned back to face Sir Edward. “Still doesn’t explain why you sent thirteen superheroes to dig up old crowns or whatever.”  

“In these trying times, such discoveries would do much to bolster British morale. Thus, the Minister of State judged the expedition to be of national importance. It should also be noted that, aside from his magical expertise, Dr. Merlin is also an avid student of history.”

“The bloke in the picture with the purple waistcoat and the hat?” Allison asked.

Sir Edward nodded. The girl pumped her first. “Got it in one! 

“Very good,” said Sir Edward, lips a thin line beneath his moustache. “What’s less good is that neither the archeologists or Roundtable have reported back in two weeks.”

“That does sound concerning,” commented Drina.

“Also, come on, don’t lie, you wanted to find Excalibur,” said Allison. “Don’t think it’d help you if World War Three happens, by the way. Even if it fires lasers or something.”

“We were open to any and all discoveries, Miss Kinsey,” said Sir Edward. “And regardless of Excalibur or any such relic’s… martial capabilities, it would be of great help in reminding the British people of the history and tradition that binds us together.”  

Wally leaned over and whispered in Ralph’s ear, “And make the Republicans shut up…

 The Crimson snickered, before grabbing his composure again. “Have you contacted the French authorities?” he asked. 

It took Sir Edward a moment to answer. “…That would be politically unwise.”

“Why not?” asked Mabel. 

“Did Napoleon come back to life while we weren’t looking?” added Allison.

“The French don’t know about the expedition,” said Sir Edward. “Both the archeology team and Roundtable filtered into the country over the course of a month, under assumed names.”

“For the love of God, why?” asked Close-Cut, shaking his head in disbelief. “You weren’t exactly plotting an invasion…  were ya?”

“The State Minister wished to avoid competing claims on any artifacts and human remains that may have been discovered.”

Mistress Quickly let out another peal of mechanized laughter, slapping her spandex-wrapped knee. “Of course you didn’t…”

“I assume you want us to go find them?” asked Allison.

“That we do,” said Sir Edward. “Before we discuss the matter further, I think it prudent we discuss payment for your trouble.”

“I like the sound of that,” said Mr. Barnes, sitting beside his son.

“Understandable. I’ve been told your town is suffering from a measles outbreak?”

“I’m afraid so,” answered the Comet.

“Well, we have a team of doctors and nurses—”

Allison and Arnold both stifled giggles. Sir Edward ignored them. “…And we’re prepared to dispatch them to Catalpa at your earliest convenience. Tonight, even.”

Close-Cut blinked. “You don’t expect us to find your people that fast, do you?”

Sir Edward shook his head. “Of course not. Disease does not work on a timetable. Think of it as advanced payment.”

“That’s mighty kind of you,” said the Comet. “We do have some people in a precarious state of things.” 

“Yeah,” grunted Fred. “Gotta say, I expected you Poms to yank us around a bit.”     

That statement soured Sir Edward a little. It made it harder to derive any satisfaction from his next move. “It must be said, our doctors can’t guarantee the recovery of any of your people. Measles is a terrible disease…”

“We know,” said Mistress Quickly. “We’re not fools.”

“We do, however, have someone who can guarantee it.” He gestured at the meeting room’s door. The soldier got up from the projector and opened it. A very fit, darkly handsome young man with slicked black hair in what appeared to be a jet-black doctor’s coat walked into the room. Everyone in the room recognized him from the Roundtable picture. He was leading a golden retriever on a lead. The beast looked like it was made of suffering. It was almost skeletal, but a grotesque lump protruded from its abdomen. Its fur reeked of shit and piss. The dog struggled to keep up with the man, its legs threatening to give way beneath it. It growled weakly at Billy as they passed him, his scent confusing the animal. The boy recoiled and whimpered. The dog made the same noise at David, but he just poked his tongue out at it. Mabel punched him in the shoulder.

“Poor thing,” Jack Lyons said under her breath as the dog and man reached Sir Edward’s side. The golden retriever slowly, painfully lay down at their feet. 

“This, ladies and gentlemen, is Christopher Elderwood, the newest member of Roundtable.”

Christopher Elderwood smiled. “When I’m in this get-up they usually call me Dr. Death.”

“Cheery name…” said Mistress Quickly.

“Would you like to introduce our other guest?” Sir Edward asked Dr. Death.

“Would be happy to.” Dr. Death crouched down next to the dog and stroked his head. “This is Sir Snuffles. He’s six years old, belongs to the groundskeeper’s daughter, and is a very good boy. He’s also got a tumour the size of a cantaloupe growing next to his stomach. Frankly, it’s monstrous that I haven’t done this already…”

Dr. Death stood back up. In one fluid motion, he pulled a pistol from his coat and shot Sir Snuffles in the head. 

Billy’s scream managed to drown out the gunshot. The room shuddered. Old dust sprinkled onto the shouting Catalpans. The Crimson Comet shot up out of his seat, angry red energy crackling up his form. “You rat bastard!” 

Close-Cut put a restraining arm around his lover’s shoulder. “You’ll send the ceiling falling around our ears!”

Drina had instinctively pulled her daughter into her side, right out of her chair. She glared at Dr. Death and Sir Edward, ignoring her daughter’s very physical protests. “How could you—in front of children?”   

Sir Edward raised his hands. He was beginning to reconsider the dramatic approach. “Now now, if you’ll just wait a moment—”      

Sir Edward—indeed everyone in the room—was cut off by a wave of heat. It was like someone had lit a bonfire. Golden light filled the room. When it faded, the only sounds were Billy crying, and Sir Snuffles panting happily. He was back on his feet. New fat and muscle had been laid over his bones like concrete over steel girders. The tumour was gone. 

“I’m the world’s only pacifist murderer,” said Dr. Death, clearly basking in the shock he’d caused. “Everything I kill comes back to life. In perfect health.” The super didn’t fail to spot Mr. Barnes looking hungrily at him. “When did that happen?” he asked, pointing at the man’s leg stumps.

“Korea,” answered Fred.

“Sorry,” said Dr. Death, sounding genuinely contrite. “Needs to be a mite fresher than that.”

The bad news didn’t make Fred Barnes miss a beat. “But you can do measles, right? Even if they’re in a bad way?”

“Easily.”

“…Send him to Catalpa,” Fred said breathlessly. “Right now.”

“When your fellows have done their job,” said Sir Edward firmy.

“Piss off. You don’t dangle this in front of our faces and pull it away.”

“We are already sending your town plenty of help.”

“A man has died!” roared Fred. “My wife hasn’t opened her eyes for days. You expect us to hunt for the Holy Grail or whatever bollocks while our people rot?” 

Jack Lyons stood up. “Sir Edward, if I may be so bold, perhaps you could reconsider? The Catalpans have shown me nothing but courtesy since I arrived in their town.”

“Yeah!” agreed Fred, loudly. “We could’ve called him a POW and kept him!”    

Of course Lyons would play nice with them, Edward thought. Jack was the opposite of him. People like him existed to draw eyes. To make people proud. Sir Edward didn’t have that luxury. Jack Lyons wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences. “Thank you for your input, Lyons. But there are practical considerations here. These people—as complicated I’m sure their circumstances are—are outlaws. We need leverage.” Sir Edward’s eyes darted between the two supervillains in the room. “I’m sure Close-Cut and Mistress Quickly understand.”

“Do I get a say?” asked Dr. Death.

“No.”

Bastards!” screamed Fred. “Stingy old Pommy pricks! It’s Gallipoli all over again.” 

“Arnold,” said Drina. “You might want to take your father out for some air.”

Arnold nodded hastily. 

“Don’t talk about me like I’m a bloody dog, woman—what’re you doing, boy?

Arnold pushed his father out of the meeting room. As deeply uncomfortable as it was, he didn’t dare use his power on him. As Fred’s ranting and raving faded, Ralph sighed. “We accept your terms.”

“Good,” said Sir Edward. “I assume you can transport the doctors back to Catalpa.”

“Within the hour,” said Mistress Quickly.

Sir Edward clapped. “Right. We’ll have papers and transport prepared for you within three days. Two of our embedded agents will meet you on arrival.” He pointed at Billy. “You might wish to leave Mr. St. George here or at Catalpa.”

“Or,” said Mistress Quickly, “I open a portal to Brittany tomorrow morning, and you give your embedded agents the month off?”

“…That works too, yes.”

“And we can take Billy,” added Allison. “That’s very important.”

“It is?” asked Billy, still drying the fur around his eyes.

“Course it is,” insisted Allison. She looked up at Sir Edward. “We’ll need files on all the Roundtable people you sent. Copies for me, Mistress Quickly…” She turned to address the Comet and Close-Cut. “Can you two share?”

The pair nodded. 

“So yeah, gonna need those tonight.”

Sir Edward agreed to hand over the classified data to the ten year old. 

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1. Scots Gaelic for “Sweet Sorrow.”

2. It was somewhat presumptuous of Sir Edward to assume Maude Simmons would be overly impressed by their technology.

3. A brutalist monstrosity just outside of Washington. The modernist architecture makes it surprisingly difficult to notice when the hallways rearrange themselves. Arnold was very disappointed when he learned its existence was in no way secret.

4. A small town that grew up around the abbey Our Lady of Pampoint, founded by Breton high king and Catholic saint Judicael in the mid 7th century.

Chapter One Hundred and Ten: The Special Relationship

The exhaustion told Angela she was still alive. It had been her companion her entire adult life. The pain and fever made her wonder briefly if she was in Hell. But no. Whatever mistakes she’d made—and she’d made plenty—God kept His promises. Besides, her son was there. 

Arnold knelt by her bedside, hands held together with his eyes closed. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”—he shook his head—“thee.”

He was a good boy.

Angela heard her husband wheeling over, back from one his rare, brief absences:

“Whatcha doing, boy?”

“Ah, praying… yeah.”

“…Budge over. You’re gonna have to show me the words. Haven’t done this since I was six.”

“Okay. Hail Mary, full of grace…”

Fred repeated after his son, “Hail Mary, full of grace…” 

Angela wanted to laugh. For her husband, faith was like light to a cavefish. He was physically incapable of reverence. That should have worried her more, but how could God condemn a man like her Fred?

“Blessed art thou amongst women…” 

Angela knew he meant those words, though. 

Why did she love him? Was it because Fred was strong? He was, of course. The strongest man Angela knew. But she’d cared for him when he’d come home destroyed, body and soul. Because he was handsome? He was that, too, even after all these years. But the world had tried to take that from him—altered him—and she hadn’t cared. Arnold had been born from passion. If he had come home with no face, or burnt black and red, it wouldn’t have mattered. Was it that Fred was kind? Because he was. That felt like the best answer to Angela. The most sensible. But sometimes, after the world had decided it was done with him, Fred hadn’t been the easiest man to love. But that had never stopped Angela. She feared even if he were cruel or craven, she would still love him. Maybe, she simply loved Fred because he was there.  

No. That couldn’t be it. She’d loved him when he was gone, too.   

Perhaps there was no reason. Perhaps love just happened, damn your “reasons.” Was that how it was for God? To have no choice but to love every man, woman and child—every living thing that ever was? The very thought terrified Angela. 

Time moved strangely for Angela. When she tried to pay attention to it, it froze. When she didn’t, it drained away like water through a sieve. People came and went. She tried to pray for Jacob Gittelmen and his young granddaughter when he passed, but the words kept escaping her. She was sure God got the point. After that, Allison vanished from the infirmary. Good, Angela thought. The girl was suffocating on obligation. The fact her son came and went too was also a relief. The young should not suffer for the old. 

Arnold did visit her, though. Every day. He wasn’t the only one. Sometimes, Mabel joined him. Sometimes, it was Allison. Then there was one visit where Arnold wasn’t there at all.

She’d thought it was him, at first. The same light footsteps. The comforting weight on the bedsheets about her feet. The sound of hands fiddling with a scrap of paper.

She only realized who it was when he spoke.

“Our Father who art in Heaven,” David muttered. “I’m sorry if I say this wrong. I had to ask Sarah how to do it. I know this lady’s an angry bat, but please, please don’t let her die. She’s Arnold’s mum. He’s good.

Angela forced her eyes open slightly. They were met with a blur of blue and brown. The boy was wearing his costume.  

“He’s better than me, and maybe that’s why I deserved it when you took my mum away.” In an even more hushed, rushed tone, he added, “Even though that’s really dumb and mean of you.” 

“But Arnold’s better, and he loves her. He doesn’t deserve for you to hurt him. So, please, keep her safe… this is dumb.” He let out a long sigh. “Amen, I guess.”

“Dave?”

The weight left her bed.

“Shit- Hi, Arn.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Uh. Heard you were coming for a visit. Thought I’d keep you company. Didn’t want you being all pathetic.”


“…Were you praying?”

“Yeah,” admitted David. “Sarah said I should do it. I don’t think it really works when we’re both gods.”

It should’ve been a brag; a bit of boastful blasphemy. But David sounded perfectly matted-a-fact. 

“Different kind of god,” said Arnold. “You’re big. He’s… everything.”

Angela loved her son.

“Whatever,” David muttered. “You doing okay?”

“I am,” said Arnold. “I think. It’s dad I’m worried about.”

“You are?”

“Yeah… Think he’ll… Be okay, if she doesn’t… You know.”

David snickered.

“Yeah. He’ll be fine. Cuz she’s gonna make it. And he knows it. You can tell it just by looking at him. He knows she’s gonna make it through with every piece of him.”

“… Thanks, Dave.”

“Heh. You’re welcome. C’mere.”

A weight at the end of the bed again as David tugged his boyfriend over for a kiss.

Angela didn’t know what to think. Fred had done that for her. She’d done the same for him. But it couldn’t be the same thing. Sin warped people like rotting wood. Her son was a good boy. Even David wasn’t—he wasn’t evil. And she couldn’t deny the Crimson Comet was a great man. The Bible spelled it out in plain English, but how could Angela be expected to ignore what her eyes and ears and bones told her?

She didn’t know. God, she was tired. But at least, for a moment, her boy was comforted. And for that, she was grateful.

Rain hissed like generations of vipers as it hammered against the Children Hall’s roof. It rained most days now in Catalpa. Drina Kinsey had picked a poor time of year to tell Allison to “go out and play.” She and Mabel lay on the attic’s wooden floor, the way they used to in the New Human Institute’s barn. Mabel’s conjured record player belted out Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” in a vain attempt to invoke sunnier days. The rain acted as complimentary static. Neither girl had the energy to dance. The only reason they bothered putting on music was that it was one of the few sensory pleasures Miri could indulge independently. 

“Sometimes I have these dreams,” said Mabel. “I wake up one morning and everyone in town’s dead like in Circle’s End. It’s almost as hot as there, too.”

“That’s dumb,” Allison said. “We haven’t had any new cases in over a week. We’ve just got to wait for everyone to get better.”

“I heard Mr. Gittelmen died.” 

“Yeah,” said Allison. “He did.”

“Is anyone going to tell Hannah?” asked Mabel. “She still thinks he’s just sick.”

Allison sighed. “The grown-ups will do it.”

Miri floated between the two corporeal girls like they were playing “light as a feather, stiff as a board” at a sleepover. “Was I greedy?” she asked.

“What?” said Mabel.

“If I’d just let the witch-lady take my body soon as she asked, Dr. Beaks could’ve fixed everybody.” 

“It’s okay to want things, Miri,” insisted Allison. 

“Okay,” said Miri. “So, could you change the record now? Something with a girl-singer.”

Allison rolled her eyes. “We just put this one on.”

Miri nodded. 

After a moment, she asked, “Where do dead people go?”

Allison waved her hands above her head. “Fine, fine!” 

Miri smiled innocently. “Thanks, Allie.”   

Grumbling, Allison got up and took Harry Belafonte off the turntable, replacing it with a Carpenters record. The moment the needle hit the vinyl, an angry klaxon screeched.

Miri put her hands over her ears at the same time as Allison. “I don’t like this song!” 

“It’s not a song.”

“UNIDENTIFIED AIRCRAFT DETECTED IN CATALPAN AIRSPACE,” droned Mistress Quickly’s mechanized voice.

Xylophones.

Allison rose up through the ceiling and into the rain. The gun placements Maude had installed on Freedom Point buzzed like a million wasps. White laser searchlights cut blue canyons through the grey shell of cloud. Allison became solid again:

“Costume on!”

Allison burst into the sky, steam trailing off her suddenly colourful shoulders. She built up speed. The sheets of rain she flew through were warm as bathwater. If it weren’t for the circumstances of her flight, Allison might’ve been having fun. It’d been months since anyone had tried dropping anything on Catalpa. Was this something to do with Europe? Had the Russians built themselves some more new nukes? Had World War Three finally arrived?

In seconds, she pierced the clouds, passing through the ungrounded fog into that place where the sun always shines. Slanted geysers of light erupted all around her. Just in case, Allison reached for Ralph Rivers’ song, feeling her skin harden.

She scanned the open sky. High above her, she spotted a tiny black speck—a scratch on the film of the sky. From Allison’s distance, it barely moved at all, but it was managing to weave its way through a flashing maze of lasers. She decided to investigate. The combination of her flight and the Comet’s carried Allison into the upper reaches of sky, scarring the air red in her wake. The howl of the wind died in her ears. She felt the atmosphere thin against her skin. Azure blue began to fade to starry black, as though God was running out of paint. The world lay spread out beneath Allison’s feet. Arnhem Land became a toe curled in the ocean. She could see the curve of the world.    

Instinctively, she stopped breathing. Ralph could never go this high in just his costume, unless he wanted to meet the ground again at terminal velocity. According to Maude, Allison only needed about ten percent of the oxygen most girls did to stay conscious. Her lungs and tissues stored it with startling efficiency. It was one of many accommodations her biology had made for flight; like how the moisture on her eyeballs neither froze nor evaporated as the temperature plummeted; her indifference to extreme G-forces; or the compass that had been lodged in her brain. That was something people forgot: most of the really good powers needed five or ten more little powers to be useful. 

It took Allison a moment to believe her eyes when the speck resolved. It was a genuine Buck Rogers rocket ship, cast in jet-black, propelled through the upper atmosphere by three blue-flaming jets. It looked like it belonged in miniature on a sci-fi writer’s mantlepiece. If it flew over a suburb at the right hour, it could’ve spawned a whole generation of UFO-watchers.  She could hear a song coming from inside, broadly human but with a strange metallic edge—  

A laser cut through the rocket, severing its wings and engines in a scream of fire. The sound of wrenching metal was strangely muted. This high up, there was less air to carry it. The cone tumbled through the air. As Allison watched, a hatch blew, ejecting something out in the open air. She swooped towards it.

It was a man—or at least something shaped like a man—strapped into a pilot’s seat. He was covered head to toe in what looked like crinkly baking foil. His face was concealed behind a dark visor, a plastic elephant’s trunk trailing from his mouth to a pair of oxygen tanks strapped to his chest. He looked like he’d put his backpack on backwards. His song was completely untroubled, if excited. Allison tried to look inside his thoughts, but it was like trying to make out someone’s face through frosted glass.

The pilot (or cargo) gave Allison two thumbs up. Tilting her head, she glanced at the nearest bundle of futures:

She couldn’t help but laugh.

Allison left the man to his fall, instead flying towards the main body of his aircraft. At a glance, the engine section looked like it would land somewhere off the coast, but the cone’s trajectory took it upsettingly close to Catalpa itself. As she threw her back against the metal hulk, pushing against it with her supernatural momentum, she saw a parachute explode open above the falling man. It was proudly emblazoned with a Union Jack. 

Far below—despite the rain, despite the measles, and very much despite the still blaring air-raid sirens—a crowd was gathering in the streets. 

“Do you think it’s a spaceman?” Billy asked over the alarm. 

Mabel was looking through a pair of binoculars she’d conjured, her scrapbook safely hidden in a waterproof ziplock bag. “Depends,” she said, “Is England outer-space?”

The Catalpans parted as the man landed, his parachute falling atop him. A few people gasped, though many more laughed as they saw him clearly struggling to free himself from his seat beneath the red, blue and white fabric. 

The Crimson Comet stepped forward and ripped away the parachute. Its owner carefully got to his feet. 

“State your intentions and don’t make any sudden moves,” said the Comet. “We don’t want any trouble.”

The pilot shed his flight suit like a cicada that’d outgrown its skin. A bronzed man with slicked back black hair nines in a crisp three piece suit and cloak stepped out.

Ralph squinted. “…Jack Lyons?”

The man looked at the Crimson Comet for a few seconds. Then he smiled. “Comet? Is that you?”

The two of them swung around at the sound of a hard, heavy thud. Allison Kinsey was floating behind them, the body of Jack Lyons’ rocket lying sideways across the street below her, rain slowly eating away at the flames.

“We’re keeping this,” she declared.

“Jack Lyons,” said Wally Grimsby, “for real?”

“Yeah,” replied Ralph. “Jack Lyons.  Did a couple of missions with him back in the War. Hasn’t aged a day…”

Ralph was standing inside an old English phone box next to Libertalia Tavern. The actual phone had been ripped out and replaced with a small television. On the screen, Ralph’s boyfriend was nursing a martini at Clarks, the premier drinking establishment of the Flying Man’s undersea lair.  The old supervillain was lounging in a purple bathrobe monogrammed with a red and blue diamond. 

“You’re telling me! My dad used to tell me stories about Jack Lyons. Very past-tense stories.” Wally laughed. “There were kids books and everything!” He made a frame with his hands, moving it in front of his face as he listed, “Jack Lyons and the Abominable Snowman! Jack Lyons and the Mad Mahdi1! Jack Lyons and the Haunted Diving Suit! Jack Lyons and the Zulus!” 

“…That last one doesn’t sound as fun.”

“It was a different time, Ralph,” said Wally. “I honestly wasn’t sure if he was real growing up.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “Hey, Blancheflor, could you check if Jack Lyons was real?”

“Working,” answered the Flying Man’s computerized assistant, followed by some confectured humming like an old librarian leafing through a reference book. It even had the sound of page turns.

“…Very much real it seems, Mr. Grimsby,” Blanceflor quickly reported. “Born in Bombay 1860 to Reginald and Padma Lyons, Jack Lyons distinguished himself as a petty officer in the British Army, before being headhunted by the crown’s nascent intelligence organs. From the 1880s to about 1902, he made a name for himself dealing with the supernatural and what we now call superhumans. After that, records become… spotty.”

“That man does not look a hundred and six,” said Ralph.

Wally shrugged. “Maybe it’s a codename.”

Ralph shook his head. “Same bloke I knew in Europe, I’d swear by it.”

“Occam’s razor then,” said Wally. “Lucky bastard’s immortal. Not that uncommon in our crowd.”

“Then where’s he been since the War?” asked Ralph. 

“No idea,” replied Wally. “Isn’t the pressing question what he’s doing in Catalpa?”

“Says he’s here on behalf of the Crown. Gonna tell us more at the council meeting.”

“Send me the minutes,” said Wally. He smiled. “I was wrong, though, that isn’t the most pressing question.”

“What is it, then?”

Wally leaned forwards. “Is he handsome? Dashing, even?” 

Ralph flashed a crooked grin. “Damn, Wally. I thought we had something here.”

Wally laughed. “Oh, shut up. You know I go for ugly men.”

“Thanks.” Ralph heard the air pop behind him. “There’s my ride. Talk to you tomorrow?”

“Sure,” said Wally. “Oh! Tell David he better not miss Mrs Allworth’s call if he knows what’s good for him.”

“Will do,” said Ralph. He kissed his palm, raising it to the screen. “Love ya.”

Wally repeated the gesture. “Love you too.” 

The screen shut off. Ralph sighed, turned around, and stepped through the egg portal in front of the video-booth. It took him to the Freedom Point canteen. A long folding bench had been set up for the city council. Allison waved at Ralph as the rest of his fellows murmured vague greetings. 

“It’s good to see you again, Crimson Comet,” said Jack Lyons. He was sitting patiently before the Catalpans on an old wooden chair, back straight, left leg folded over his right, a quiet smile playing across his lips.

“I wager I’d say the same if your entrance hadn’t been so peculiar,” said Ralph.

“I thought someone was trying to nuke us,” added Mistress Quickly. “It was almost nostalgic.”

“I apologize for any alarm I may have caused your fair town,” said Jack Lyons. 

He spoke with perfect BBC pronunciation, the kind that didn’t occur in nature. It didn’t sit well with Allison. It was like Lawrence had found the fountain of youth and a tan. 

“I had intended to simply take a passenger plane and wait for one of your resident drives, but when you announced the hiatus, the boffins set me up with a prototype… well, I can hardly call it a plane, can I?”

“Awful lot of trouble just to visit a town in the middle of a pandemic,” opined Paul Haldor. 

“I assure you, I only intrude at the behest of the Crown. The Emp—” He stopped himself. “The Commonwealth needs assistance only your town can provide.”

“We’re all ears,” said Allison. 

Lyons removed an audio-cassette from his breast pocket. “I’m sorry, I should have asked this first—does anyone have a tape-player?”

One was found. The Lyons and the council clustered around the machine as it spoke in a sober, British voice:

This is Sir Edward Blythe of the Ministry of Paranormality. We seek the aid of Catalpa and its denizens in tracking down several British superhumans we believe to be lost in foreign territory. We believe this to be of the utmost importance to the security of both the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth. Her Majesty’s Government is prepared to offer Catalpa political and material aid in exchange for her assistance and discretion. Our agent will provide coordinates for further discussion of this matter. Message ends.

Lyons opened his mouth and raised a finger. “You might want to remove the—”

“THIS MESSAGE WILL SELF DESTRUCT.” 

A sizzling pop. The tape-player spewed acrid black smoke, greeted by coughing and waving hands. Jack Lyons held his cape over his mouth and nose. “I did tell Sir Blythe that I could destroy the tape myself…”

“So,” said Allison over the sound of Maude Simmons swearing about her tape player, “the Queen’s asking a bunch of outlaws for help?”

“Why not get the Yanks?” asked Night-Tide. “Don’t they have supers out the wazoo?”

“The wa—” Jack Lyons shook his head. “I myself asked the very same question”—he glanced about at the council—“no offense meant. I was told allowing the Americans to hear about this might threaten something called the special relationship.”

Maude laughed. “Ha! You know what? I believe that.”

“Will you help us?” 

Lyons had been looking at the Crimson Comet when he asked that, but it was Allison who cleared her throat and answered:

“The council will talk about it. The Comet says you’re cool, so we’ll let you walk around for now.” Allison looked at Paul. “Maybe Hettie could make him lunch or something?”

“Could do.”

Jack Lyons flashed Allison a grin. “That would be lovely, young miss.”

Allison wrinkled her nose. The man thought she was funny. This could not be tolerated. 

Mistress Quickly arranged an egg-portal to Libertalia for Lyons. When it closed behind him, she said, “He’s definitely got some shit under his hat. That ship of his was nuclear powered, and the shielding is shit. He should be a baked potato made of cancer. Allie, you tried his song?”

Allison shook her head. “It made my teeth rattle. Like trying to eat a lollipop off a power-drill.”

“He’s old as sin, too,” said Ralph. “My granddad’s action-hero.”

Paul remarked, “I didn’t know we had a problem with supers here.” 

“It’s still weird,” said Maude. “Doesn’t Britain have a spare Sherlock Holmes or two? Why do they need us?”

“Why not?” said Allison. “We’re great.”

“We could use the help,” Night-Tide said. “Material and medical are very similar words. We still have people fighting this.”

“Isn’t there an easy answer?” Paul said. “Allie, what happens if we help the Poms?”

Allison closed her eyes. She pictured herself saying “yes” to Jack Lyons. The future shattered and reformed into a thousand new mosaics. A few glittered.

She smiled. “We’re going to England.”

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1. Specifically Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, messianic religious leader and ruler of Sudan.

Chapter One Hundred and Nine: The Arrows of the Sun

Angela Barnes was sweltering. She’d thought she was done with hot flushes months back. It was probably the summer heat. Or the “wet” or the “build up” or whatever they called it up here. The sky was a miser rich with rain, and Angela bore its weight on her shoulders with none of its cool relief. Her skin itched. Too much Irish in her, she guessed. What Angela was sure of was that she wasn’t ill. She didn’t have time for it.

The gravy congealed on the cooling lamb chops. The steam rising from the peas and mash potatoes slowly dwindled. Two seats at the Barnes table were empty.

“Fred,” Angela said evenly, “what time did I tell Arnold and Mabel to be home?”

“Six, love,” her husband answered. 

“And what time is it now?” she asked, knowing the answer down to the second.

Fred obediently glanced at his watch. “A quarter-past.” His hand crept towards his fork. 

Angela clapped her hand over his. She almost fell over in her chair. “Not until everyone’s here.”

Fred laughed. “Feeling petty tonight, Ange?”

Angela winced. Blood roared in her temples “I told them. I told them—”

Costume off!” 

There was a muted thunderclap. The back screen-door rattled open and shut:

“I’m here, I’m here!

“See?” said Fred. “No harm done.”

Arnold ran into the kitchen in plainclothes, smelling faintly of lightning. “Sorry Mum!” he said, sliding sideways into his usual chair and digging in without a second thought. He didn’t offer an apology to his father, not that the man wanted for one.

“Mistress Quickly needed me for vacuum work,” Arnold explained through a mouthful of potato and pea mush. “She was super particular about it, too.”

Angela screwed her eyes shut and banged the hilt of her knife against the table. “Don’t talk with your mouth full!” she said, a little too loud for her own liking. “We haven’t even said grace!” 

Arnold swallowed so hard it hurt. “Sorry, Mum.”

“Ah, leave off him, woman,” said Fred. “What’s the point of praying when you’re hungry?” He gestured at Arnold. “Boy’ll just ask for food.”

Arnold stifled a giggle. 

“It’s not about asking for—” Angela kept eyes fixed on her plate like she was trying to ward off motion sickness. Her brain felt like a fish tank in an earthquake. It sloshed. Why did Fred have to be so blasphemous in front of the boy? She closed her eyes. “Where’s Mabel?” 

An arch, boyish voice drawled into the kitchen, “She’s having dinner at the Kinseys tonight.” 

David was leaning against the doorframe, arms folded, smiling impishly. As usual, he was stark naked. 

Angela groaned. “For crying out loud, Arnold, I made up a plate for her!” 

“Sorry!” Arnold whined. “It’s not like she said she’d be home for dinner.”

Silly me, Angela fumed inside, assuming the girl who eats and sleeps here almost every night might be around for dinner. Children were beasts. What did they think she was? A machine? An automatic assembly line of meals and clean laundry? 

There was no question of inviting David to eat with them. The fragile non-aggression pact between him and Angela wouldn’t survive it. But like many such doctrines, it depended on both sides keeping to their lines. David strolled over and picked up Mabel’s plate.

“Don’t touch it!” Angela snapped, inadvertently banging her knee against the underside of the table and sending the cutlery rattling. She hissed through her teeth. It felt like she’d hit solid steel.

Fred put a hand on David’s shoulder, his grip gentle but firm. “What’re you doing with my wife’s cooking, boy?”

David gave Fred six more years until calling him “boy” would go from accurate to racist. He shrugged. “Sarah doesn’t feel like cooking tonight. Says it’s too hot and that I’d probably just eat the rest of Granddad’s birthday porpoise because I’m an awful sea-goblin.” She was right1. David looked over at Angela. “Figured she might like a home-cooked meal. And everyone loves your lamb so…”     

Fred held his gaze for a moment, then let go of the water-sprite. “Good lad.” He looked at his wife. “You fine with that, Ange?”

Arnold’s eyes darted nervously between David and his mother. 

Angela sighed and nodded. Wastefulness was a sin, and the Lord knew Sarah had a lot on her shoulders. At least some of that burden was trying to pay her back with food tonight. “Sure, go ahead. Send Mrs Allworth my regards.”

“Cool,” said David. He plucked the plate back up and made for the door. When he passed Arnold, he pivoted downward on one foot and kissed him on the lips. Forgetting where he was for a moment, Arnold kissed him back.

David and Arnold yelped as Angela’s plate flew over the former’s head, shattering in a splattery mess against the kitchen wall. Arnold’s mother had risen from her chair, breathing heavily.

Fred shook his head, gawping slightly. “What’s gotten into ya, Ange?”

Angela pointed a shaky finger at David. “You see what he’s doing, don’t you?”

David scowled. “And what’s that, lady?”

Arnold desperately mimed “silence” at the other boy. 

“Taking him. And Allison.” Angela wiped sweat from her brow. “Making them… animals. Slimy and slippery and wrong. Arnold was a good boy, Fred.”

“Still is,” Fred replied sternly.

“But he won’t be!” she snapped. “Not if this keeps up! Not with this little toe rag and his—  ways.”

There was a long silence at that.

“Boyfriend,” David said flatly. “That’s the word you’re too scared to say. And fuck you.”

“Get out of my house you queer little shit!”

Nobody in the kitchen spoke. Arnold’s eyes were watering.

“And would it kill you to say grace?”

Angela slumped forwards against the table, her water glass toppling and soaking her hair.

“…Ange?” Fred wheeled over to his wife’s side. He hoisted her upright best he could. “Ange!” 


David frowned. Then flinched when Arnold slapped him.

“Stop it!” Arnold yelled. “You let her up right now!”

“What—fuck. It’s not me, Arn!”

Fred put his hand over Angela’s forehead. Her skin screamed with heat. He looked at David and shouted, “Get help! For Christ’s sake, get help!”

Before David could respond, Arnold zapped him to the sickbay, followed seconds later by his parents. 

Arnold fell to his knees and burst into confused tears. Somewhere out there, Elsa Lieroinen was laughing. 

Chen Liu sat at his workbench, grinding a silver disk against his electric grinding wheel, fingers wrapped in blue alligator tape. There was something humbling about working with silver. It wasn’t that its colour or luster appealed less to Chen. He had a soft spot for the metal. It didn’t listen to his power. He had to work with it—browbeat and wheedle it into shape. If gold was Chen’s dog, silver was his cat. 

A quick flash with a blowtorch and a sulphur bath darkened the face of the coin. The engraving work shone against the black patina. It could’ve been a roadmap for Therese. It’d turned out well, Chen thought. It felt good to do some proper jeweling again. Made him feel less “AU” and more “Chen.” But the circumstances… 

There was a knock at Chen’s front door. He decided the bandana he had tied around his face counted as a mask.

“I hope this is important—”

Chen froze mid-sentence. Drina Kinsey was on his doorstop. And he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

“Afternoon, Chen.”

Chen stammered. “Hey, Drina, I—” He glanced down at his bare chest. “…Sorry. Wasn’t expecting company.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Ruddy hot today, isn’t it?”

Behind her cloth mask, Drina smiled. “It’s fine. Nothing I haven’t seen before.” She flexed her eyebrows. “A bit less, actually.”

Chen blinked. “Drina!” 

“Ah, lighten up.” Drina reached into her bag, removing a small newspaper package. “I made you a corn beef sandwich. Don’t worry, I had gloves on.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

Drina shrugged. “I was making some for Allie and the Barnes’. You were on my way.” 

“Still,” said Chen. He glanced back into his home. “Actually, there’s something I want to drop off to the Barnes. Mind the company?”

“Not at all. Haven’t exactly had much adult conversation the last couple of weeks.”

“Just let me get cleaned up,” said Chen. “I’d invite you in, but the whole place kind of smells like rotten eggs right now.”

“It’s fine.” 

Drina couldn’t help but watch Chen walk back inside. Something about the way his legs moved beneath his denim trousers…

The pair walked through the deserted streets of Catalpa. All the water-fountains were cordoned off with tape. The town pool’s gate was locked: now the exclusive domain of David Barthe. Drina was sure it was a mixed blessing for the boy. Occasionally people leaned out of their windows to say hello, hungry for any human interaction. The humidity was intense today, but you could smell rain in the air. The roads were lined with drying mud. Storm clouds circled patiently in the sky. Every once in a while, the sky thundered, as though chuckling at its own reticence.

“They’ve moved some folks to the Flying Man’s… I think the word is base?” said Drina. “You know, vulnerable people. That pregnant girl that arrived with me; Lana and her baby; Sarah…”

“Sensible,” said Chen. “Measles is bloody awful if you’re really young or really old. There was an outbreak back in Chinatown when I was eleven, I think. Took an uncle and a cousin.”

“Oh, Chen,” said Drina. “I’m sorry.”

Chen shrugged. “I wasn’t there. I only heard about it in letters.”

“Ah.” 

The two walked in companionable silence for a bit.

“They had it on the ship I came on,” said Drina suddenly. “It was…” She shook her head at the memory. “I got lucky.”

“God,” said Chen. “At least here we’ve got space.”       

“Yep,” said Drina. Her lip curled. “Mind you, the Flying Man’s home has air-conditioning.” 

“Sometimes I wonder why Sarah doesn’t just live there,” said Chen. “It sounds very flash.”

“Be like living in her son’s tomb, wouldn’t it?” said Drina. “Besides, I think the last fortnight has reminded me how important company is.”

“True.” Chen finally unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. “Mhmm. This is really good silverside, Drina.”

Drina blushed. “Thanks.”

They passed by Libertalia for a glass of wine. Not that they stepped inside the place. Not that “glasses” were involved. Instead, Hettie Haldor reached her marble arm (smelling faintly of the disinfectant she’d bathed in) out through a window and poured some red into paper cups. Allison had suggested the idea to the Haldors. In Florence they’d been called buchette del vino: a way for the rich to avoid taxation and for the people to avoid sobriety during plagues. In Catalpa, as everywhere, people adapted.

Drina sipped hers and smacked her lips. “…Not quite right, is it?”

“You get what you’re given,” Hettie called from within the pub.

Chen nodded. “It’s better than nothing.”

“We shouldn’t be allowing it at all.”

Chen and Drina turned to find the Crimson Comet standing in front of them. He was in full costume—wings out—with the addition of a dark red faceplate streaked with a gold comet. It gave the whole look an unfortunate raptorial quality. 

“Thanks for the support, Mr. Rivers…” Hettie said. 

“People don’t need a reason to stand around outside right now,” Ralph insisted.

“If it helps,” said Drina, “we’re only stopping on our way to the tower.”

Ralph raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“Delivering food to the Barnes’ and my daughter.”

Ralph rubbed his chin. “…Fair enough I suppose.” He pointed sharply at the two of them. “Don’t linger, though.” Then he called into the window, “And get me a beer if you’re doing this!”

“Sure, your majesty.”

Drina and Chen left him to his drink. 

“Someone’s on a power-kick,” muttered Chen.

“Be kind,” said Drina. “Wally’s stuck under the sea.”

Sixty was no age to catch measles. Ralph was hardly any younger, but like everyone else who could call Eliza Winter a friend, he’d been immunized long ago. 

“Someone has to keep things under control,” Ralph had said.

Close-Cut still insisted he wear the filter-mask he’d made for him. 

They had to take the long way up to Freedom Point’s entrance. The portal-eggs were for urgent use only right now. The elevator was rigged out of a suspended platform used for window cleaning. Drina gripped the handrails with white knuckles as the cables drew them into the air. “…Not good with heights,” she said out the corner of her mouth, head turned upwards.

Chen wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry, I gotcha.” 

Brandon Kurtz no longer stood in the front lobby. Instead, Mabel Henderson shoved a registry book at them. 

“Name, date, time,” she said sternly.

Drina signed in for her and Chen. She couldn’t blame Mabel for being so serious. She’d lost one northern town before.

The Freedom Point infirmary was intended to house maybe a dozen patients. Now it held over three times that many people. Angela had been the town butcher. One of the town’s busiest, most prominent women. And she hadn’t even known she was infected. Drina and Chen could hear the chorus of coughs and wheezes before they saw the extra cots spilled out into the hallway in waves of triage. The worse the prognosis, the closer the patient was to the actual sickbay. Inside, Nurse Sandra bustled between beds; changing IV bags and bedpans; checking breathing and pulses; taking temperatures and laying moistened clothes over foreheads. 

The nurse lay a stethoscope over Brandon Kurtz’ chest. His breath crackled in her ears. “Fluid up in Mr. Kurtz’ lungs.”

At the centre of the room, Allison Kinsey nodded. “Stand back.” 

Her eyes glowed milky green. Brandon jerked and retched in his bed. Sputum fountained out of his mouth, spiraling through the air into a medical waste container. 

Catalpa had no doctors. But Allison Kinsey had met a fair few. 

“Allie,” said Drina. “You really should eat something.”

“Later,” said Allison, gently turning over an unconscious patient. 

Drina saw the dark patches under her daughter’s eyes. “How much sleep are you getting?” Allison had insisted on relocating to the tower full time a week ago, over Drina’s objections.

“I just slept three nights ago.”

“Three nights?” 

“It’s different for me, Mum.” 

How different?” Drina wanted to ask.

As patient zero, Angela Barnes was in one of the built in sickbay beds: the giant clam shells filled with wiggling tongues. Her face was dominated by an angry red rash. Her eyes were shut. Her husband and youngest son sat on either side of her, both masked. Nurse Sandra and Allison had warned them against touching her. 

Chen approached the bed and cleared his throat. Both Barnes glared at the man:

“Not now, AU,” said Arnold blearily.


“What the fuck are you doing here?” demanded Fred.

“Language,” muttered Arnold. Someone had to say it if his mother couldn’t.

“Yeah, I know, not the person you want to see,” said Chen. He held out the two wrapped sandwiches. “Here. Corn beef.”

Fred scowled.

“Look, before you throw them in the bin, Drina made them, Not me.”

After a moment, Fred grunted and snatched the sandwiches. “Tell her me and the boy say thanks and clear off.” 

Chen sighed. “There is something I wanted to give your wife, Mr. Barnes.”

“What?”

Chen removed the coin he’d made from his pocket and handed it to Arnold. Engraved on the obverse was a long haired man with a thigh wound holding a pilgrim’s staff. On the reverse, a dog offering up a piece of bread. Along the edges was written “Saint Roch”2.

“Your mum’s a good woman,” said Chen. “She’s been good to me. God knows I didn’t do anything to deserve it.” He pointed at the coin. “I don’t go in for that kind of thing usually, but I know Mrs Barnes is a believer so…” He squinted his shoulder. “Seemed like something she’d like.”

Arnold closed his hand around the coin. “I think she would, Dad.”

After a long moment, Fred Barnes nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good,” said Chen. “Guess I’ll be off then.” He looked right at Angela. “Best wishes, Mrs Barnes.”

As Chen turned, he heard the beginnings of tears. Arnold was embracing his weeping father.

“She’s so strong, Arn…”

“I know, Dad.” 

Chen didn’t dare say anything. Something about the way Arnold held his father told him this wasn’t the first time he’d seen the man cry.

That night, there was a town meeting. Nearly four hundred chairs spaced out at the foot of Freedom’s point, their occupants nearly all masked. A surgical conference from a political cartoon. The air reeked of mosquito repellent. In front of the crowd was a hastily erected stage with six chairs: The Catalpa City Council. The council was a fairly amorphous entity at the best of times. People wandered in and out as their interest in local governance ebbed and waned. The outbreak had only caused more shifts in its makeup. At the moment, it consisted of:

  1. Mistress Quickly, as the town’s chief scientist. With Close-Cut holed up in Lyonesse, she was also pulling double duty repping the supervillain crowd.
  2. Paul Haldor, representing the town’s baseline humans, filling in for Angela Barnes. 
  3. The Crimson Comet, sheriff of Catalpa and standard bearer for the resident superheroes.
  4. Frances Robinson, sometimes called Night-Tide. A Darwinite superheroine, on the council because there was no way the supervillains were getting more seats on the council than honest to God heroes. 
  5. Jon Griffiths, a man who appeared to be made of living red spaghetti with two bulbous ping-pong ball eyes, representing all those in Catalpa whose powers left them looking… otherwise. 
  6. And finally, Allison Kinsey. There was once a vague idea that she represented Catalpa’s many unaccompanied children, but really, it just felt wrong to not have her around.   

“…We’re pretty sure we’ve managed to break the chain of transmission,” said Allison Kinsey, her voice amplified by the button-microphone pinned to her costume’s collar. She flashed a smile that only women manning make-up counters should use. “Once we’re past the incubation period, we can get back to building our city!”

The girl clearly expected applause. Instead, she got a wave of whispers and murmurs. 

In the third row, Chen leaned over to Drina and whispered, “She is way too young to be doing PR-talk…”

“Don’t have to tell me.”

“Does anyone have any questions?” asked the Crimson Comet.

A forest of raised hands. 

Eenie, menie, minee… 

The Comet pointed at a meaty, liver-spotted arm. “Yes, Brenda?”

Brenda McCullough cleared her throat. “How come none of you big-brains can’t just cure the measles?”

Mistress Quickly of course fielded that one. “I’m sorry to say, but none of us super-scientists are dab hands at virology.”

Brenda snorted. “You grew a little girl! How can you not fix the measles! They’ve got a vaccine in the States!”

“I’m sure you already knew this, Brenda,” said Maude, “But there’s a big difference between an inoculation and an antidote.” She folded her arms. “As for Miri’s project, most women can grow little girls, can’t they?”

A few scattered chuckles. 

“And I’m not too proud to admit I had help with that,” continued Maude. “We’re supers, guys, not gods.” She spotted a nut-brown hand waving from a middle row. “And for those of us who are gods, I should remind people that divinity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Chariots of iron and all that.”

“Bunch of bull,” grumbled Brenda. 

“Please, Brenda,” said Night-Tide. “There are children here.”

“You bloody supes can do whatever miracles you like, but when it’s something we need…”

A man yelled from the back, “It’s a little convenient nobody in charge has gotten sick!” 

The council all exchanged looks. 

Maude smiled sourly. “I’ve caught four strains of measles on four different worlds. My immune system is way out of this planet’s league.” 

“I do not have any blood,” said Mr. Griffiths, his surprisingly clear, mild voice rustling his tentacles like wind through curtains.

“I’m literally standing in for a councilwoman who got sick,” said Mr. Haldor. 

“I’m a vegetarian,” explained Night-Tide. “Good woman though Mrs Barnes is, we don’t do much business.”

“Never going to let us forget that,” said Maude under her breath, hand over her mic.

“Me and Miss Kinsey were made immune to a lot of ailments by a healer we both knew,” said the Comet.

“And why can’t we get her in?” 

“Therese is looking for her,” said Allison. “Big country on a big planet.”

“What I want to know is how the measles got here,” said an old man. 

Maude sighed. “We’ve explained this. Mrs Barnes—”

“But how did it get here?”   

“Catalpa isn’t exactly a closed community,” said Night-Tide.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” A man near the back rose from his seat and pointed towards the front. “It was the bloody chink!” 

It took Chen a moment to realize he was talking about him. He twisted around in his chair. “Excuse me?”

Ralph groaned. “For Christ’s sake, Jared…” 

“Did anyone bother testing him when he got here?” another voice asked, loudly. “God knows what he’s carrying.”

Allison, young as she was, tried to use logic, “Chen’s immune too. Just like me and Ralph.”

“His lot are dirty. They carry it with them.” 

“For all we know the witch sent him here!”

Chen clenched a fist. He wanted to scream the arseholes into the ground. But anger was a privilege not afforded to men who’d done the things he’d done. But then, it also wasn’t afforded to men who looked like him.

Drina shot to her feet. “Shame on you all.” 

Chen put a hand on her arm. “Drina, you don’t have to—”

Drina pulled away from him. “It’s not just about you, Chen.” She pointed at her daughter, then back at herself. “Me? My daughter? The kid you all worship? Gypsy.”

On stage, Allison swallowed. She’d never heard her mother… admit it like that before. The only reason she knew about it was the Physician, and the Physician had a weird sense of humour at the best of times.

“Are we dirty?”

Stammering. “I—I meant supervillains—”

“Thanks,” Mistress Quickly said flatly.

Drina rolled her eyes. “Pull the other one. Chen came here to help. He risked his life to save our kids, and you’re all looking for an excuse to indulge your pigshit ignorance.”

“I can take it, Drina,” said Chen. 

“You made mistakes Chen,” said Drina. “Doesn’t mean you have to put up with dickheads the rest of your life.” She marched brazenly up to the stage, clambering onto it with determined awkwardness and taking her daughter by the hand. “We’re going home.”

Allison blinked and shook her head. “No I’m not.”

Drina started walking offstage, dragging Allison with her. “I won’t have you listening to this filth!”

Ralph sighed. “Allie, listen to your mother. We can manage—”

Allison pulled her hand effortlessly from her mother’s grip. “I need to be here!”

God, when’d she get so strong? “You are ten years old!”

Mother and daughter locked gazes for a moment, war passing between their eyes. Without breaking eye contact, Allison’s feet left the ground. 

Drina staggered forward, trying to grab a foot. “Allie! Allie!”

Allison didn’t answer. Drina’s hands found only empty air. The girl shrunk as she rose higher, flitting around Freedom Point like a rainbow raven haunting London Tower.

Drina let out an inarticulate noise of maternal fury. She became aware of the audience staring at her in silence. She glared back at them. “You’re all ruining her.”

She stormed off into the night. 

“If you haven’t gotten the hint,” said Night-Tide. “Meeting adjourned.”

If Ralph Rivers was the sheriff, and Allison Kinsey the child-empress, Maude Simmons might’ve said she was the high-priestess of Catalpa. It wasn’t that much of a stretch. There was a distinct engineering mindset in the old polytheisms. Zeus and his cronies weren’t interested in a “personal relationship” with mankind or whatever it was Christ and his dad wanted. Old gods cared about your actions, not your feelings. Orthopaxy trumped orthodoxy any day. Trying to perform a sacrifice with unexpunged sins was no different from waltzing into a clean room covered in microbes. Other than that, if the priests recited the program correctly and input the right materials (flawless black heifers, unbruised fruit, suckling babes) the gods would oblige. You didn’t have to understand why. Leave that to the philosophers. Or the theoretical physicists. 

The machine they called Dr. Beaks lay across a metal gurney, cloak removed, its naked, ruined mechanisms open to the air. Mistress Quickly was performing an autopsy with designs towards resurrection. So far, her findings weren’t promising. Maude had never gone in for robots. She liked her privacy too much to invent a machine to destroy it. Still, it wasn’t the first time she’d taken one apart. But Dr. Beaks was something else. Even accounting for the structural damage, he seemed… incomplete. Like a corpse missing its skeleton. He had no wires in him. No screws or weld marks. The pieces looked like they’d been grown into shape like metal bonsai trees. She had no clue how they fit or stayed together. His manipulator arms were made of something like living—dead—modeling clay. Protean and endlessly adaptable. Running electricity through them made them shift from scalpels to syringes to tweezers. Maude had learned quickly that his “eyes” were purely cosmetic. She’d yet to locate any discrete computation in Dr. Beaks. Her running theory was that that was handled by his entire molecular structure. Blancheflor swore up and down he wasn’t remote controlled. 

Maude sighed. “Goddamn it, Joseph.”

“Danny, take a note.”

The lab answered with silence, accented by the quiet hum of machines. 

“Bugger.” 

Doc Danny had the measles. Maude had gotten used to thinking of her assistant like her belt. Always there. 

The lab’s door-alarm buzzed. Mistress Quickly glanced at a recycled television to find Mrs Kinsey shuffling her feet outside. 

“Enter.”

The doors slid open. Drina marched inside. “When will that robot be fixed?”

“At this rate… I have no idea.”

Drina ran her hands down her face. “…Then what’s the point of you? What’s the point of portals and fancy water fountains and self-building houses if my little girl has to play doctor with life and death on the line? On top of everything else!” 

Religion back in the day was results oriented. If the rain didn’t fall or the crops didn’t grow, people started asking the priests difficult questions. And people didn’t change much. Maude Simmons walked over to the bench she’d set her coffee pot on and poured herself a mug. She took a sip. It tasted like cigarette ash mixed with milk. Only appropriate. “I’m sorry Mrs Kinsey. I’m sorry I can’t recreate the work of an alien god. I guess I’m not trying hard enough to steal my dead friend’s work.”

“…Sorry,” said Drina. 

Maude sighed. “It’s fine. Measles is making us all crabby bitches.” She took another mug from a cupboard. “Want some coffee? It’s bloody awful.”

“…Can you make it a beer?” 

The two women pulled up a chair and drank.

“It’s still perverse,” said Drina. “The way people worship her here. She’s like a cross between Baby Jesus and a farm mule.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” said Maude. “You have to remember, a lot of these people are literal asylum inmates.”

“They weren’t thrown in there for being mad, though.” 

“That’s the thing about asylums,” said Maude. “If you weren’t mad when you went in, you’ll get there eventually. Trust me, I know.”

“Going to tell me about that?”

“Check back in a year or five. Look, Drina. These people were desperate, hounded, and loathed. I escaped that crap a long time ago, but I know what it feels like. Your daughter saved them from that. Gave them somewhere they could be free.” Maude thought about it. “Well, I did a lot of that, but Allison’s a little girl who flies and glows sometimes, you can guess who draws more eyes.” 

“You don’t see them making the Queen do the washing up.”

“You assume we’re making Allison do what she does,” countered Maude. “Have you considered that maybe your daughter wants to help? That she is, in fact, a good girl?”

“Of course she’s a good girl,” snapped Drina. “But it’s not about her being good, Maude. It’s fear.  She has an entire town full of people looking to her for answers, and she’s terrified she’ll fail them. You people are asking her to hold up the sky for you.”

“I’m not,” said Maude. “The others? Absolutely. And it’s not fair. What am I supposed to do about it?” 

“…I don’t know.” 

Both women drank. 

“There is a way you can help, Drina.”

“I’d be happy to.”

“Might want to wait till I tell you how before saying that. The council’s talked it over, and we’re putting new resident pick-ups on hold. We can’t bring people into an epidemic. We’re stretched thin as it is. We’ve already prepared a message.”

“…You haven’t told Allie, have you?”

“This wasn’t a decision for her. A lot of people may have forgotten Allison is a child, but we haven’t.” Maude took a deep breath. “We want you to break the news to her. Me and Ralph, we’re too much her friends and not enough grown-ups in her head.”

Drina nodded. “I understand.”

“You’ll do it?”

“Yes.” Drina finished her beer and stood up. “Best rip the plaster off now.”

“Want me to back you up?”

“No. I can handle my own daughter.” Drina glanced at the ruins of Dr. Beaks. “You will keep trying, won’t you?”

“Of course,” said Maude. “Joe did good work. Be a shame to let it go to waste.”

“Godspeed, Maude.”

Drina slipped her mask back on in the elevator up to the infirmary. “You can do this, Drina,” she kept telling herself. “She’s your daughter.”

The lights were dimmed on the infirmary floor. Patients slept in a thick soup of drugs. Drina could smell it seeping from their skin. That and urine mixed with antiseptics. Fred and Arnold lay asleep together on a cot beside Angela’s bed. Allison was holding a plastic cup filled with cold water to an old man’s lips.

“This okay, Mr. Gittelmen?” she asked softly. 

Mr. Gittelmen let out a keening wheeze. His long white beard contrasted disturbingly with his scarlet spotted face. “You’re a mitzvah, girl.”

Without looking at her mother, Allison said, “Hi, Mum.”

Drina didn’t answer for a moment. She was too distracted by Mr. Gittelmen’s fingertips. They were black. Before she could say anything, Nurse Sandra grabbed her shoulder. “Allie, could me and your mother have a word?”

“Sure,” Allison answered, eyes still fixed on Mr. Gittelmen. 

Nurse Sandra led Drina out of the sickbay back to the elevator bank. “You need to get that girl out of here. Now.”

“I thought she was helping you?”

“I’m a licensed nurse, Mrs Kinsey. I’m not saying a doctor wouldn’t be a help, if they had the right tools, but we don’t. And Allison isn’t a doctor.” She sighed. “She sleeps in a chair for ten minutes at a time. Sometimes she cries. Jacob Gittelmen is eighty-two years old. He has pneumonia in both lungs. Far as I can tell, his kidneys have completely packed it in. There’s necrosis in his extremities. He’s going to die, Drina. I’d give him hours. I don’t care what she’s seen or done, Allison isn’t ready for that. She thinks she can keep him alive.”        

Drina found herself laughing.

Sandra frowned. “Did I say something funny?”

“No,” replied Drina. “I just thought you were all mad.” 

“Take your daughter home, Mrs Kinsey. Make her sleep. Properly sleep. Play… I don’t know, Monopoly or something with her. Just don’t let her keep working.”

The laughter died fast. “Let me talk to her.”

Drina approached her daughter like her footsteps might make her shatter. “Allie, there’s something Mistress Quickly wanted me to tell—”

“We’re cancelling the resident drive,” Allison cut in.

“…You know?”

“I saw you and Maude talking about it,” said Allison. “In your head.” 

Drina suppressed a shudder. What did Allison see inside her? Inside everyone? “I know it seems heartless, Allie, but the council only wants to keep everyone safe.”

Allison nodded. “Yeah. It makes sense.” She bit her lip. “Is it bad I don’t mind?” Her breathing quickened. 

Drina stepped forward and hugged her daughter. “Of course not, honey.”

Allison murmured into her mother’s mid-section. “I don’t want more people to look after…”  

“It isn’t your job to look after grown ups.”

As they embraced, lights on Mr. Gittelmen’s sci-fi bed started blinking. Alarms beeped with soft, melodic urgency. Jacob groaned.

Nurse Sandra rushed over, examining the optics that ran along the edge of the bed. “We’re over the hump now. Won’t be long till Mr. Gittelmen’s gone home.”

Allison jerked weakly in her mother’s arms. “I can—”

“No,” Drina said firmly. “You can’t.”

“But his granddaughter! She’s little…” 

“We’ll look after her. We’ll look after you all.” Drina looked at Nurse Sandra. “Will you be alright here?”

The nurse nodded. “Of course.” She took Jacob’s hand. “We’ll be fine.”

Drina roused Arnold awake. He squinted up blearily at her and Allison. “What is it?”

A few seconds later, Drina appeared in a green flash on her house’s veranda, carrying Allison as best she could. She awkwardly walked the door handle with one hand:

Need one of those stupid spaceship doors… 

Once Drina got the door open, she staggered inside, making directly for the bedroom. She laid her daughter down on the bed. She was asleep, Thank Christ. As she watched, Allison’s costume shaped itself into polychrome pyjamas. Drina couldn’t help but smile at that. 

She was considering laying down next down to Allison when she heard a knock on the door:

Drina huffed. “What now?”

Dutifully, she answered the door, finding Chen on her doorstep. He was holding a small, badly wrapped box in one hand, and a bottle of red wine in the other.

“Evening, Drina.” Chen tried to look past the woman’s shoulders. “I saw you carrying Allie inside. Something the matter?”


Drina smiled tiredly. “There is, but  Chen. What brings you here?”

Chen held out the box. “I wanted to give you this.”

Drina took it into your hands. “Thank you. Can I ask why?”

“For yesterday, at that bloody meeting. Standing up for me. God knows people are still looking sideways at you for proposing child labour laws.” He smiled waggishly. “Wild pinko idea that is.” 

Drina giggled. She unwrapped the box. It was a slightly battered jewelry case. Inside was a silver necklace with a ruby pendant. 

“Oh, Chen…” She looked at him. “Why silver, though?”

“Oh, sorry, I—just feels weird giving people gold as a present, you know. It costs me nothing and—”


Drina smiled and raised a hand. “It’s lovely, Chen.”   

Chen let out a sigh of relief. “Good.” He raised the bottle of wine. “I got this in case you didn’t think so. Hettie’s still marginally fond of us for saving her kid, I guess.”

Drina rubbed her chin and hummed. “Tell you what, I’ll take the wine, too. If you help me drink it.”

They drank it in coffee mugs, till the sun rose over Freedom’s Point. Allison didn’t hear Jacob Gittelmen’s song end.  

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                     Next Chapter


1. She was also working on a biography of her son. Working title: Why He Should’ve Let You Explode.

2. A Catholic saint, usually invoked for protection against plagues. Patron saint of bachelors, invalids, diseased cattle, and gravediggers, amongst other things.

Chapter One Hundred and Eight: Become Impossible

Drina Kinsey and Chen Liu ate cold chicken rolls on the beach, watching the children play in the water. 

“There’s something I don’t quite understand,” said Drina between bites. “You talk as though you chose to work for these people yourself. But also some witch trapped you with a cursed tattoo?”

“Both,” said Chen. “I found them. Asked if they had any work. They were so happy to have me, they threw a party! Got me drunk as a skunk, then Jonna asked if I wanted a tat. Nobody would think of messing with me if they knew who I was running with!” He smiled darkly at his own folly.  “Seemed like a banger of an idea at the time.” Chen took a bite of his roll, resisting the urge to spit out a sesame seed in front of a lady. “I think she had to get me to say yes. Magic likes it when you agree to shit you shouldn’t. Like the rules of the world were drawn up by lawyers.” 

Drina nodded. “I can see that. That Elsa woman tried to trade for the body.” She looked out past the shore. Miri’s image sported and twirled above the waves, seaspray passing through her like rain through fog.

“Should’ve taken her up on it, for all the good it did…”

Chen shook his head. “Nah, you did the right thing. Those deals always come with nasty catches.”

Drina smiled sadly. “Guess the fairy tales are there for a reason.”    

“The tattoo doesn’t make you do anything, though,” said Chen. “They’re more like those tags they put on bears. Or shock collars. No, the Fox was in charge of that.”

Drina had a dim mental image of a scowling man in an all orange zoot-suit. Or maybe a character from Pinocchio.  “The Fox?”

“The leader. He’s like one of those stage hypnotists, except his shit works. Worst thing was, sometimes you don’t even remember he’s worked you over. Once, they were chewing out some other idiot they got working for them in front of me, the Fox said something about lemon pie and I…” The words caught in Chen’s mouth. 

Drina put a hand on his shoulder. Her face told Chen he didn’t need to say it.

“They had a good laugh at that. Except the Fox. He never laughs. Not on the outside, at least.” Chen folded his arms over his knees. “Your daughter scrubbed the Fox out of my brain the hour I got here. Wouldn’t risk having me around otherwise. But I keep wondering, did she miss something? How deep could he go?” Chen looked out to sea. “Is this another trick?

“Oh, Mr. Liu,” said Drina. “I’m sorry.”

“I wanted to join them. Play stupid games…”

“Everyone makes mistakes. Nobody deserves that.”

“My mistake was cruel. There’s a difference there.”

Drina shrugged. “Maybe. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which is which. You could always warn people. It’d make recruiting harder, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

Out on the water, Allison and David were facing down each other on ice drift. From where Drina and Chen were sitting, they could’ve been dancers in a music box, carved from ivory and sun-baked clay. Even at that distance, Chen could tell they were about to spring at each other like alley cats.

Chen smiled. “So, which one are you rooting for?”

Drina cocked her head. “I suppose I have to say Allie, don’t I?”

Chen rubbed his hands together. “If you say so, ma’am.”

On the ice, David flexed his fingers at his waist like a gunslinger itching to draw. Draw what was something of a mystery, but still. Allison grinned at him:

“Make your move, coward!”

David roared and leapt at the girl— 

A gold thread snaked through the air, wrapped itself around David’s ankles and started reeling him into shore. His teeth chattered as his chin juddered against the surf, then scraped on sand. The snare tightened vertically, pulling the boy screaming up into the air.

Chen furiously turned the handle of a golden fishing reel, inexpertly recreating the winding sound with his mouth. Drina was on her back with laughter.

“We got ourselves a big one today!” Chen cried. “Used to use this trick on your ma, you know.”

David flopped and flailed, thrashing his bound legs like a mer-child’s tail, too blinded with fury to do anything so simple as reduce himself to mist. “Let me go!”

Chen jeered, “Come on, at least stick around for the papers. This has to be a record!”

David kicked at nothing, the momentum of his struggles sending him spinning. “You friggin gold… bastard!” 

Allison zoomed over the adults, snatching David and dragging him into the sky, back into their melee:

Mine!

“You’re daughter’s a real firecracker, Mrs Kinsey,” said Chen.

Drina smiled. “Sure is.” Her expression wearied. “God, it’s going to be way less charming when she hits her teens…”

“Give her time,” said Chen.

He watched the pair fight above them. David had merged with heavy grey clouds, swinging mountainous, fleecy fists at a weaving and swooping Allison. How did something grown in Lawrence’s hothouse turn out like that? The old man talked a lot about how different the coming race would be, but Chen doubted he meant David. Was his mother’s blood so strong? 

Mabel walked out of the ocean towards the picnic blanket. Unlike her friends, she’d shaped her life-fibre costume into a bathing suit. With the comic panels, it looked like Andy Warhol had gone into children’s swimwear. “See, there’s hope for Allison yet!” Chen wanted to tell Drina.

“Hey kid,” Chen said. He pointed up at the warring children. “You’ve known David a while, right?” 

“Since forever,” said Mabel, bending over to fish a Coke out of the cooler box. “Why?”

“Was he always so… him?”

Mabel laughed. “God no. He used to be… look, David was always great, but he used to be a great wimp. I think his granddad scrambled his brains.”

“His grand—” Chen blinked, then glanced about nervously. “Shit, Fran’s dad’s around?”

“I guess he’s everywhere, isn’t he?”    

“Oh,” said Drina. “David has family? I wouldn’t mind speaking to him—”

Chen shook his head at the woman. 

“Okay then…”

“But yeah,” said Mabel. “This David’s new.” She tilted her head, dusty memories wiggling free inside her. “Well, I guess not that new. More like he was when I first met him?”

“Really?”

Mabel snickered. “Yeah. I remember once, Laurie was trying to pull a t-shirt over his head, and the river just kinda snuck up behind him and body-slammed him. Like a wrestler. Only people David listened to were Mels and Żywie. Sometimes.” Mabel sighed. “Didn’t last. David likes people liking him. Laurie knew that. Maybe he was the one who scrambled his brains.” 

“Yeah, that sounds like him,” grunted Chen. “Manipulative bloody wanker…”

Part of him wondered if he could’ve kept that David alive. If he’d stayed. But then, if he’d stayed, David would’ve been his son. He remembered that boy at the circus. What was his life like? Was it any better?

Chen looked where Arnold Barnes was putting the finishing touches on a sandcastle, Billy St. George crouching next to them. They looked like a Victorian painting. He walked over to the pair, his boots leaving deep prints in the wet sand. “You know, I could turn that castle into gold for you two. You could take it home with you.”

“Oh?” said Billy. He grinned. “So can I!”

Arnold smiled, not looking up at the man. “Or platinum, or silver, or diamond…”

Chen laughed. “Damn. I’m obsolete.”

Billy’s eyes widened. “Don’t say that…” His voice quavered slightly. 

Chen grinned. “It’s alright, kid. Arn’s right.” He ran a hand along his arm. “See. I bet I won’t last the winter.”

The boys laughed. Chen sat down next to Arnold. “You know, kid, I should’ve said this the second I got here, but I’m sorry—-”

Arnold frowned. “Nope!”

“…Excuse me?”

“Not talking about it.”

“I just—”

“I’m not having a stupid grown-up talk without pants on just to make you feel better.”

“If this is about Canberra, it was Lawrence’s—”

“It’s not about Canberra, arsehole.”

Billy gasped at the language, putting his clawed hand over his mouth. 

 “You threatened my mum.”

Chen stopped mid sentence.

“So,” Arnold asked. “Wanna unpack that?”

“… Sorry,” Chen muttered, backing off.

“Seriously, is saying sorry like, your hobby?” asked Arnold. 

Chen stopped and sighed. “Seems like it. Practise isn’t making perfect, though.” He dug his hand into the sand, pulling up a handful. He grasped at it with his power. At first it was like trying to grip a wet bar of soap. But then Chen found purchase. Water and silica adapted to his will. Dark brown became bright yellow. 

Chen blew the gold dust out of his palm. It hung in the air like a swarm of fireflies, before settling all over sandcastle. The whole creation glimmered in the sun.

The boys oohed. 

“Neat, huh?” said Chen.

“Wait!” said Billy. “I wanna try something.”

A storm of mercury smoked between Billy’s hands. It fell over the sandcastle. Billy worked the air like a sculptor, tongue curled in concentration under one of his fangs. The mist evaporated. The castle was now cast in blood red glass. Arnold and Chen clapped at the sight. Billy stood and bowed modestly. 

“It’s called cranberry glass,” he said. “You make it by adding gold to, well, glass.”

“Hah! Not even the best gold guy anymore,” said Chen. 

Arnold looked out at the water. “Hey, Billy. Wanna air-drop?”

Billy threw his arms up. “Heck yeah!”

Arnold’s skin became phosphorescent. Lime lightning lashed at the tiger-boy. Billy screamed in delight as he appeared ten feet in the air above the ocean, tucking his arms and legs in as he landed with a splash. He surfaced, waving.

Chen and Arnold waved back from the shore. 

“Did he give a speech?” Chen asked. He didn’t have to say who. 

“Yeah,” said Arnold. “Don’t remember what he said really. I remember the scream, though.”He risked a guilty smile, hoping God and his mum weren’t looking. “Like a girl. Not an Allison kinda girl, either.”

That would probably haunt Arnold when he was old enough to have a working soul. Still, why spoil it for him now?

Miri appeared next to Chen. “Is your dad gold?”

Chen jumped. “Jesus!—I—what?”  

No matter where Chen looked, Miri stayed in the centre of his vision, like she was stamped on his eyeball. “Is your dad gold?” repeated Miri. “You know, like how David’s granddad is water?”

Arnold snickered.

“Oh. No. My dad was just a bloke.” Hastily, Chen added, “Is a bloke.” 

Chen wished he hadn’t used the past tense. He hadn’t seen either of his parents in over three years. Not since Lawrence sicced the freak-finders on him. The closest thing to contact he’d had was checking their local paper’s obituary section.

Oh, God, Chen realized. They must’ve read about me

He wondered, did people know who Mr. and Mrs Liu’s eldest son had become?

“So, you can’t turn into gold?” 

“…No. No I don’t.” Chen tried to imagine that. Somehow, he doubted it’d be as fun as Fran and David made turning into water look. “Kinda glad, honestly. Old Laurie probably would’ve named me ‘Oscar’.”

Arnold and Miri both looked at Chen blankly. 

“Come on, that was great.”

“Okay,” said Miri. She was watching Allison and David crash into the sand, limbs tangling. Touching. 

Chen wasn’t completely clear on what Miri was, exactly. Back when he was playing Holy Ghost with Therese in the mirror-void, he’d vaguely assumed she was some exotic and detailed delusion of Allison’s they were going to foist onto the empty little girl Mistress Quickly was growing. But delusion or not, she was clearly real enough to want. Real enough to give up that want for a complete stranger. 

“Hey, Miri,” said Chen. “Want to play a game?”

Miri looked away from her sister. Her expression brightened a touch. “Sure! What sort of game?”

Billy was wading out of the water, shaking his fur dry. 

“Oi, Billy!” Chen called. “Mind making us some gold?” 

“Sure thing Mr. Liu. How much?”

Chen glanced at Miri. “Mhmm. Seventy stone maybe? Twenty-four karat.”

Billy produced the material without question. It occurred to Chen that a canny supervillain could probably crash the world economy just by asking him nicely. In half a minute, there was a heap of perfect gold spheres between Miri and Chen, like the world’s most useless pinballs. 

Miri tilted her head. “Is this the game? I don’t think it works with people who aren’t you. Or you and Allie, I guess, but only if you’re in the same place.”

Chen smiled. “Hold ya horses, I’m working.”

The gold melted together without any heat, rising and reshaping into a solid, aureate double of Miri. Or a shorter Allison, depending how you looked at it. After regarding her for a moment, Miri took a step towards her twin. The statue matched it. Miri flinched backwards, her double arching away from her in time. Miri looked behind her copy. Unlike her, this Miri left footprints. She looked at Chen. 

“Go on.”

Miri locked eyes with the gold golem. They shared a grin. 

Miri swept her foot in front of her. The double matched the motion, but she sent up a curtain of sand. Miri laughed and ran for the water, the golden girl following at side, her metallic substance flowing as readily as flesh. They stomped and splashed in synch. Impact and echo, reversed. 

Drina moved to Chen’s side.

“Shame she can’t feel it,” he said. 

“I don’t think she cares right now.”

David strolled up to the two Miris atop the water. “What’s going on here?”

Miri swung around to face the boy and punched him in the belly. Her first passed through his navel.

David looked down at himself and grinned at her. “That only works if you’re Tom, Miri.”

Miri’s statue was frozen mid-punch. The real, if less substantial girl looked at Chen and huffed.

Chen blinked and glanced at Drina. 

“Little demons,” she said fondly, “all of them.’

Therese Fletcher’s walked along the Bunda Cliffs, the Nullarbor Plain stretching brown and flat towards the horizon off her right, the Great Southern Sea flaming with the sunset on her left. When Therese had been marginally more ignorant, she’d assumed Nullarbor was an Aboriginal name. It sounded like one. But it was actually almost childishly simple Latin. “No trees,” because there weren’t any here. The soil was rough and shallow, mostly calcium from seashells. Try growing a forest from a boneyard sometime. 

A sun glint off a wave whisked Therese across the ocean to a confectured main street in a California amusement park. It was about fifty years out of date, a recreation of one man’s nostalgia in pastel Americana. A castle loomed at the end of the street, enlarged by forced perspective. As Therese strolled past false storefronts, a barbershop quartet rode past on her on a bicycle built for four:

When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are…”   

Therese had chatted with one of the singers on their lunch break once, down in the utility corridors that ran beneath the park like an ant-colony. He said the quartet actually had twelve members, plus the odd understudy. Nobody ever noticed the switches. They only saw the costume.

A window took Therese to the very edge of her reach. She strolled down a path run through with ribbons of moonstone and turquoise, past folks dressed in solid, unbroken primary colours cut into unfamiliar fashions. A child or two pointed at her strange, mixed-up clothing, asking their parents what caste she belonged to. The Earth shone above them through layers of artificial atmosphere. 

Therese glanced at her watch and sighed. Ten to six. She’d promised Miss Switt that interview… 

Therese appeared across the street from the home and office of the Neon Ghost, the yet unborn Catalpa Messenger. Chen Liu was milling about in front of the door.

“Evening,” Therese called. 

Chen startled. “They should put a bell on you.”

Therese walked to his side. “I’m sure a lot of people have said that about me lately. What are you doing here?” She pointed at the newspaper’s sign. “I don’t think they’re ready to tell us the cricket scores.” 

Chen shook his head. “Got a radio for that. I just—that reporter lady is desperate to talk to anyone halfway interesting, right? I think I need to talk about”—he waved a hand—“all of that. Preferably with someone who doesn’t want to punch me in the jaw.”

Therese nodded. “Very wise, Chen. Definitely better than bugging Lana about it.”


“Fair cop. Why are you here?”

Therese smiled bashfully. “Miss Switt cornered me today. Bribed her to go away with an interview.”

“Ah.”

The door swung open between the two of them. Miss Switt leaned out and beamed at Therese. “Miss Fletcher! Right on time!” She looked at Chen. “AU, right?”

“Yeah,” Chen said. “I thought we could sit down and chat.” He looked at Therese. “I mean, set a date or something, Therese was here first.”

“No, no!” Switt enthused. “This is perfect!”

She yanked them both inside with surprising strength. The interior of the Catalpa Messenger  was a dim cave lit by a bare fluorescent bulb. Moths circled the light worshipfully, casting shadows like great bats over the floor. The whole space smelled of machine oil and printing ink. The Neon Ghost—Martin Lewis—was on his knees, ministering to a Heidelberg Windmill in stained overalls. 

“Good evening, Mr. Lewis,” Therese said politely. 

King grunted. “Not sure what good an interview is if we can’t print it.”              

“It’ll make a hell of a first front page,” countered Miss Switt. She spread her hands in the air. “Heroes and villains breaking bread in strange times.” 

Therese and Chen exchanged a look.

“Isn’t that the whole point of this town?” Switt declared. 

“Because your lot won’t leave us alone, yes,” said Lewis.

“Didn’t you only turn into a super while writing a book about them?” asked Miss Switt, eyebrow raised.

“… Just don’t get in the way, please.” Mr. Lewis turned his attention back to his printing press. “Bloody mad-scientists. Could probably clone us newspapers if they bothered…” 

Jessica Switt settled Chen and Therese in the building’s kitchenette with a couple cups of bad coffee. She sat down herself and turned on her tape recorder:

“I’m sure you two hear this one a lot, but how did you two get in the super way?”

Chen answered first. “Just born this way, love.” He flashed Switt an apologetic smile. “Sorry. Not very juicy, is it?”

“I take it you’re the only super in your family?” asked Jessica. “Not related to any superheroes or gods or aliens?”

Chen cocked his head. “That’s right. Huh. Would you believe you’re not the first person to ask me that today?”

Therese raised her hand like she was in one of her own classes. “I only got my powers last year. Right around Christmas, too.”

“Oh?” said Miss Switt. “Can you tell us about it? What set it off?”

“What set it off?” repeated Therese. “I honestly don’t know. It just sort of happened…”

Jessica turned her hand over in front of her, gently beckoning for more, “Was there a process?”

“Yes, I think so.” Therese bent her head. “You know about the New Human Institute, don’t you?”

Miss Switt nodded diplomatically. “I’ve read the stories. Can’t say how much truth is in them, but I can’t see the reality being that much better.”

“The core is there,” said Therese. “Herbert Lawrence—my employer—he wanted to breed a better class of superman, and he used what he had on hand. Love was no obstacle. Nor was age.”  

Chen nodded. “I left before things got as bad as they did, but even then… he wanted me to sleep with my little sister—” He saw the look in Miss Switt’s eyes. “Adopted. But if you think that made any difference…”           

“No, I understand,” “I’m surprised he was able to force this on your students. I mean, the super-kids around here don’t seem very placid.”

Chen scoffed. “Your parents must be very good people, Miss Switt.”

“Perhaps they are. Forgive my naivete, Mr. Liu. I must admit, this is all very alien to me.”

“Parents say children don’t listen to them,” said Therese. “That’s rubbish. Children don’t listen when you’re talking about bedtimes or eating their greens or drinking. But when they think your love is on the line…” She shook her head. “Gods and kings wish for that kind of loyalty.”

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” said Chen. “My… I guess brother is the only word for it, he could mess with people’s heads. Make them do what he wanted. Or what Lawrence wanted, most of the time.”

Jessica scratched something down in her notebook. “Mr. Liu—and I apologize in advance if this is something tender for you—but how did you get away if your brother could do all that?”

“I—I don’t know. He had to have let me go…” A long-delayed, terrible revelation hit Chen. “Oh, God. I think he just liked me…”

Therese continued, “I’m not sure Alberto even needed to work me over. I was young. Herbert and Mary were like mountains. I felt like an idiot whenever I tried to argue with them, even in my head.” She sighed. “Maybe that’s how he got his hooks in me. Watered that feeling like a tree.  But the kids were hurting. All the time. I couldn’t let it go on. Lawrence caught me trying to call someone and told me to get out.”

Therese left out the hitting. She thought it would distract from the point.

“Wait,” said Chen, “Why did Alberto—oh.” 

Chen looked at Therese with a little awe. She didn’t seem to notice.

“I was walking down the road when I realised, he was still telling me what to do.” Therese’s expression hardened. “After everything he’d done, after everything he was doing, he thought he could send me away. And I was letting him… something in me broke. And it broke the world, too.”

“There was a man?” asked Miss Switt.

Therese smiled. “You’ve been asking around.” She called over the reporter’s head, “Did you see the man, Mr. Lewis?”

“Nope,” he answered. “Fell in a vat at a chemical plant. Got a bloody terrible rash for a week, then I could turn into smoke. About as meaningful as nits.”

Therese got back to her story, “Other people say he’s a giant. Maybe he is for them, but he wasn’t for me. Just a man in a jacket. He didn’t say a word, but I trusted him. The way you trust your father when you’re very small? He walked, and I followed.” She shivered. “It was so cold. I didn’t think it was possible to be that cold in Australia, but I don’t think I was walking through somewhere else. He led me to a pool and told me to dive in.”

“You said he didn’t speak.”

“He didn’t have to. I dived and… it was like the water was a tarp over a well. I fell and fell…” Therese folded her hands on her lap. “I think that’s what did it. The diving. The choice.”

“Interesting,” said Miss Switt. “Do you think this was something inside you? Latent?”

Therese shook her head. “No. It was a change, I’m sure of it. Something reached down and… added something. But I think you’re asking the wrong question, Miss Switt.”

“How so?”

“You could ask half the people here about being a super. You want to know about superheroes. I wasn’t a superhero when I got my powers. Not yet.”

“Yeah,” said Chen. “Old Laurie was full of shit about a lot of things, but there’s something he used to say a lot: the mightiest super in the world is probably a green grocer.”

“Seems like a waste,” remarked Jessica. 

“And what if he’s happy?” retorted Chen. “Is that a waste? Most supers, we just want to live our lives. I did, until Lawrence sicced the freak-finders on me.”

“So then, Miss Fletcher, how did you become a superhero?”

Therese took a deep breath. “I found Tim Valour. In the mirrors. I told him what happened.” A sad laugh. “He already knew! I could’ve gone to Boa Boa for all the good it did! But he still had to do something with me…”

Chen’s attention snapped right to Therese. “You met Tim?” He clenched a fist. “What did he do?”

“It could’ve been worse, I suppose,” said Therese. “He could’ve sent me to Circle’s End. Instead, he put me in a room with no windows. Nothing metal or glass. Nothing that cast a reflection. The toilet didn’t even have water in it.” She looked at the light in the main room. She knew how those moths felt. All attention focused on one source of light, neither sun nor moon. “Don’t know how long I was in there. I slept a bunch, but there wasn’t much else to do. Eventually, Tim came back.” 

She remembered those dark glasses. The tan line around his ring finger. What did he think she was going to do? She’d come to him.

“He told me there’d been a raid on the Institute. People had died. Children had died.” The memory stung Therese’s eyes. “I beat at his chest. I clawed. He just stood there. But then I looked at his face… he was crying.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure he had the right, truthfully.”    

Chen snarled, “Fuck no he didn’t—”

Therese held up a finger. “I escaped through the reflections in his tears. Next few nights, I slept in wintered penthouses. I raided the back rooms of pubs around the world. I raged. All my life, I felt like a ghost. Breeze against a cliff. Things just happened around me, or to me. I wanted to make things better, for once in my life. Or even just change something. I could go anywhere, but I still felt like me. An idiot with a magic wand. So I made a new woman. Someone I could slip inside like a suit of armour. Someone brighter and stranger. Someone who could do the impossible.” She looked at Martin. “Mr. Lewis, you know what I mean, right?”

The Neon Ghost stopped what he was doing. “…Yeah, Miss Fletcher. I do. The powers; I mean, they’re important. But when I was wearing that old coat and mask, it was like I could run faster, jump higher…”

Therese smiled. “Hit harder. And the way people look at you—” She sighed wistfully. “First time they see you, they think you’re a joke.” Therese clapped. “And then you’re on them. That’s what being a superhero is. Being impossible. Being bigger than yourself. It’s not a super thing, either. It’s just easier for us.”

“It’s like that for us, too,” said Chen. No use lying to himself anymore. “Supervillains I mean. I hated the name AU. Fuckin’ loathed it. It was something Lawrence built around me. But when I was being him—when I had nothing else—it was like nothing could touch me. People who sneered at my skin ran scared. And that felt good. Anger felt good. I don’t want to be AU anymore, Miss Switt. He’s a creature of spite. Stupid spite. No good for anyone. But I think I’ll miss him a bit.”

Therese spoke again, “That’s why I don’t think this town is all that strange, Miss Switt. Supervillains, superheroes. We both know what it feels like.”

Jessica Switt was writing feverishly. “This is all very enlightening. How did you two meet?”

Therese and Chen looked at one another. A nod.

“The Coven sent Chen after me for killing their men and stealing their ‘product’,” said Therese.

“She beat the shit out of me,” added Chen. He looked at Therese again. “But afterwards. You were kind.”

Decades later, a young man stands on the viewing platform of a high rise. A modest thing by global standards, but after about fifty feet the all heights register much the same to the human mind. The city of his childhood lies spread out in nightly splendour below him, lights blinking like dreaming synapses. Somewhere down there, he knows a coven is gathering.

He glances at the book lying on the glass table by his chair. He turns words over in his head:

Someone I could slip inside like a suit of armour. Someone brighter and stranger. Someone who could do the impossible.

He looks down into the streets of Perth. He imagines a living shadow, leaping between islands of darkness in that sea of light.

He would become impossible. 

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Chapter One Hundred and Seven: Reflections in Gold

Chen Liu clapped his hand over the pentagram tattooed on his neck. The pigment burned acidly under his skin. Somewhere, the Witch of Claremont was stabbing at her little black book with  childish intensity. If she had been within five miles of him, Chen would have envied the dead. He knew that from experience. No matter what some of the Coven’s minions boasted, the tattoo didn’t indicate membership. The five’s skin was unmarked. It was a cattle brand. 

Chen grit his teeth and kept walking, the tattoo pulsing almost in time with his steps. Jonna would get bored soon. She always did. He distracted himself by tossing gold pieces from his pockets to passing children. They caught the coins giddily. Some of them (especially Therese’s foreign foundlings) tried unwrapping them, taking them for chocolate. Kids threw the coins in the air, laughing at how they flashed as they spun. Others bent the soft metal between their fingers. A few adults tried to intercept the coins or grub for them in the dirt, but they fled from their hands like goldfinches. Or dinged them in the side of the head. There was something very pure about how kids appreciated gold, Chen thought. They knew its true worth.

Chen spied Arnold Barnes and Mabel Henderson picking up a coin. The girl bit it and nodded at her friend before pocketing it.

Most of them did, anyway. 

The looks Chen got from passersby could be divided into four broad categories. First were the dirty looks. Those came from the civilian supers and those who loved them. The people whose lives Chen had helped ruin with his bloody-minded crusade.

Second were the suspicious looks, superficially similar to the first set but subtly distinct. Those were the domain of the superheroes, which was only to be expected. The other villains in town were known quantities; fixtures in rogues galleries. At the very least, they’d lived and worked with their old foes for months now. Many were so minor in their former lives as to not be counted as a threat. Chen had managed to go his whole “career” without tangling with any superheroes. He hadn’t socialized. And with one foolish exception, he hadn’t done team-ups.

Admittedly, some of those suspicious looks might’ve just been racism. It was hard to tell. 

The third category were the ones Chen hated. The knowing smiles. The comradical nods. The supervillains and the wannabes. The folks who counted Chen as one of them. Even if they were right. 

Worst were the fans.

A towheaded little girl bounced into Chen’s path, clearly drunk with excitement. There could’ve been springs in her heels. She was dressed in faded denim jeans covered in stars cut out of pink cardstock and a brown corduroy jacket, a shoddily glued fur ruff circling her neck like a wildcat mane. It must’ve been cooking her in that heat. Her face was hidden behind a dollar store tiger mask, but Chen could tell she was grinning. Any self respecting child in such an outfit would be. “Are you really AU, mister?”

Chen sighed. He’d not intended for strangers to call him by that name. He couldn’t even blame Lawrence now. “Chen, kid. Chen Liu.” He waited for her to go away, and when she didn’t, heaved a sigh. “Yeah. I’m AU.”

A delighted squeal. “I knew Billy was telling the truth! He never lies.”

“Good on him,” Chen half-muttered.

“I’ve read all the newspaper stories about you, AU!” the girl enthused. “Me and my parents are villains too!” She tilted her head, seeming to consider something. “Well, I’m gonna be once they take me on my first heist! Mum and Dad say they’re gonna start doing crimes and stuff again soon. Real soon!1 Dad helped me make a costume and everything.”

Chen hoped to God her parents were humouring her. Well, if they weren’t, he was. He forced a smile. “Really? You didn’t make that yourself?”

Fuck, Chen thought, that just sounded mean.

The girl didn’t seem to notice. “I cut out the stars!” She thrust out a journal and pen. “Um, do you mind… could I have your autograph?”

Chen’s smile grew a touch more genuine. That was too dumb not to appreciate. “Sure, kid.” He took the pen and book. “What’s your name?”

“Thunder-Tiger.”

Chen laughed. “Hah! Nice one.” He started writing. “To Thunder Tiger, I look forward to our team-up, your mate AU.”

Chen handed the book back to Thunder-Tiger, who handled it like a hallowed relic. “Thank you,’ she said, almost whispering. 

“You really should call me Chen. All my proper friends do.”

“Really?” asked Thunder-Tiger, eyes widening to fill the slits in her mask.

“Yeah. Quid pro quo, though. What’s your name?”

“…Thunder-Tiger,” she replied. “I already told you.”

“Nah, girl, I mean your real name. What your parents call ya.”

“They call me Thunder-Tiger.”

Chen frowned. “Wait, you’re telling me your actual mother and father named you Thunder-Tiger?”

“Yeah!” Thunder-Tiger planted her hands on her hips. “Great, isn’t it?”

Chen shook his head. “I swear to Christ, some people should be fixed like bloody cats…”

“What?”

“How on Earth do they expect you to get through life being called ‘Thunder-Tiger’?” Chen’s voice started rising. “Who’s going to enrol you into school with a name like that? Or hire you? Or marry you?” He scowled. Fuck it, your name is ‘Amy’. You’ll thank me later.”

Thunder-Tiger pushed her mask up over her hair, revealing a scowl. “No it’s not! I don’t need a dumb normal job, or school, or getting married. I’m a villain! Just like my parents!”

“Your parents are fucking idiots.”

Thunder-Tiger eyes fluttered. Then she started bawling. Chen watched her run off, leaving her autograph book in the dust. People were staring reproachfully at him. 

Chen glared about them, jabbing a thumb in Thunder-Tiger’s direction. “Is nobody looking into that family? Christ…”

Chen stalked down the street. People treated their kids like art projects. Parents and teachers.

It didn’t take long for Chen to find the house he was looking for. Drips of copper and platinum—no gold, to Chen’s complete non-surprise—ran down its rust-red facade like icing melting in the sun. Crystal cherubs danced around marble columns. The front door had panels of jade and sapphire. You could always tell where the matter-manipulators lived in Catalpa. 

For Chen, walking up the veranda steps was like tunnelling through solid glass. Every step drove spikes through Chen’s muscles, as strong and real as any of the Fox’s geases. He stood still at the door for nearly two minutes. Chen took a deep breath and raised his hand. He needed to do this— 

The door opened. The former Ex-Nihilo sighed scornfully. “What are you doing here, Chen?”

Chen staggered backwards like the young woman had greeted him with a shotgun. “Ah, morning, Lana.”

Lana was still a disorienting sight for Chen. When he’d first left the Institute, she’d been a little girl. Her hair had been as white-gold as “Thunder-Tiger’s”. Now she was a woman, or close to it. Her hair was honey, almost brown. She was tall as Chen. It made him feel like Rip Van Winkle. At least this time, her stomach was mercifully flat.

“I asked you a question. Hurry up. I just got the baby down to sleep.”

Chen hung his head, as though meeting Lana’s gaze might petrify him. “I need to talk to you.”

“Of course you do.”

“I mean—I want to apologize.”

Lana folded her arms. “Apologize for what?”

Chen frowned and shook his head. “You know—“

Lana raised her hand. “Of course I know. I want to hear you say it.”

It was a petty thing, but Chen deserved some pettiness. 

“I… I…” Chen’s words kept trailing off. He felt like he was back in primary school, trying to force himself through the doors and face a dozen white little shits. How did you even put what he’d done into plain English? It’d sound like the blurb of a pulp novel. Or maybe those stalag2 books they had in Israel. Shameful and ugly. 

Lana smirked mirthlessly. “What? Can’t bring yourself to say it?” she jeered. “Is that too hard for you? Maybe we can make up a pretty name for it.” She threw her head back in laughter. “Fuck’s sake, you really are Laurie’s—”

“I’m sorry!” Chen shouted. “I’m sorry I kidnapped you for a bunch of witch fucks.”

Lana had been living in a boarding house for young women of reduced circumstances when Chen found her, paying her way with strategic transactions at cash for gold joints around Perth. 

She hadn’t put up much of a fight. She’d been pregnant, after all.  

Chen stood there breathless. Empty. 

“You feel better?” asked Lana. 

“No.”

She leaned forward and hissed, “How do you think I feel?”

“I am sorry, Lana.”

Lana pointed her thumb behind her. “You know the Witch delivered Jason? No gas and air3 by the way. I think they collected the shit that came out of my hands during. Guess there’s a reason they used to burn midwives.” She looked off to the side. “They talked about selling him. Right in front of me…”

“I couldn’t imagine.”

“You couldn’t,” said Lana. “Chen, could I ask you something?” 

“Of course.” 

“When you left the Institute, when you left us, did you know what Alberto could do?”

Chen had no choice. If he didn’t answer honestly, he wouldn’t deserve to live:

“Yes.”

Chen landed with a thud in the dirt, a cannonball of sand crumbling down his front. He sat up, sucking in a knocked out breath. “Look, I deserve—”

Lana ran forward and leapt from the veranda, gliding on twin streams of protoplasm. Her knees struck him in the chest:

Oof!” 

Lana screamed, “You fucking think?” golden globes orbiting her hands. “Lawrence wanted you to rape Fran! What did you think he was going to do with us?”

“I never thought he’d—”

Lana punched him in the jaw. It was weak, inexpert. But it hurt. “Of course you didn’t! You never think, do you? You leave us with Lawrence, never write, never call! Just let him do whatever he wants because it didn’t affect you!”

People were gathering around the two now, some murmuring amongst themselves, others loudly egging Lana on.

“Fight! Fight!”

“Get the bloody chink!”

To Chen’s disappointment, that fella had no fillings.

“…And then you go around getting the naturals riled up! It wasn’t just Circle’s End. Or the Flying Man! You’re why they opened the fucking asylums! You’re why Lawrence had his pick of girls!”

“I’m sorry but—”

Lana slapped him. “Stop saying that!”

“No—I mean—take it from a Chinaman, Lana, folks out there don’t need a reason to hate us. Me, my family, we tried not to give them any. Even Lawrence tried. They didn’t care. They never care.”

Lana brought her face up to Chen’s. He felt her spite against his skin:

“Is that why you joined a white slavery4 ring? Because people are mean?”

Allison Kinsey dropped down from the sky, executing a perfect three-point landing. The crowd parted for her. 

“What the heck are you doing, Lana?”

Lana swung around to face the little girl. She jabbed her finger against Chen’s nose, making the man sneeze. “What is he doing here?”

Allison raised her hands. “Catalpa is for everyone, Lana.” 

Lana growled, “He’s Coven. They buy and sell us like fucking cows. Would you let Lawrence just walk around here?”

The crowd murmured. Lawrence was already a folk-devil in Catalpa: both for the Canberra bombings and what he’d put their founding children through. Chen shouldn’t have been able to get angry at anything Lana said about him. God knew he deserved it. But beneath the earth, sleeping gold roused. A few onlookers suddenly developed toothaches… 

“That includes Chen, too, Lana”—Allison wondered if she was saying Lana’s name too much—“You can see the brand.”

Lana spread her hands above Chen’s face. The globes sped and blurred into solid rings. “Oh, I’ll brand him alright!”

Chen screwed his eyes shut. He’d rather have his face torn up than be compared to Laurie any day.

Allison ran towards the two. “Don’t!—”

Lana pointed a haloed hand at her. “Don’t touch me! I know he’s inside you.”

Allison froze in her tracks.

At the same time, Therese Fletcher and Drina Kinsey rounded the corner, chatting and carrying takeaway coffees. 

“So, I said to Mabel, I said—” Therese caught sight of the commotion down the street. “Oh dear.”

Drina spotted Allison and groaned, gesturing towards the scene. “Is my ten year old daughter really the only thing keeping these people from killing each other?”

Through the glint in Allison’s eyes, Therese saw who was involved and tutted. “Oh, Chen.” She handed Drina her coffee. “Hold this for me?”

“Okay but—”

Therese dissolved into white petals of light. An instant later, she was standing not far from Lana and Chen.

“Ex-Nihilo, sweetie—”      

Therese dodged a blob of protoplasm. 

“That’s not my name!”

Therese perceived water running down a window behind her, soda-lime glass melting like ice in her mind’s eye.  

Still a good girl.

“No, it isn’t,” said Therese. “Slip of the tongue. Not that that’s any excuse.” She pointed between herself and Chen. “Neither of us have any.”

Lana shook her head. “You saved me.” 

“Because I’m trying to be better. So’s Chen. He’s just well…” Even now, this sort of thing didn’t come easy to Therese. Her go-to responses to conflict were “queasy smile of acquiescence” or “deadly violence.” This was uncomfortably… well, not even in the middle, really. That’d be a left-hook and an apology. “…An idiot.” She gave the man a flat look. “And frankly very self-centred.”

Chen—eyes still shut tight—nodded vigorously. 

Lana looked down at him for a moment. Then laughter began to escape her, first in short, jerking spasms, then in long, hysterical peals. 

“It was wrong of Chen to impose on you like that,” said Therese. “You don’t owe anybody forgiveness.”

The laughter became tears. Lana’s halos extinguished. She sniffled, “My life is over…”

Therese regarded Lana. The girl was looking at her house. A quick glance at the reflections within…

A baby, asleep in a rust-framed crib.

Ah.

“Oh, no, honey.” Therese stepped over and drew Lana up into her arms. She wasn’t even ten years older than the girl, but right then, nobody could’ve told you that. “Look, Lana. Plenty of young women have lives outside their kids. And you’ve got a whole town behind you. Takes a village and all.”

Therese wanted to tell Lana she didn’t have to keep Jason. She shouldn’t have to. But there weren’t many options for people like them, the world being what it was right then.

“Tell you what. Some time, I’ll sit for Jason, and you and the rest of the girls can have a night on the town.”

Chen surreptitiously got to his feet. 

Lana muttered, “You mean get drunk at Libertalia…”

Therese scoffed. “Libertalia? Maude’s machines can make portals to anywhere. Paris! London! Sky’s the limit!” She twitched her finger from Allison to Chen, silently mouthing, “Go.

They were quick to obey.

“Wow,” Chen said under his breath. “No wonder Lawrence hired her.”

Allison shook her head and grabbed the man’s hand. “We’re getting rid of the tattoo.” 

“No objections here, little lady.”

Despite this assurance, Allison still insisted on dragging Chen over to her mother. “Wanna watch me work, Mum?” she asked with a pleading smile.

“Sure thing, love,” answered Drina. She looked at Chen. “Afternoon, Mr. Liu.”

If Chen still had his Akubra, he would’ve tipped it at the lady. “Afternoon, Mrs Kinsey.”

The two shared a smile. Allison spoke into her com-watch. “Blancheflor, open me a portal to the infirmary, please.”

“Of course, miss.”

An egg-portal bloomed. As the three of them stepped through, Drina called out, “It was nice talking, Therese!”

“Same,” said Therese absently, still comforting Lana.

Drina decided to file that away for later. 

Liam Pittenweem dabbed a foul smelling ointment on Chen’s neck.

“You’re sure this’ll work?” he asked warily. Usually, messing with one of Jonna’s tattoos resulted in a small, but very inconveniently placed explosion.  

“Oh sure,” replied the boy-wizard confidently. “Took a few goes to figure out the recipe, but it works.”

“Wait,” said Chen. “How many ‘goes’? Have you blown anyone-”

“And… done!” Liam withdrew his hand like a painter admiring his masterpiece. He picked up a bottle of whiskey from the table beside him and offered it to Chen. “You might want to take another gulp of this.”


Chen took the bottle and obeyed. The liquor burned a path down his throat. Chen gasped, waiting half a minute for the warmth to reach his fingers. “Right, let’s get this over with.”

Chen lay on his side across the metal bench. Liam moved aside for Allison, masked and gloved with a scalpel sterilized by the heat of her second (or was it third?) power. “Okay, hold still…”

Chen clutched the side of the bench as a thin line of pain was cut into his neck, meeting itself to form a small square. Previously, the actual tattoo removal was handled painlessly by Dr. Beaks. Witches got you coming and going in this business it seemed. 

At least Lana got the robot treatment, Chen thought. 

Allison peeled away the skin. “David?”

David waltzed up and sprinkled a couple of drops of water on the livid square of exposed neck. 

Should he really be naked in the sick—  

Chen gasped as he felt new nerve endings reach out to each other.

David handed him a mirror. “Did I get the colour right?”

Chen sat up and looked: 

Unmarked skin.

“Yeah, Dave. You did.”

He was free, of all chains except history.   

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1. At least they said that until they found a way to let her down easy. In truth, they were planning on opening a geological survey business. And questioning some of their parenting choices.

2. A genre of exploitation pornography popular with Israeli adolescents in 1950s and early 1960s concerning the Holocaust, though typically avoiding direct depictions of Jewish suffering. Often marketed as translated English memoirs of Allied POWs, typical stalag plots involved highly sexualized brutality at the hands of female SS guards, or occasionally Imperial Japanese women, usually ending with gruesome revenge at the hands of their victims. The genre largely faded away after the Eichmann Trial, both due to censorship and an erosion of the culture of silence surrounding the Holocaust.

3. A contemporary nickname for nitrous oxide, used during labour as pain relief.

4. An antiquated term for sex trafficing. While the Coven were hardly above such things, prostitution and the like was far from the prime aim of their superhuman trafficking operations. Also—unless the one-drop rule was flowing in a different direction than usual— Thomas Long might object to the “white” half of the term.

Chapter One Hundred and Six: A Mirror for Superheroes

A blaring claxon woke Therese Fletcher in her cell at Freedom’s Point. Calling it a cell might’ve been a touch harsh, if it weren’t literally true.

“You want me to change the wake-up call?” Doc Danny had asked her dutifully the first night. “Pump it up an hour or two? Change it to birdsong or something?”

Therese had shaken her head. “I was a school teacher. Seven o’clock on a Tuesday is complete luxury.”

This was true. Still, she maybe could’ve done with a gentler alarm. But Therese hated 

people making a fuss over her. A surprisingly rare trait in her current profession.  

About half of Catalpa still slept in the prison cells Doc Danny helped devise. They were private, climate controlled in the heart of the tropics, and now you could even have bedsheets if you wanted. They were home to older teens (at least, those who whined about being put up with the little kids), bachelors, and transients. 

Therese was hurtling away from the first category into the second with every passing birthday. As for the third, she still couldn’t decide. She automatically reached down for the makeup compact lying on the floor with her left hand. She was a rightie by nature, but that hand had been a mess of broken bones for weeks. Not that it mattered anymore—a few deeply mysterious injections from Dr. Beak had mended the bones as fast as shallow bruises. Mended a lot of things that’d been steadily killing her, really. His last wonder before Elsa Lieroinen had gone all Ned Ludd on the poor robot. An early Christmas present, Therese supposed. Stolen handfuls of opiates and speed had yet to provide Therese with a stranger high than the simple absence of pain.

She clenched her fingers experimentally, then flexed them.

Fuck, that felt good.

Therese opened the compact. Her large, brown eyes stared blearily out at her from the polished glass. And behind them she knew—felt—was everything and everywhere. 

She could go now, she thought. She’d helped Allison and David and the rest. She should go. Lounging around here while people all around the world—  

Therese snapped the compact shut. She’d let the Mirror-Queen do her thing for the better part of a year. Some honest to God rest would do them both some good. Therese swung her legs out of bed and staggered over to a donated set of skivvies lying in university student disarray under a pair of well-worn running shoes. Whatever she ended up doing with herself, you had to keep fit.

Slacks on a weekday still felt a touch contrary to Therese. St. Mary’s hadn’t allowed its lady teachers to wear trousers to work. The New Human Institute had no such dress-code, but Therese wasn’t one for needless change. Lately, she’d been more into leggings and cloaks. If there was one thing Therese could say in favour of her recent vocation, it’d given her legs excellent definition. 

Therese glanced at the compact resting on her bed, weighing the mental cost of an elevator ride followed by inevitable, mandatory small talk with Kurtz the portal-man, against courting the temptation to dive back into the fight. There was always a fight. 

She sighed. Easy choice, really.

Therese Fletcher opened the mirror and rode the light out onto one of Catalpa’s dusty red streets. None of the pedestrians still filtering out of their homes paid her any mind. Women appearing in flashes of light was to be expected in that town. At least she was quiet

About summed up Therese as a whole, really. She took a deep breath, did some stretches, and set off on her jog. She couldn’t help but watch herself: from the polished spots where the sun struck the buildings, from the faces of wristwatches, from the eyes of passersby. She’d never been an athletic woman. Sometimes just chasing after students at recess left her winded. But her last year’s labours had tempered her stride with a certain steady grace. Her breathing was easy and circular. Therese hoped neither of those were a super-thing. It felt good to have improved by her own action. 

After a couple of minutes, Therese became aware of another set of footprints struggling to keep apace with her, probably attached to the set of lungs she heard huffing and puffing.

A young woman just about Therese’s age ran inelegantly alongside her. She wore a somewhat ruffled bright red pencil skirt and short-jacket with scuffed and dusted Mary-Janes. Her blonde hair—much more solidly yellow than Therese’s—was done up in a beehive slowly succumbing to colony collapse syndrome. She was also holding a tape recorder. The woman forced a grin through her exertion. 

“Jessica”—a gasp—“Swift. West Australian.”

“Good morning, Miss Switt,” Therese said, eyes fixed on the path ahead. 

“Therese Fletcher”—Miss Switt tripped over a rock in the dirt road, only barely keeping her footing—“correct?”     

Therese nodded curtly, pointedly not stopping or slowing down. 

Jessica smiled knowingly. “The Mirror Mistress?”  

A few of the old superheroes that haunted Libertalia had warned Therese there was a reporter in town. The only one who seemed to have anything nice to say about the woman was the Neon Ghost, a journalist himself. Which, to Therese’s estimate, made him about as popular with his peers as a London kid with the surname “Fritz.” That had surprised her slightly. Wasn’t Superman’s girlfriend a reporter?

But then, in the few Lois Lane comics Therese dimly recalled from her adolescence, not even Superman seemed to like her much.

“Mirror-Queen,” she said, almost under her breath.

“Pardon?”

“Mirror-Queen,” Therese repeated. “I call myself ‘Mirror-Queen’.” 

It was a half-truth. Therese had never said the name aloud when she was actually being Mirror-Queen. She’d barely spoken to anyone for months. It was a label purely for her own benefit. A border drawn across the map of her person. Imaginary, maybe, but still there. Still defining something. Besides, there was already a “Mistress” in town.

“I’ll be sure to spread the word!” Jessica Switt had fallen into a decent rhythm by then. Therese supposed a reporter would at least have practise chasing folks. She pressed the red button on her tape-recorder, holding it out towards the other woman. “So,” she said, only wheezing lightly, “you’re probably Australia’s newest superhero.”

“Maybe,” replied Therese. “There isn’t really a census of us.”

“What’s it like? Honest and truly?” 

There was genuine curiosity in the reporter’s voice, shining through the hunger. Therese wasn’t surprised. Policemen, firemen, doctors; most folk knew at least one or the other. The books and films made about them were such well crafted frauds, most people treated them as documentaries. Not so much with superheroes. They were where the ordinary intersected with something stranger. Something higher, even.

That’s what Therese had thought before she joined their number, anyway. She’d revised her view somewhat since then. Because she was Therese Fletcher, she now assumed all the other superheroes stood at that intersection. A proper superhero should at a minimum be immune to heavy clubs, Therese reasoned. She just had extra eyes and saved a bunch on petrol. 

“I—I wouldn’t know where to start…”

What did this woman want to hear? The human misery she’d waded through? The grubby catharsis when its authors got what was coming to them? The way every blow she took picked at the scab of guilt? The joyless ecstasy of a pitched fight? The way fear and cold adrenaline turned into pure exhilaration not a moment in hindsight?

The moment she realized it felt good? The thrill of taking a bastard twice her size and winning?  Of knowing he deserved it? The realization that she wasn’t a right-minded woman anymore? It’d be like trying to explain colour to the blind, if colour were a drug.

Therese picked up her pace, her jog slowly morphing into a run. For now, Jessica Swift kept up. Between gasps, she got out:

“Little Kinsey says you taught at the Institute. I think people would like to know what went on in there?”

The part of Therese that got no vote wanted to smack her out. The part that got to speak stuttered, “I—I’m on my run.”

Jessica’s voice almost ran over Therese’s, “The Neon Ghost’s office, tonight at six, maybe.”

Therese didn’t hear a question mark. “Sure, sure!”

Jessica beamed. “Excellent. See you tonight, then!”

With some mutual relief, Miss Swift let herself fall behind Therese, panting as she clutched her knees.

Therese cursed her delaying tactics. This was why she went on so many dates. But at least schmoozing male teachers would rather talk about themselves than the Institute…

Her route took her through a jungle of kids engaged in some formless game. All Therese could glean was that it involved a lot of running around and squealing. David appeared to be holding court at the centre, children swarming around him like pilot fish around a tiny, laughing shark. Therese slowed, regarding the boy. She remembered Maelstrom. That sweet boy trapped inside the gleaming idol Lawrence had built around him. He’d gotten what he wanted in a way. A new creature, beyond human fear and shame. She doubted he’d be pleased. 

A child ran into Therese. She didn’t stumble. Months of literally rolling with the punches taught a woman how to stay on her feet. Her eyes did go wide, though. The boy’s skin was nearly as dark as David’s, but Therese knew exactly where he was from. 

“Sorry, ma’am,” the boy said in new, faltering English. “Didn’t mean to hit you.”

“No harm done, son.”

Therese had rescued Hy from a bombing in Vietnam. Therese didn’t always get their names, but she always remembered when she did. She’d carried him through a ball of fire in a broken window. And he didn’t recognise her. 

Thank God.

David caught sight of his old teacher, cupping his hands around his mouth and shouting, “Hey Mirror-Queen!”

Therese yelped, taking off again at speed. 

Once she was out of sight of the children, Therese decided to stop for a drink. Water-fountains in Catalpa doubled as public art. A spherical glass reservoir above the basin bubbled beneath an oversized metal butterfly. Moisture from the humid air beaded on its refrigerated metal wings1, running down into the crevices where they slotted into the sculpture’s thorax.

Anyone who’s lived through a Australian summer knows how good water can taste, especially at the country’s very tip. As Therese straightened herself, relishing the coolness clinging to her tongue, she heard a woman clearing her throat. She turned to find Drina Kinsey standing behind her, hands clasped in front of her skirt.

“Morning Therese.”

Two instincts battle inside Therese. One involved life or death hand-to-hand combat. Another, older one was to freeze like a rabbit in the middle of the road. Thankfully, it was that impulse that won out. After an agonizing second, Therese managed to step to the side. “Fountain’s free!” she exclaimed, a little too brightly.

Drina flashed a bemused smile. “Not thirsty, dear. I wanted to talk to you.”

“Oh. Of course.”    

In some way, this was a longed for nightmare. Back at the Institute, Therese never questioned why none of the children’s parents ever wrote or visited. The idea that—statistically—some of them would have tried to be involved hadn’t even occurred to her. Most of her students might as well have come from the cabbage patch or been delivered by storks. 

She’d been told recently that Alberto had dug that blindspot. It didn’t make Therese feel any less foolish. She’d often wished for a chance to speak to the Institute’s forgotten mothers and fathers, whilst simultaneously dreading the possibility. 

Drina glanced up at the sun. “Actually, I could use a drink. Python’s?”

Therese nodded. “Sure. Do we walk or…” 

Mrs Kinsey shrugged. “I’ve walked, I’ve flown, I’ve teleported. Might as well keep filling the bingo-card2.”

“Right.” Therese took the other woman’s hand. “Keep a good grip.”

It didn’t take Therese a moment to find a suitable entrance: namely the glass orb above the fountain. Drina found herself being led through a void of reflective fog like vapourized mercury. Omnipresent light dazzled her eyes, assaulting them with glimpses of places near and far, familiar and strange. Gently swaying fields of sea. Cityscapes collaged in dawn, noon, and dusk. Millions of men and women brushing their teeth in front of many-coloured tiled walls. Drina swore she spotted Jack shaving… 

A few steps, and the women were standing in the former Circle’s End canteen. A new sign hung above the serving window, two black-headed serpents tangled into an ouroboros above the legend:

PYTHON’S CIRCLE

“How was it?” Therese asked half-apologetically. “It’s a bit different for everyone.”

Drina scrunched her features as she tried to find the most honest words. “…A lot smoother than some,” she said, finally. “Bit… troubling, though.”

“Sounds about right.”

Two fresh coffees were already steaming on a picnic cloth draped metal bench. A middle-aged lady in the kitchen called out, “Skinny flat-white extra shot and a latte for Fletcher and Kinsey?” 

“Exactly right, Sam,” replied Therese.

“Don’t have to tell me, dear.”

Sam Sybil had commandeered the canteen early on. According to the ex-superhero, she was an “oracle in reverse” able to send herself messages backwards in time. Catalpa’s more probing minds balked at the implications of that, but most of her citizens were content to enjoy the best table-service in the known universe. 

“What did you teach at the Institute?” 

She asked the question like the Institute was merely a boarding school, and not… what it was. Like the teaching was the point, and not just something to occupy the children while they ripened. Didn’t she know? It’d been plastered all over the papers for months. Lurid speculation that was somehow wilder and more tame than anything from Lawrence’s imagination. Deniable allusions to orgies and satanic or pagan rituals. Shockingly few words for the children themselves, except perhaps what horrors they might have spawned if left to it. Like it was their idea… 

“It was all a bit hodge-podge, but science, mostly,” said Therese. She smiled sadly. “I felt a bit like Columbus trying to tell the Gatehouse the Earth was flat3. Every time I tried to tell them how the world worked, they kept proving me wrong.”

“I don’t think superpowers count.”

“Of course they ‘count’! They work, don’t they—” Therese bit her lip. “I’m talking like Lawrence…”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Drina. “Never met the man.”

“He was— ” Therese struggled for an explanation. “…He made sense when you were listening to him. They say a lot of that was just mind control but the thing is—a lot of what he said—I think a lot of it did make sense.” She sighed. “And I don’t think I’ll ever be sure which is which.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being curious about that kind of thing,” said Drina. “God knows I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about my Allie’s… knacks.” Laughter pulled at the woman’s shoulders. She shook her head at some inner folly. “God, I’m doing it again. Powers. My daughter has powers.” 

“You didn’t know before?”

“It was easier not to know back when she didn’t have hundreds of superpowers to choose from,” Drina explained. “Even the… knowing I guess you could call it, I just thought she was smart. It’s a nice thought. That something inside you could turn out so special.” She sipped her coffee. “Would’ve had to be from her father, though. He’s the bright one. I didn’t even finish school.”

Ever conciliatory, Therese said, “Plenty of people don’t finish high school. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

Drina laughed. “High school? Try primary.”

“Oh.”

“It was the war. And my family was never very… settled. They tried to catch me up when I got over here, but they put me in the same room with all the little ones. I thought I was too good for that, so I left. They didn’t try too hard to keep me. I picked up enough to get by, but sometimes—” Drina shook her head. “It would be nice to know things.” 

“Maybe she did get it from you,” suggested Therese. “Self-taught and all.”

Drina smiled. “You’re very kind, Miss Fletcher.” She looked down at the white swirls in her coffee. She wondered where they got milk around here4. “…What was she like there?”

Therese needed no clarification. She suddenly felt like a water-bearer in the Saharra. She wished she had more to give. “I didn’t have her in class long. Poor thing was bored to tears. Lawrence decided to have her shadow Mael—David’s father. He had trouble… touching things.” 

Drina frowned, looking pensively at a spot in front of her nose and humming.

Wait, Therese thought. That’s what’s bothering her?

Still, the poor woman deserved more.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Therese, “I saw a lot of your daughter. She has a very… you know cats?” 

Drina raised an eyebrow. “Dimly familiar.”

“They’re very… proud. Graceful. Strong, for their size.  Everything they do is so beautiful and self-assured. But they’re also…” Therese kneaded the air in front of her with her hands, searching for the word.

Drina finished the sentence. “…Idiots.”

Therese’s face went red. “I didn’t mean it like that—”

“No! You’ve hit it right on the head! They’re always running into things, they’re surprised by their own bloody tails. They think you’re scared of them. Just like Allison.” Drina laughed. “God help her. You know, if she was just a little girl, I could cope. If she were a little grown-up… well, I’d feel even more useless, but at least she’d be alright.” She threw her hands up. “But no, she’s… Allison. Girl can’t decide if she’s sixty or six. Frees her people, builds them a city, won’t wear a bathing suit.” 

Drina exhaled deeply, head tilted towards the canteen ceiling, smiling. It was good to name the beast. Then she looked back at Therese. “…Anyway, I wanted to ask, would you consider teaching again? Here in Catalpa?”

Therese blinked. “You want me?” 

“Don’t see anyone else around here with a teaching certificate.”

“Ah.”

Of course.

Talking with Therese Fletcher was a little like being telepathic sometimes. “That’s not what I meant, Therese,” said Drina. “You’ve got experience. Experience with super-kids. You are a super. You know a fair few of the children here. Who else is more qualified?”

Therese shook her head. “I’m really not, Mrs Kinsey.”

Drina reached across the bench, laying a hand on Therese’s arm. “You can’t blame yourself for what happened. Alie told me, well, that man told me himself—”

Therese looked at Drina. “Wha—oh, that. It isn’t about the Institute. I’ve always been a rubbish  teacher.” She actually smiled. “Complete pushover!”       

“…Aren’t you a superhero?”

Therese laid her hands flat on the table, eyes fixed down on the polka-dotted fabric. “There’s more than one kind of superhero, Mrs Kinsey. My sort—I’m not the fun kind. The Flying Man, Crimson Comet type. Bouncing kids on their biceps and pulling zoo animals out of fires. Being the Mirror-Queen is all hot blood and crunching bone. Shadows and hands over screaming mouths. It’s not the kind of thing you ought let bleed into your real life. I won’t let it. Not into a classroom. You need someone who can be strong without being cruel.”

“You don’t strike me as cruel, Miss Fletcher.”

“Not here, I’m not. Don’t have the guts. I’d say just the opposite if I was Mirror Queen right now. She can’t afford to be Miss Fletcher, and Miss Fletcher can’t afford to be Mirror Queen. You understand?”

“No,” admitted Drina. “Not really.”

“That’s alright. Not even most super-people would.”

“We still need a school,” said Drina. “I don’t know what this place will grow up to be yet. Probably something good. But the kids need to have something else, too. They can’t all be superheroes. They shouldn’t need to rely on what they are. Allison has, I think. Since birth. And God love her—maybe too much—but I don’t think it’s doing her any favours.”

“I didn’t do her any favours either,” said Therese. “You’ll find someone. Someone better.”

The two women sat in companionable silence for a minute. Therese considered ordering another coffee. Sam Sybil brought them another round before she could even open her mouth.

“Drina,” Therese said, “are you really not angry with me? For letting things go on as long as they did?”

Drina smiled tiredly. “Therese, if I was telling anyone off for leaving things too late, I’d have to start with myself.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. Originally the reservoir rested on top of the condenser array, but this was altered after the sun kept setting things on fire through the curved glass.

2. This was literal. After filling out “the space between spaces” with Therese, all Drina Kinsey needed was “spaceship” to earn a free serve of chips at Python’s.

3. Christopher Columbus, like practically everyone else in his day, knew perfectly well the Earth was round, though he did in fact underestimate its size by about twenty-five percent.

4. Something the Physician called a mechanical cow, at least until the Catalpans rustled some more wholesome cattle.

Chapter One Hundred and Five: David and Brit and Brit and David…

Elsa Lieroinen was getting tired of clowns. Luckily for her, circuses were a deep and multifarious well of opportunities:

Daggers, knives, and chainsaws zoomed about the fairgrounds like upgraded mosquitos. They mostly bounced off invulnerable and concrete skin, or occasionally found themselves teleported randomly across space and time; if not very far. They did however make sure to periodically circle back to the man standing in the middle of the battlefield, lightly grazing his palms as he weighed invisible fruit. 

Or, if you were being very charitable, “juggling.”   

Hettie Haldor tied serpentine contortionists into human knots. Liam Pittenweem crouched under a honeycomb of light, a fire-breather’s breath turning into autumn leaves as it smashed against his shield. Arnold Barnes stood downwind of a cadaverous tattooed man. Chinese dragons, mermaids, and sword waving skeletons flowed off his illustrated skin, charging at the lightning-clad child.

Arnold’s internal compass was still caught between a dozen magnets, but that didn’t matter. His jagged aura exploded the living tattoos into clouds of pigment dust. He seethed inwardly. The witch-lady was clearly ripping off Mabel.

Allison meanwhile was ripping off Arnold. A contingent of clowns had clustered together like army-ants building a living bridge with their own bodies, forming into a twenty-foot colossus of themselves. A harlequinade fractal stomping about, not caring if its feet came down on friend or foe. A number of clowns had even stripped off and skinned themselves, their naked, dripping red musculture forming the nose. Allison flew around the giant like an absinthe shooting star, chipping away at it with her friend’s lightning. A colonial organism, she could only take out a clown or two at the time, as new components eagerly threw themselves at their greater image. 

Elsa and Myles watched all this from atop the calliope, Elsa having lifted it into the sky on the backs of straining pixies. The witch had her servant’s top hat in her lap.

“Hmm,” hummed Myles. “Shuriken?”

Elsa reached into the hat, removing three keen-bladed throwing stars between her fingers. She dropped them into the fray, right above her juggler. He caught them deftly, tossing them into the complex orbit of projectiles.

“Got another one?” asked Elsa.

“Greek fire.”

Elsa cupped her hands and dipped them into the hat. When she raised them again, they were full of some thick, pale liquid. The witch spat into it. The fluid burst into flames, which she quickly tossed down.

The pair laughed together. “Okay,” said Elsa, “one more.”

Myles rubbed his beard. “…Seal pup.”

“Sure! Should confuse them.”


Elsa lifted a wiggling white baby seal from the hat. She kissed it on the nose, throwing it yapping and trilling down. 

The pup flew past the Crimson Comet as he faced off against a classic strongman in leopard print briefs; arguably a cousin of sorts to his kind, if only in appearance. His muscles were bowling balls trying to mate beneath his oiled skin, his moustache pronged like a union anchor. He pointed at the Comet, crying in a thick transatlantic accent, “Bully! You dare challenge Megacles the Invincible?”

Honestly, Ralph would rather not. Every time he hit anything, his world was briefly replaced by what he reckoned they called onomatopoeia. It was incredibly jarring, like a record skipping, if the record was him.

The strongman roared and ran at the Comet. Ralph got an idea. He stepped sideway, lightly grabbing his assailant by the tree-trunk ankle. Apparently grappling didn’t count as an impact.

“Going up!” 

The Crimson Comet kicked off the ground, launching into the air in an arc of red light, dragging the strongman bellowing behind him. He threw the man towards the wire fence that ringed the circus. The brute vanished as he passed over the boundary. 

“Whew!”

Ralph flipped in the air, soared over the battle and shouting, “Try getting them over the fence! It’ll take them out of the picture!”

Arnold watched the superhero go by, nodding to himself. He threw out his arms, dendrites of lightning lashing out of his bodies. Flashing silhouettes lit the air above the fence. Clowns and carnies in nicotine stained singlets fell from the sky. 

Elsa stood up on the flying calliope. “Shit,” she said. “They’re getting clever. Better end this.”

“Good luck, mistress.”

“Thank you, Myles.” Elsa cleared her throat. “Pallida Mors pulsat aequa ala pauperum tabernas regumque turris1!” 

Thick, raven dark wings sprouted from the witch’s back. She leapt off the calliope, swooping down towards the circus, snatching Allison like a hawk claiming a dove. 

The pair shot up into the lower reaches of clouds. Allison thrashed and bit, flashing with Arnold’s lightning and burning with Gregory’s fire. The wind roared with her.

Elsa’s grip remained a vice. Runes lit up on her skin like sympathetic ink under UV light. “Give up, girl. All Creation answers my call. I draw from the same well as God. Take my offer, and be glad I left you with anything at all!”

A sound like sliding silver echoed through the air. Allison grinned. Elsa scowled. “What are you smiling at?” 

Allison didn’t answer. She was too busy taking in the music

Drina and Chen Liu were fighting together, Drina wildly swinging her stolen enchanted mallet, Chen with gold gauntleted fists. They were distracted by the sound of hundreds of strains of bright, young laughter.

Children were pouring out of the Hall of the Possible. Boys and girls—or maybe boys and girl. The boys came in all colours, but the girls were all clearly the same, just in different strange outfits and haircuts. 

Brit. 

The new children fanned amongst the roiling crowd. As Chen watched them, he felt some of his gold birds wrench themselves out of his power’s grip. His attention snapped towards them just in time to see them start bubbling. They began to glow as they lost their shape, exploding into spider webs of gold like rivers of light. The molten metal speared through skulls and guts with a sizzle of blood and bone marrow. 

Chen felt a small hand tap him on the side. He flinched, looking down to find a naked boy with his little brother’s face and Fran’s eyes. His body was decorated with gold that looked like it had be pourn directly onto his skin.

The boy grinned, crowing, “Hi Dad!” before running off to find more sport.

Drina laughed, a touch hysterically. “Your son sure is something, Mr. Liu!”

Chen stammered. “I—I don’t have a son…”

High above, Elsa watched aghast as the snow she laid down so artfully (cotton candy contamination aside) turned against her, becoming spike traps and walls of ice, or just plain boiling. Little girls glowing like angels were tearing through her forces like paper dolls. 

In her arms, Allison laughed. 

Elsa shook the girl. “What are you doing?”   

Below them, one last boy stepped out of the Hall of the Possible. He was bare-chested, but wearing a pair of white bell-bottoms that pooled around his ankles. His eyes were the kind of red-violet you only saw in the sea at sunset. David Allworth watched his half-brothers and their faintly familiar female comrades run roughhouse over the weird circus people. He smiled, feet lifting off the ground. 

His song was a shadow of what it should’ve been. A shadow made of light, but a shadow still. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t blowing out her ears. It was a tidal wave. It was a white hole spewing stars like sea-spray at the heart of the universe. It was the shore that time crashed again. So much of it was David, but there was more. She’d heard it before. In her dreams. On her birthday, up in the sky. 

That last night at the Institute—  

Allison broke into a fresh jag of laughter. “He’s alive!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Elsa asked, mostly out of reflex.

Allison pulled the song into herself and rode the thunder:

A shockwave sent Esla spinning across the sky like she was hula-hooping. When she slowed enough to see anything besides blurred stars, the sorceress found Allison floating with a kind of primal serenity behind her. The girl’s costume had changed: no longer a mess of tye-dye rainbows, but the whites and greys of a stormy sea. The only colours were a blue and red diamond crystallizing inside the nine-pointed star on the child’s chest. 

Elsa’s eyes widened. She knew this world’s history enough to recognize that symbol:

“Oh. Fuck.”    

“Yep.”

In the span of a synapse sparking, she was upon her.

In the Hall of the Possible, Therese Fletcher’s heart was a thrumming impeller engine. She felt like she was trying to stand at the bottom of the ocean. She was pretty sure she was crying blood. But she couldn’t stop laughing.

Brit and David stood in the centre of the mirrors, petals of lights passing between them and the polished silver.

“So, um, what’s she laughing about?” asked Brit. She looked at her hands. “Heck, what is she doing?”

“No clue,” replied David, wonderfully dizzy from the dozen odd conflicting sets of memories and sensory input. “Feels fun, though.”

With Allison occupied in the sky, the Brits and the weird Fran eyes handling the bulk of Elsa’s retinue, and everyone struggling to comprehend… whatever Therese was doing in the Hall of the Possible; Arnold had turned his efforts to the recursive clown giant. He chipped away at it man by man, all while dodging its massive footsteps and swinging wrecking ball fists.

“Stupid”—zzzzt—“friggin”—sssssst—“clowns!”

A booming, out of tune chorus of laughter. 

“And you’re not funny, either!”

A boy danced up to Arnold. He was wearing a dark suit with a red-purple flower pinned to his front pocket. His eyes were, of course, ultramarine blue. In a familiar European mongrel lilt, he said, “Hey zappy!”

“Bit busy—wait, who are you?”

The boy spun around Arnold. It didn’t show on his face, but he was almost offended. Everyone knew him. “Lorenzo Moretti, at your service.”

“Moretti?”

Arnold was forced to leap to his side. The giant had started throwing excess clowns. It was one way to lose weight.

“…Little help?’  

Lorenzo grinned. “Sure.”

He cracked his knuckles and evaporated out of his suit like Gabriel had blown his trumpet. The mist wafted into the giant, settling on the clowns that comprised his body like dew. The droplets seeped through their costumes and into their skin. Two simple thoughts filled their rudimentary minds:

Kill. Die.

Arnold watched the giant begin to stagger. Its fat and skinny zoöids were tearing at each other with maenad ferocity, like a baroque reimagining of cancer. It sweat blood and gore into the snow as dead and dying clowns were ejected by their fellows. The boy rolled out of the way as the clown o’ war fell forward on its “face”, writhing and twitching in fragmented death. 

A wine-dark fountain spewed out of the pile, forming into a boy covered in an oily red film of blood. Lorenzo Moretti bowed grandly. “I trust that was of use, cloaky?”

Arnold blushed. If he was a little bit older, he might have had a word for how that made him feel. 

Myles glided over the crowd owl-shaped, occasionally swooping to claw some little water-brat’s eyes out. He came to a hover over a gaggle of Brits. They were swarming about the clown-mobile, tormenting it like too-young children with a new kitten. One girl in a liquid metal membrane punctured a tire with a fingerpoke. An arterial spray spurted in the girl’s face, the car’s horn howling like a wounded beast. Another Brit in a black floral dress held a redwood staff in one hand, and the driver door shut with the other. Five clowns’ faces pressed against the window glass, the pressure warping their skulls as viscera leaked out the door-frame. The roof of the car started peeling back like an overstuffed can of fish, revealing a red, wet palette for a ceiling. 

A Brit in a dress of fluttering tortoiseshell butterflies happily babbled something in alienese2. None of her other selves understood a word, but that was okay. She wrapped her fingers underneath the car’s hood and wrenched it open with a crack of snapping bone. 

The Menrvan child let out a shriek. The car’s engine compartment was filled with intestines like volcanic tube worms, writhing around an engorged set of lungs and a panic-beating heart the size of a manhole cover. With great trepidation, she lightly tapped the organ, pulling away as it twitched beneath her finger. 

…Then she started pounding it with her fists like a bongo set. 

Myles dropped out of the air in human form. Darkness gathered into an obsidian xiphos in his right hand. “You know, girls,” he asked, raising the shadow sword. “That car doesn’t make the clowns out of nothing.”

The girls turned almost as one. They all smiled

The brood of Brits rushed at Myles like a low-flying meteor shower. Behind them, the car door burst back open, disgorging a pile of twisted, stunted clowns. 

Myles swung his sword-arm with all his strength, but the girls drained his momentum like kinetic ticks. He might as well have been trying to brush their hair with a feather-duster. They made him slow. Weak. He could only watch as the chaos-star child abomination lifted the clown car up into the air, shaking out clowns like sand from a shoe. The flying boy threw the car down on top of them in a mess of flesh and metal. The Brits clapped and cheered, Myles taking the chance to slip owl-shaped back into the air.

Everything was going wrong. Myles needed an easy win. Preferably over one of these little shits. 

He spotted a lone Brit lying on her back, hugging the conjured seal pup against her chest—its fur and her naked, bloodless skin almost invisible against the snow. She was clearly some sort of sickly. Myles dived. 

Laurina Sands wasn’t sure what was going on. The last thing she could remember was running with her cousins across the moonlit desert. Somehow, she was pretty sure she was still doing that. But now she was also in some snowy circus, running around with girls who looked like her, smelled kinda-sorta human, but also had her blood gift? It was weird. Still, she was having fun. She squeezed the seal pup against her chest. 

God, it was squishy

Myles landed in front of the girl, brushing off his tuxedo trousers and smiling as much as he could without revealing any teeth. “Hello, little lady. Aren’t you cold?”

Laurina sat up. “Nope!” She squinted at the man’s top-hat. “Is this your circus?”

Myles clapped, a slight tremor running through his smile. “Yep! I’m the ringmaster, you see.”   

Laurina smiled. “I’ve never been to a circus before. Is it a good one?”

Myles looked about the fairgrounds. He saw the Crimson Comet hurling his mistress’s artisanally crafted minions over the fence into oblivion. He saw gusts of sharpened hail rip through Bornean wild-men and human lobsters like bullets. He watched as that Gypsy sow smacked clowns in the head with the magic mallet he and Elsa had conned idiots with back in Northam. 

“…Yes”

Laurina got to her feet, only for the seal pup to squirm out of her grip. She snatched after the pinniped as it was pulled back into the juggler’s power, scowling when her hands found only empty air. The pale girl huffed. “I wasn’t done hugging…”

Myles chucked. He layered his voice thick with mesmer. “That’s okay, child. I can get you plenty of soft things…”

Laurina turned to look at the ringmaster. “You can?”

“As sure as anything, child.” Myles locked eyes with the girl. They glinted like a cat’s. “Come here, and I’ll show you.”

Laurina walked slowly towards the vampire with a dreamy expression. Soon she was close enough for Miles to lay a hand on her trunk. He didn’t care what this girl said, her skin was ice. Soft, though. Her blood was exotically spiced, even by superhuman standards. The roots of his fangs ached with anticipation—  

Laurina leapt up, wrapping her arms around Myles’ head and sinking her teeth into his neck. He screamed, digging his fingernails into the child as he struggled to pry her off. In the end, though, Laurina let go of him

The young vampiress spat Myles’ blood into the snow, grimacing. “Chalky.”

Myles stumbled backwards, clutching his ice-encrusted wound. For a second, he just stared at the girl. Then he charged madly at her. “Alalḗ!”  

Laurina moved like ink in water. The blood of lost Menrva and Mother Lilith mingled in her muscles as petrol and flame. Myles’ ribs popped and shattered almost of their own accord. The softest prod from a big toe bent his leg bow-shaped beneath him—  

Myles gathered the darkness and thrust his hand out. His blade buried itself in Laurina’s navel. The vampire gasped and shuddered as her cold blood beaded around the xiphos. Myles grinned. Ancient memory stirred inside him. The way brave, handsome helots looked at him when they learnt the consequence of their merit—

Myles felt his veins burst inside him. Pain flowed like blood through him, pooling into the empty spaces within his body. He wept red. When he tried to scream, all that emerged from his throat was bloody bile. 

He turned his head to find a vaguely Indochinese boy smiling behind him. He was dressed in vines and flowering water-lilies. His eyes were bluer than delphinium. 

Perhaps unfortunately for Myles, Father Zeus did not let his accursed die so easily. 

Laurina screwed her eyes shut and pushed herself off the now brittle shadow-sword. She waved at the new boy. “Thanks! What’s your name?” 

If she had to guess, Laurina would’ve guessed the boy was fae—but he didn’t smell lilim at all. 

“David Ly,” the other child said, skipping towards the girl. He held out a moss-covered hand, from which a bright poppy bloomed. He picked it from his skin and offered it to Laurina. “Wanna flower?”

She took it eagerly, sniffing it happily. “Yep!”

Ly pointed at the bleeding heap in the snow. “Let’s play with him some more.”

“Sure!”

Laurina decided she wouldn’t eat this boy.  

Up above, Elsa was faring no better. Allison Kinsey’s fists tore through her wards like icebergs through bulkheads. Every blow brought the promise of pain closer and closer. Elsa tried hardening the air around the girl into orichalcum. She burst free with an arch of her back. She pelted her with marbles the mass of worlds. She caught them between her fingers. Elsa even opened a portal into the heart of the sun.

But, of course, we were talking about star-gods. 

Allison punched Elsa square in the chin, solar plasma clinging to her body like bubble bath scrum. Allison was shaking with giddiness. She felt like she was holding her hands against a water jet, but all over and inside her.  

Miri trilled within her, “We’re flying!

Allison giggled. “We can always fly!”

I know, but twice!” 

Elsa had to count herself lucky. At least the child seemed content with pure violence. The things a star-god could do. Even the idiot, half-pagan son of Space Tarzan. The witch flipped around and flew into a cloud-bank, desperate for a moment’s reprieve.   

Elsa’s wings beat the black mist like fish-fins in a dark ocean as she refreshed her warding spells under her breath. She would find a way out. She’d killed two variations of Zeus, and personally driven great Cthoolo mad. She was not going to be beaten by a ten year old albino. 

Allison floated above the witch’s cloudy sanctuary. Even if the water vapour wasn’t eagerly surrendering Elsa’s location, she could see the detritus of cosmic rays settling on her skin and tacky silk outfit. Manna from Heaven, if manna could give people cancer. 

She considered her next move. Blow the cloud away? Vapourise it—and Elsa—with hex-vision?

(She wasn’t sure where she’d gotten “hex vision” from, but it sounded right)

Allison smiled and started rubbing her hands together.

Elsa’s skin started to tingle. She could feel the hairs on her arms standing on end. Her tongue tasted dust. The air around her sparked

“Oh, God—” 

The cloud screamed lightning, with Elsa cowering right in its throat. Her recitations saved her, but the wings she conjured burned to ashes on her back, sending her plummeting through the sky. Elsa let herself scream. It would be a waste of steel not to. The world blurred, the stars becoming tear-trails of icy light all around her. The snowy ground slammed into her back. Before Elsa could move, a pair of ruby-red beams blasted her in the chest, pinning the witch to the snow. Allison floated above her, the contempt in her gaze turned to diamond light.

“Might wanna give up,” the girl said, arms folded. She smiled. “Maybe throw in some of those goodies you were talking about on your way out.”  

Elsa looked around her. At the mere possibilities of children tearing apart her handiwork. At the son of a country butcher play-acting Jupiter, with her forces as Salmoneus. At the half-educated housewife pretending to be Thor with a gilded Chinaman. Maybe it was time to cut her losses. 

Then Elsa spotted the tree. It was an apple tree, in full fruit despite the bewitched winter. Two children were lounging beneath its branches, happily devouring its bounty. At its base, Myles’ bloodied body lay gasping, the trunk growing out his splayed rib-cage.

Elsa screamed, “What have you done? What have you done to him?” 

Laurina Sands and David Ly poked their tongues out at the woman.

Rage always bred ingenuity in Elsa. As Arnold Barnes raised a hand to blast a surviving clown, she raised hers:

Capiaris vibratus ab aethere fulgor3!”

The chain of lightning that lashed from Arnold’s finger was violet, not green. It bent and arced over the boy’s head, hitting AU and Mrs Kinsey. They didn’t go far, reappearing in the shadow of the Ferris wheel. The two startled, glancing at each other and the structure looming over them. 

Ut pereas rubigine4!”

The Ferris-wheel’s twin-sided supports crumbled to red iron dust: a thousand years at the bottom of the ocean in a single moment. The steel wheel tottered and fell, right over Drina and Chen.

Allison screamed, “Stop!”

The wheel stopped an inch above the mother and supervillain. Everything did. The circus army. The Catalpans. The snowflakes in the air. Chen had reflexively pulled Drina into his side and thrown up an umbrella of gold between them and a steel girder. It most definitely would not have saved them.

“Mummy!”

Allison flew down to the pair. With strength enough to move an ocean-liner, she tried to pull her mother clear of the wheel. Neither she nor AU budged a micron. They were affixed in time itself.

Elsa took the chance to wiggle out from the frozen eyebeams. She hurried over to the vampire-tree, taking a moment to kick David Ly in the ribs as she passed. The witch knelt next to her servant, stroking his ruddy cheek. “Oh, Myles…”

Myles didn’t respond. He was as frozen as everything else in the fairgrounds, to Elsa’s relief, really. She dared a look inside his chest. His innards were riddled with tree roots. One had pierced his left lung. Another had narrowly missed his heart, but a third was growing right towards it. Nature’s stake.

Allison appeared behind Elsa, wrenching her into the air by the neck. She growled in her ear, “Stop it!”

Elsa hissed, “Fine.” She twirled her finger clockwise. 

Allison was suddenly in the air again. Before it could register, her ears were filled with a colossal thud.

She heard her mother’s bones crunch. Allison wailed— 

She was back by the tree, clutching Elsa’s neck. 

“That was two seconds in the future,” she wheezed. “Myles, for your mother. That a trade you’re willing to make?”

David Allworth’s song still rang in Allison’s ears. She could hear Elsa’s pulse race, smell  the stress hormones in her sweat. She was terrified. 

That day, Allison Kinsey learned an important lesson. Herbert Lawrence had taught it to Arnold Barnes a Christmas past: some people, you didn’t want to scare.

Allison searched for a solution. Some path for her mother that didn’t involve giving Elsa what she wanted. Some of them were possible, even plausible. Allison could do anything right then. But none of them were certain.   

It’s not worth it,” Miri said. “Your mummy’s nice. And Mr. Chen tried to help us.”

Allison nodded. “Go,” she said quietly.

“You’ll give me what I want?”

“Yes, just go!

Elsa vanished. Myles vanished. Laurina and David Ly vanished. The whole circus was gone in an instant, taking all the new yet familiar songs with it. The impossible open plane it had stood upon contracted, filling with trees and shrubbery. 

The Mirror Mistress pulled her hood back, face glistening with sweat. She smiled shakily. “Well! That was interesting!”

Therese fainted.

David shook his head. He looked about at the other Catalpans. “Ah, hi. Why’s everyone standing around here? And wasn’t there a circus here?”

Brit pointed at Therese lying in the dirt. “Uh, why is Therese here? And a superhero?”

A newly clear-headed Gregory looked down at his clown costume, before glaring at the other ex-hostages. “Who the hell dressed me—eggh!”

Hettie hugged her son as tight as her concrete frame permitted.

“What happened?” asked Billy. “Did we run the witch-lady off?”

Allison couldn’t bring herself to answer.

Nobody was surprised to find Miri’s new body missing when they got back to Freedom’s Point. The growth tank had been neatly removed from its cradle. Less neaty, Dr. Beaks had been reduced to a smouldering, sparking ruin. Looking at the destroyed robot produced a unique discomfort in Ralph Rivers. His brain couldn’t decide if he was looking at a corpse, or an especially expensive piece of broken furniture. “Maybe he tried to stop them?” he offered.

Maude removed the note pinned to the medical machine’s plague-mask face:

—For my servant.

“I think she’s just a bitch.”

Allison stood with her mother in front of the space her flesh and blood sister should’ve occupied. “…I’m still glad we didn’t take her offer,” she said, mostly to herself. “It would’ve been like those stories with evil genies—”

Drina pulled her daughters into a hug. “Allie. Miri. It’s alright to cry.”

They did.

Whatever their founding daughters had lost that night, Libertalia rang in Christmas triumphantly.

“Drinks are on us!” cried Paul Haldor behind the bar.

“Nobody has any bloody money!” retorted Close-Cut, his immaculately tailored arm around his lover. “They’re always on you!”

“You know what we mean!”

Mabel Henderson hopped into Fred Barnes’ lap. “Miss me?”

Fred ruffled the girl’s hair. “Bloody hell we did!”

Gregory Collins nursed a lemonade through a curly straw, watching as Steve got fussed over by his mum and dad. 

Sarah Allworth put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Greg, right?”

Greg looked up at the old lady. “Yeah.” Recognition. “You’re the Flying Man’s mum, right?”

Sarah nodded. “Yes.”

“I’m sorry about your son, he sounded cool. Really cool.”

“Thank you. David tells me you two were getting along before all that circus nonsense.”

“Yeah, David’s cool.”

“Well, me and David are having Christmas dinner together tomorrow.” Sarah glanced at the pub clock. “Or this evening, I suppose. We’d be happy to have you.”

“Sure!”

Close-Cut waded through the partying crowd to the pair. “Gregory! Glad to have you back.”

“Thanks, sir.”

“You still up for working out a costume sometime? I’ve got a lot of ideas about aesthetic fire-proofing…”

Gregory nodded eagerly. Sarah called out across the tavern, “David, we’re having Greg over for dinner! I’ll find you another set of clothes.”

David ignored the threat, continuing to dance to the blaring Louis Armstrong record. He was thinking about all those other hims—was “brothers” the word?—Therese invited into the world.

He wondered if his grandfather was ever going to have more kids.

Chen found Angela Barnes standing at the back of the pub with a pint. He’d left his armour outside the door in gold bars. He didn’t expect them to be there when the night was over. He didn’t mind. More where that came from. 

“Mrs. Barnes.”

“Mr. Liu.”

Chen took a deep breath. “I didn’t get a chance to say before—back at the Institute… I’m sorry.”

“All in the past.”

Chen shook his head. “It was stupid and cruel.” He sighed. “And it didn’t help anyone in the end.”

Angela looked at the young man. “…Take a walk with me, Chen?”

It wasn’t far to the Barnes family home. Angela opened a kitchen cabinet, removing a gold Grecian helmet.

Chen blinked. “You kept that?”

“Yes. We melted the rest down for cash, but it felt wrong not to keep something.” 

“Why are you showing me this?”

“Because that money—and I know you didn’t just leave us that gold on a lark—was what let us drive all the way to Sydney for that protest. That’s where Arnold found us.”

Chen looked away from the woman. “Ah, he would’ve picked you guys up sooner or later.”

“Chen, I like to think I’m a practical woman. I don’t deal with hypotheticals. Besides, you helped us get Mabel and the rest back.”

“But we fucked it up!”

“You still tried.”

Chen looked down at his boots. “…The Institute wasn’t the end of it, Mrs Barnes. I… got into some messes. Bad messes.”

“Oh, Chen.” Angela placed her hand on the nape of Chen’s neck. It covered the pentagram tattoo. 

“God forgives all.”            

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1. “Pale Death knocks with equal wings on the hovels of the poor and the palaces of kings.”

2. Specifically, Arconian, the third most widely spoken language on Menrva.

3. “Be seized, o bolt travelling through the regions of the aether!”

4. “May you fall to rust!”