Category Archives: Book Four: The Utopians

Chapter Ninety-Six: Atalanta and Clymene

“Do you like my costume, Mr. Comet?”

Ralph Rivers looked down at Gregory Collins. The boy was dressed in a bright blue wet-suit, decked out in knee and shoulder pads slathered with gravel and glue. He’d also sticky taped flame covered streamers to his shoulders and hair. 

Does he sleep with those on? Must be hell to pull them off…

There was only one possible answer:

The Crimson Comet grinned. “Nice, kid.”

Gregory veritably shook with delight. “Thank you, sir!”

Close-Cut weaved his way through chatting refugees over to Ralph and the boy, drink in hand. “Crimson1, have you talked to Anne Marie at all?”—the villain jabbed a thumb at the pregnant woman refilling her glass at the punch-bowl—“I think she was messing around with Jimmy the Bastard—”

Close-Cut trailed off when he noticed Greg Collins. The child was snickering. 

Ralph put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Company, C.C.” 

God, he sounded like Queen Victoria. At least David wasn’t there to make him sound completely ridiculous. 

Wallace was now cooly regarding Gregory Collins’ costume, a finger curled under his chin.

Greg looked up at the man. “Are you a superhero, mister?”

“Halfway.”

That sounded like a “yes” to Gregory. He stuck his chest out, eager for more professional input. “What do you think of my superhero uniform?”

Ralph cast a pleading glance at his boyfriend. 

Come on, Wally, be nice. 

Wallace nodded, as though agreeing with Ralph’s silent request. “It’s a good start”, he said evenly. He snapped his fingers. “What’s your gimmick, though?”

Gregory titled his head. “Gimmick?”

“He’s asking what your power is,” clarified Ralph.

“Oh.” Greg opened his right hand. A red flame sparked over his palm. “I can make more fire, but…” The child glanced around the burnished metal chamber. 

“Yeah,” said Ralph. “Good thought.”

“Solid,” remarked Close-Cut. “Though you’ve got a lot of blue for a fire-fella. Contrasting colours are one thing, but…” 

“Oh!”

A ribbon of water flowed out of the cooler on the table, making folks yelp as it wormed between them to Greg’s other hand. 

“I can do water, too.”

Ralph didn’t know if he was relieved or deeply disappointed David wasn’t there. 

Close-Cut nodded again, much more enthusiastically. “Very solid.”

Gregory grinned. A breeze troubled the hair of everyone in the room. “And air! Rock and dirt, too, but we’re real high up right now.” 

Close-Cut folded his arms, an approving smile playing his lips. “I’ll take your word for it.” He started leading Greg over to the snack table. “Walk with me, talk with me.”

Ralph smiled to himself. Sometimes it was good knowing he was dating a nice bloke.

The Crimson Comet kept on mingling with the prospective new Catalpalans. This batch seemed to be an even split between supers and naturals. Good, Ralph thought. Sometimes he worried about what might happen to the community of the ratio skewed to much either direction. It also worried him that little Gregory was the only kid they’d netted in the last three pick-ups. How many lost children out there couldn’t find their way?

Although, you could make the argument they’d picked up two kids this time:

“It wasn’t a problem when me and James were just a fling, but then this…” Anne-Marie rubbed her baby-bump. “Jimmy had shadow-tentacles. I have no clue how this kid’s going to come out, and he’s been a ghost for months!”

Ralph nodded sympathetically. “James was never the most dependable kinda bloke.” He pointed over at his boyfriend, still intently discussing costume options with Greg. “And that’s coming from his lot.”

Anne let out a laugh. “God. I need to get some taste…”

“Don’t worry, Anne. This kid will be in good company.”

Anne closed her eyes for a second. “That’s the thing, Mr. Comet. I know I’m having this kid in Catalpa. I just don’t know if I’m staying.”

“Everyone’s free to come and go.”

“I might be leaving alone, too.”

“Ah.”

This was tricky. Catalpa had plenty of orphans and abandoned children. It had yet to deal with the issue of… surrenders. 

“Either way,” said the Crimson Comet. “They’ll be taken care of.”

Anne-Marie nodded. “Thank you.”

Ralph felt a tap on his arm. The olive-skinned refugee woman in the hood was at his side. 

“I need to speak to Allison Kinsey,” she said. Ralph thought she sounded a little like Eliza Winter. Maybe a touch more eastern.

“Everyone will get to talk to Allison,” he reassured the woman gently. 

Of course they would. No way they were letting anyone into the city without a chat with their premier mind-reader.

“It’s urgent,” she insisted.

Ralph gave the lady a sideways glance. “What’s the matter?”

The woman’s lip tightened. Her olive skin paled a touch. 

“Come on, no judgement,” said the Crimson Comet. He flashed her the stock “waggish superhero” smile. “Unless you’ve stuck a bomb somewhere, I might judge that a little.”

Judging by the woman’s frown, that wasn’t Ralph’s best move. Still, she stood up on her toes and whispered in his ear:

Ralph Rivers’ eyes widened. “Oh.”

Ralph almost wished it was a bomb.

Recruitment drives were a mixed occasion for Allison. Sure, it meant new songs and new powers, but she also had to talk to a lot of grown-ups. Natural grown-ups, too. And never the ones she was waiting for… 

“The way I see it,” said Jessica Switts. “Your town has a big PR problem.” She remembered she was talking to a little girl. “Oh, sorry, ‘PR’ means—“

“She knows what it means,” said Mistress Quickly on her winged pop-art throne. “She knows everything.” 

“Ah,” said Miss Switts. “My point is, there’s never been as many supers in one place as your town, and nobody knows anything about you. That frightens folk.” She gave an enthusiastic realtor smile. “Me and Ron here can help you with that.” 

The young photographer sitting on the velvet bench beside Miss Switts gave a shaky, bashful smile. A camera rested in his lap like a placid toddler.

Allison—curled up inside her globe chair—squinted at the pair of them. “So, you don’t want to live in Catalpa, you want to write a newspaper story about us?” 

Jessica shot to her feet. “Not just a story,” enthused the reporter. “I’m talking about a whole book.” She looked up towards the ceiling and swept her hands. “A Year in Catalpa, by Jessica Switts.” Switts patted her companion on the shoulder hard enough to make the poor fella cringe. “And Ronald French, of course.” She gave Allison an eager look. “Has a ring to it, right?”

“…Uh huh,” said Maude. “The West Australian put you two up to this?”

Jessica scoffed bitterly. “Hah! If it was up to them, me and Rolf would be covering the Royal Show2 and playground dedications till we were drawing retirement.”

“It was time for a change,” Ron agreed timidly. “And I always liked the old Crimson Comet comics, so…”

Mistress Quickly and Allison exchanged a glance:

They on the up? Maude thought loudly. 

Allison inspected the lights in Ron and Jessica’s heads. They hummed a litany of boredom and simmering professional resentment. 

Yeah, they mean it, Allison thought at Maude. They were getting good at these mental conversations. The guy just wants to take some pictures and the lady really wants to be famous, but they’re not working for Valour or anything. 

Maude looked back at the journalists. “We’ll take it to the council.”

Ron and Jessica both cheered excitedly and embraced. 

Allison was about to call Ralph to bring in the next person, when she noticed a song cleaving from the crowd. 

She knew its tune.

The interview chamber’s door slid open with a proper sci-fi swoosh. The Crimson Comet stood in the doorway with uncomfortable gravity, eyes cast downwards. 

“Ah, Comet, good timing,” said Mistress Quickly. She noticed her head at Ron and Jess. “We were just finishing up with these two.”

Ralph didn’t answer the scientist, instead shuffling his feet against the metal floor. “Allison—“

“Move out of the way, please,” said Allison, voice too steady. 

The Crimson Comet obeyed. 

Drina Kinsey stood in the doorway, hands clasped in front of her dress. “Allison?”

The girl flew out of the globe-chair like a baby bird from a nest, launching herself against her mother’s chest. Mrs Kinsey just barely managed to not be bowled over. 

Allison looked up from her mother’s skirt, leaving tear marks on the fabric. “Y—you came?”

She said it like she wasn’t sure this was really happening.

Drina stared down at her daughters burning eyes. “Allie, what’s happened to you?”

“I—it was…”

Allison gave up on an explanation, burying her face again. 

Ron’s camera flashed a few times. Mistress Quickly slapped it down. 

“What’s the matter with you?”

A young, piping voice spoke, “Allison said you’d turn up!”

Drina looked towards the back of the chamber. There was a little blonde girl in a strange one piece swimsuit who hadn’t been there a second ago. Drina thought she looked like her Allison…

“Hello?” said Drina questioningly. “Who are you.”

“I’m Miri,” the girl answered.

Allison looked back up at her mother, a dizzy smile on her face. “She’s my sister!”

“…Pardon?”


Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. An important step in any superhuman relationship is the establishment of public nicknames.

2. An annual agricultural festival held in Perth.

Chapter Ninety-Four: Cloudsong

Allison swayed her hips from side to side in front of the Barnes’ bedroom mirror, admiring Angela’s handiwork: a mottled sundress in pale greens and pinks. 

“Well,” said Mrs Barnes, standing behind the girl with her arms folded. She was wearing the green suit and hat she’d worn for the Catalpa invite. Old church clothes. “What do you think?”

Allison knew Arnold’s mother was trying hard to make the question sound neutral. The woman was very proud of her sewing, and hid it badly.

“It’s nice!” the girl answered earnestly with a twirl. “You didn’t have to make me a new dress, though. My costume’s comfy.”

“Allison, you wear that costume of yours all day, everyday. You could at least let me wash it.”

“Doesn’t need it. It eats sweat and stuff.”

Angela suppressed a shudder. That should’ve been reason enough for her to burn the ghastly thing1. “It’s your special day, you should look special.”

“But I can make my costume look like whatever I want. You could’ve just shown me a picture.”

Mrs Barnes let out a sigh. How to explain this to a child. “Allison… I just wanted to make you something. Something you could use. A birthday present.”

Allison blinked. “Oh, I getcha… so I’m not getting another present?”

A smile like a lightning flash flickered across Angela’s lips. Sometimes, she understood completely why her son liked this girl. 

Angela’s reserve reasserted itself. “Now, let’s get that hair brushed.” She picked up a brush from her chest of drawers and started running it through Allison’s chestnut hair.

The child winced as Mrs Barnes yanked her head to the side. It was clear to Allison the only girl whose hair Angela had brushed in recent decades was the woman herself.

“Do we have to?”

“The whole town’s coming to this party for you. You owe it to them to look your best.”

Allison resigned herself to grumbling. At least ten was apparently the cut-off date for being allowed to wash your hair yourself. Or turn into mist and back in the shower and say you washed it.

Mrs Barnes at least soon settled into a steady groove with the brush, leaving Allison to look in the mirror and think.

I’m surprised you still have a reflection.  

“Allison, it’s not nice to frown on your birthday.”

“Alberto said something lousy.”

“Ah. Well, ignore him. Doesn’t sound like he ever says much worth listening to.”

Angela wished she had better advice for Allison. Or a solution. As it was, she barely comprehended the girl’s condition. The closest comparisons she could think of were what little she’d heard of schizophrenics, which felt insulting, and Legion from the Gospels, which made her feel like a superstitious fool. And Miri seemed like a nice little girl.

Mr. Moretti, on the other hand…  

Allison meanwhile found herself wondering what her party would’ve been like if she’d never left Harvey. They probably would’ve gone to the dam again. Her parents would’ve made her invite Jesse Perks, even though she was a complete cow who deserved to be covered in glue. Her mother might’ve taken her up to Perth to pick out something nice. 

And what about after? Did anything change when you were ten? Allison had a vague idea she’d be expected to dress more like a grownup. Maybe order from the grown-up menu. Probably have to wear bathers more. Stop running through the sprinklers.

She wouldn’t know the other Watercolours. Miri wouldn’t even exist. That stung. 

And why did it have to be a choice? Why weren’t her parents here? They picked people up from Perth every month! She’d even made them do a pick up in Bunbury once, just for them. Bunbury. She’d made it so easy for them to be together.

“Mrs Barnes?”

“Allison?”

“Before we came here, you saw my parents around, right?”

“Yes…” Angela answered warily.

“…Did they miss me?”

Angela didn’t answer for a moment, trying to puzzle out what Allison wanted to hear. Did she want to think her parents were okay? Or did she need to know she was wanted?

Honesty. That was the Christian thing to do.

“Dearly. I don’t know how they got out of bed.”

“Then why aren’t they here?”

Angela was prepared to offer a number of weak excuses for the elder Kinseys. Her father’s job. Their house. What their neighbours or Mr. Kinsey’s family would think. 

Again, the Christian thing.

“I don’t know, Allie. I’m sorry, but I just don’t know.”

It would’ve been easier if Allison had cried. There were rote responses to that, programmed into every mother worth her salt. 

Instead, the little girl only nodded. “Not your fault.”

What could Angela say to that? It wasn’t right that her parents weren’t here, but she didn’t know their hearts. Not really. 

Why are you making me do your job?

To Angela’s quiet relief, her son flung the bedroom door open: 

“David’s here!”

“Well,” said Angela, “can’t keep the other special guest waiting.”

David was waiting outside the Barnes’ house, impatiently tapping his foot on the dusty ground. Hundreds of overlapping conversations underscored by music and clinking glasses were pouring out of an egg-portal behind him.

“Come on, come on!” he whined as the family filed out the door. “The party’s starting!”

Mrs Barnes stopped pushing her husband’s wheelchair and looked around the street. She looked down at her son. “Arnold, I thought you said David was waiting for us,” she said very evenly.

David tilted his head. “I’m right here.” 

Angela made another show of searching for David. “Can you see him anywhere, Fred?”

Fred Barnes gave David a cruel smile. “Fraid not, wife.”

Angela folded her arms and looked right at David. “Strange, his costume is so distinctive.” 

David looked down at his bare body. Allison and Arnold both stifled giggles as he balled his fists and fumed:

Costume on.”

A flash of light dressed David. 

Angela blinked. “Ah, there you are David. Happy birthday.”

“Thank you, Mrs Barnes,” David replied through grit teeth. 

Arnold smiled playfully. “Happy birthday, Dave.”

David’s face brightened. “Hey Arn.” He turned his attention to Allison. “Hey birthday-partner!”

Allison laughed. “Hey David.”

David pecked Allison and Arnold on the cheek in turn. They kissed him back.

Almost too quick to be seen, the water-sprite shot Arnold’s mother a very satisfied smile.  

Angela frowned.   

Well, he is French… 

“Let’s not hold up the party…”

As the guests of honour, David and Allison stepped through the portal first. They came out into the canteen in Freedom Point, done up in theatre curtains and mood lighting like a senior school social. Someone had even hung up a mirror-ball.

A crowd of hundreds swarmed the pair. Dozens of variations on “Happy birthday!” buzzed like a beehive. The children got so many pats on the back, it bordered on a beating. 

Allison hunched her shoulders and smiled bracingly against the onslaught. David meanwhile was waving and blowing kisses:

“Mwha! Mwha! Thank you, I love you all!”

Allison stifled a laugh. Where was this David at Parliament House?

A foghorn blared, parting the crowd like a spear-thrust. Mistress Quickly and her young assistant Doc Danny2 marched up to the pair in matching hot pink lab-blazers. 

Maude Simmons nodded to the kids in turn. “David, Allison.”

Doc Danny nudged her lightly.

“Oh right, happy birthday.”

“Hi Quickly,” said Allison. “Nice party.”

Danny scoffed. “This?” He gestured about at the decorations. “This isn’t the party.”

David tilted his head. “Then where are we?”

Maude enthused, “The vestibule.” She took Allison’s hand and pulled the girl behind her. “Come on, we’ll show you.”

Allison didn’t resist. Mostly she tried to keep from sliding on her heels. She shot a glance back at David, who shrugged and grabbed her hand in turn, forming a chain. They passed a well-stocked snack table, as well one ladden with rainbow and green-blue wrapped presents. Allison and David slowed to admire their haul, only for Maude to insistently yank them past.

The centrepiece of the room was a topaz statue of David, standing triumphantly atop a milky jade crocodile lying on its back. It would’ve been positively Grecian, if it weren’t for the topaz David’s broad, pearly grin.

Allison glanced at her friend. “You do that?”

He grinned proudly. “Yep. Well, Billy helped, but it was my idea.”

At the back of the canteen was a rosette of twelve egg-portals, each floating under rustic wooden signs hanging from lengths of fishing line:

WATERCOLOUR ISLAND

THE SLOPES

FANTASTIC UNIVERSE

Mistress Quickly spread her arms. “Behold, the world’s first intercontinental birthday party3!”

Allison blinked. “Intercontinental?”

Maude pointed at the portal under the “WATERCOLOUR ISLAND” sign. “Take a peek through that one.”

David and Allison poked their heads through the pocket of interpolated space. They found themselves looking out on a familiar stretch of white-sanded beach. Kids splashed and played in sapphire waters. A woman with a mane of purple amethysts carved from bleached concrete was sunning herself on a deckchair. Ralph Rivers waved at the birthday children from the barbecue he was manning. Jungle bordered the edges of their vision.

David grinned at Allison. “It’s our island!”

“Yep,” said Doc Danny, looking very impressed with himself. “We got the cords from Arnold’s magic atlas thing.”

Allison glanced back at Danny. “The ‘cords’?”

Danny folded his arms. “It means ‘coordinates’.”

“I know! It’s just…” She laughed. “The cords…”

“Check out another one,” suggested Maude.

The children took her advice, picking “THE SLOPES”. They stepped out onto white, powdery snow. The ground sloped at their feet. Ant-people skied far below them with varying grace. Snowflakes settled and melted in their hair. 

Thousands of miles away right behind them, Mistress Quickly spoke, “You are currently standing in a suitably anonymous stretch of mountain range in northern Montana. It’s no Aspen, but the tourists haven’t found it yet, so swings and roundabouts…” 

David smiled wryly at Allison. “I guess it’s good Mrs Barnes made you that dress. Otherwise you’d be invisible here…”

Allison grinned toothily. The red glow of her eyes flashed white just long enough for a wave of snow to rise and fall on top of David. 

The girl ran laughing back into the canteen, a volley of snowballs hurtling through the portal after her. One of them struck Doc hard in the face:

Hey!

“Harden up,” said Maude.

Allison caught sight of the portal labelled “FANTASTIC PLANET.” It looked like the night sky had laid an egg.

Why didn’t I look at that one first?

She charged through the portal, only for her feet to meet thin air. Allison tumbled through the black, planets and stars flitting past her.  

She bounced against something unseen and spongy. As she rose, she saw Lily Nichols—wearing a body formed out of silvery gallium—ricochet off a red ringed gas giant.

Happy birthday Allie!” she called as she sailed past Allison.  

Either Lily was very big right now, or that planet was incredibly small. 

Allison’s upwards momentum died. She started plummeting back into infinity. Curious, the girl angled herself towards an orange wormhole. 

It sucked Allison into a twisty, gravity defying fibreglass tunnel, depositing her in the air above the egg portal. 

Allison hurtled spinning back into the canteen, landing on her feet to some small applause.

“Where the heck was that?” Allison asked Maude.

“We fixed the juvenile wing,” answered Doc Danny. “Burned that freaking clown out of the code, first.”

“I’m afraid the other planners nixed any real offworld venues,” said Mistress Quickly. 

A dimly lit portal labelled “GROWN-UPS ONLY” forcefully ejected David. 

“People in there don’t have to wear clothes inside…” he grumbled.

Maude Simmons launched into a speech. “This is just the beginning.” She gestured around at the portals. “Why should a superhuman city’s border be dictated by geography? Like it’s the bloody Dark Ages and ‘mass-transport’ just means a really strong mule! We can make a city that spans continents! Whole worlds—”

“Um, Mistress,” interjected Doc Danny, “they’re gone.”

Maude looked about. Allison and David had in fact departed into the depths of the party. 

“Bloody kids. We’re wasted on them.”

Doc Danny was looking pleadingly up at his mentor.

Mistress Quickly sighed. “Yes, Danny, you can go play.”

Doc whooped and leapt into the beach portal.

David and Allison romped across the entire planet. They ran through fields of yellow wildflowers at the bottom of Australia. They wrestled dolphins. They surfed avalanches and battled through space.    

They were playing off their old beach when the party started going peculiar. David’s grandfather had turned up. Now him and David were riding on the shoulders of an icy giant while dozens of kids tried to fell it4.    

Allison and a few of Catalpa’s other flyers weaved and dived around the ice-giant’s swinging glacial fists. Honestly, apart from the one girl who could make it rain steel droplets, they weren’t accomplishing much, at least not next to the children chipping away at the giant’s feet. 

Allison was trying to melt a tunnel into the giant’s side when she heard a familiar song. Well, it wasn’t so much the song itself that was familiar. It shifted too constantly for that. 

Allison cleaved from the giant and looked in the direction of the inconsistent music. 

Far below, almost around the other side of the island, two children were playing alone in the water. 

Allison focused her more-than-human eyes. One of the children was a faintly blue-skinned boy,  wearing nothing besides a white, wide-brimmed hat rimmed with tiny roses. The other was an Arab girl in a sailor outfit, long white trousers pulled up around her knees. Her hair was striped, blonde and brunette. 

A memory from what Allison thought was long ago stirred in her. Another party being thrown for her. Those children, standing on the other side of the river… 

She swooped down into the sea, splashing down in front of the two children. “Okay, who the heck are you?”

The pair paused in their frolics. The blue boy looked at Allison and said, “…Uh, hi. I’m Sky.”

The girl gave a small wave and smiled. “I’m Eve.”

Their accents were odd. Slightly Australian, but put through some sort of strainer. A bit like David’s, actually. 

Sky pointed a finger at Allie. “You’re Allison Kinsey, aren’t you?”

“Duh! It’s my bloody birthday party!”

Eve’s eyes widened. “Really? How old are you?”

“Ten! What are you doing here?”

Sky sucked his lips. “Um, we just moved here.”

Allison put her hands on her hips. “This is my town. I meet everyone. No you didn’t.” She frowned and leaned forward. “And I saw you two at the Institute. Why are you following me?”

“We’re not!” insisted Sky. “It’s someone else!”

Eve glared at his companion. “Don’t tell her that!” She pulled him around and into a huddle. 

“…Told you she wouldn’t be here.”

“But I can feel her…” 

“Hey, hey, hey!” Allison pried the two apart. “Don’t go whispering when I’m asking you something.”

Red blood showed under Sky’s blue cheeks. He blushed rectangles. 

Allison’s eyebrows knit. “Are you from Enlil?”

“Ah, we gotta go,” said Sky, smiling a bit shakily. 

“Have a good birthday!” said Eve.

“And look out for the witch!” Sky added.

“The witch?”

“Don’t tell her about the witch!”

The two flickered lime green and vanished.

Allison growled and stamped her foot in the ocean. 

There was a splash behind the girl. Allison turned around to find a glowing Louise standing next to a happily shaken looking Billy. The girl was naked, but Billy’s costume had turned into a shockingly old-fashioned, blue and white striped bathing suit. He even had a little boater hat. 

“Happy birthday Allie!” cried Billy.

“Thanks Billy,” said Allison. 

She looked at Louise. The girl was shaking with ecstatic energy. Like standing still was physically painful, but she was too happy to care.

Allison smiled. “Hey Miri.”

“Hey Allie!” With viper quickness, Miri pulled Allison into a bear hug. “Gosh, Louise has a fun body!” She let go of Allison and plunged her fist into the ocean, pulling it out clad in a shiny second skin. “Ice-glove!”

Allison giggled. “Yeah, it’s neat.”

“You felt really cross a sec ago. What’s wrong?”

Allison shook her head. “Weirdos I don’t know were here.”

Billy asked, “Like when David’s granddad brought that fire-girl to play?”

Allison shook her head. “I saw them before. At the Institute.”

“Huh,” said Miri. “They gone now?”

“Yeah,” answered Allison.

Miri kicked the water, making it steam. “I could’ve played with them!”

Allison laughed. People were too good for her sister.

There was a sound like a mountain being cut down. Children cheered around the ice-giant’s carcass.

David exploded out of the water between Miri and Allison, causing both girls to stumble backwards. “Allie! You missed the best part!”

Miri frowned. “I really don’t get why Louise likes you.”

Allison smiled. “She’s not lending you her body again.” 

Eventually, people from the four corners of the party gathered around the birthday cake: a fifteen-foot monster in the shape of Freedom Point. Four hundred odd voices sung “Happy Birthday.” Allison and David cut the cake with sharpened fingers of ice, and extinguished the ten candles with floating water-droplets. 

“I don’t think that’s how you get a birthday wish,” commented Arnold.

Allison shrugged and smiled. “I don’t need em’.” 

That was a lie, of course. Allison had at least two wishes.

After that, it was time to unwrap the presents. There were less than you might’ve thought. It wasn’t as though people tended to come to Catalpa with much. Mostly, David and Allison received trinkets. Handicrafts. Old bank notes. Pretty much every one of David’s presents included shorts or shirts:

“Ha. Ha.”

Fred Barnes got Allison a book on origami: 

“How’d you know I don’t know how to do that?”

Fred smiled crookedly. “Because I’ve seen you doing it, girl.”

Despite some very politely worded discouragement, Ocean himself had brought a present for his grandson: a dead false killer whale. 

He dropped the dead, unmarred dolphin wet and dripping in front of David. 

“Eat this and grow strong, my child.”

David looked at Arnold’s mother. “Can you cut up dolphins, Mrs Barnes?”

Angela hissed through her teeth. “I can try…” 

Mabel gave her gifts last. They were both very flat and square.

Arnold wrinkled his nose. “You said you weren’t getting them anything!”

Mabel poked her tongue at Arnold. “Yeah, because you’d try to say one of them was yours.”

Allison unwrapped hers first. It was a painting of her clad in knightly armour in front of Freedom Point, holding aloft a gleaming sword while a divine spotlight shone down on her.

Allison smiled and nodded appreciatively. “Nice.” 

Now gripped by suspense, David ripped the wrapping of his present, only to blink when he saw what Mabel had painted him. 

David and his mother sported and swam together through a green-blue ocean. Françoise was clearly laughing, holding her son’s ankle as he chased after silver fish. 

Mabel watched David stare at her painting, suddenly wondering if she should’ve waited till they weren’t in front of the entire town. “Ah, sorry if that’s—”

David hugged her. “Thank you.”

“…It was nothing.” 

“It wasn’t.”

Sarah Allworth put a hand on David’s shoulder. “Do you want us to hang it in my house. It’s very nice.”

David nodded. “That’d be nice.” He beckoned over the Ocean Beast. “Hey, Grandpa, come and look at this. It’s Mum!”

The crowd parted hurried as Grandfather Ocean misted through them, rematerializing at his grandson’s side. His dead, grey face lit with wonder at the sight of the painting. He looked at Mabel. “How did you… create my child again?”

Mabel shrugged. “I knew her a long time, sir.”

“…Thank you.”

Mabel didn’t know David’s grandfather knew that phrase.

David gently set the painting on the present table and clapped. “Cake. I want cake now.”

The party soon resumed, albeit with a more languid, cake-battened energy. Lily Nichols offered up her body to Miri, who promptly possessed a bowl of raspberry jelly. It was widely agreed to be a worthy sacrifice. 

Fantastic Space had transitioned to a bouncy, rose-tinted skyscape, which played host to a game of hide and seek. Allison was hiding behind a cumulonimbus cloud when Arnold crept up to Allison in his costume. He was carrying a cardboard box. 

“Hey Allie.”

Allison jerked. “Jeez, Arn, don’t sneak up on people dressed like that. You look like the Grim Reaper.”

Arnold smirked. “Okay, now I’m definitely going to do that.”

Allison pointed at the box. “What’s that?”

“Oh, yeah. So, I did getcha something. I just didn’t want to give it to you in front of everyone.” Arnold offered her the box. “Here.”

Alison took the box and looked inside. It contained two stuffed animals, and she recognized both of them. One of them was a grey rabbit called Mr. Wuzzler, the other a yellow bear called Miss Fluffers. The former had been a literal birthday present, given to her by her father the day she was born. The other was from the New Human Institute’s commonwealth of plush.

Allison found her eyes stinging with tears.

“I know we’re ten now and they’re for little kids, but I thought you’d… yeah.”

Allison looked up at Arnold. “How’d you get them?”

“Blancheflor helped. Miss Fluffers was in a plastic bag in some weird lab thing back at Circle’s End. Not sure what they thought a teddy bear was going to tell them about us…”

“But what about Mr. Wuzzler?”

Arnold stirred the clouds underfoot. “I um… I kinda snuck into your house. Your mum and dad haven’t changed your room at all.”

Allison stared at her friend. “You snuck into my house?”

Arnold threw his hands up. “I didn’t sneak. Blancheflor just teleported me in. I promise they didn’t see me. Your dad was at work at thing, and your mum was asleep—”

Allison shouted, “You saw my mum and didn’t tell me?”

“I didn’t want to spoil the surprise…”

“Who cares about the surprise?”

Billy appeared from around the crowd. “Found you!”

Allison turned on the tiger-boy and screamed, “Buzz-off!, Billy”

Billy jumped backwards and stammered, “I—I—sorry…”

Billy ran off, breaking into tears just on the edge of earshot. 

Arnold scowled. “Now look what you did—”

Allison turned around and took to the air. “Go steal more of my parents’ stuff.”

She flew back out into the canteen and through the ski-portal, up into the frigid grey clouds. 

Allison let the cold winds buffet her across the sky, clutching the box to her chest.

The girl wasn’t sure why she was so angry. It wasn’t like Arnold had been trying to hurt her, or her parents. He hadn’t broken anything. But she kept imagining her mother or father walking into her room, and seeing her oldest toy missing… 

But if they cared so bad about her stuffed rabbit so bad, if they missed Allison so much, then why weren’t they here yet?

Oh, for Christ’s sake, Alberto said from some locked down corner of her mind. You know exactly why.

Alberto screwed her eyes shut, trying to ignore Alberto and her own thoughts. She focused on the cold, and the wind, and—  

There was a note in the air. A note of living music. Not a whole song. It was to a song what a candle flame was to a forest fire. But it came from everywhere, like the background din of the universe. 

Curious, and desperate for distraction, Allison grabbed onto the note—  

For the first time in Allison’s life, she saw the clouds for what they were. A vast, interconnected sphere dancing above the world. She could sense where it opened, where it wept. She could see the intermolecular bonds and ionic forces that made up every drop of water… 

Twin ruby beams erupted from Allison’s eyes, blasting into a bank of clouds and scattering it like feathers. 

Allison forced the note out of her own song, breathing heavily.

The music was gone. The sky was empty. 

So were hands.

Allison looked down. The box and the stuffed toys were falling through the sky.

Allison squeaked and dived, just managing to intercept the teddy-bear and rabbit. She found herself clinging to them for dear life.

Not for the first time that night, Allison was confused. She also knew being stupid.

Arnold was talking to David at the snack table.

“…It was so weird! I know she likes that stupid rabbit. She brought it on sleepovers.”

David shrugged, sucking some lemon cordial through a straw. “Yeah, Allie can be crazy sometimes.”

Arnold narrowed his eyes at his friend. “You actually going to eat that dolphin for your birthday?”

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I.”

“…Okay.”

Someone hugged him from behind. 

“I’m sorry,” said Allison. “It was a good present.”

“I know,” was all Arnold said.

It was a good birthday.    

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. Not that that would’ve worked.

2. It would be some years before Daniel O’Connor shook his original supernym. In later years, he’d sometimes be known as Doctor Dream.

3. Aside from Joseph Allworth’s twenty-first.

4. This game would come to be called “Giants and Jacks.”

Chapter Ninety-Three: The Mirror People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comet nodded at Sandy. “Nurse Pritchard.”

“Comet,” the nurse replied. 

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

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

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

Is she wrong? Alberto had jeered inside Allison. 

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

Allison shook her head. She had to wait.

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

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

Allison nodded. “That makes sense.”

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

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

“Any of them hurt bad?”

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

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

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

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

“Which ones?” asked Allison.

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

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

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

“The Coven,” Allison said quietly.

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

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

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

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

“Mother?”

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

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

“Lana,” said Allison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it?” asked Sandra.   

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

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

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

“Hi everybody!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what’s the point of that?”

You.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby stuff. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, that had been a mess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She let herself fall backwards into the lake. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was cradling a baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still, she kept on walking. 

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

“What’d you see?” asked Ralph.

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

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

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

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


1. Catalpa’s first tavern.

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

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

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

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

Chapter Ninety-Two: Allison Kinsey in the Big Ten

“WORLD WAR THREE?” 

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

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

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

“It’s… antisocial.”

Mrs Yullis tutted. “Bradbury was right.”

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

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

Jan sighed. “It’s nothing. Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shh.”

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

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

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

“She’s a cute kid,” commented Jan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor thing.

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

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

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

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

Angela shot Allison a glance. She clammed up. 

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

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

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

“We have very good security.”

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

Allison waved again. “See you soon!”

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

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

“Coming!”

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

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

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

Arnold swallowed. “Sorry Mum.”

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

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

Mabel nodded gravely. “I forgive you.”

Silence. The children broke into giggles. 

Angela hummed in her throat. 

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel shrugged. “Not really?” 

“The party’s tonight!”

“Did you get them something?”

“…No,” admitted Arnold. 

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

“Another super?” Arnold suggested. 

“A sense of perspective?” Angela muttered.

Arnold grinned. “She has telepathy, Mum.”

“She should use it more, then.”

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t stop them from whining.”

“Can I get money?” 

“Nope” answered Fred.

Come on…”  

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

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

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

“Fred!”

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

“Two days.” 

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

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

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

Mabel beamed

“Smartest thing I ever did was—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred smiled fondly. “Happy birthday, Allie.”

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

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

Forgiveness is Christian, Forgiveness is Christian. 

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

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

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

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

“Costume on!”

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

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

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

God, Angela worried about that girl.

⬖ 

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel reached Arnold’s side, jogging in place. 

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

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

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

“Morning, Allison.”

“Happy birthday Allison!”

“See you at your party!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wha—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Has someone got nits7 again?” 

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

“Ahhh!”

The boy grinned. “You’re—”

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

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

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

“You’re it!”

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

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

Oh, Miri-chasee. 

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

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

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

“Happy Allie’s birthday, guys!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

Maude’ll fix us soon.

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

⬗ 

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

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

“What’s wrong? Can’t get me?”

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

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

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

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

“Sarah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even David.     

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

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

“Touché.”

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

Well, at least the sentiment’s there. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…I could do both.”

“Hi!”

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

“Happy not-birthday, David!”

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

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

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

Arnold did, in fact, blush. 

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

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

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

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

“Still.”

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

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

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

“It’s a crocodile, they’re scary!”

“People think tigers are scary, too.”

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

Mrs Allworth silently rolled her eyes. 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Billy promptly obeyed, claws sheathed. 

David staggered backwards. “Really, Billy?”

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

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

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

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

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

Allison snapped to attention. “How many?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter


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

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

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

4. Formerly the Road King.

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

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

7. Commonwealth for lice.