Category Archives: Book Four: The Utopians

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.   

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


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—“Switt. 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.”            

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                     Next Chapter


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!”

Chapter One-Hundred and Four: A War of Jokes and Spells

As Christmas Eve inched closer and closer to Christmas Day, the sorcerous algorithm that was the Lieroinen Family Circus cycled through snowfall. Errors were creeping in. Snow settled on the flames of the fire-eater’s torch as though it were a wand of amber. Members of the Potemkin crowd let the white powder pile atop their heads and shoulders. Every third or fourth snowflake was composed of pink or blue cotton-candy. Worst of all, the calliope was actually tuned properly. It wasn’t surprising, really. Elsa had meant for this web of spells to stand for less than a week, for the benefit of seven children at most. 

One of these assumptions was incorrect. 

Outside the Hall of the Possible, a pair of small, orphaned footprints pressed down into the snowy carpet. Falling snowflakes vanished in the space above. Then they started marching forward, five more sets of footprints of wildly varying size following hot on their track; a conga-line of ghosts. The train meandered about the circus, weaving in and out of the big top and the smattering of out-buildings, only occasionally bumping into static circus-goers. Anyone watching from above would’ve assumed Bill Keane was responsible. 

After ten minutes of wandering, the footprints strayed into Elsa Lieroinen’s Extra-Normal Ethnological Exhibition. 

The curtain of invisibility fell from Billy St. George and the five-person human train hanging onto his shoulders. 

“Aww, jeez,” he said, surveying his glass-jarred friends. “What’s she done to them?”

Hettie Haldor ran over to her son’s case, hammering on the glass with her marble fists. It did not shatter. “Stevie? Honey, it’s Mum.”

Steven didn’t answer, not even looking up from his comic.

A trace of anger seeped into Hettie’s fear. “Steve? Answer me!”

Mrs Barnes was standing with her son in front of Mabel’s enclosure. “Mabel, can you hear us?” She snapped her fingers twice. “It’s Angela.”       

The muzzled girl thrashed against her restraints, seemingly blind to the two people on the other side of the glass. 

Angela looked down at her son. “Arnold, get rid of the glass.”

Arnold nodded. “Yes Mum.” He laid a hand on the glass and sparked alight with lime lightning, teleportation scrambled air lifting his costume’s cloak, his power pulsing into the glass. 

Nothing happened. 

After nearly ten seconds, Arnold pulled his hand away and stamped his foot. He felt like Zeus trying to smite a rubber sheet.

“It’s like there’s nothing there!”

The Crimson Comet pounded a closed fist against David’s aquarium with as much strength as he dared muster. Having no better luck than Hettie, he shot a look back at Mistress Quickly. “The hell is this stuff made off?”

The super-scientist squinted at the glass, her combat-mask’s goggles dissecting the air for clues. “Spectrographics aren’t—”

“It’s an illusion.” 

Everyone looked at Liam Pittenweem. He was a somewhat goatish eleven year old old boy with uncombable orange hair and two increasingly curled horns growing out of his forehead. He was also Catalpa’s one warlock, if only a novice working from the memory of a confiscated scrapbook. “Can even see where it’s peeling.” Appraisingly, he added, “Don’t think what’s-her-name expected another magic person to look at it.”

Ralph thumped David’s tank again. “Feels pretty real to me.”

Liam shook his head. “Magic, mate. It’s more real than most real things. So real it outranks the really real stuff.”

“Can you get rid of it?” asked Hettie, still not looking away from her son.

Liam shrugged. “I can try. Don’t know what it’s hiding, though.”

Angela wondered if she should technically condone literal witchcraft1. Then she looked again at Mabel, still screaming in silence.

“Do it, lad.”

Liam cleared his throat and raised his arms over his head. In faltering Latin, he chanted, “Ex oculis abi imago2!”

Liam closed his hands. The air wrinkled under his fingers. He pulled downwards. The rest of the extraction team felt a layer of the world peel away around them like they were in a reverse sticker-book. 

A sound of tearing paper. The superhuman zoo was ripped away. The missing children were standing around preening themselves. Brit and Gregory were dressed in acrobat leotards, the first blue and white, the second orange and brown. Mabel was in her costume, albeit with added top-hat. David was in his, too, which was both odd and utterly appropriate. 

Steven Haldor, meanwhile, was in full auguste clown gear, manning an old fashioned water-pump in the middle of the tent. 

“Stevie!””

Hettie pulled her son into her arms. Given the state of her physiology, this was less than advisable. 

Steven wheezed, “Too… tight… Mum…” 

Hettie yelped and let go of her son, thanking her lucky stars she’d worn the floofy jumper that night. Looking down, she noticed said jumper was stained with red rouge and white face paint.  “Why on Earth are you dressed like that?”

Steven tilted his head. “It’s for the show.”

Mabel grinned crookedly at the sight of Arnold and his mother, waving at them with her whole body. “Hi guys! You here to watch us in the big top?”

Angela frowned. “It’s been two days, young lady! We were worried sick!”

The children exchanged glances. Then they laughed. 

“No it hasn’t!” Brit insisted. 

David added, “Maybe Mrs Barnes is going all scatter-brained. She is pretty old.”

Brit giggled. “Human, human, human, human…”

Gregory was sitting on the grassy floor, staring at his hands. “Man, what if, like, people only get wrinkly because they have too many baths?”  He looked questioningly at Billy. “Hey, Tigger, do you get pruney in the bath?”

Billy allowed himself a frown, balling his clawed fists at his sides. “My name’s not Tigger…” 

Angela inhaled, shoulders arching in full-on lecture mode, only for Arnold to put a hand on her arm. “I think this is a magic thing, Mum.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Liam, peering at the spell-grammar scrawled all over the other children. “They’re bewitched. Used to do this when kids at school pulled on my horns.” He walked towards David and sniffed the water-sprite’s breath.

David grinned, slurring, “Is this that flirting thing again?”

Liam looked back at Mrs Barnes. “I think they got them normal-drunk a bit, too?” 

Billy bristled quietly. Didn’t the witch-lady know kids weren’t supposed to have that stuff?

Angela nodded stiffly. “Of course, of course.” Maternal indignation also made a strong liquor.

Hettie raised a hand to her mouth. “Is it permanent?”

“Nah,” Liam reassured her. “Just need to get them outta here.”  

Ralph clapped his hands. It sounded like two oak trees colliding. “Right, kids, we’re leaving.”

Nooo!” whined Mabel. She pointed at the water-pail hanging from the water-pump’s spout. “Mr. Myles says we’re going on as soon as the bucket’s full!”

Ralph pulled the bucket off the pump. It bled water from a dozen pin-prick punctures. “You mean this?” he asked flatly.  

“Yeah!” exclaimed Brit. She glared at Steven. “He just needs to pump faster!”  

“Why am I doing it?” Steven jabbed a finger at David. “Why not him?”

David shuddered. “I can’t stick water in a bucket. It’d be mad at me!”

Angela watched the children argue. She muttered under her breath, “Now would be a good time to send them home, Arnold.”

“Yep.” Arnold raised his fingertip and summoned Libertalia to his mind’s eye. 

His fingernail glowed green, only to spark and sputter. Arnold tried again. Still, the lightning did not come. He screwed his eyes shut and pictured any and all safe places he knew. The children’s hall, Freedom’s point, David’s beach…

Nothing.

He let his arm go limp. Arnold’s vocabulary spasmed inside him, searching for an oath he could say in front of his mother. “…Cripes. I can’t make it work.” He put his hands to his head. “It’s like I don’t know where here is.”

Angela sighed and put a hand on her son’s shoulder. “Long as you tried your best, Arnold.”

Looked like they were taking the long way home. 

“…Okay,” said Brit, “what if we put the bucket in Steve—”

What?”   

Angela raised her voice half an octave. It might as well have been her son’s thunder. “Everyone be quiet.” 

The stolen children went as silent and still as their condition allowed—swaying on their feet like saplings facing a storm. Even Arnold reflexively straightened his back.

“It’s Christmas Eve. We are going home now and having dinner. If you don’t do as you’re told this very second, we’re skipping straight to Boxing Day. Are we clear?”

The kids all nodded. Mighty a witch as Elsa Lieroinen was, no spell could match Angela Barnes.

“Right. Everyone get in line.”

The rescue party reformed the train, a touch more ungainly with five extra passengers. Mabel had her hands on the Crimson Comet’s back. She giggled.

“Something funny, Mabes?” asked the superhero.

“I didn’t know you had two shadows.”

Ralph looked down. Like a fork in a tree trunk, a second silhouette sprouted from his feet.

“Wh—”

Half a sound. A whisper’s little brother.

“Um,” said Billy, staring at a blank stretch of canvas in front of him. “Where’d the door go?”

The imposter-shadow pulled itself off the ground, Ralph Rivers’ titanic frame shrinking and narrowing. A top hat sprouted from his head. 

David wagged a finger at the apparition. “Hey, Mr. Myles. I wanted to ask, do I really need my cost—”

The shadow screamed.   

Elsa Lieroinen sat across from the two-and-a-half Kinseys in her covered wagon, voice triplicating and transfiguring as it reached their ears, whispering their dreams:

“…I can give you freedom.” 

“…I can give your substance.” 

“…I can give you power.” 

Allison could feel what the witch was offering her. A tumour excised. Poison sucked from her bones. Her and Miri, together and alone. Not having to worry about him slipping in while they slept. Not having to feel all his second-hand lusts and bitterness like hot breath. Who cared about Alberto? All he ever did was hurt people. David. Adam Sinclair. Her. Over and over…

Miri spoke within Allison:

It’d be good if it was just us, right? Alberto’s mean. And if we could touch things at the same time.

Allison tried to remember why they weren’t saying yes. They could get their friends back. They could get so much more. Elsa wasn’t going to be less evil somewhere else if they didn’t… 

Drina was still floating above the sun, holding her crying daughter against her adamantine skin. She was strong. She was needed

…Why did she need power to comfort her child? And why would she ever want Allison to be in pain

Drina looked away from the vision, over at Allison. There was another girl too, she knew, under her daughter’s skin. Drina didn’t know what they were to each other yet, but they were something. And even if they weren’t, Miri was a child. Drina was a grown-up. She shouldn’t have to give up anything for her.


“…Allison. Miri,” Drina said, “I don’t know what this woman is offering you two, but we don’t need her.” She put a hand on her shoulder. “You built a city. Helped hundreds of people.” She managed a smile. “How’s she going to top that?”

Allison strained her back. Inside, she felt Miri puff out her chest. “Yeah. Yeah. You’re right, Mum.” She smiled pridefully at the witch. “No deal.”

Elsa rolled her eyes and mimed sticking a finger down her throat. 

Myles’ face twitched. He whispered something in his mistress’s ear.

“Oh. So much for do ut des. Go on ahead, will you Myles?”

“Of course, Mistress.” 

Myles flashed the Kinseys a grin (or maybe just bared his fangs) before crumpling and discolouring into a tawny owl, screeching and sending Mrs Kinsey flailing as he flew past her head. 

Allison watched it flee into the night, then glared back at Elsa. “What’s he up to?”

The witch smiled and arched her eyebrows. “Ladies, I think negotiations are over.”

At the edge of Allison’s clairvoyance, ten blossoms of shock bloomed like atomic sunflowers. 

“Shit.”

Elsa flourished her hands. “Per aera atrae calentesque favillae volate3 !” 

The candles guttered. Then they geysered. Jets of fire bent and twisted, becoming burning serpents that slithered onto Elsa’s body like torcs and bracelets smithed from forge-fire instead of ore. Sparks from her silk suit tinted the flame maroon as the same light poured from her eyes and mouth. 

Allison threw herself over her mother, wrapping her arms around the woman as best she could and flying out of the buggy at a hundred knots. Part of Drina Kinsey felt belittled being carried through the air by her ten year old. Mostly, she just screamed. Behind them, Elsa Lieroinen exploded out of the wagon, a meteor trying to rejoin the sky. 

Allison set her mother down next to a high-striker topped with a Flying Man diamond, its barker programmatically enticing non-existent passersby:

Can you match the world’s strongest man? Who are the supermen among the boys?

“Go hide in one of the stalls,” Allison said. 

Drina shook her head. “I’m not hiding—

Allison took back off, leaving her mother alone on the ground.

Drina seethed with worry. “Allie—” 

Her eye caught the high-striker. Its mallet wasn’t attached to anything.

Step right up! Test your strength!” 

Elsa Lieroinen hovered above the Ethnological Exhibition, still clad in flames. She raised her ring-finger:

Ad ferrum venistis ab sericis, saecula4!” 

The canvas tent below her hardened and darkened into metal. Almost the same time, the shape of a burly man bulged out of one of the walls, glowing red like a torch-light through paper.

Elsa smiled. Bloody strong man— 

Something struck Elsa in the side, sending her spinning sideways. As she reoriented herself, she spotted two figures riding a golden disk through the air, surrounded by an unnaturally silent cloud of metal birds. One was a woman in what Elsa could only think of as a blue burqa and mirrored sunglasses. At night.

Mirror-Queen. Figures I landed on the steep-end of the bell-curve. 

Her companion was a Chinese looking man in an elaborate gold breastplate, greaves and helmet. The effect was spoiled somewhat by the cargo pants and work boots. 

Elsa grinned and shouted across the night air. “Chen Liu! I didn’t think we’d meet again!”

AU called back, “Never laid eyes on you, crazy bitch!”

Ah. Wrong timeline.

AU thrust his palms forward, sending golden crows flying at Elsa. The witch smiled and pulled a translucent blue stone from her sleeve, raising it to meet the approaching murder. It flashed white, transforming the animate sculptures into squawking, deeply confused flesh and blood birds. Elsa waved at her foes. 

“Empiricist’s stone5, honey! Never leave the Riverlands without one!” Elsa let out some unnaturally realistic bird calls. The ex-gold crows fell into formation and flew back at AU and the Mirror-Mistress6 as a black blade of Hitchcockian menace.  

Chen cocked his head at Therese Fletcher. “Could use that compact right now, love.”

Therese nodded. She hated pulling this trick. At least it wasn’t people this time. She opened her make-up compact and raised it to the sky, gathering the light of the circus below and the stars above and refracting it just right, like she was rattling dice inside her head… 

Thin wires of light cut wide swathes through the night. Elsa’s crows burst into flames as they grazed them, Therese wincing as the birds shrieked. Their burning feathers rained down over the circus.

Elsa ducked and weaved about the lasers. She hated super-fights. So physical. She wondered why Allison wasn’t presently trying to kill her. That girl was made of aggression…  

A dull thunderclap drew the witch’s attention downwards. Chisel7 and the Crimson Comet had appeared outside the metal marquee, the former trying to yank dear Myles’ shadow off her back like it’d failed the audition to be her cape. Allison Kinsey was melting away part of the front wall with heat from her hands.

Ah. Halfway clever little shit. Better bring in ground support. 

Elsa stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled. Down in the fairgrounds, a compact, polka-dotted Morris Minor with grinning, lipsticked lips over the grill and a giant red nose for a hood ornament crashed through the shooting gallery. It came to a stop by the exhibition marquee, engine idling.

Everyone on the ground (who wasn’t wrestling with a vampire’s shadow) watched the car warily, Allison included:

Tiny car, circus…        

Allison groaned. Freaking hell, Elsa.

The car’s passenger door flung open. A clown tumbled head over heels onto the snow. Then another. And another. And another…

They just kept coming Within ten seconds there was a veritable wall of painted grins and baggy polyester shifts rolling towards the Catalpans. Bike-horns chorused like vulgar war-drums. 

Myles the owl landed on top of the calliope, reverting with a laugh to his human form. He drew a line with his cane between the Catalpans and the clowns. “Slapstick heaven, boys!” the vampire crowed. “Grab a stick and start slappin’!”

Allison wanted to stake him just for that. 

The clowns let out a peal of joyless laughter and charged. 

Allison leapt over and slapped Chisel’s back with a burning hand. Myles’ shadow burned fast as ash paper, its owner screaming with a feral tenor. The concrete woman flipped him the bird as the clowns fell upon them. She punched one in the gut, making him cough up a mouthful of red handkerchiefs in her face. Another got a fist slammed on the top of his skull, his head disappearing like a periscope into his tall, stiff collar. Hettie smacked one more in the side of the head, feeling his cheekbone shatter satisfying under his painted face. The clown staggered about, literal stars and windings circling above him.

It’s a bit, Hettie realized with contempt. They’ve got me doing a bit. 

Allison stuck close to the marquee, guarding the rent she’d made until the molten metal cooled, the power the Flying Man’s song left her at full heat. Any clown that strayed too close caught fire, predictably spreading their flames as they ran screaming through the crowd. Some of their comrades gamely threw buckets over their burning friends, but unfortunately for them, those buckets were mostly filled with confetti. 

Other clowns were launched up into the air as the ground erupted beneath them, or were carried away by the wind. Allison liked Gregory’s song. It was like someone had recruited Mercury, Venus, and Earth themselves into a string quartet. She couldn’t help but compare it to David’s song. If David’s powers were one big, immaculately prepared meal, Gregory was an ice-cream bar with unlimited samples.

Inside the tent, David was straining against Angela’s arms. “But I want to play too!” he protested.

“They’re not playing out there, David.” 

David grinned wickedly. “Costume off.”

A flash. Angela scoffed, unmoved. “Not that precious, son.”

David humphed and misted out of Angela’s grip.

“Maude.”

Mistress Quickly pointed her Certainty Enforcer at the fog floating towards the hole in the wall. David dropped to the floor. The boy rubbed his shoulder. “None of you are any fun…”

“Agreed,” said Brit, hogtied with rubber-steel flexi-cuffs.   

Outside Myles was still standing on the calliope, rubbing his back like he’d fallen asleep on a hot stove. A cloud of butterflies coalesced into Elsa Lieroinen beside him. 

“Got bored fighting Free Trial Magneto and the school-teacher?” the vampire asked, only to wince. “Fuck, this hurts.”

Elsa chuckled. “Don’t be a baby, Myles. It’ll grow back.”

“I feel naked.” 

“Aww, poor thing. Something I can do to cheer you up?”

Myles surveyed the melee going on around them. He spotted the Crimson Comet—metal wings spread and glowing—brawling with unrefined superhuman verve. It was like if crap television fight choreography was a martial art. It reminded him of something… 

“You know that TV show about the vigilante and his eromenos?”

Elsa smiled. “I think so, Dr. Wertham.”

Myles pointed his cane at the Comet. “That thing that happened when they punched people, you don’t think…”

Elsa’s eyes lit up. She flexed her fingers. “I can certainly try.”

The witch raised her wand. “Tunc colaphos incuties cum scripti lusorique strepitus oboriantur!”

The poetry could’ve been better, Elsa had to admit. 

Ralph Rivers held a struggling clown by the neck in each hand. “Let’s put our heads together, shall we?”

The Comet brought his arms together, the clowns heads connected—

A white starburst against flat green nothingness consumed Ralph’s world. A four-letter word in bold red letters dominated his vision:

WHAM!!

Ralph dropped the clowns in shock. Another tried to tackle him. He absently smacked it down:

POW!!

The Crimson Comet flinched, staring at his own fist. Experimentally, he grabbed another clown and jabbed it in the eye:

POKE!!

“What the fuck?”

Gold birds dive bombed the clowns, flattening their beaks against the sides of their heads like prohibitively expensive cannonballs.

Above the fray, Therese turned to the birds’ master. “Set me down, Chen.”

Chen nodded, lowering their golden disc enough for Therese to jump down. The Mirror-Mistress landed in the snow with a grace that would have surprised anyone who’d known Therese. She pulled out her old knife and got to work. She felt her reflection glinting off the sides of Chen’s birds. A platoon of golden ghosts appeared at Therese’s side, all with her face, fighting not quite in synch. A foretelling, perhaps; of death or glorification, who could say? Or just a Therese diptych.   

They cracked bones. They gouged eyes. Laughter was cut short by slit throats. Whenever someone laid a hand on Therese, she retreated into Chen’s gold, riding the light bouncing off them back out and pushing her blade into their back.  

It had been a long year for Therese Fletcher. 

AU meanwhile was stabbing at clowns with sharpened gold vambraces. They came free bloody, but he was fairly sure they weren’t real people. Real people didn’t laugh when you stabbed them—  

A clown grabbed Chen’s ankle, pulling him off his disc and climbing on top of his chest. 

“You ready to laugh, sonny?”

The clown didn’t wait for AU to answer, letting out a great, gurgly laugh. Flecks of makeup and spittle fell into Chen’s open mouth. In that moment, Chen discovered a simple truth: clowns were terrifying.

The clown in question’s laughter was cut off by a thrack. His eyes rolled up into his head as he slumped to the side. 

Mrs Kinsey stood over Chen, breathing hard, a mallet raised above her head. She helped AU to his feet, glancing at the clown she felled.  “Why do kids like these goddamn things so much?” 

AU smiled. “Do they?”

Therese had caught sight of the clown-mobile. Even as they all fought, clowns were still being vomited out of the car. 

Someone has to close the door, she thought, slashing a clown across the eyes. Probably smash it, actually

But how? Therese’s powers could do a lot of things. They could make a lot more of her, for one thing. But they couldn’t make her be more than what she was—  

She remembered the Hall of the Possible. The mirrors. All those reflections. All those costumes…

The Mirror Mistress vanished. After an eyeblink waiting for a bird to angle itself just right, she appeared in front of the marquee’s new entrance.

“I need David!” she exclaimed as she ran in.

“See?” said David, still being held by Therese. “Even this weird lady wants me to play!”

He doesn’t recognize me, Therese realized. The relief almost made her giddy.

Angela stood up, bringing David with her. “Why?”

“Long story.”

“…Do you swear to keep him safe?” 

“On my hat.” 

Angela let go of David. The boy jumped for joy.

“Can Brit come?”

Therese looked at the bound alien child, then at Mistress Quickly.

Maude sighed. “Might as well.” She pressed a button on her belt. The flexi-cuffs binding Brit released themselves. The girl happily scrambled to David’s side. 

“Arnold,” said Therese. “Think you could send us to the mirror-house?”

Arnold bit his lip. He pointed at a small rock lying in the grass and fired off a bolt. It reappeared with a bang lodged in the wall.

“…We can walk,” said Therese. She crouched in front of Brit and David, putting a hand on their shoulders. She forced a smile, not that they could see it. “Think you two could stick close to me, alright?”

“Like follow-the-leader?” Brit offered brightly.

Therese clapped. “Yes! Exactly! Sure! And do you think you two could run, too?”  

David laughed in a way that reminded Therese of Saturday nights with the girls. Didn’t sound quite right coming from a ten year old boy. “I’m the best at running!” 

“I am!” insisted Brit.

“I—”

Therese grabbed David’s arm and yanked him forward. “Off we go!”

Thankfully, Brit followed them out into the circus grounds. Therese let go of David’s arm, running dead ahead without looking back at her changes. She didn’t have to. She could watch them from every remotely reflective surface they passed. Her golden doubles ran alongside the children, ready to strike any who— 

Clowns fell to their knees in pained laughter, blood pouring down their faces. Snow spired into the air as sharpened tendrils, skewering them through the hearts or forcing its way down their throats. David was laughing. Brit was laughing too, but Therese didn’t think she was paying attention. Or at least she hoped she wasn’t.

What happened to these kids? Therese asked herself.

She shook her head. She knew that already.

It didn’t take long for the three of them to stagger into the Hall of the Possible. David span in the centre of the room, admiring the many different boys who took his place in the mirrors. “Hello, Davids!”

Brit joined him. “Hi, Brits!” 

Her statement might’ve had more truth than David’s. All Brit’s reflections were clearly her, if altered in oh so many ways. 

David looked at the Mirror Mistress. “So, what now?”

Therese raised her hand. “Try to stand still, okay kids?”

I bet this doesn’t work.

Therese closed her eyes. Over a dozen other Therese’s joined her. Some wore blood-red body-gloves and had yellow flames for hair. Some had metal skin and eyes full of cold light. One was nude, but seemingly made of glass. Another wore the Flying Man’s own costume; three sizes too big for her, but wore it with more confidence than life itself. 

It perhaps said something about our Therese that she didn’t invite any of them out.   

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. Angela Barnes wasn’t an ignorant woman by any means, but she could have done with being informed that the relevant Bible verse in question originally referred to poisoners.

2. Roughy, “Disappear from my sight, false vision.”

3. “Fly through the air, oh dark and burning flames.”

4. “Oh ages of man, from silk you turned to iron!”

5. Harvested from the plane of Gorgian Ideals.

6. Elsa was off by a week or so.

7. Hettie Haldor’s common supernym in relevant timelines.

Chapter One-Hundred and Three: Charivari

On Christmas Eve, Drina and Allison Kinsey marched through strange country, the night sky nearly white with crowded stars. The enemy camp lay ahead, a gaudy tropical reef in an indigo sea. The hooting, train-whistle music that echoed from it was audible even in Catalpa itself. The lights of the ferris-wheel watched the pair like eyes in a dark theatre. 

It was wrong. Allison had been playing here for nearly a year. They should’ve been walking through bush so thick, even the noon sun could only rain down shadows. These people were stealing her memories along with her friends.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Allison mumbled. “It’s dangerous.”

“If it’s too dangerous for me, it’s too dangerous for you. Take your pick.”

Allison sighed and looked down at her feet. It was a hopeless cause. She’d spent the better part of two hours trying to convince her mother to stay behind. The woman hadn’t been moved, and Allison hadn’t exactly been able to find allies among the other grown-ups.

“I’m not exactly opposed to you having adult supervision while negotiating with kidnappers, Allie,” Mistress Quickly had said.

The Kinseys walked surrounded by a cometary halo of mosquitos. The ones who tasted Allison’s blood died almost immediately—Żywie’s revenge. Poor Drina had to settle for swatting and waving them away with as much dignity as possible. She was wearing a chequered, collarless dress and a cardigan held partially open by a single turquoise button, both supplied by Close-Cut. She’d even brought her purse. Allison was in her rainbow costume, the colours slightly muted from stress. If the mother looked like she was heading out to watch the circus, the daughter looked like she was going to audition for it. Either way, they were definitely going to speak with the manager. 

A red haired girl loping towards being a teenager was leaning against the ticket booth when the pair reached the outskirts of the circus. 

Drina raised her closed hand to her mouth and cleared her throat. 

The girl sighed.

“Mother, the Kinsey girl is here. She brought someone.”

Allison’s keen eyes saw a small pellet appear in the air in front of them and fall to the ground. It exploded in a plume of festively red smoke, clearing to reveal Elsa Lieroinen and her loyal assistant. Myles was in his usual ringmaster getup, but Elsa had dressed for the occasion in a long silk coat and harem trousers silk nightmare—sea-greens interrupted by orange and white psychedelia and peacocks1.

They were both chuckling.

“Ares!” Myles exclaimed, bemused. “Never seen such a dusky woman produce something so pale. What did you do, Mrs Kinsey? Bed a snowman?”

Drina clenched a fist at her side.

Allison folded her arms, trying her best to look stone-faced. “Says the vampire.” 

Myles threw his hands up. “Who says I’m a vampire?” 

He didn’t sound offended by the accusation.

Allison pointed at Ávrá Lieroinen. “Her. Brain’s like a neon sign saying ‘VAMPIRE.2’ Pretty sure the stuff you make her do is mostly because you’re you, though.”

Ávrá’s eyes went wide. Her body developed a subtle tremor. She was also treated to a rare and terrible sight: her mother smiling at her.

“Heart of my heart,” Elsa said, voice an octave and a half too high. “What did I tell you about practising your wards.”

“I—”

The girl went up in blue and violet flames. They consumed her to the bones, clothes and all. The patch of grass she was standing on wasn’t even scorched. 

Drina was aghast. “What did you do to that girl?”

“Made sure my daughter’s sloppy mental hygiene would no longer offend your daughter’s delicate sensibilities,” answered Elsa.

Allison couldn’t tell if the girl had been teleported away or… burned. Her song had stopped, either way. Had she just made that happen? Just to try and embarrass a vampire

I got a girl killed—I got a girl killed—I—  

She needed to say something, quick, before she exploded.     

“Here to tell my fortune again, Elsa?”

Drina looked down at her daughter. “Wait, you’ve met this woman too?”

Allison froze. She had honestly forgotten about the witch and her weird friend until she laid eyes on them again. She’d even forgotten the fact of forgetting. She’d also forgotten her mother was standing next to her. “Ah, yeah,” she admitted stiffly. “…Apparently ”

Drina frowned at her child. “Apparently?”

“You shouldn’t be here,” said Elsa cooly. “I thought underlining PRIVATE would’ve gotten the point across.”

“She’s ten years old,” said Drina firmly. “She was never coming alone.”

“Fair enough, I suppose,” replied Elsa. “Could always have you keep Ávrá company…” 

“Please don’t,” Allison said, voice small, all thought of sounding tough forgotten. “She’s harmless.”

“Allie, I’m—”

Allison grabbed her mother’s hand and squeezed.   

“Hmm.” Elsa flicked her wrist, a literal little black book appearing in her hand. She flicked through its pages before stabbing her finger at whatever she was looking for. The witch recited, “Drina Kinsey, née Móré…”

The name felt familiar to Allison, but most names and words were like that. She didn’t think she’d ever heard her mother’s maiden name before. 

“Hungarian Romani, migrated to Australia with her mother post World War 2.” Elsa flashed the other woman a smile. “Arrived alone.”

Allison looked up at her mother, silent questions in her red eyes. Drina said nothing, head turned down.

“Primary schooling spotty and haphazard at best. Flunked out of middle-school of all things! Last gainful employment was waiting tables, quit for housewifery after marrying Jack Kinsey age nineteen. Present in forty-eight percent of early Catalpa instances.” Elsa smacked her lips. “Not even a threat to wood-lice.” She looked up from the book. “Sure, you can stay. Oh, Miri, I assume you’re joining us for the evening?”

Miri’s image stepped out from behind her sister, as though she’d been hiding there all along. She didn’t say anything, only looking at the witch with watery eyes.

“Good, good.” Elsa raised a hand in a warding gesture. 

Allison felt what she could only describe as a slimy wind rush through her. 

Alberto staggered backwards from the girl.

“You can wait outside,” said Elsa. “No arguments.”

Alberto huffed and tugged the corners of his translucent vest. “Fine. I don’t stay where I’m not fucking welcome…”

“That’s a minority view,” muttered Allison. 

“Fuck off, baby vampire,” Alberto said over his shoulder.

Elsa turned around and started walking into the fairgrounds. “The rest of you, to quote a psilocybin loving friend of mine: come and see.” 

Allison, Miri and their mother followed the witch resignedly. Drina asked herself: “Forty-eight?

Entering the circus proper was like stepping into an overly air-conditioned room without the walls. Drina suddenly wanted a proper coat. There was even snow. Sort of. Drina had lived through ten European winters; most without a regular roof over her head. This wasn’t how snow felt underfoot. This was… marshmallow and bubble-bath froth. This was what snow felt like in the dreams of Australian children.     

“She’s not very good at snow,” Drina said under her breath. 

“Yeah,” said Allison. “Isn’t even proper cold.”         

Drina let out an edgy laugh. “How would you know, sun-baby?”

“It was snowing in Canberra. ”

“Oh.”

Allison remembered the message she’d given to the reporter. It felt like years ago. “Did you see me in the papers?” 

“Of course, honey. Wish I’d been there.”

“Also, there was snow on Ross Island. It’s in Antarctica.”

God, Drina thought. She’d missed so much… 

Even without the benefit of exotic senses, the whole circus was patently false. Endless palette-swapped copies of the same couple—so still, they could’ve been posing for a fotoromanzo—watched blatantly looped fire-eaters and jugglers. Living GIFs, generations early. To Allison’s surprise, the spectators did have songs. Two of them, in fact, funnelled through the crowd like electricity along a wire. These people weren’t people, they were speakers.  

Remarkable trapeze artists, though. Allison hoped she’d get to show David and Mabel.

Trying to read Elsa and Myles as they walked was no good. They might as well have had TV static for grey matter. And Elsa’s song still had that curious, clipped quality. Like bits had been left out or scrambled3. For Allison’s benefit, no doubt.

The two of them led the Kinseys down sideshow alley4, past laughing clowns forever shaking their heads at some unseen absurdity, motorized moles free to taste the evening air without fear of mallet-heads, and rubber ducks with metal loops on their backs swimming around a blue water barrel. Allison half-expected Elsa to make them play a ring-toss for the hostage’s freedom. Instead, she led them to a large marquee, the little sister of the big top at the centre of the circus. 

“Here it is, the new jewel of the Lieroinen Family Circus.” 

The placard above the entrance read:

ELSA LIEROINEN’S EXTRA-NORMAL ETHNOLOGICAL EXHIBITION 

It seemed like a lot of words for a circus like this, Allison thought. But then that sourceless well of knowledge inside her told her what they meant. She sucked in a breath.  

Elsa slipped halfway into the tent, beckoning the others to follow.   

The marquee interior was lit by powerful floodlights shining through the thin ceiling fabric. It contained five glass cases on raised stands: terrariums, or maybe dioramas. 

Each contained a hostage.

Elsa stood proudly before her specimens arms spread. “Behold, my human wonders!”  

Drina put her hands over her mouth. Allison looked pleadingly at Elsa. “We can just talk. You don’t have to do… this.”

Elsa smiled. “Please, child. I worked hard on this.”

The witch strode over to David Barthe’s case. It was an aquarium, filled with coral and small tropical fish. Their scales could’ve been coloured in with highlighters. There was hardly enough room for the young boy floating curled in on himself in the centre.

Else cleared her throat and produced a hazel wand from her cavernous sleeves, using it as a pointer:

“Here we see a fine young specimen of chaos godling, derived from, in this case, water. Particularly saltwater, though I wouldn’t count on that to save your life if he got bored of you in a lake. Frequent contact, intimate and otherwise, with mankind has taught this strain to mimic human flesh and cognition with impressive fidelity.”        

She swirled the air with her wand. The fish in the tank went wild, attacking David with needle-sharp teeth. Blood plumed like smoke from his wounds. The boy didn’t fight back.

“Christ!” cried Drina. 

Allison shouted, “Stop it!”

The fish kept tearing at David. Chunks of flesh, skin and hair floated to the top of the tank. Still, he did not react. 

Allison’s eyes flared. Intense heat rippled through the stolid, humid air of the marquee.

Stop it!”   

Elsa tilted her wand up. The fish ceased their assault, swimming back to their corners of the aquarium. At the same time, the colour drained from David until he seemed to be made of glass. Water filled his wounds and froze over, perfectly replacing the lost flesh. 

“As you can see, despite being two generations removed from the original chaotic manifestation, and being three quarters human in terms of ancestry, our specimen’s godhood remains potent and intact. Compare and contrast with the rather more brittle Olympian variety.” Elsa looked at Allison. “See, Allie, if you’d just kept that Linus boy alive, this could’ve been even more educational.”

“Bitch,” spat Drina. Allison could hardly believe her ears, accurate as the assessment was.

Elsa spun on one foot before moving to Mabel’s display case. Its walls were padded. Mabel was locked in a straitjacket and literally muzzled, thrashing against the chains that anchored her to the corners of the tank. Perversely enough, the jacket was patterned with comic-panels.

“Here we see Mabel ‘Mad Dog’ Henderson.”

Drina shook her head at the sight. “Why on Earth have you got her bound up like that?”

Elsa cocked her head at the woman. “Didn’t you know? The moment this girl became a superhuman, she fried the brains of over a hundred people. Including her own father.” Elsa put her hands to her cheeks in mock shock. “I mean, been there, sister5. Hasn’t repeated that little trick since, but I say she’s got promise.”

Brit’s display-case looked like the inside of a sea-anemone, the painted back-wall showing a dark-sky dominated by a red sun and a gigantic, volcanic moon. She was dressed in what looked like live moths fluttering against her skin, eating at a table that appeared to have been grown or carved out of the floor. She was surrounded by crude animatronics with sculpted navy-blue quoffers, incongruously dressed in the same alien finery.  

“This here is a real rare find. The last known—I mean, I could check, but who has the time—example of the superhuman Menrva civilization, destroyed by the moon from which they derived their wealth. New Child author and beard enthusiast Herbert Lawrence had plans to preserve the subspecies, but that might’ve been a fringe benefit to his program.”

Miri and Allison watched Brit spoon what looked like plucked dandelion fluff. Her movements were as stiff and mechanical as the animatronics.

Elsa clapped her hands together. “Speaking of which!”

Steven Haldor looked quite at ease in what Allison imagined was a decent recreation of his old bedroom. Posters for the Beatles and the Kinks dueled for supremacy above his headboard. The boy himself was engrossed in an issue of G-Men6, as though he weren’t being watched a housewife, a super-girl, a ghost, a vampire, and a smirking witch:

“Here we see a typical juvenile example of Homo sapiens, soon to be swept into history by the many breeds of super-being arising on this planet.” Elsa pointed her fingers at herself. “Hereditary witch speaking here, but I don’t think it’ll be a great loss.” 

Elsa turned to face the last display case. Gregory floated cross-legged in the centre of the otherwise empty enclosure, naked and burning, livid bruises on his bare chest. His eyes were vacant; white, in fact. A hurricane of rock and ice swirled around him. Allison could see his Socii playing across his skin, bright gems of lapis, orange agate, jade, and topaz connected by veins of light. They reminded her greater store of knowledge of Indian chakras 

“Gregory Collins is an example of one of Steven’s successors, transformed in the womb into a superhuman by the birth trauma of two gods yet to come. Judging by the charming violence of his gifts, I’d say the agent responsible was Andromeda.” The witch squinted at Allison. “I’d peg you more as a Meredith.”

Allison wrinkled her nose. “A ‘Meredith’?”

“Long story.”

Miri raised a hand. 

“You got a question, ghostling?”

“Yes,” replied Miri. “How long have you had our friends?”

Elsa saw no particular reason not to answer. “Two days or so. This isn’t Narnia.”

“And they’ve been in those cases the whole time?”

Elsa saw a lot of reasons to answer that one. She grinned wickedly. “The whole time.”  

“…How do they go to the bathroom?”

The grown-ups in the marquee found themselves sharing silent glances, soundtracked by the muted howl of the wind within Gregory’s cage.

Myles and Elsa laughed. The witch pinched Allison’s cheek in proxy. “Oh, Miri, I could just keep you.”   

On a gamble, Allison tried to reach the least savoury part of Alberto’s power into Elsa, but her skin could’ve been laminated with steel for all that amounted to. The girl bet she’d just wanted to show off.

“So,” said Elsa. “Tea and biscuits?”

Drina sighed. “Fine.” 

By this point, Allison was both surprised and a touch disappointed by the fact Elsa’s buggy wasn’t bigger on the inside. She’d expected the witch to hide a grand manor under its canvas roof, or a cathedral of blood and bone; not a kerosine stove, a dozen tea-light candles, and a few throw-pillows. If she was going to be evil, she could at least be impressive

Myles poured Allison and Drina each a cup of salted caramel tea and offered them to the Kinseys on rugged cast-iron plates with fresh kourabiethes7. He smiled his not-very-friendly-vampire-smile at the pair, the glow of the candles colouring his pale face sour yellow:

“Enjoy, honoured guests.”

Drina took her plate like it was made of poisoned thorns. She looked at her daughter questioningly. 

Allison sipped her cup. “We’re guests. Vampires can’t break xenia. You’re good.” 

Drina hissed through her teeth. She knew her irritation was unfair. Allison couldn’t help making her feel ignorant. “Xenia?”

“Hospitality,” Myles translated. “Roughly8.”

Drina looked down into her tea, steeled her shoulders, and took a long hard gulp, almost burning her tongue and throat. 

It didn’t taste drugged. But then, what would be the point if it did? 

The vampire settled down beside his mistress on the other side of the stove. Allison noticed Myles cast no shadow in the flicker of the candlelight. She wondered if that was usual for his kind. For a few moments, the only sounds in the buggy were the bronchial crackle and pop of the candles and Elsa loudly chewing a kourambiethe.

Allison broke the detente, “What do you want, Elsa?”

“Oh,” Elsa said through a mouthful of shortbread. “Not much, just that empty-headed little girl you’ve got jarred up at Freedom’s Point.”

It took the Kinseys a moment to realise what the witch was asking for.

“…You want Miri’s body?”

Mistress Quickly had suggested a few potential motives for the kidnapping. Catalpa’s aid in some ghastly campaign somewhere in the multiverse. Information or resources. Kicks. This hadn’t come up. 

Elsa swallowed. “Well, given that little Miri is still rattling around your skull, can we really say it’s her body yet?” 

Miri wasn’t bothering to visualize herself for Elsa and Myles, but she was screaming inside Allison:

It is my body! She can’t have it! Why does she want my body?

Allison winced at her sister’s onslaught, asking aloud for her, “Why?” 

“Allie, when your little friend’s mother sells someone sliced polony, she doesn’t get to ask whether they’re gonna eat it or wear it, do they?” 

She’s going to eat it! She’s going to eat me!” 

“Look, am I really asking for that much? You haven’t even figured out how to transfer Miri over yet. You’ll still have your alien blood and all that Simmons’ woman’s notes. I doubt it’ll be harder growing a girl the second time. A lot easier than replacing your friends, I’d wager, even if ‘Mistress Quickly’ fancies herself a multiversial tourist.”

Allison kept the thought far away from her sister, but the witch had a point. They could make Miri another body. They couldn’t make another Mabel or David. But she also remembered what Maude had told her:

“Whatever she asks for, don’t give her it. I’ve seen that woman commit genocide with goddamn toothpicks9. If she asks you to help her with something, say no. If she asks for an old toy, say no. If she asks for a hair on your head, say no.” 

“I don’t want this to be one-sided,” said Elsa. “I mean, aside from being willing to give up some great new acquisitions, I’m willing to offer all three of you additional compensation.” She looked at Drina. “And you weren’t even invited to this pow-wow.”

“Like what?” Allison asked, arms folded.

Elsa smiled. 

The buggy split into three streams like a forking river. In a bit of New Testament flourish, Elsa Lieroinen addressed the three Kinseys individually and simultaneously:

“You know, Allie, I don’t think Miri is the biggest problem in your life. I get it, kind of rubbish having to share your stomach, skin, and womb with your little sister. But Miri seems like a good kid. She isn’t a drunk old Italian rapist…”

Before Allison could recoil from the witch, Elsa reached over the stove and laid a finger on the girl’s forehead. Her touch was like wet ice. 

“Even when you tried to strangle my brain, I could feel him chained to your soul, Allie. I could free you. I could rip Alberto out of you by the roots.”

“…What would happen to Alberto?” asked Allison despite herself. Hopefully, she added, “Would he be dead?”

Elsa smiled again. “Nah. I’ve always got a use for a psychic ghost.”

“So, you’d have him. Like you have my friends.”

“He’s evil.” 

“…So are you.”

Elsa quirked her shoulder. “Still be a net-increase in evil people having a bad time. Literally everyone wins except Alberto.”

“I…”

Part of Allison liked imagining Alberto at Elsa’s mercy. Hammering tiny ghostly fists against walls of glass on some apothecary shelf. For a while. Then it just kept going and going. If she knew he’d be snuffed out like one of these candles… 

“I could fix Billy,” Elsa said to Miri. “Make him look like a normal boy.”

“He doesn’t care,” replied Miri curtly. “And he’s cuddly the way he is.”

“Scratch the easy option then…” sighed Elsa. 

With blue pointer quickness, the witch grabbed Miri by the wrist.

Miri stared at her hand. She could feel the pressure of Elsa’s fingers on her skin. “How—”

“You wouldn’t even need a body,” Elsa enthused. “I could give you touch. Mass. Let you do everything your sister can do, whenever you want.” Elsa looked up thoughtfully for a moment. “Not sure what would happen if you tried conceiving, but you’ve got plenty of options. And you wouldn’t have to leave Allison.” 

Miri bit her lip. She tasted blood. 

“You know, Mrs Kinsey, you have loco parentis over the girls. You could override them both. Honestly, I should’ve invited you in the first place. Forgive me, you’re not the most memorable woman in the world.”

“I have my daughter,” Drina said firmly. “I don’t need anything else.”

Elsa chuckled in her throat. “How about bare equality, ma’am?”

She blew a handful of dust in Mrs Kinsey’s face.

Drina was flying, caught between a roiling sea of thrashing steel and black battlements of storm clouds. She was a figure of solid light, so smooth and perfect not even gravity could find purchase on her. She was wrapped in bright blue and red fabric, scarlet and yellow cape fluttering around her neck. Her skin thrilled at the bite of the wind and the sea-spray. 

“Have you ever imagined being like your daughter, Drina? Strong? Glorious?” 

The clouds vented down golden spite at Drina. She laughed at the lightning as it ran down her veins. The world could only give her pleasure. Her thoughts were crystal machinery.   

Drina lifted a train like a metal wyrm over her head above a roaring crowd. Men in uniforms shouted up at her. Their guns chorused tiny, flashing oaths, their metal sputum hammering harmlessly against her.

“Being able to fight instead of running?”   

The soldiers below withered under Drina’s gaze, their skin turning to dust. She found her own long-ago face down among the masses, cheering with her sister and parents. Unafraid. Together. 

Jack was on his knees below Drina, gazing up at her. There was love in his eyes, but something else, too. Something new. 

“To be something your man could be in awe of?”

Drina swooped down and pulled her husband to his feet, pulling him into a kiss the way he had done with her a thousand times. He felt like glass and cobwebs in her arms. He could do nothing except love her. And if he didn’t, thousands of others would. 

Drina and Allison danced together above the sun itself, swooping under and over coronal loops like arches built of burning auroras. The solar winds caressed them as gently as a warm summer breeze. 

Drina’s impossible eyes saw something graze her daughter. A micrometeorite smaller than a grain of rice and a hundred times faster than sound itself.

Allison looked down at herself. She had a thin red scratch across her paper-pale skin. Nothing to creatures such as them. Still, tears formed in her eyes, boiling away in the superheated vacuum. 

Drina gathered her daughter into her arms, letting her weep out still-new pain.

“For you daughter to need you again?” 

Above the plains of fire, Drina wept, too.    

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. This was the result of mistiming on Elsa’s part. If this had only been perhaps four or five years later by local time, Drina and Allison likely would’ve recognized it as a disco-suit.

2. Also, Mistress Quickly had mentioned it in strategy meetings. According to her, she’d managed to lodge an oak stake an inch from his heart.

3. If Allison had been born into a more permissive (but not too permissive) time, she might have compared it to the censorship techniques employed by pop radio, or those curious radio-stations that exist to cut guest rappers out of songs. Though with arguably less sinister motivations on Elsa’s part.

4. The American term would be “midway.”

5. Though not as famous—or infamous—across the multiverse as his daughter, Antti Lieroinen is a figure of some note. A Finnish “cunning man” and professional wizard renowned for his ability to find lost objects, he was sentenced to die for witchcraft and adultery in the city now called Turku, though his ghost insists his true crime was offending his daughter.

6. Issue #16, in which a sinister cabal of demis attempt to infect a maternity ward with their affliction.

7. Traditional Greek sugar-coated shortbread, usually served at Christmas or other festive occasions.

8. Xenia—a Greek noun that is usually translated along the lines of “guest-friendship.” Hospitality and mutual generosity between host and guest lay at the core of Ancient Greek culture and religion, presided over by the now exiled chief god Zeus.

9. An effective strategy when they’ve replaced water-droplets in a rainstorm.

Chapter One Hundred and Two: Some Children Do Wander…

Children enjoyed great latitude in Catalpa. This was less a result of philosophy than pure pragmatism. There was too much to build to worry overmuch about regular bedtimes. Or meals. Catalpa’s children were (mostly) made of sturdy stuff. If a water-god or a girl with unbreakable skin chose to sleep under the stars, why worry? But even Catalpa had standards. When the same five children weren’t seen by adult eyes for two days, people got worried.

The sun was setting behind Freedom’s point. The sky was as red as the one Louise Michelson was born under. Normally in Catalpa, the sunset was welcome. It dulled the edge of the tropical heat. Tonight, it was like being abandoned by a friend. Catalpa needed daylight.

The tower canteen was buzzed with an energy caught between panic and pure exhaustion. Women passed empty-handed searchers hot cups of coffee and cold sandwiches from behind the tray-line. Guilty, anxious conversation warbled around the hall, tolerated only in fear of inviting silence. Blooms of translocated space opened and closed in the corner, disgorging men in ochre-stained boots and ladies with the hems of their dresses rolled up around their knees. 

Fred Barnes sat alone at one of the tables with a pencil and a few pieces of grid paper. A thin, sand-blond man with a drawn, gaunt face walked solemnly up to him. 

“Sectors thirty-three to forty-five are all empty, sorry to say, Mr. Barnes,” reported Peter Frum.

Fred found the correct boxes on his grid and crossed them out, grunting, “I’m sure you did your best.”

Peter Frum’s best was a lot more than most men. He was one of Hettie Haldor’s teammates in the Fearsome Three; Menagerie, able to command and see through the eyes of birds, lizards; pretty much anything dumber than a human. Fred had never asked if he could do frogs and mozzies as well, but he wouldn’t have been surprised. Hettie and her man had set him looking for her son before anyone else even thought to start worrying. 

She hadn’t let anyone forget that, not that Fred could blame her. 

Frum pointed his thumb back at the row of winking egg-portals. “I’m gonna get back out—”

“Mate, you haven’t slept since yesterday. Go get a bloody coffee. Hettie will understand.”

Frum opened his mouth to protest, but it was like his soul took the chance to escape. His shoulders slumped. The man almost lost a full inch of height. Peter nodded. “Yeah. Better do that.”

Fred watched the ex-supervillain drag himself to the serving line. He felt the man’s frustration. God knew he wanted to be out there, too.

Bloody chair… 

Fred saw Hettie and Paul step together out of a portal. Paul was a tall man, but his wife was more than two heads taller than him. The woman’s polished concrete face was powdered with the dust she perspired, except for tell-tale tracks winding down from her eyes.

Poor things, Fred thought. Hettie and Paul couldn’t even tell themselves their boy was more dangerous than anything out in the wild. 

Except Mabel had left her sketchbook in the Children’s Hall. 

The bulk of Catalpa’s children were holed up in the dorms that night under Mrs Barnes’ unshakeable watch. 

Not Allison Kinsey, though. She was too useful.       

Allison sat behind the old warden’s desk, staring up at the mirrored ceiling. She still wondered about that. Did the boss need to be able to inspect the top of his head at a moment’s notice. Her mother sat beside her with an ancient Women’s Weekly, more a prop than reading material. 

Allison screwed her eyes shut, trying to another peak at the future. Again, it looked wrong. The storm of futures had coalesced into one flat, monolithic surface. Ominous, but possibly more useful than the usual format—if only Allison could make out a single bloody detail. The future’s face rippled constantly, like a lake being riddled by torrential rains. 

It felt diluted

Drina reached over and squeezed her daughter’s hand. “They’ll be alright, love.”

Allison opened her eyes and forced a small smile. It’d been a long time since her mother’s reassurances felt like solid fact. “Yeah. David’s probably just taken them all to Hawaii or something.”

Allison wished the future agreed with either of them.

A portal ballooned in the office: a black and orange painted egg amongst pastel purples and pinks. The Crimson Comet, Mistress Quickly, and Tom Long stepped through. Even without telepathy, their faces told Allison nobody would be following.  

“Nobody in Gan Gan, Ramingining, or Gapuwiyak has seen the kids,” Ralph reported.

“At least we’re pretty sure they haven’t,” added Maude. “Ran into a few language barriers. Can you believe there’s still folk born and bred in Australia that don’t speak any English? It’s wild.”

Tom scowled. “You do know they were here first, right?” 

Maude shrugged. “Fair cop.”

Tom grunted. “Still don’t know why you brought me. I’m not even from around here! Like bringing a bloody Pom to negotiate with the fuckin’ French!”

Drina considered admonishing the boy’s language, but it didn’t feel like her place. Besides, she was too young to start talking like Angela. 

“Come now, Tom” said Ralph Rivers, “a familiar looking face still couldn’t have hurt. Poor blighters looked scared stiff.”

Tom scowled up at the old superhero. “Bunch of pale folk in uniform asking about kids, I wonder why?” He looked about the office contemptuously. “Fucking white fellas…”

The boy turned transparent and sank down through the floor.

“Oh, Tom, honey…” Drina said as the top of Tom’s hair was subsumed by the shag carpet.          

Allison sighed. “He’s just worried about Brit.” She thought about it for a second. “Okay, he’s also mad about the white people thing, but he’s always—” 

Allison’s train-of-thought was violently derailed by two voices yelling over each other in her head:

We saw the kids!

“…Bloody circus behind the beach! Just appeared out of nothing right before—”

“The air felt all stupid!”

Allison clapped her hands over her ears and shouted, “Shut up!”  

Everyone in the office was staring at her. Allison blushed and shrank into her chair slightly. “Miri and Alberto are back. I think they found something.”

Miri’s voice blared again, “We did!” 

Allison winced and put her fingers to her temples in time honoured psychic tradition. “I’ll let them show you.”

Allison pushed the alien consciousnesses out of her head. Miri and Alberto appeared in the middle of the office. The man and child looked vaguely out of sync with their surroundings. Superimposed and oversaturated, light not so much reflected as seeping out of their skin and clothes. Like Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews dancing with penguins. 

Alberto shot the Crimson Comet an acid smile. “Hey, Ralph. Long time no see.”

Ralph Rivers tried not to look at the spectre. He remembered Alberto Moretti as a mopey little boy. He’d rather not have a face to go with what he’d been told about the man. 

“Just tell them what you saw or I’m sticking you in the day I called the teacher ‘Mummy’,” cautioned Allison.

“Fine,” spat Alberto. 

Alberto and Miri’s bodies evaporated and swirled together. Images formed in the resulting cloud, like a projectionist had confused the art of cinema with the bat-signal. A dead fire on David’s favourite beach, its ghost rising into the air.

Alberto’s voice spoke within everyone in the office:

Figured this had to be their doing, so me and Miri followed the smoke back a couple—

Miri cut in. “Quiet, meanie! You’re gonna tell it wrong!

Brit wielding a fish like it was a silver scaled sword against a madly, mutely cackling David. Gregory Collins was sitting dazedly in the sand, massaging a red patch on his cheek where the girl’s weapon had slapped him. Brit’s glow was more golden than usual. Her expression bore a Boudica-like severity. 

Maude muttered, “Maybe you should’ve left Miri in your body…”

In the cloud, Brit had tripped up David and was standing with a foot on his chest and the fish at his throat, only for Mabel to run up to them and mouth something while pointing to the left.

So Brit was being cool and beating up David and Not-So-David when Mabel was like ‘The no-powers boy is gone!’ and he was!”   

Circus music got stuck in everyone’s head like a bad pop-song.

Then they heard this music and… kinda forgot about him? The air got weird, too. Dumb. I didn’t know air could be dumb!

The image in the cloud broke up and reformed. The missing children were running towards a circus tent on a floodplain. Alberto spoke again:

Apparently, two days ago, there was a whole circus between here and the beach for a couple of hours.

“Did you check it out?” asked Allison.

The cloud dissipated.

Couldn’t, sis,” said Miri. “It was in front of us but… really far away. At the same time.” 

Like trying to project to the Moon,” added Alberto. 

Outside the tower, the sun finally slipped below the horizon, dipping the world into shadow. 

Allison startled when she felt something land in her hair. “Ahh!” She scrambled to snatch whatever it was off, her hand finding a piece of paper. 

“Where did that come from?” asked her mother, searching the ceiling for a vent or the like.

Allison looked down at the leaflet she was holding and read aloud, “Lieroinen Family Circus.”

The name was written in bold letters circling the likeness of a white stag, above a goateed ringmaster in a red tux and top-hat. The name felt weirdly familiar to Allison 

Maude’s eyes widened. “Lieroinen?”

Allison’s hands trembled. The ringmaster was surrounded by circles, each containing one of the missing’s faces. They all looked like they’d been crying. Below the ringmaster was another message:

“This Christmas Eve, a special, PRIVATE show for one and a half special sisters.”

“Fuck,” said Mistress Quickly. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”  

Ralph looked at the scientist. “You’ve heard about this outfit?”

“I’ve heard about their boss. Bad, bad news.” 

Between the profanity and general confusion, only Drina saw the man and woman appear in the back of the office, silent as an eyeblink. Not the strangest thing in Catalpa, but the sight of the man’s armour made her go stiff.

He cleared his throat. “Do you folks need any extra hands?”

AU was standing beside the Mirror Mistress.

Ralph narrowed his eyes. “Chen?”

The Mirror Mistress pulled down her face-scarf and took off her mirrored sunglasses, revealing two very large brown eyes. She looked right at Allison. “Hello, Myriad.”

Allison tilted her head. “Therese?”

Therese Fletcher wished she didn’t understand the surprise. 

David wasn’t sure if this circus’s hall of mirrors was defective or working far beyond expectation. None of his reflections were stretched or squashed. In fact, they were mostly absent. Other boys looked back at the water sprite from the polished silver. One was a pale, black-haired boy in a neatly tailored pinstripe with a mulberry coloured flower pinned to his breast pocket. Despite David’s puzzled frown, the other boy was smiling with a quiet, but unmistakable confidence. And if David wasn’t seeing things, his cheeks were flushed with hexagons. 

Another boy looked a bit Chinese to David’s eyes, and seemed to share his taste in clothing, except for the gold bands and bracelets he wore on his wrists and arms. One mirror did reflect David, only with slightly denser muscles under even darker skin, his long hair tangled with seaweed and lichen. They all had his mother’s eyes, though. Except boy with irises like the sea at sunset and curly blond hair1 floating cross-legged in thin air wearing a tacky pair of hand-me down bell-bottoms.

Eh. Whatever.  

David started hopping on one foot. The strange reflections all followed suit, the floating boy jabbing at the empty air with his toes. Then David waved his hands above his head. Again, the crowd of familiar strangers obeyed. It was like playing Simon Says with a crowd of new cousins. 

David high-fived the Chinese boy, him and the rest of the kids moving in sync. The mirror predictably flexed and rattled in its fixture. Less predictably, so did all the others. 

“Neat!”

The strange boys were each joined by a girl. Specifically, a dozen so variations of Brit holding the same stick of blue fairy-floss. One had elaborate face-paint and a gold-trimmed red skirt that went down to her ankles, but no top. Another was shaved but dressed neck to toe in something shiny and black, with firm-edged creases clamped in place with metal. The most accurate Brit was just naked, but had utterly bloodless looking skin and very pronounced canines. 

They all held out the fairy-floss2 to David. “You have got to try”—Brit caught sight of her altered reflections—“Woah.”

“Cool, innit?” asked David. He cocked his head as a thought occurred to him. “Why are all the reflections still you?”

“Dunno,” replied Brit. She grinned, adjusting her bangs. “Maybe I look too good not to show.” She pointed at the vampire looking Brit, who of course seemed equally puzzled by her living counterpart. “How does that mirror know what I look like without shorts?”

“Isn’t that hard to guess,” David said as he leaned forward and took a big, theatrical bite out of the fairy-floss. He chewed avidly for a second, stopping a moment, resuming, masticating like a sommelier savouring a mouthful of red. “…It tastes like the sky.”

“I know!” Brit turned toward the house of mirrors’ exit. “Come on, they’ve got a ton of flavours.” 

The children burst back out onto the fairgrounds. The sun had set completely by then, but the stars were being outshone by the strands of red and green lights strung about like the web of some Christmas spider. An ornate traction engine trundled in a never ending circle around the silk big tent, dragging a calliope wailing Christmas carols with thirty-two (slightly off-pitch) tongues of spiced and scented steam.

There was snow on the ground. Neither Brit or David questioned it. Why should they have? It was Christmas, after all. They weaved through crowds of men in block colour sports coats, their arms around ladies in bouffants and pencil dresses. Their banter was a tide of “rhubarb” and “peas and carrots.” The children didn’t notice they all had the same faces, or that their clothing and hair differed only in colour. Who cared about grown ups?3

They came upon Mabel dominating the ring-toss. The girl was surrounded by prizes: a stuffed panda twice her size, a literal lava-lamp, and a weirdly flat colour-television the size and shape of a screen door4. She was in the middle of psyching herself up for another throw, arm raised to beside her head, tongue curled in the corner of her mouth as she gazed steel-eyed at the middle, tallest pillar. 

David thumped her on the shoulder as he and Brit passed. “Good luck!”

Mabel jerked at the sudden contact, dropping the ring. It bounced impossibly hard off the stall’s counter, ricocheted wildly off the tarp walls, finally landing around the middle pillar with a satisfying rattle.

Mabel smiled proudly. Who knew she had such good aim?

“You win,” droned the melting soft-serve ice-cream cone of a man running the stall. He took a clear bag off the prize rack and plonked it down in front of Mabel. A small fish glinted within.

Mabel squinted at the creature. “That goldfish looks more silver.”

“It’s platinum.”

Steven Haldor was parked in front of a stage where a beautiful woman was taking a frothy bubble-bath in a claw-footed tub, leg pointed almost horizontally. David felt sorry for the older boy. This was what happens when people had to wear clothes all the time. Greg was watching some clowns pull themselves in and out of each other. That at least looked interesting. David guessed their car was in the shop.

The cotton candy tasted the way butterfly wings looked. Of dreams and stars. The way Brit and David had imagined wine before actually tasting it. They were soon full to bursting. And sticky.

A megaphone echoed over the fairgrounds:

“The ring-show will be starting in five minutes.”

David looked at Brit, his mouth mottled with blue and pink sugar stains. “Wanna check it out?”

Brit giggled woozily. “Sure, why not?’

Exactly four minutes later, the adult circus patrons started feeding themselves to the plywood clown that framed the big-top’s entrance. Their feet thumped out the ghost of a marching beat as the five children found each other at the back of the throng. An aerial observer would have found their ambling, organic gait out of place in that crowd. Pillbugs crawling through clockwork. None of the children noticed.

In the dark silk cave of the tent, Mabel pointed to an empty stretch of seats dead centre in one of the stands. “Five chairs, right there!”

It only seemed right to the children that the rest of the audience had left them seats next to each other. What were they supposed to do, sit separately?  

David misted into the right most seat. Brit made one of her Superman leaps, managing to land deftly next to him. Gregory followed, allowing an uncanny breeze to deliver him to his seat. Steven and Mabel, of course, went the long way, cursing their friends all the while. Nobody in the tent seemed to care that they’d witnessed the impossible before the show even started, but then, they didn’t seem to care that David was naked, either.

Almost the second the children settled in their seats, a spotlight clicked to life and gently burned a circle of bright blue and yellow tarpaulin into the middle of darkness, revealing a man decked out in a red tuxedo and top-hat. The artfully swirled corners of his moustache were visible from the cheap seats. His entire aura screamed “ring-master.” 

The man swept a ruby topped cane in front of him. “Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Gods and mortals!”

There was a quick wave of perfectly timed, almost metallic applause. David grinned. Inclusivity was important, especially when it involved him. 

“Welcome to the Lieroinen Family Circus!”

“Lieroinen.” The name… sat funny in Mabel’s brain. She turned to David and whispered, “You heard the name before? It sounds…” Mabel tried to find a word. 

“…Funny?”

It was the best she could do, even if it didn’t feel “ha ha” funny. Mabel bet Allison would’ve known the right word—if she wasn’t being a complete scab about the strike. Or Żywie. She had German words for everything.

Mabel found herself blinking back tears. She hadn’t thought about Eliza Winter for months. With the same impulse that drives children (and too many adults) to pick at healing sores, she tried to recall some of the healer’s turns of phrases, but it was like trying to focus on an eye-floater. Her thoughts kept drifting—  

David shrugged. “Maybe it’s one of those famous circuses, like Barnum5 & Bailey?”

“It’s foreign,” said Steve, arms folded wisely. “Foreign names always sound funny.”

That made sense, Mabel decided. The ringmaster sounded foreign, too. Which was just right in her book. It wouldn’t be a proper circus if it wasn’t run by foreigners. In fact, Mabel thought, if all new qualified carnie-folk weren’t shipped somewhere they had an accent the day they qualified to run so much as a merry-go-round, they ought to be. 

“Here, in this Alladin’s Cave of the here and now, Heaven’s wonders reach down and dazzle the eyes of man! A million, million sorcerers and miracle-workers couldn’t match us! God Himself wouldn’t make it past the auditions!”

A programmatic chuckle rumbled through the crowd; sedate for such a blasphemous remark. The effect was somewhat muddled by the children’s own raucous laughter, much like if an electronica track was interrupted by a campfire singalong.

“In this cynical age, we often forget the wonder of flight. We walk beneath birds without looking up. The rich sail through the clouds in metal mockeries of those wonderful creatures, and don’t even look out the window!” A smirk curled in the corner of his mouth. “And let’s not forget that busy-body flitting about the globe like bad news.”

Another round of uniform laughter. The kids didn’t join in this time. 

“Does he think the Flying Man’s still alive?” hissed Steve. “Bloke’s been dead for months.”

“Maybe they don’t get the papers on the road,” suggested David, trying to imagine how a mailman could keep up with a Gypsy caravan or whatever. Maybe he would ask Allie’s mother.

The ringmaster raised his cane up at the shadows that shrouded the tent’s ceiling. “In case any of you good people need a reminder…” 

A knowing smile played on the man’s lips. A drumroll started building. The upper-shadows faded, banished by gold and crimson light. A man and a woman stood waving atop a forty-foot high platform in matching fluorescent leotards, close-cousin to superhero uniforms everywhere.

A symbol was struck.   

“…The Careening Capeks!”

The man ran fearlessly off the platform, arching his body and snatching a hanging catch-bar as he sailed forward into the air. He swung towards the other end of the tent. At the very pinnacle of his arc, just as his legs were in danger of disappearing in the shadows that still bordered the ring, his lady partner also leapt into the air. 

A well-timed gasp rose from the crowd. No catch-bar for her.

Before gravity could even stop the lady Capek’s climbing height, her partner swung back and snatched her hands. The pair swung forward together as human rope. At the peak of momentum, the man let go. The pair twirled in the air like a windblown ribbon, the woman grabbing the catch-bar just before it swung out of reach.

Needless to say, there was no net. 

David watched in awe as the Capeks swung and flew through their air, in time to music he hadn’t even heard start playing. The light reflecting off their leotards left watercolour streaks across his retinas. David knew a fair number of people who defied gravity, himself included, really. But people like Brit fought gravity. Allison ignored it all together. These people worked with gravity, the way David did water.     

Soon they were barely touching the catch-bars. At one point the man landed feet-first on top of one, not even flinching when the woman landed in a handstand on his shoulders. Her grip remained just as steady as he fell face-forwards, clinging to the bar with his toes. 

David had no real fear of heights, or even pain in general. Not anymore, at least. If he fell and broke a bone, water would carry the hurt away. But these people were trapped in their flesh…

They can’t be human, they can’t be… 

“Eh, I could do all that,” commented Greg.

Steve scoffed. “But they’re not you. That’s the point.” 

If the Capeks weren’t so high up, or if the kids paid any mind to their neighbours in the stands, they might’ve noticed a resemblance.     

The ringmaster had his back to the children, seemingly as enraptured with the performance above his head as the audience, his shadow stretched out behind him like a wedding train.

“Go on! Put your back into it!” 

The shadow folded upward and inflated from a black cut-out of the ringmaster into a three-dimensional double dipped in ink. The shadow glanced about at the audience, put a finger to where his lips would’ve been, tip-toed towards the man who cast him, and snatched his cane from under his hand. 

Laughter. The ringmaster swung around and scowled at his shadow. “Why you—”

The shadow whacked him on the head. The two were quickly scuffling on the floor, until they were pulled apart by the quartet of clowns who ran into the light.

The ringmaster dusted himself off while his shadow struggled in the arms of two of the clowns. “Strap him to the board!”

The spotlight expanded to cover the whole ring, revealing a wheel of death behind the ringmaster and company. The clowns dragged the shadow kicking and screaming to the apparatus, strapping him spread-eagled to the wheel like they were going to offer the apparition to King Kong. 

“Spin ‘em.” 

The clowns obeyed. The wheel became a blur of colour and black.

The ringmaster flicked his wrist, a dagger slipping out of his sleeve. He hurled it at the wheel faster than the human eye could comfortably follow. 

A stalk of silver burst from the wood above the shadow’s head. Another dagger embedded itself next to his hand, and then another between his legs. The ringmaster was hurling blades with both arms, cackling grandly. 

A sound like tearing velvet. A repeated gasp from the audience. 

The ringmaster froze mid-throw, his whole body shaking. There was a dagger embedded in his chest. With a trembling hand, he pulled it free. 

The blade was clean.

“Damn,” he said, casually appraising the dagger. “I didn’t miss.” 

Laughter. 

“Right, we need some volunteers for the next part of the show!”

The ringmaster looked about at the audience, turning a full circle on his feet before narrowing his eyes and pointing at the children. “You, the kids in the middle row! How would you like to join the circus for a day?”

He needn’t have specified. They were the only children in the big top. 

The children glanced at each other. Their grins answered were all the answers they needed. David stood up on his seat. “Hell yeah!”

He felt hands on his shoulders. He looked up to find a lady with a dark smile standing over him.

“Thank you, David.”        

David’s eyes widened. He recognized the woman.

Unfortunately.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                     Next Chapter


1. “It was one time.”—Joe Allworth, a few timelines over.

2. Cotton candy, for those living outside Australia.

3. You must forgive the children for forgetting the ticket girl’s promise of “no grown-ups.” If she could be said to have broken it at all.

4. It wouldn’t be much use to Mabel. Aside from issues with aspect ratios and that Australian broadcasters wouldn’t adopt colour for some years, much of the device’s functionality depended on a non-existent electronic global network.

5. P.T Barnum survived many scandals and setbacks during his career, but none were quite so embarrassing when a magician he hired was outed as a fraud. In that he was a common wizard.

Chapter One Hundred and One: Wanton as Water

David floated on his back in the open seas, letting the sun bake his wet skin. He was bored. That happened to him a lot. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant. More of an opportunity, really. He considered courses of action:

Dolphin wrestling? Did that yesterday. Be naked in front of Arn’s mum? Eh, she’s getting too good at pretending I’m not there. Kiss Brit again? Nah, too soon. Don’t want her getting sick of it. Arn and Mabes? They’re at work. Why the heck do they work? 

Allison. Always Allison. 

David melted into the seawater and let the waves and tide push him back to shore. It took nearly twenty minutes, but that was okay. David had nothing but time. As soon as the foam that carried his being crashed into the beach, he noticed someone standing on the sand. A freckled boy with curly brown hair in a blue and black wetsuit. Said wetsuit appeared to have survived an attack by a kindergarten art-class, armed to the milk-teeth with glitter and glue. 

David rose from the surf in front of him, brightly calling, “Hey! Haven’t seen you around. You a new kid?” He had to assume the kid was from Catalpa. Where else in a hundred miles would you find white boys?

The child looked at David and gulped. David detected some blush. “Ah, hi. Yeah, I came with the last lot. Name’s Greg.”

David grinned and waved. “Welcome to Catalpa!” 

“Thanks… so, you’re David Barthe, right?”

David puffed out his chest. “Yep! Also Venter, but eh.”

“You fought that wizard guy in Melbourne back in Jan?”

David grinned. “Double-yep.” His legend was spreading. He’d managed to forget that he’d lost that fight. “So, super, right?”

“Yeah,” said Greg. He was kneading his hands. It struck David as… familiar. 

“So, what do you do?”

“I… the science lady called me an elementalist.”

“Oh, like, hydrogen, plutonium, that kinda stuff?”

Gregory shook his head. “Nah, more like—well, here.”

Greg opened his hands. Fire plumed from his palms. Sand swirled up around him on a non-existent breeze. Then a very real gust of air lifted the boy a few feet into the air.

“Also…” 

He pointed behind David. A tendril of water slapped him in the back.


David startled, falling face first in the sand. A wave washed over him before he got back up. For the first time in his life, the sea had surprised him.

Greg winced. Some of the other kids said David could get scary when he was mad.

But then, the water-sprite laughed. “You can do water? That’s great!” He dissolved into mist.

Greg rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, thanks?”

David coalesced behind him, peering at the other boy quizzically. “Can you turn into water?” Absently, he added, “Or any of the other things?”

Gregory jerked at the sudden guest in his personal space. “Nope. Just make them do stuff.”

Poor kid, thought David. That must be annoying. “Can you do stuff like blood? Or air in people’s lungs?”

“Ah, pretty sure nope.”

“Was your mum or dad a… monster I guess?”

“Just dickheads.”

“Sorry about that. Can you breathe underwater?”

“If I take air with me.”

“Close enough! Your powers sound pretty cool.” 

“Not compared to you. Aren’t you like, indestructible and stuff?”

“Yeah. But most people are way less cool than me. You’re fine. Better than fine.”

Gregory smiled shyly. “Ah, yeah, that’s kinda why I’m here.”

“Hmm?”

“Could you”—Gregory took a deep breath—“teach me to be like you?”

David tilted his head. “You want to be like me?”

“Yeah! I mean, you fight wizards and do whatever you want!” He looked down at his costume. “Sounds way more fun than being a superhero, honestly.”

“…I like you Greg. A lot.”

Gregory squeaked, “Really?”

“Yep. Consider me your sensei.”

“Great! Can we start now?”

“Sure!”

“…What first?”

David rubbed his chin. “You ran away from home, right?”

“Yeah. They tried to”—Gregory searched for something he was willing to say aloud—“…fix me.

“Sucks. Still, that’s step one out the way.” David went back to pondering. “I guess if you wanted to be just like me, you’d lose the costume.”

Gregory shrunk a little. “Do I have to?”

David shrugged. “Not really. I’m a state of mind, not a costume. Or a no-costume, I guess.”

Gregory smiled crookedly. “Gee, thanks, sensei.”

“Also, don’t keep calling me that. It’s David. Or Dave. Or Beachmaster.” 

Greg raised an eyebrow. “Beachmaster?”

The water-sprite frowned. Was this peasant doubting his sensei? A wave loomed out of the ocean and pounced on Gregory, knocking the boy to his back.

David stood smugly above him. “Beachmaster.” 

Something inside Greg twitched. The ground rumbled under David’s feet. A pillar of sand erupted from beneath him, pushing him ten meters into the air and forming into a clenched fist around him. 

Greg got to his feet, another sand pillar lifting him up to David’s eye-level. “No,” he said curtly. “You can be Oceanmaster. I’m Beachmaster.”

David laughed. “Thank God.”

“What?”

An icey David exploded out of Gregory’s sandy grip and tackled him off his platform. The wind rose to catch the boys as they tumbled in the air.

“Already teaching the tiger-kid to have balls. Didn’t need another one.”

“Git!”

“Yep!”  

Gregory growled. The winds pried him and David apart, flinging the ice-sculpture boy into the ocean. 

Gregory tumbled happily in the air for a bit, awaiting the inevitable counterattack. Half a mile out to sea, a hole opened in the water’s glassy blue surface. 

Greg grinned to himself. The wind pushed him out towards the vortex.

David was standing at the bottom of a funnel of water, feet planted in a fighting stance on the suddenly dry sea-floor. He grinned wickedly up at Gregory.

“That the best you got?”

 Clouds formed in Greg’s eyes, and clouds gathered in the sky above him. 

“Nope.” 

The seabed shook. Craggy stone giants tore themselves out of the rock and circled David like hungry trolls. 

David giggled madly and switched to ice. The ocean vibrated with his voice:

Hell yeah!” 

The sea warred with the sky. The birds and fish shared in a mutual, perfect terror. The clouds wept spears of ice. The ocean spewed geysers of steam. Fires burned bright beneath the waves.

David flew up out of the sea, riding a glittering Möbius strip. He caught sight of Gregory and laughed. “Okay, good fight. No more playing now.”

David and his water-ribbon dropped back into the ocean.

Greg called down, “That a surrender?”

In answer, the sea’s surface swelled and deformed. A fist the size of a fishing boat emerged. Then an arm a fathom long. A giant, grinning boy formed of green-blue water pulled itself out the ocean, his upper-legs trailing off into sea-foam. 

A musical glass echo boomed from the ocean:

Bet you can’t do this.” 

Gregory stared at what his new friend had become. He thought he could make out a shark swimming behind David’s eye. And had he kept his junk on purpose1? Why

David slammed one of his enormous hands down on top of Greg. He swerved out of the way, just as the giant arched his back and spat a salty, boulder sized globule right at him. That hit Greg front and centre.

Gregory spun head over heels, the wind struggling to stabilize him again. 

“Gross, gross, gross…”

Come on, it’s not real spit. 

David didn’t bother with the lip movements. Somehow, that offended Greg more than the spit. Or the water-junk. 

Surrender? No shame in losing to a god…”     

Gregory roared and soared at David, plunging right into his chest. A fire lit inside the boy. A fire lit within the giant. Gregory burst into flames hotter than the sea was wet. David exploded into a mountain of steam. 

Greg lay laughing on a powerful updraft, a child shaped ember glowing in the centre of an inferno. The ashes of his costume fell like snow down into the ocean. 

A wisp of steam floated up from the water, forming again into David’s image. “Nice one, Greg—”  

David’s synthetic voice trailed off. He’d caught sight of the half-healed bruises marring Greg’s skin. 

Greg looked down at himself and tried to cover them. “I—”

David cut him off, “I’ll get you some clothes. Back in a bit.”

The water-sprite rode the wind back to Catalpa, back to Sarah’s house. He reformed on her doorstep, running through the front-door yelling, “Sarah! I need my dinner clothes.” 

Sarah was in her shanty’s kitchen cutting vegetables. “Folded on your bed, same as always. You’re not going to try and hide them again, are you?”

David streaked through the kitchen into his room. “Not for me! A friend!” He left through the window.

Sarah went back to her vegetables. She tried to decide which was more of a surprise: David demanding clothes; or aiding and abetting someone else’s modesty.

The round-trip took David about half an hour. When he reached the cove again, Greg was sitting on the shore, knees against his chest. 

David tossed his shorts and t-shirt at his back. “Here.”

“Thanks.” 


David turned around while Greg redressed. It seemed silly to him, he’d already seen everything, but humans were generally quite silly. 

“…The guy who owned me beat me up too,” he said. “Not much, but when he did, he did it hard. In front of everyone—”

“Please don’t,” said Greg.

“Hmm?”

“If you talk about your stuff, I’ll have to talk about mine. Don’t wanna.”

David sighed with relief. “Okay.”

“You can turn around now.”

David did. Luckily, the baby-blue shirt and shorts he wore for dinner with Sarah fit Greg fine. David smirked. “Better you than me.”

Greg grinned. “Shut up.” 

David jabbed his thumb at the wall of bush behind them. “Wanna head back to town? Get some lunch.”

“Sure.”

“Cool.” David started walking towards the greenery.

“What are you doing?”

David looked back over his shoulder. “…Heading into town.”

“Dude, I’m the boss of the wind.”

The pair screamed with laughter as they were buffeted across the sky, riding a roller-coaster whose rails were built of jetstreams and windcurrents, with absolutely no restraints. David suddenly knew what being a leaf in a storm felt like. It felt great. Like skydiving, sideways

The trees and scrub below the boys gave way to the rust and red dirt of Catalpa. There was a lot of silver, gold and green, too. Christmas was only a few days away. Didn’t make much of a difference to David. Lawrence wasn’t big on celebrating “human” holidays at the Institute. He’d wanted the new race to cultivate their own sacred days and festivals. Except for his old college’s, of course. Besides, David was hoping to God he didn’t qualify as a good boy in 1966.  

The streets were surprisingly sparse for the middle of the day, not that either child noticed in their whirling private hurricane. David pointed down at the tinsel-trimmed pancake that was Libertalia Tavern. “Set us down there!”

The wind thinned slowly under David and Greg. The former managed a perfect three point superhero landing. The latter settled for tucking and rolling. Either way, it would have been more impressive if they hadn’t landed halfway down the street from the pub. 

David barged into the packed, sodium lit tavern, loudly declaring, “Lunchtime! Fish and chips for me and Greg! And cook some of the fish for him!”

Everyone in the pub glared at David. Most were standing facing the small stage set against the building’s east wall in case someone got drunk enough to start singing. At the moment it played host to Drina Kinsey, who looked far too nervous to be drunk. 

David’s eyes darted around the room. “…What? I got the fish in the first place!”

Gregory wandered in behind the water-sprite. “Ah, sorry. We interrupting something?”

David saw Allison’s pale hand wave above the crowd. She called, “Just a town meeting. Didn’t think you’d be interested.”

David folded his arms. “Well we are.”

“We are?” asked Greg. 

David felt Allie shrug. “Stay then.”

“Still think he should have to wear clothes in here,” Angela Barnes grumbled loudly from some corner of the bar2

“Tough,” said David, wading into the crowd, Greg in tow. He found Allison standing with the other two Watercolours near the rudimentary restrooms3. For whatever reason, Mabel and Arnold looked vaguely uncomfortable.  

“So what’s this about?” David asked. 


Allison shushed him with an almost serpentine hiss. “My mum is talking.”   

“…As I was saying,” said Drina. “I think it’s an issue when children are running around the streets unsupervised at eleven at night.”

David didn’t pay too much attention to the lady. He was too busy looking for opportunities. He found Close-Cut standing with his arm around Ralph, nursing a pint of beer. Said pint proceeded to throw itself in the old man’s face.

David snorted.  

“…And is anyone doing anything to give these kids a Merry Christmas? There isn’t even a tree in the dorms!”

Wallace muttered under his breath, “I’m going to sew that little shit into some goddamn pants.”

Ralph chuckled. “You’d never taste a drop again.”

“It’d be worth it.”

“…No sane city should be so dependent on child labour.”

A woman’s voice called from the crowd. “Who are you to come in and give us a sermon on child-welfare? Your daughter was here for nine months before you bothered showing up.”

Allison yelled, “Don’t talk to my mum like that, Jenny.”

“It’s Miss-Demeanor!”

David was really hoping for a bar-fight. He could do so much with all the liquor and beer lying around.

“I’m not here to defend my track-record as a mother,” said Drina. “I didn’t realize my daughter had superpowers for nearly ten years. I’m just saying I think the children could do with some structure.”

Mabel rolled her eyes. “Excuse me, Mrs Kinsey. Some of us aren’t lazing around all day like this one.” She pointed at David.

“Eh? I’m chief fisherman.”

“That’s just what you’d be doing anyway.” Mabel pulled Arnold into her side, smiling proudly. “Me and Arn here have full-time jobs.”

Drina shook her head. “That’s my point! You’re eleven, Mabel! You shouldn’t have a job.” She cast her gaze about the crowd, searching out its smallest members. “You should be in school!”

The children present let out an almost-universal groan. 

Allison floated above the crowd, raising her hand like she was already back in a classroom. “Ah, Mum. I kinda don’t… need school.”

“Said every little girl ever,” commented Fred Barnes. 

“But I don’t!”

Drina raised a hand. “I’m not just talking about you, Allie. Everyone needs an education.”

“I agree,” said Mistress Quickly, leaning against one of the fishnets that hung on the walls. “Nobody should grow up ignorant.” 

“Seconded,” said Angela. 

Mabel protested, “We’re not ignorant.” She looked at Arnold. “Tell ‘em, Arn!”

Arnold opened his mouth to speak, but his mother managed to lock eyes with him. He smiled brittly “…I don’t know.”

Mabel huffed. 

David wasn’t sure why Mabel was getting so cross. They’d both been good at school. School meant company. Attention. Admittedly it also implied sitting still and wearing clothes, but David figured those were negotiable.       

From behind the bar, Hettie Haldor added, “Not all the children here are super, either.”

Hettie and her husband Paul were one of the few intact married couples to have made their way to Catalpa, not even for the sake of a powered child. Hettie had been a normal wife and mother before she’d suddenly and inexplicably transformed into stone and crystal. At first she’d fled from her family, even joined up with two other future Catalpa residents as a supervillain, but she’d found her way back to them. Eventually.  

“My kids can’t coast on superpowers like Davie or Allison can.”

David wondered if he should’ve been offended by that. He decided to not be. His powers were great.  

A squeaking, teenage voice called, “Gee, thanks, Mum.”

“Come on, Steven, your ma’s just thinking about your future…” said Fo-Fum, his great frame balanced precariously on a barstool. 

“Robbing banks with my mum doesn’t make you my uncle!”

Hettie snapped, “Don’t talk to Barry like that, young man!”

 “Right,” said Drina, trying to grab the reins of the meeting again. “It looks like most of us agree there needs to be a school—”

“No we don’t!” Mabel insisted.

Drina threw a hand up, blinking hard with frustration. “…Do we have anyone qualified to teach.”

An awkward silence fell upon the crowd. There was sadly little higher education—let alone pedagogical expertise—to be found in that collection of ex-criminals, vigilantes, asylum inmates in burnouts.  

Mabel smiled with satisfaction. Saved by grown-up incompetence. That or being doomed by it was pretty much the story of her life.

Ralph said, “I’ll happily teach sports. Maybe Wally here could pitch in. He’d make a great science teacher—”

Wally shook his head silently.

“Oh. Nevermind.”

Doc Danny climbed up onto the bar bench, declaring, “Put me in a school and I will burn this fucking town to the ground!”

“Language, boy!” cried Angela. 

Hettie perfunctorily yanked the child down. “Get down from there!”

Mabel shouted, “I’m calling a general children’s strike until this dumb idea is abandoned! Who’s with me?”

Most of the children started pumping their fists and yelling, “Strike! Strike! Strike!” pushing and shoving their way outside.

Eventually, the only kids left in Libertalia were: Allison (for her mother’s sake), Arnold (in deep fear of his mother), Billy (ever the good boy), Tom (because the “strike” was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard, even after a childhood spent in Herbert Lawrence’s care), Gregory (because he was just confused), and David (who was barely listening.)

Fred Barnes took a long sip from his beer. “A strike, eh? Guess her dad was a miner…” 

David sat himself down on the stool in front of Hettie. “So, fish now?” 

“It’s not a bad idea,” remarked Therese Fletcher’s companion, watching the tavern from a dozen different angles of widely varying quality. He had an odd fondness for the reflection in one old man’s false eye. “Maybe you should volunteer.”

“I was never a great teacher. Not for super-kids, at least. Too much of a pushover.”

“You killed ten of the Coven’s guys.”

“It’s easier when they’re bastards. Why not you? You were a teacher once, too.”

The man tilted his hand. “Things were a lot more… home-spun back then. I ducked out before things got too scholastic. Or strange. Plus, I don’t think I could look Mrs Barnes in the eye. Or Allison.”

“They’ll find someone,” said Therese. “There’s kids out there who need me more.” 

Still, the pair stood together in the void of mirrors. Watching. 

⬗ 

The Great Catalpa Children’s Strike of 1966 might’ve had more of an impact if it wasn’t so close to Christmas. Not like anyone was in much of a mood to work with Father Christmas on his way. It also might’ve been more convenient for Doc Danny if he hadn’t stopped working on getting Miri into her new body. And if Miri hadn’t been an implacable, indestructible, impatient ghost. He spent most of the strike hiding in his makeshift bedroom in Freedom’s Point, wearing a tinfoil armoured helmet and clutching a golf-club covered in sparking electronics:

“Can’t get me, can’t get me…”

Mabel moved back into the Children’s Hall. Fourteen year old Steven Haldor also decided to take up residence there, becoming its only baseline resident. First night, he woke up on the ceiling. This would be the high point of his stay.

David remained firmly neutral. As he saw it, if a Catalpa got a school, he could go and outshine the other children whenever he wanted. And when he didn’t want to go to school, what were they going to do? Send a submarine after him?

As for his opinion on the strike, David broadly approved. It meant Mabel spent a lot more time with him. Unfortunately, she spent much of that time grumbling. 

Mabel stabbed at the guttering campfire with a stick. “…Bet she isn’t going to make Allie go to school. Bloody hypocrite…” 

Steve Haldor was sitting on a log across from her, munching sullenly on stale marshmallows. “At least her mum came to her. Mine ran off, then came back and dragged us all up to woop-woop!”

Mabel frowned. “What’s wrong with Catalpa?”

“Nothing, if you have powers.” Steve spat in the sand. “If you don’t, you get beaten up by freaking nine year old girls!”

“You were the one who challenged Brit.”

Steve picked up a stick and started smacking the embers, sending up sparks with every strike. “Got no friends! Got no TV! Got no powers! Got no nothing!”

“Double negative,” Mabel said, hand under her chin.

“And now she wants me to sit all day in a classroom with a bunch of little kids!” 

Mabel was wondering if Steve ought to be part of this strike. Maybe he, specifically, did need to go to school. Mabel could create life and make it dig holes for people. Arnold could teleport crap to the moon. What good was Steve to anyone if nobody taught him how to be an accountant or something? Plus, he was a teen. And not a cool teen like Tom Long. Why couldn’t he have joined the strike?

“Yeah,” Mabel said, badly pretending to pay attention to Steve’s rant. “It’s a load of crap. I’m gonna go see what the others are doing.”

“The others” were David, Brit, and Greg. Right then, they were down the beach. Gregory was conducting gale force winds directly into Brit, letting her power gorge itself on the kinetic energy. 

Brit stood with her arms outstretched, back facing Gregory, glowing so bright she might as well have been carved from plasma, a thin layer of frost building on her shoulders. By the time it passed over her, there wasn’t enough energy left in the air to ruffle her hair.

David stood in front of the girl, squinting at the ocean before them and gently nudging the currents. He raised a hand, holding it in the air for a moment before crying, “Now!”

Brit made a great pantherine leap forward, landing in the surf on her knees and slamming her fist down in the water.

The sea turned into a solid wall of foam, roaring up above the children’s heads before raining back down. A second later, dozens of dead fish bobbed to the troubled surface. 

“Heck yeah!” yelled David. 

Brit—thoroughly soaked—stood up, clapping her hands together theatrically. She looked back at Gregory. “Told you it would work. You owe me”—Brit looked out to sea, mouthing numbers as she counted—“Forty-two chickens!”

Gregory folded his arms. “Sure.”

The ocean ejected a fish from its surface, right into Brit’s hair.

Brit shrieked. The boys both laughed, at least until Brit pulled the mackerel out of her hair and charged screaming at them with it. 

“Furthering the cause are we?” Mabel asked sourly, walking up to the three with her hands in her costume pockets. It would’ve made a decent album cover if anyone had had a camera.   

David looked up from amidst the scuffle. “Hey Mabes!” he shouted, grabbing the mackerel Brit was currently hitting him with. “We got fish!”

Mabel grunted. “I’m sick of fish.”

“Then go get something at the tavern,” Brit suggested, hammering her fists against David’s chest.

Mabel sighed. “Brit, we’re on strike. That means we don’t let the grown-ups make us dinner.”

“I was wondering,” said Gregory, trying to pin Brit by the legs, “can we really have a strike when we don’t have money here?”

“Yeah,” said David. “Not like Hettie’s going to go out of business or starve or something if you don’t eat her shepherd’s pie.”

Mabel didn’t like being lectured on economics by a naked sea-fairy, even if he was her best friend. Her best friend that wasn’t busy sucking up to his mother because Arnold was a big massive wimp, anyway. 

“I could maybe hunt something,” said Brit, tossing both the boys off her. “I used to do that sometimes when me and Tom were on our own.” She smiled proudly. “I once snapped a bull’s neck.”


“Ah, sure,” said Mabel. She noticed something out the corner of her eye. “You might want to start with Steve.”

Brit grimaced. “You want to hunt Steve?”

Mabel shook her head. “No—I mean”—she pointed back at the campfire. “Steve’s gone.”

She was right. The fire was deserted. The children could make out a set of footprints in the sand leading into the bush.

Brit glanced up at the sky. It was getting dark. “We should probably go find him,” she said. “Hettie’s probably not gonna negotiate if her son gets eaten by a crocodile.”

“Or a buffalo,” said Gregory. “I heard they have those up there.”

“Do buffalo eat meat?” asked Brit.

“Nope,” said David. He grinned. “But marsh-spiders do.”

“There’s no such thing!” insisted Brit.

“Is so!”

Mabel pinched the bridge of her nose. Little kids, thought the eleven year old. “Can you track him?” she asked David.

“Yep.”

The four children made their way to the footprints. As they neared the bush, a sound drifted through the greenery. Woodwinds and cheerful percussion. It carried scents with it, too. Peanut oil and hot sugar.

Brit spoke first. “Is that—”

“Circus music?” finished David.

For a moment, David’s heart jumped. A memory struggled to reach the surface of his mind, but was drowned by a kind of drowsy excitement. “Bet that’s where Steve’s going.”

David led them through the bush, following the water in Steve’s blood. They soon crossed into open grass.

Mabel said, “Wasn’t this bush be—”

Her voice trailed off. A perfectly classical, red and white circus tent stood against the tangerine sky and amber clouds, surrounded by stalls, carts, and rides. The shadow of a ferris wheel loomed over the fairgrounds, the setting sun caged in its girders.

Brit shouted, “Circus!” running towards the tent at half the speed of sound.

“Showoff,” Mabel muttered. She started walking after the other girl, grumbling all the while at her frustratingly human pace.

David followed. “Weird place for a circus,” he said. 

“Maybe it’s for Noongar4 kids,” Mabel said. “Mostly them who live out here.”

As soon as she suggested the idea, neither child needed any other explanation.

Brit was waiting for the other two at the ticket booth. It was under a wooden sign that read.

FAMILY CIRCUS

The words were off-center. The wood next to “Family” was heavily scratched. 

“That sign doesn’t look right,” commented David. 

“Bet they had the clowns paint it,” Mabel suggested.

Again, the explanation seemed diamond-solid. 

Brit was hopping up and down, only occasionally sailing ten feet into the air. “The ticket-girl says Steve’s in there, so we have to go in too!”

Mabel looked at the ticket-booth. The girl manning it was a pale redhead, only a year or two older than herself. Carnie family, she guessed. “Do we need any money?”

“No,” the girl said dejectedly. “Special Christmas price. Or no price, I guess.”

Mabel looked back at the other kids. David could suck it up and put on his costume, but all Brit had was her shorts. “Do they need clothes?”

“Nope,” said the girl. “No rules in this circus. Or grown-ups.”

Mabel rubbed her chin. She could smell the popcorn from there. She hadn’t had popcorn in a year. “I guess we’re not on strike against a circus—”

David and Brit ran past Mabel into the yellow light of the circus, the former clipping her in the shoulder. Mabel proceeded to run right after them.

Ávrá Lieroinen watched them go, sighing. “Poor, dumb donkeys.”

She wondered if Pinocchio was a thing on this Earth.   

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                     Next Chapter


1. Pure psychological warfare.

2. It is worth noting that women in Australia only gained the right to drink in public bars the year before. Some of the more traditionalist men in Catalpa suggested going back to the prior state of affairs, only to be reminded that most Catalpa women also had superpowers.

3. Twin lean-toos housing chemical toilets, fitted with miniature egg portals at the bottom leading to the upper atmosphere above Catalpa. Tourists are advised not to ask why the town has so many shooting stars.

4. This is a mistake on Mabel Henderson’s part, as “Noongar” specifically refers to various Aboriginal nations in Western Australia, not the Yolngu peoples of the Northern Territory.

Chapter One Hundred: The Singular Elsa’s Christmas Spectacular!

William St. George brandished a wooden sword at his foe. “En garde, foul monster!” 

To anyone watching, the cardboard and sticky-tape dragon gave no answer to the challenge.

To Billy’s ears, it roared

The tiger-boy rolled to his side, just barely dodging a gout of imaginary flame, while also just barely keeping his paper knight’s helmet from sliding down his face.

“Rwoar!

Billy laid a frant flurry of blows on the beast, twirling around it like a homicidal ballerina.

After a few circuits, Billy staggered backwards, panting with exertion. He raised a shaky sword arm.

“Do you yield, creature?”

As always, the dragon was silent and still.

Billy sighed, stood very straight, and spat, “So be it.”

The boy inhaled so deeply his torso practically perpendicular to his waist, let the breath gather power in his diaphragm, and threw himself forward with a great shout:

For justice!

The pile of painted cardboard boxes exploded. The trees behind it recoiled from the shockwave, their leaves whipped away in the momentary gale.

Billy pumped his fist in the air and cried, “Showed him!”

Nobody answered.

Billy regarded the scattered dragon parts and smacked his hands together. “Right, Mr. Dragon, time to put you back together.”

Billy proceeded to reassemble his honoured foe. The summer heat was sweltering. More so if you had fur. Christmas was only a week away, and Billy was looking forward to it. He and his nanny were going to get out the film projector and watch Miracle on 34th Street1.

His parents had already written to say they wouldn’t be flying out to visit. And Billy understood. They were busy people. Albany was pretty remote. Sure, he’d had a few crying jags, but he hadn’t let Betsy hear them.

Christmas would be good. They’d watch their movie, eat homemade popcorn (though Billy had never tasted any other kind) and he’d get to open presents. Even if they’d mostly been picked out by people who only knew him by description.  

Billy was about to affix the dragon’s head back on when he heard a song echoing through the bush. It wasn’t Betsy’s voice; it wasn’t even in English. A second later, a meaty spice-rich aroma hit his nose.

Billy licked his lips. Betsy was very clear about not approaching strangers without permission. 

But the smell was tasty.

Billy pushed his way through the brush until he came to the edge of a clearing. A woman with long red hair in an arsenic green gown was stirring a copper cauldron big enough to fit a well-grown child over a roaring fire2. Beside her was an old fashioned buggy with a white hart painted on the side. It was reined to two large reindeer, tended to by a coachmen in an equally black cloak and tophat. It made Billy sweat just looking at him. It was like the Gypsies3 from one of his books had ridden out into the real world. 

The woman finished whatever she was singing and called over to the coachman in foreign-accented English, “Are the deer happy, Myles?”

“Perfectly content, ma’am,” the coachmen replied in an equally foreign, though distinct lilt. He had a grey beard that looked like a bundle of scouring pads fused together. “How’s lunch coming along?”

The woman scooped a ladle of broth and sipped it. “Few minutes, I’d say.” Without looking away from the cauldron, she said, “You, in the bushes, why don’t you come out so you can have a bowl?”

Billy squeaked. “Um… hi?”

“Hi right back at you. Any reason you’re crouching like a goblin back there? It’s not a good look.”

“…Promise you won’t laugh? Or shout and stuff?”

The woman raised her free arm. “Our hands to God.”

Trepidatiously, Billy stepped out into the open. His tail swayed nervously behind him.

“My name’s Billy.”

The woman grinned. “Pleased to meet ya, Billy. Elsa Lieroinen.” She nodded her head at the coachmen. “That’s Myles.”

Myles waved absently, still fussing over the horses. 

Billy blinked and looked down at himself. “You’re not scared of me?”

Elsa laughed. “Why would I be scared? You’re the cuddliest looking thing I’ve ever seen.”

Under his fur, Billy blushed. 

Elsa tasted her concoction again. “Right. Join us for lunch, young man?”

The soup was good. Elsa said it was something called bierggojubttsa

“The meat’s reindeer.”

Billy laughed. “People don’t eat reindeer.” 

“They do where I come from.”

Billy looked at the reindeer. “You eat the things that pull your wagon?”

Elsa grinned darkly. “One way to make sure they pull their weight. And ours.”

“…Are you two Gypsies?” Billy asked. “I didn’t know Australia had those.”

“Nope,” said Elsa. “I’m Sami4.”

“What’s that?”

“Like Finnish. But more so.” 

Billy looked at the coachman. “What about you, Mr. Myles? Are you Sami?”

The man shook his head. “Spartan, lad.”

“What’s a Spartan?”

Myles’ answer was simple:

“Warriors.”

Elsa chuckled. “That was the problem, though, wasn’t it? Too many warriors, not enough”—she started counting off fingers—“bakers… bankers… greengrocers… everything else really.”

Myles smiled wistfully. “Oh, we had people for that.”

“Thing is,” said Elsa, “I’m not just Sami. I’m a witch.”

Billy giggled. “Sure. And I’m the king of the world.”

Elsa gave a tight lipped smile, spread her arms, and spat some gutterel, Slavic sounding syllables:

Fireworks burst from her upturned palms, audibly wizzing and whistling in the air. 

Billy’s jaw dropped.

“Oh my gosh—oh my gosh!” Billy hopped around the cauldron with excitement. “How do you do that? Can you teach me?”

Myles watched on, bemused. Elsa smiled gently. “Sorry, hon, no can do.”

Billy’s excitement barely dimmed. Knowing magic was real was almost as good as being able to do it.

Inwardly, Elsa Lieroinen was pleased at the boy’s reaction. You never could tell pre-Rowling. Of course, Frank Baum walked so she could run… 

“Tell me, Billy, can you do anything interesting?”

Billy stopped in his tracks. “Like what?”

Elsa shrugged. “Oh, anything.”

Billy took a deep breath. “Okay. Watch this.” 

He cupped his hands. A ball of floating mercury bloomed into his existence. Billy screwed his features in concentration, and the silver sphere vanished, leaving him holding a tiny, golden flower. He offered it to the witch a proud smile.

Elsa took the creation into her hands with an impressed whistle.

Hopefully, Billy asked. “Is that magic?”

Elsa hummed and tapped her chin in thought. “…I don’t think so. This is what we call a superpower.”

“Oh. I guess it is.”

It had occurred to Billy a few times that the things he did could be called superpowers. It was a strange idea, that he was anything like the Crimson Comet or the Flying Man. He definitely didn’t look like them… 

Myles asked, “Got any other tricks, lad?”

Billy grinned. Then he vanished.

Seconds passed. Elsa briefly glanced at her watch.

Billy reappeared, still grinning. “Invisible!” 

The reindeer did not react very well to the demonstration of Billy’s third power. Nor did the birds it sent squawking into the sky. 

“Oh, settle down,” Elsa told her spooked draft animals. “Or I’ll put you in the pot with your brothers!”

The deer went very quiet. 

“So,” Elsa said to Billy. “Tell us about yourself.”

Elsa and Myles were good listeners. They let Billy talk for nearly an hour about his narrow little life. Making excuses for his parents in the way other children reserved for themselves. Praising his nanny to the high-heavens.

“…I also like stamps!”

Elsa nodded. “You sound like a multifarious young man, Mr. St. George. Always good to see.” She glanced at the deer and buggy. “Me and Myles here have to get going soon.”

Billy frowned. “You do? I thought you could come and meet my nanny. We have coffee! And biscuits.”

Elsa shook her head. “Afraid not. We have a schedule to keep.”

“Oh.” Billy’s chin drooped. “Thanks for the soup and all.”

Elsa raised a finger. “You’re very welcome. In fact, you were such good company, I want to do you a favour.”

“What kinda favour?”

“A magic favour. A wish. I just need a little something from you…”

Billy glanced at the witch sideways. “What sorta thing?”

“Nothing much. Just a single hair from your head. For the magic, you see.”

Just a hair?”

“Just a hair.” Elsa folded her hands on her lap. “Tell me, Billy, what do you want the most.”

There was deep quiet in the clearing. 

“…I want friends. Is that something you can do?”

A smile. “Easy.”

Without hesitation, Billy plucked one of his hairs and handed it to Elsa. “Please.”

Elsa examined the fine blond hair between her fingers. Billy half-expected her to dump it in the cauldron. Instead, a small bottle appeared in her other hand that she slipped the hair into. Billy didn’t notice the label with his name already written on it. 

“It will be done. Now, run along home.”

Billy took off running, laughing like mad. Wait till Betty heard about this. 

As soon as Billy’s footsteps faded from earshot, Myles ripped the fake grey beard off, revealing his ruddy cheeks and true neat black facial hair. “I still don’t know why you made me wear this bloody thing. It’s not like the boy was going to recognize me.”

“Purely for my amusement, dear,” said Elsa. She stood up, letting her hazel wand slip from her sleeve. She tapped the cauldron’s rim, causing it to be utterly consumed in blue flame. “You shouldn’t moan anyway. I owe you five horns5. Really thought he’d wish to look proper human.”

Myles shrugged. “From what you’ve told me, didn’t think he’d know anything else.”

“Well, it saves me some effort. Prepare the buggy. I don’t want that nanny or someone stumbling on us. Better we stay imaginary friends.”

The buggy sped through the bush, the reindeer galloping like the Devil was on their heels. Trees leapt out of its way, fearful of offending the mighty witch it carried. The terrain smoothed itself under hoof and wheel in timid acquiescence. 

In the driver’s seat, Myles spotted water ahead. “Mistress, we’re coming up on the river!”

Within the buggy, Elsa curled the knuckle of her ring finger. It bore a link from chains she had forged a long time ago. She whispered, “Take us home, Lady.”

Myles drove the buggy into the river with unerring verve, mushing the reindeer on until they disappeared beneath the water. 

Somewhere else, sideways of everything—they came charging bone dry out of another river. The sky had been perfect, blue back in Australia. Here it was slate, thick battlements of cloud gently weeping snowflakes. The river ran iron black through fields of white and grey. A titanic maelstrom of blues and greens spied the land through a gap in the clouds. The eye of Donbettyr.6 

They had come to shore near a watermill built of weathered stone and timber, forever gnawing on the icy waters that flowed by. By Riverlands law, all such structures had to be blessed by a priest; an offering made to the Lady. She was a generous goddess, but that generosity had to be acknowledged. Not this one, though. Elsa Lieroinen bowed to no goddess. They bowed to her.  

The witch stepped out from the buggy, now clad in a thick fur cloak and hood. At the same time, a little red haired girl came running out from the mill. 

Myles tilted his hat at the child. “Good to see you, Ávrá.”

Ávrá stopped at the greeting, swallowing involuntarily. “Thank you, Myles.” She turned her head down, as though expecting a blow. “Greetings, Mother.” 

Elsa’s only answer was a question, “Are the fires burning inside?”

Ávrá nodded. It’d been summer when she’d last seen her mother.

It was a good summer.

“Take the reindeer to the stables and water them well. It was bloody hot out there. Also make sure your thighs are clean, girl.” Elsa smiled indulgently at Myles. “I think our valet has earned a bonus.”

Myles grinned at the girl. Ávrá didn’t look at him. 

“Yes, mother.”

As Ávrá led the reindeer away, Myles and Elsa headed into the warmth of the mill, and the latter’s occult workshop, a hexagonal stone room with a deep well sunk into the centre.

Elsa placed Billy’s bottled hair on a shelf with more than two dozen more vials, each containing their own hairs and labelled with different names: 

ALLISON

DAVID 

CHEN

TOM

ADAM

And many more. 

“Mistress, may I ask you something?” asked Myles, boredly bopping the snout of the stuffed alligator that hung from the ceiling. 

“Of course, Myles,” replied Elsa, still admiring her collection.

“Why are you limiting yourself to these children? The Allworth Alternative has more strong supers than I can count. Why from this one little school?”

Elsa and Myles had stumbled upon the Allworth Alternative while half-heartedly hunting for her wayward daughter Eirá. Apparently the little slattern fancied herself a supervillain now. Elsa had quickly written off the girl, but the strand of reality had turned out to be a fertile source of resources. Elsa had even stashed some of her most prized possessions there. 

For the last few weeks, she and Myles had been traipsing up and down the sheath of timelines, trading wishes for hairs with the victims of some bizarre super-cult. They’d changed and boosted powers, reunited families, and killed the same old man three or four times. When they weren’t giving him bombs for whatever silly reason. One young lady had wished for the power to turn her womb on and off. From what Elsa had told him, Myles couldn’t fault her pick. 

Still, it seemed like a lot of work. 

Elsa smiled. “Oh, lots of reasons. For starters, their commonality will make our little Reprisal more coherent. Two, they’re mostly all in the same bloody place. Three, old Laurie’s done the collating for us. Better than procrastinating forever.” Elsa started pantomiming eenie-meenie-minie-mo. “No no, I should add this super, no wait—you get my picture.”

Myles nodded. “Impeccable reasoning, Mistress. Though, I didn’t get the impression William was a student at any school.”

Elsa cracked her knuckles. “Well then, we’re going to kill two birds with one stone.”  She pulled an Australian sixpence out of her sleeve7. “Or one coin.”

She dropped the coin into the well. “Myles, fetch me my stirring rod.”

Myles handed his mistress a long copper staff. She plunged it into the well and stirred the waters, chanting Russian in a low, deep voice.

Somewhere, somewhen, a psychiatrist proposed a venture with an old friend. Somewhere else, a rich man’s assistant stumbled upon an old book, while searching for some way to dispose of a strange, inconvenient child…

Myles stood beside Elsa, looking down into the shifting waters of the well. “This’ll really get the boy what he wants?”

“Of course,” said Elsa. “It’s only fair.”

That was the downside of magic. It made you fair.  

Allison slammed into the laboratory wall, shattering into an explosion of ice shards. They swirled in the air, reforming into the girl’s shape and then her flesh. The girl landed on her feet and growled. 

Before her, the witch stood in the middle of the lab—resplendent in arsenic green finery— beneath a tunnel of trap doors that hadn’t been there only a minute before. Smoke and the wail of alarms drifted down from the ruined floors above. She clapped politely. 

“Very nice,” she said, only to quirk her shoulders, “for a super.”

Allison roared with Billy’s voice. The shock front blew away the witch like she was made of coloured smoke. 

Allison breathed heavily. 

She couldn’t be gone. She wouldn’t just— 

A crack answered her dread. Tree roots exploded up through the metal floor like it was the softest soil, wrapping vice-tight around Allison. As she squirmed and thrashed, the witch reappeared an inch from her face.

Her eyes were black as space. She snarled, “I was giving you a compliment—”

A black-clad Mistress Quickly dropped through the trap doors and fired off a shot at the witch’s back. The sorceress exploded into a cloud of dusky moths. 

Allison managed to touch her toes to the floor. She burst into angry, hot light, burning away the tree roots. 

Elsa Lieroinen became herself once more. “Alright, that’s a new trick.”

Mistress Quickly lunged forward, striking the witch with electrically charged fists. Allison joined the assault, blood thrumming with the Crimson’s song. Every blow revealed a lattice of light clinging to the witch’s from.

Allison thought loudly at Maude:

Who the heck is this lady?

Maude thought back:

Elsa Lieroinen. Evil bitch-queen of the Riverlands— 

Elsa grabbed them both by the wrists. Her grip was ice.

“Please, ladies. I abdicated.”

She threw them both backwards. 

Elsa grinned and wagged a finger at Maude. “I remember you! You stole that idol out from under my nose! Still, always nice to meet people in the right order for a change.”

Maude looked up at the witch, her scowl hidden by her mask. “You killed that whole world…”

Elsa raised her hands. “And?”

Twin eagles of darkness soared from her palms. 

Allison spotted something in the corner of her eye. She pulled Maude to her side. 

The shadow-raptors smashed against a gigantic yellow hazard sign, proudly emblazoned with a black exclamation mark. 

“Clever!”

Elsa charged at Maude and Allison. The former rolled away and turned on her camouflage net. 

Allison flew up to the ceiling, searching the soundscape for a song, trying to ignore the ones that had gone missing.

Elsa looked up and laughed. “I’m a witch. You don’t think I can fly?”

Lilly.

Allison dropped down, right into the floor. Behind Elsa, a girl formed of dull grey steel pulled itself out into the air and punched the witch in the square in the back.

Elsa fell onto her hands and knees. She hissed, “little shit…”

Allison screamed silently and went for another blow. Her fist came down on prismatic, shimmering armour. 

Elsa rose to her feet. “So it’s a punchup you want?” A transparent sword appeared in her hand. “Fine.”

It was blade versus small metal fists. The girl couldn’t hope to breach Elsa’s astral armour, but she was quick. Her metal body moved like a flesh and blood child. A child with a surprising grasp of martial arts. Every few seconds, Elsa had to dodge lances of poisoned light erupting from around the lab. That trumped up little mad scientist no doubt. 

What to do, what to do? The girl hadn’t exactly picked cold iron for her new body, but whatever the floor was made of wasn’t the most magically reactive substance in the world.

Elsa glanced up at the lab’s ceiling. At the pipes. 

Oh yes. She’s a child.

Elsa stopped fighting back, letting Allison hammer against her wards. She murmured some Russian syllables… 

The ceiling rattled. In a corner of the lab, the pipes wrenched themselves free and stabbed down below.

There was a ragged gasp. The air bled. 

Allison let her fists drop, staring at the bloodied pipes. Her metal skin fell away, leaving only herself. “Maude?”

Mistress Quickly reappeared. Around the pipes. 

Allison ran to her side, “Maude!”

The scientist was shuddering. Her song was dropping beats and stuttering. 

Allison whispered, “No, no, no…”

Elsa watched, bemused. 

Kids

Elsa glanced around the lab, quickly spotting her prize, a tank hidden behind a curtain of metal. 

Bingo

The witch strode over to the tank. It was attached to a console of some sort, but that was no trouble. Elsa had a long standing agreement with the machine elves. She twitched her fingers, and the curtain drew into the wall.

The little girl floating in the glass womb was empty of all soul and thought, but Elsa could feel the power coming off her. The capacity to hold power. 

Merry fucking Christmas. 

Maude was drowning in her own blood. She didn’t speak. She didn’t need to. 

Don’t let her get what she wants… 

Allison blinked back tears and nodded. 

Elsa was about to reach through the glass when a child-sized comet slammed into her side. 

Allison staggered to a stop in front of the tank. In front of her sister’s body. 

Ready, Miri?

Yeah, sis. 

Molten magma bubbled in Allison’s hands. It spiraled forth white hot and lashed at the tank. It exploded in a blast of broken glass and superheated steam—

“Alright, Dáidu, I’ve seen enough.”

In Elsa’s mill, a ten-sided die came to rest on a stone table. All its faces were freshly marred. 

Dáidu—white-haired state oracle and Elsa’s fifth son—looked up at his mother. “I take it that didn’t turn out well either?”

“No,” Elsa said mildly, rapping her fingers against the table and staring off into space. Absently, she said, “Sorry about wasting your fate die.”

Dáidu threw his hands up. “It’s in the name.”

Elsa turned and smiled at her son. “I should kill you where you sit for that pun.”

Myles walked into the workshop, gargling mouthwash.

“How was the vintage today?” asked Elsa. 

“Lovely. Don’t make Ávrá do any heavy lifting tomorrow.” Myles looked at the spent fate die. “Got a plan yet?”

Elsa breathed through her teeth. “No. Not yet.”

Elsa and her son had so far looked at ten possible futures. In six, the body was damaged or destroyed irreparably. In one, she herself had been slain, which was unacceptable. In two more, Myles had been nailed to a wall through the heart, which was almost as unacceptable. In one, the Miri girl claimed the body herself, which was just a waste of everyone’s bloody time8.    

“I’m thinking the direct attack isn’t a great tact.”

Myles hummed. “…You say this city is full of children?”

“Quite full, yes.”

“Remember that stunt your boy pulled in Hamlin?”

Elsa grinned. Trust Myles to get right to the quick of it.

And they did have a circus tent…   


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1. In which an eccentric old man claiming to be Santa Claus is narrowly saved from prosecution for identity theft by the genuine article.

2. This had been tested.

3. Please forgive William, it was 1964.

4. An indigenous Finno-Ugric people spanning across Northern Europe. Historically sometimes known as “Laplanders” though this is now largely considered offensive.

5. Coinage of the Riverlands, a confederate monarchy on the moon Nerthus. Named for the conque that appears on the coin’s face: a symbol of office bestowed on each new monarch by the kingdom’s patron goddess, the River Lady.

6. The gas giant of which Nerthus is the largest satellite. Donbettyr casts a large shadow over its moon’s many mythologies. In the Riverlands, it is known as the master of all waters, and is commonly considered the father of the River Lady. As to the truth of the matter, her priests are too polite to pry.

7. Minted in early 1964.

8. Except, arguably, Miri’s.