Category Archives: Book Three: This Hollow Season.

The third volume of “The New Humans.”

Chapter Ninety-One: The March of the Superheroes

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

That was, in essence, the basic idea. 

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

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

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

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

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

And the sea roared:

Superman stay home! Superman stay home!

Children are not nukes!

Draft pints, not supers!

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

One protestor’s sign was very straightforward:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela hoped she never saw it.

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


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

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

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

“Damn right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valour, of course, kept walking.

“So have I,” he muttered.

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

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

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

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

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


Fred squinted. “You don’t think—”

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

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

Someone shouted, “Piss off, baby killer!”

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

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

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

Angela cleared her throat. “Excuse me.”

The youths paid her no mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other teens exchanged puzzled looks.

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

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

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

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


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

The Barnes and the Northamites made their way down to the empty lot of dried-out grass and dirt that lay in the studio’s shadow, chosen as a rest spot by the protest. Belinda Waites laid out a beach towel for them to sit on. Face-painted children ran about them while their parents laughed and conversed over cheap sausages in bread. 

Angela tried to ignore them. It had to have been over a year since Arnold had even been in their home. How much longer? 

“Why don’t you have a costume, son?” Fred asked the lad with the crew-cut.

Eddie Taylor shrugged. “Didn’t feel like it.”

Belinda purred into his ear, “You mean you were embarrassed, love.” 

Bazza grinned and shook his hat at Eddie. “You mean he’s a total Scrooge.”

Eddie waved his hands like he was shooing away flies. “Look, I’m here, aren’t I?” He gestured about at the crowd scattered across the grass. “You don’t see these people dressing up like slopers6, do ya?”

Belinda smiled wryly at the Barnes. “As you can see, my fiancé is a man of great sensitivity.”

Angela noticed a ring flashing on the girl’s finger. She tutted. “Oh, honey, you both are far too young for that.”

Fred glanced at his wife. “It worked for us, didn’t it?”

“Just because we bet it all on black and won doesn’t mean we should go telling kids to do it.”

Eddie curled his lip. “Bit late to tell us now.”

“Technically not…” said Belinda. 

“So, what could your son do?” asked Al, trading one awkward subject for another. “We might’ve met him.”

Fred raised an eyebrow. “Most folks would ask his name, first.”

“Not when we’re talking about the Institute,” pointed out Al. 

Fred and Angela looked at each other. A small, tight nod. 

“He… zaps things away,” said Fred. “Teleportation, I think they call it.”

“Our son is Arnold Barnes,” admitted Angela. “They called him Elsewhere.”

A silence smothered under the chatter of thousands. 

Bazza saw the look on the Barnes’ faces. Like they expected to be spat on.

He broke into a broad grin. “Yeah, we know him! Great kid!”

“He helped us run some supervillains out of town,” said Belinda. “He also ran a lot of our dogs to the Moon, but what can you do?”

Fred smiled. “Was in the papers, that.” The smile faltered. “They didn’t mention my boy much…”

“Wonder why?” said Belinda sourly.  

“Listen,” said Fred. “What you’ve read about our Arnold since then… Canberra and Melbourne… you have to understand…”

Bazza raised his hand. “Hey man, we heard what went on at that place. If I could do a smidge of what Arn and his mates can do, I’d probably be chucking some big fits, too.”

“Yeah,” said Belinda. “I once painted my sister’s kitten with nail polish because she wouldn’t lend me her jumper. Wasn’t even my size.”

“How about we tell you how we met your son?” Bazza offered.

The story was edited somewhat. Eddie couldn’t bring himself to explain what Melusine had done to him, or how they’d been made to forget about it for months. The Barnes didn’t need that clogging their thoughts as well. Also, Eddie didn’t need Belinda knowing why they’d gone to the Institute in the first place.

Best not to mention Melusine at all, really.

Fred was laughing by the end. Angela was trying very hard to keep frowning:

“I’m going to give that boy such a belting…”

“Aww, lighten up woman!” said Fred. He shot a glance at the lads. “No harm no foul, right lads?”

“He’s right, Mrs Barnes,” said Eddie. “Should thank Arn, really. I’ll be dining out on this story when I’m a hundred.”

To Eddie’s surprise, he meant it. Funny what time could do memories like that. 

Then they explained their adventure with the Frightful Three. Those brief golden days when the Institute was actually a part of Northam. 

The stories were like water in the desert for the Barnes. Something of their son not filtered through hateful headlines. 

“We decided to head over here after school was done,” explained Al. 

“Well, Bazza decided. Hard,” said Belinda. 

“Everyone was being so bloody phony.” 

Language,” Angela cautioned the boy.

“Well they were! Folks were acting like those kids were devils, when they’d been giving them free ice-creams last Sunday!” Bazza folded his arms. “Total rubbish.”

“Yeah,” said Eddie. “I used to think they were goblins too, but least I’d never talked to them.”

“Thank you for telling us about all this,” said Angela. “And for coming here. For caring.”

“Least we could do,” said Al.

“No, the least you could do would be nothing. And altogether too many folks are fine with doing noth—” 

Thunder cracked the air.

Everyone glanced instinctively up at the sky. It was summer-barren. Perfect blue.

“Huh,” said Al, “someone’s car backfire?”

Another peal, its echo drowned out by younger thunder. Blast after blast ran into each other. A chorus of cannons.

Fred Barnes reached towards his wife, his expression drawn. “Reckon it’s gunfire?”

Angela put a steadying hand on her husband’s shoulder. “No, Fred. Listen.”

She remembered the thunder. Their son’s thunder.        

It drowned in thousands of shouting voices. 

Andrea pointed up at the sky. “Is that a bird?”

“Nope!” said Bazza. “Looks like a plane.”

It was. What looked like a large, brightly painted passenger-jet was circling low above the studio. How’d they missed that?

There was an all-pervading click. Every radio and stray piece of metal and glass started speaking with a rough, masculine voice. 

…Jesus, McNoll, you’re free to go—I’m on? Christ—just send him off somewhere!

Distant thunder, then a forced cough. 

Good folk of Sydney. It’s me, the Crimson Comet. I’m back.

Murmurs crested over the crowd.

“Holy shit,” whispered Fred. 

Bazza slapped his mates on the shoulders excitedly. “My bloody uncle served with him.”

“Not the time for name-dropping, Bazza,” said Belinda, not taking her eyes from the studio up the hill. 

None of them could make out anything different up there. Just the crowds wiggling and undulating as one, like colourful ants. A super-organism. 

Angela pointed. “Look!”

Two creatures rose above the protestors. One was an angel in silhouette. The other, a sliver of sunlight shaped like a child. 

The Comet spoke again:  

You’re all here for your fellow Australians. Your fellow man. And you came in the uniform of my calling. I’m honoured. The people with me are supers. All of them. Tim Valour had them crammed into a pit in the middle of the desert. I’m sure he’d have a dozen and one reasons why: but don’t matter. He threw them in jail for not being like him.  They—we—just want a fair go. To be allowed to be. And we’re going to get it, if it’s the last thing we do. But we don’t want to hurt anyone. We’re not here to hold the country at gunpoint. We need your help. They can’t say no if they know you’re with us. 

What do you say, superheroes? Want to come and pay Tim Valour a visit?

An explosion of cheers. Applause like hungry flame. 

“Well, let’s get going!        

Angela looked at Fred. “He has to be with them. He has to.”

The crowd in front of the studio started to bleed from the carpark, draining and narrowing down the road that made its way down the hill into the streets. 

The Barnes and the Northamites rushed onto the middle of the road, the rest of the grazers on the lot following like a cargo-liner behind a tugboat. 

Eddie picked up the beach towel as they left, shoving it into his fiancé’s arms. “Tie this around my neck.”

Belinda smiled bewilderedly. “What?”

“Come one, you were the one telling me to get into the spirit!”

Belinda let out a sighing laugh. “Alright, you big kid.”

She quickly and deftly affixed the towel around Eddie’s neck. 

“Call me… the Electrician.” 

Belinda pecked him on the cheek. “The conquering hero.”

Marching in front of the protesters were about two hundred men, women, and children in bland coveralls. The girl dressed in the sun flew above. A white-headed snake with scales of every colour

Leading the procession was the Crimson Comet, new, angular wings outspread. Beside him was an old red haired woman in a black summer dress. She was holding the hand of a brown-skinned boy dressed in water. To that child’s left was a girl dressed in a thousand comic panels, and what appeared to be a humanoid tiger dressed like country-club Robin. 

And then there was the boy at the end. The one in the starry black cloak and the feathered eye-mask.

If nothing else (and there was so much more) there was no chance of Fred mistaking those eyes. Storm-grey, like his mother. 

God, he looked so much like Angela.   


The boy in the cloak came to a stop with the rest of his companions. The people behind them tried not to collide with their backs. 

The tiger-boy tapped the one in the cloak on the shoulder, pointing at the legless man and his wife staring at them. 

“They—those are your parents…”

Arnold swallowed. All his dreams and nightmares at once. 

Why here? How here?        

Two words, lost in the storm of the mob. 

There was a flash. 

Arnold stood there in his shorts and t-shirt. 

Bazza waved. “Hey Arn! Good to see you all!”

Arnold broke into a run, leaping at his father’s chest and clinging to the man like a drowning child pulled from the sea. 

“Dad, Mum… I…”

The boy trembled. 

“Shhh,” his father sighed. “You don’t have to… anything.”

Angela wrapped her arms around her husband and son, leaning down to rest her cheek against Arnold’s head.

He nestled. “I—I did some bad things.”

Memories of Lawrence lying in his own blood. Kissing David, for some reason. 

Angela’s grip tightened. “Not now.”

Never again, she told the world. Not a prayer but a demand. Never again.  

The sound of small feet against the road. A high, hoarse voice:

“Mr. and Mrs Barnes?”

The elder Barnes managed to look up from their son. Allison Kinsey was standing in front of them, her costume perfect, gleaming white, blending almost obscenely with her pale skin. Her eyes were burning red. 

Angela couldn’t even begin to question either of those facts. “It’s good to see you two have stuck together, Allie.”

It wasn’t a lie, but it would’ve been not too long ago. To Angela’s shame, she’d imagined the girl leading her son astray since Exhibition Hall. 

“My parents, are they here too?”

Fred shook his head gently. “Afraid not, girl.”

The Barnes had invited the Kinseys along. To their shameful relief, they’d said no.


Angela sighed and straightened herself, opening her arms. “It’s alright, Allie. We’ll look after you.”

Allison looked around herself, as though worried her mother and father might suddenly appear. Then she gave Angela a quick, tight hug. 

The crowd from the lot quickly assimilated into the march, taking their place just behind the liberated prisoners from Circle’s End. A few lingered up front to pet and fawn over Billy, who made no attempt to deflect the adoration. 

Belinda scratched the boy behind the ear. “Good God, kid. Do you wash in fabric softener?”

Billy beamed, tail swishing. “All natural, ma’am!”

Bazza even got to shake the Comet’s hand. 

“Never thought I’d meet ya. They say my uncle served with you back in the war.”

“What’s your name, son?”

“Bazza Finch.”

The Crimson Comet blinked. “Bazza? As in, ‘Bartholomew’ Finch?”


The Comet’s smile grew a touch warmer. “Well, you’ve grown.”


Bazza suddenly recalled faint, impressionist recollections of a massive fella who’d hung around in the summer sometimes. He felt very dense. 

And so they marched on, pouring out from Gore Hill into the rest of Sydney as a polychrome river. Arnold sat in his dad’s lap as his mum pushed the chair. Probably a good decision. His shoes had gone with his costume. Allison took to the sky again, leading the way like a low-flying Star of Bethlehem. 

She looked back over the human train behind her, taking in the vast soundscape of their songs. She’d never seen so many people in one place, so close together. All there for one thing. 

I made this happen. Me. 

She felt like a grain of sand with the gravity of suns. 

As little houses and corner-stores gave way to tower-blocks and shopping centres, the march came up to a police barricade. Two dozen uniformed officers pointing guns at them from behind metal walls and their own police cars. 

The lead officer barked, “Stay back! Not all of you are bulletproof!”

The Crimson Comet stepped forward. Nobody fired. 

“True,” he said. “We’re not all bulletproof. But I am.”

Slowly, like the beginning of rain, the cops dropped their rifles and pistols. 

Ralph smiled crookedly. “Good choice, mates.”

He looked up at Allison. “Clear us a path?”

Allison cracked her knuckles. 

Green lightning lashed down, banishing the cars and barricades with a boom.

The police shouted and scattered, only to be engulfed as the march fell upon them. Costumed protestors jeered and slapped the officers on the back as they passed.   

For Ralph, it was as if the ground was shoving blood and adrenaline up through his feet. 

Christ, what if Jan sees this? What if she doesn’t?         

For the first time since he put on that costume again, Ralph Rivers felt like a superhero. He kept walking, right out of the past.      

Cars stopped moving as the march approached, allowing the people to flow around them like water around rocks in the sea. Motorists smacked their dashboards as though that was where the engine lived. 

They should’ve looked up at the plane still flying above the march. 

David tapped the window of a yellow Holden, getting the attention of a curly-haired girl in the backseat. They shared a smile. 

The door-lock hammered down. 

The children both rolled their eyes, before Sarah Allworth pulled David forward.

“Don’t dawdle.”

To the old lady’s quiet amusement, she saw some folks hopping out of their cars and walking with them.

Do they even know what this is about? Does it matter?

She looked up at the sky. 

You proud, son? Are we doing the right thing?

How could they not be?

The march turned a corner, slowly, by degrees. Allison spotted the Sydney Harbour Bridge, arching over the boats and blue water like an ornate coat-hanger.

She sighed even as she smiled. It would’ve been brilliant if they’d gotten to cross the bridge. A great picture in a history book.

But their target lay on this side of the water.


After the attack at Royal Exhibition Hall, the DDHA found itself in need of a new headquarters. Again. 

It’d been slim pickings. Melbourne wasn’t keen to offer them more office-space, and Canberra still bore the faint scent of ash. 

They’d settled on Sydney. It was good enough for everything else. Some bright-spark had even suggested the DDHA take over the Parliament of New South Wales for the duration. Not like anyone was using it. Pretty much every government function since the start of Black Summer had been held over the phone or in discrete hotel conference rooms. 

They’d said no, of course. As far as the state government was concerned, putting the DDHA in another parliament building would be tantamount painting a bullseye on it. 

Then, to Tim’s dull, uncaring surprise, they offered them Kirribilli House7

It made sense. The house was centralized, set up for communication, and it wasn’t as if Menzies and his wife were using it anymore. 

There were other advantages. The view of the harbour was gorgeous. A security nightmare, as had been pointed out to Tim many times, but gorgeous. Anyone with a boat and a decent rifle could shoot you dead in the back-garden. Not that Tim had been overly concerned: he barely found the time to step outside for fag in the fresh air. Besides, water put him on edge lately. Same reason he had avoided the pool. That and memories one winter old…  

Kirribilli House also had creature comforts aplenty, like bedrooms. Went a long way towards making the all-nighters bearable, even if Tim was still sleeping alone. No way he was keeping Val close by. Not after the bombings.

So yes, in terms of digs, Valour’s life had improved considerably. If only the rest of his circumstances had followed that trend. 

This evening—like every evening the last week and a half—he was sitting in the prime minister’s former office, endlessly mulling over the latest clusterfuck with the DOPO attache.  

“I’m telling you Tim, the SLF was a fraud!”

Tim sighed. “What makes you say that?”

James Lyman glared at the DDHA chief. It was pretty much the only way he could look at people. While he had much the same indermininate middle-aged greyness as most military-intelligence men of their rank, he lacked that common stocky solidity. In fact, Tim thought he looked like an angry stick insect with curly hair. 

“Think about it, Tim.” He also had an unfortunate habit of using names in conversation a touch too often. “These names the guards gave us: ‘Garox,’ ‘Hyper-Hippie,’ ‘Evolvulon.’ Have you ever heard of these guys?”

“No,” admitted Tim. “But that doesn’t prove anything. They are more supers alive now than ever. Maybe they’re just… new.” 

Valour winced as Lyman spat a wad of nicotine gum into a handkerchief. Couldn’t he smoke like a normal fella? Or at least let them set up a spitoon. It put Tim uncomfortably in mind of consumptives. 

“Not a single familiar name? Unlikely. Supervillains are loners at heart. They don’t band together unless they’re desperate or very impressed with each other. The idea that a bunch of freshmen villains trusting each other enough to pull a stunt like Circle’s End? Just to rescue a bunch of other villains? Ridiculous.”

“But we do have familiar faces,” countered Tim. “Allison Kinsey and Arnold Barnes.”

Tim wished he hadn’t mentioned the children. They made him feel like a bastard. An incompetent bastard

He added, “Not to mention Mistress Quickly.”

Valour still wondered about that. Had Lawrence’s children already replaced him?

“That’s an oddity too. Quickly is a definite loner. Also hasn’t been active for a year. As for the children… there’s a certain childishness to the idea, isn’t there? The Supervillain Liberation Front, who want everyone in the world to be supervillains, too. What criminals want more competition?”

Tim had to admit, the attache had a point. 

But he didn’t. 

“You know, that Garox said he was an alien. Maybe they all are? Or most of them, anyway. Would explain why we haven’t heard about him, at least.”

Lyman scoffed. “Tim, do you know how unlikely it is that the rest of the Solar System hosts intelligent life?”

“There’s the Gatehouse.”

The attache leaned over the desk. “Yes there is the Gatehouse, Tim. Don’t you think they would have told us if there was an alien king running around?”

“The Gatehouse doesn’t tell us much of anything.” Tim resisted the urge to remind James of their mutual Physicians. “Besides, where does the Crimson Comet fit into this?”

“Simple. He was in on it.” 

Tim clenched his fists behind the desk. He supposed he couldn’t blame Lyman for paranoia. Reaping and sowing it was his job. The man had been with the OSS back in the war. All blowup tanks and forged intel left on dead men in the sea. These days, they said he had dead Viet Cong drained and strung up near encampments like vampire victims8. Brilliant, stupid schemes were what he was wired for.

But he didn’t know Ralph Rivers. Hadn’t had his life saved by him more than he had fingers. 

“The Crimson Comet is solid, Lyman.”

But then, Valour had known Herbert, too.

Lyman shrugged. “We thought Penderghast was solid.” Maybe not solid enough for some of the more… domestic uses for a sorcerer, but solid. “Nobody knows where the hell he’s been. And at the end of the day, Tim, the Crimson Comet is a super.”

That was one thing Valour had to say for the attache. He didn’t call them bloody ‘sorcerers.’

“It’s perfectly plausible he’d side with other supers”

He was right, Tim realized. Why would he expect Ralph to be alright with a boot on his lot’s necks? Why did he still think he was the good guy?

There was a dull, rising roar. 

For some reason, Lyman sniffed. “Is it raining or something?”

Valour’s secretary swung the office door open. She looked breathless:

“Sir, there’s something you should—”

Windchimes. The walls became transparent. Every single one in Kirribilli House. Electrical wires and telephone cables lay suspended in glassy brick and plaster, as if Henry Gray had gone into architecture. 

Everyone in the office looked through the walls at the front courtyard. It was crowded with a mix of people in white coveralls and knocked together pantomime costumes. Knocked together, that was, except the man with the metal wings and the children clustered around them.

Valour of course, recognized them all.

“Shit,” said Lyman, surprisingly evenly. 

Tim staggered and gripped his desk for support as three voices sounded as one in his head:

Timothy Valour. Come out and speak to us. Alone.” 

Before Valour could take a breath, a lone voice spoke. Allison Kinsey’s:

Oh, and Mr. Thumps.

Timothy collected himself. “Right. Had to happen eventually.”

Against Lyman’s advice, Tim and his manservant left the see-through house to face the mob. The sight of him inspired the crowd to launch into another round of “No Valour!

He ignored the jeers and shouts, looking darkly at the Crimson Comet. “Hello Ralph. You could’ve called ahead.”

Ralph made a pained expression. “Jesus, Tim. Secret identity, mate.”

“You know just how many Ralphs I know?” He looked at Allison standing next to the superhero. 

“Who’s in charge in there? Alberto back for another round?”

“Nope,” said Allison. “But he is laughing right now.”

Without any prompting, Mr. Thumps walked over to the little girl. Gently taking her hand, he said, “Miss Kinsey, what I did to you at the Exhibition Hall…” He lowered his mask of a face. It was the closest thing to an expression that came to him. “Please forgive me. I couldn’t—”

Allison shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault, Thumps. Besides, you saved my life.”

“I did?”

“Sorta. Whatever you did, it was just as good.”

Allison watched the lights behind Thumps’ face grow lilac with relief. She wondered if he could tag along when it was all sorted out. 

Valour was eyeing the ex-prisoners warily. The fact many of them were eyeing him back hungrily didn’t reassure him. 

He looked back at Ralph. “You do know half these people are criminals, right?”

Ralph nodded. “What does it matter? It’s illegal for them to walk around in the light right now. I’m a superhero, Tim not a policeman. Me and the law are only on nodding terms.”

Valour pointed a little desperately at Arnold Barnes, still sitting in his father’s lap. “He’s killed a man, you know. And he’s not the only one!”

Arnold went pale. His father wrapped his arms around him.

“We both know what Lawrence did to them, Valour.”

Tim exhaled. What was the point? There were thousands at his gates. Hundreds of them high-supers. They were seconds away from a riot. A superpowered riot. 

He caught sight of the painted plane hovering above Kirribilli House. He recognized it from some briefings. Probably not a good sign either.

This was a surrender.

“What do they want?”

Why was he still talking like Ralph wasn’t one of them?

Ralph jabbed a thumb towards David and Mrs Allworth. “Well, Davey here still wants you to explode. But we talked him out of it.”

Valour caught sight of David glaring at him with his moon-sea eyes. 

Fair cop, I suppose.

The Comet laid a hand on Allison’s shoulder. “Might want to ask this one here. She got the ball rolling.”

“Alright then. What are your demands?”

Allison remembered something from the Bible. Well, something in a film, from the Bible. 

She stepped forward and grinned, spreading her arms. “Let my people go.”

It was nearly impossible for a hush to fall over a crowd of that size and energy, but for Valour, its roar did grow more distant. 

He took a breath. “I see.” 

He turned and started back towards Kirribilli House. He looked over his shoulder. “Well, are you going to come and witness this? Ensure compliance?” 

Ralph and Allison shared a look, but soon followed the DDHA chief.

One advantage to Kirribilli House’s sudden translucency was that at least nobody was surprised when Valour walked in with the Crimson Comet and a very small wanted terrorist. 

Staff members shouted questions. Tim ignored them. 

James Lyman tried to block his path. “Valour! The hell are you doing? We do not negotiate with terrorists!”

“I’m not negotiating, I’m capitulating.”  

There was an odd freedom to it. He had no choice but to do the right thing. No compromises or politicking. If he didn’t free these people, Sydney would probably be on fire by nightfall. 

And nobody remembered the Pharaoh fondly. 

He found his secretary. 

“Marie, I want you to get on the phone, and get the word out. Emergency order: every demi-human asylum and containment facility is to be abandoned, effective immediately.”

“But sir, what about—”

Marie’s eyes darted to the Crimson Comet and the pale girl.

“The inmates are to be left alone. Completely alone.”


Allison and Ralph Rivers watched as the young woman made the call; as mechanically as the computers that would one day replace many of her kind.

Marie lay the phone down on its receiver. “It’ll take a couple of hours for everyone to get the message… I think.”

She winced like she expected the Comet to strike her.

Instead, he gave the woman a small salute. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Marie nodded and smiled queasily. 

Valour pulled a dotted map of Australia down from a chalkboard, rolling it up and handing it to Allison. It was half a head taller than her.

“They’re all marked on there.”

Soon Ralph and Allison were out the front doors again, the latter amusing herself by waving the map behind her like a cape.

Valour followed close behind.

“It’s done,” he told the crowd. “Go get your people.”

Arnold was back on his feet and in costume. Work clothes. “Alright people!” he said, voice amplified by a small metallic patch on his throat. “Orderly lines!”

It took him and Allison a little under ten minutes to whisk away all the supers. All that was left were themselves and the Barnes.

“You sure you’re fine with this?” Arnold asked. 

“We trust you, son,” said Angela, laying across her husband with her arms around his neck.

Fred nodded vigorously. “Been wanting to try this for ages!”

Arnold smiled and pointed. “Three… two…”

Angela looked back out at the crowd. “God bless you all.”


Lightning lashed, sending Fred and Angela away. 

Arnold and Allison took each other’s hands. 

“Want to come with us?” Allison asked Mr. Thumps. 

The drone shook his head with slow graveness. “I have to look after Mr. Valour and Val.”

“Okay. Hope you can visit sometime.”

“This isn’t the end, you know,” said Tim. “I’m sorry, but you’re not making peace here. You’re just robbing us.”

“We know,” said Allison. “Still, better than where we were.”

The children turned to face the part-time superheroes of Sydney. They waved with their free hands.


A lime brightness, and the supers were all gone.

Tim regarded the costumed tide of people lapping at the courtyard.

“Well, what are you still here for?”

Timothy Valour still slept alone that night. But at least he slept easy. His PSA was never reaired. It was made for a different world.

Allison Kinsey stood at the gates of McClare’s Demi-Human Asylum, her people at her back and standing before her, their collective songs colliding together like two stormfronts. 

The asylum inmates were shouting for release. As Allison remembered, most of them were children. The sun had set and taken the last dregs of daylight with it, but she glowed like the daughter of the moon and sun. 

She called behind her, “I’m taking requests for this one.”

“I can turn metal to sugar!”

“I can turn gravity off!”

The man they called Fo-Fum (still walking with a cane and a limp) shouted, “Use my power, kid! You get to be a giant!”

That sounded fun.


Allison’s presence expanded beyond the borders of her body. She clenched fists the size of cars. She could see herself standing twenty feet below her.

The metal walls and gates wrenched themselves out of the ground, hurtling far into the night.

The two crowds merged, before falling upon the asylum in a storm of exultant destruction. 

The supers spent hours tearing that place apart. All throughout, Allison wondered what she would call her town9

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

1. A term often hurled at the Department of Pyschonautics and Occultism due to their insistence on a purely magical theoretical framework for superpowers. That and some unfortunate early recruitment posters featuring the likeness of Vincent Price.

2. An Australian grassroots movement largely consisting of middle-aged, middle-class women whose sons were old enough to be called up for National Service during the Vietnam War. The group is often seen as representative of a shift in public perception of the war, with opposition no longer limited to the youth and counterculture, but also the “respectable” middle-classes. However, at the time, members of Save Our Sons were often pilloried by the media as hysterical, naive mothers, or “bimbos.”

3. An international pacifist movement heavily involved in the Australian “Vietnam Moratoriums.”

4. A club turned protest group formed by students in Sydney University’s superhuman studies program.

5. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Flying Man’s approval ratings—such as they were—rose considerably after his disappearance.

6. A slur usually referring to people of Vietnamese extraction.

7. The official Sydney residence of the Prime Minister of Australia until early 1966. One might ask why the prime minister needs a residence in Sydney when the national capital is Canberra, but you could also ask why they’re paid more than people who have to work with sewage for a living.

8. Occult consultants had ruled out fielding actual vampires.

9. She settled on Catalpa.

Chapter Ninety: Full Circle

Thunder rolled over the desert dunes as the Crimson Comet was thrown down onto the sand. 

The shadow of Garox, King of Saturn, fell over Ralph Rivers. 

“Surrender, Comet!” boomed the alien. “The day of good and righteousness is done! Now is our time!”

Ralph rolled his eyes. Laying it on a bit thick, Mabel.

The superhero rose back to his feet like he bore an iron crucifix on his shoulders, making sure to take in deep, heavy breaths even as he shouted, “Not bloody likely, Garox! My boys won’t buckle!”

Cheering rang throughout the battlefield, intermixed with roars from the Physician drones. 

Ralph resisted the urge to check his watch. They had to have been fighting for at least an hour. The perfect white disc of the sun was starting to slowly climb down across the empty sky, dulling the yellow sands below. Ralph and Garox had already exchanged three monologues about the struggle between good and evil. The SLF was down to less than twenty members. 

One of the guards had managed to wrench the WAR Correspondent’s camera off him, annihilating villains and the landscape behind them with flash after flash like the world’s worst tourist. “You tell ‘em, Comet!” 

The guard’s comrades had formed a circle around the camera’s owner, beating and kicking him the way Ralph’s old bullies used to. 

The Crimson Comet winced. Prison guards and their ilk always made him uneasy. Partly it was things he’d seen in the war, partly suspicion about what drew blokes into that kind of life. There but for the grace of God went he… 

A splash of paint smacked into the side of Ralph’s head. His vision shattered into bright glassy shards and reassembled into lurid, fractal kaleidoscopes. 

Jagged acid rock blared in his ears, a slow voice droning, “Throw off your chains, man. Become Adam again, free in the garden…

A shot broke through the psychedelia. Ralph found himself trapped in a gooey metallic headlock by the Thing from Venus. Garox was still stood in front of the superhero, but his gaze was turned in horror towards a tye-dyed hippie lying dead in the sand, rainbow paint leaking from a hole in his forehead. 

Garox glared back at Ralph. “Hyper-Hippie will be avenged.”

Ralph groaned.

For fuck’s sake, Mabel.

The Thing from Venus shoved Ralph towards Garox, who knocked down and pinned the superhero under his armoured bulk. 

“This is where your kind belongs, hero! In the dirt!”

The Crimson Comet roared back, “If it’s Aussie dirt, I’ll take it!”

Ralph silently thanked Mabel. He could just lie there and squirm for five minutes if he milked this right.  

Shouts hit Ralph and Garox from all sides. Bullets pinged off the both of them. 

Ralph supposed he should be grateful for the support, though he wondered what the guards would be doing if he weren’t invulnerable.   

He took the opportunity to survey the battlefield. Evolvulon was dead—his great brain splattered across the sand like burst watermelon. The lady astronaut had been gunned down with nary more than a resigned sigh. A human shipwreck, the mechanical Major Malfunction, lay in a pool of oil, shining like blood in the desert sun as it oozed from the tubes and wires spilling from his open midsection.

Ralph would’ve thought Mabel needed to see a shrink, if one hadn’t raised her to begin with. 

One of the Physician’s combat drones stomped over and yanked Garox off Ralph, much to his disappointment. He was enjoying the break.

The drone pulled the villain off his feet up towards his visor and growled, “Surrender!

The creature’s arms were trembling. Garox knew the answer it was was looking for:


Garox drove his gauntleted fist into the drone’s chest. Blood erupted around his wrist. 

The drone shuddered, dropping the alien king. He landed on his feet.

Ralph was getting to his feet, too. 

“Suppose that was a mercy,” he muttered under his breath. “Poor devils.”

There was a noise. Not an uncommon one by any means, but not one often heard. It was the sound of a soap bubble popping, magnified a thousand fold.

Ralph shut his eyes.

A wave of wind and sand blasted over the fighters. When Ralph opened his eyes again, men were coughing and clutching at their eyes.

Finally, one man said, “…What happened to the jail?”

The dust and sand settled. In the distance, you could hear the sound of earth and rock tumbling down a new cliff-face.   

Ralph looked towards Circle’s End Supermax. All that lay beyond the security fence was heat-shimmered air.

He suppressed an urge to hoot. 

They did it. They actually fucking did it.

All at once, the surviving villains broke out in laughter.

Garox let out the hoarse cackle of a long-time smoker. “You fell for it! You all bloody fell—” He cleared his throat and continued. “Foolish Earth-clingers, your attempts to keep us from our prize were in vain! While you struggled against the weakest of our forces, my allies spirited away your flimsy prison to my fortress on Titan, great moon of Saturn! Now, our program of villainy may truly begin!” 

Garox threw his hand to the sky. “Supervillain Liberation Front, away!”

Garox vanished, along with the rest of the SLF, corpses and all.  

“Jesus Christ!” a guard shouted. “Fuckers stole the jail!”

“What about the guys we left back there?”

Ralph dusted himself off and shook his head gravely. “Gone too, I’d expect.” He raised  “I should’ve known this is what they were planning.” He looked around at the guards with counterfeit solemnity. “I brought them to your doorstep. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, Comet!” someone insisted. “You can’t tell what these freaks have up their sleeves!”


“What do we do now?”

The Crimson Comet turned away from the crowd and started walking towards the shadow of Circle’s End. “I get back on the trail. You fellas rest up and get word out to the freak-finders.” Ralph suppressed a grimace. “It’s all I can ask of you.”


Ralph looked back over his shoulder. “Trust me, you’ve done enough.”

The Crimson Comet became a streak of red-gold light, trailing off towards the horizon, leaving the remaining guards of Circle’s End Supermax behind.

Questions without answers. Haltering conversations miscarrying in the desert heat. Angry, frightened curses upon all super-kind—with the rare, unspoken exception of good blokes like the Comet. The hysterical, chemical stillness of the Physician’s sons. 

“…Bugger this!” shouted one guard. 

His fellows turned towards him in ripples. 

The man glanced around at the other men. “The Crimson Comet’s the only reason we’re not stuck on fucking Jupiter or wherever! And we’re gonna let him chase after these maniacs on his own?”

A rumble of offense like an earthquake. 

“I say we help a mate out! Who’s with me?”

Cheering broke out amongst the crowd. No doubt Ralph would’ve been inspired, if it weren’t so bloody annoying.


Mabel leaned back against the tree and shut her drawing book, deeply satisfied. 

She’d done good, Mabel thought. Her and Dad. 

“Did we do it?” asked Mrs Allworth.

“Yep,” said Mabel, smiling. “Prison’s all gone. Saw it through like, a dozen sets of eyeballs. Few  robot sensors, same thing really.”

Sarah looked off into the middle distance, blinking at lights that were not there. “Good Lord…”

Mabel looked up at the old woman. “You alright, Mrs Allworth?”

Sarah shook herself. “Yes Mabel, I’m fine. I just—I never saw myself stealing a prison. A whole building, like it was a magazine or a bottle of whiskey! I never even took grapes from the grocery store. Seems more like something my Joe would’ve done…” A chuckle. “I should track down the boy who always tried sneaking chocolates from our store. Show him a real thief.” Sarah pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Not that I had much to do with it. It was you and Mr. Rivers and Miss Quickly and your friends who pulled this off.”

“Aww, don’t say that. You helped us find Mistress Quickly!”

“That was Blancheflor, if you’ll recall.”’

“But you made him help. We’d probably have had to pick apart his big computer brain if you hadn’t.”    

Sarah smiled and patted Mabel’s hand. “Very kind of you to say, child.” Mrs Allworth’s face grew stern as she glanced around the derelict mainstreet. “Where’s that boy gotten to?”

Mist spiraled down from the sky in front of the pair, solidifying into David bouncing on his heels—still in his costume for once. He beamed at Mabel. “That was amazing!”

He ran over and pulled his friend up by her hands, jumping up and down and trilling, “There was explosions and punches and lasers and you beat up so many dumb humans!” 

“Hope we get to do it again. Got even more villains drawn up I couldn’t fit in.”

Mrs Allworth frowned. “Never hope for more fighting, Mabel. And where were you during all this, David?”

“Watching Mabel’s baddies, duh!”

“Don’t ‘duh’ me, boy! You were supposed to be guarding her with me.”

David scoffed. “I coulda exploded anyone who got close.”

“Don’t talk like that!”

“But I could!” David looked Mabel right in the eye, stating plainly, “You are the most amazing girl I have ever met.”

Mabel grinned. “I know.”

The Crimson Comet came to a skidding stop at the top of the street, bridging the gap between him and the others at a normal run. “Right! Time to go!”

“Did they buy Da—Garox’s story?” asked Mabel.

“I think so?” replied Ralph. He glanced over his shoulder. “Thing is, now they’re following me.”

“What, why?” asked David.

“Didn’t exactly stop to ask them,” said Ralph. “I’m guessing they’re like a bunch of lost baby ducks.”    

The desert quiet was dissolving. A drumroll of trundling engines and distant shouting. 


Ralph’s wings folded onto his back. He hoisted up Mabel in a bridal carrying, making the girl yelp in surprise. 

“How strong are your arms?” he asked Mrs Allworth.

She hummed dubiously. “…Strong enough.”

The Crimson Comet thundered across the desert, trampling the ground underfoot with the power of a one-man elephant stampede and throwing up a wall of dust and sand behind him. 

In his arms, Mabel cheered. “Whoo!”

“How are we doing, Mrs Allworth?” Ralph asked over the roar of the wind.

He felt the lady’s arms tighten around his neck.

“Remembering why I didn’t let Joe take me flying, thanks!”

David flew alongside the human juggernaut, his body phantasmic mist. Looking back, he felt very silly for not realizing how easy it was to fly. Thinking like a human instead of what he was, he guessed.

Soon, Mistress Quickly’s mobile bunker came into view, rushing towards them as Ralph’s charge picked up speed.

David warbled, “Hey, wasn’t the door supposed to be open for us?” 

Ralph squinted. Maude said the plane would be left ready for them to board. But the stairs were retracted, the cabin door shut.

The Crimson Comet came to a stop as hard as if he’d hit a wall.

Sarah’s grip faltered.  “Oof! Bit of warning next time?”

“You can get down now, ma’am,” Ralph said evenly.

Sarah let go. Ralph set Mabel on her feet. 

“What’s going on?” asked the girl.

“I’m not sure.”

Ralph started walking slowly towards the plane. 

A blast of lightning sent the superhero leaping backwards.

Microphone feedback. A little boy’s voice:

“Stay back! I’m warning you!”

Ralph shook his head. “What the—”

Mabel groaned. “Allison said they might be putting some kids in the plane. One of them must’ve woken up and started playing with the buttons.”

Ralph looked behind him. Tiny, shadowed men and trucks crawling towards them like growing army ants. He was suddenly reminded that this was a plan thought up by a nine year old.

“Boy,” Mrs Allworth shouted, “we’re not going to hurt you! We’re here to help!”

“Shut up! I’ve been pounced on, knocked, and now you’ve shoved me on some weird plane! Just leave me alone!”

A bullet whistled past the group.


Ralph pulled Sarah and Mabel into his chest as his wings unfolded. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”


“Not the time, ma’am!”

“Oh, don’t worry,” said David, still misty. “I’ll sort him out.”

He flew towards the plane, dispersing till he seemed one with the thin air.

Ralph grit his teeth. “Any idea what he means by ‘sort him out’, Mabel?”


It wasn’t easy for David to seep into the bunker cabin. The plane was meant to go into space when Mistress Quickly wanted. But nothing is completely airtight.

He coalesced into ice behind the child plucking away the pilot’s console. 

His molecules vibrated, “Hey, kid.”

The boy swung around and shot at David, blasting away his shoulder with a stolen raygun.

David glanced at the wound as new water flowed over it and froze. “Not gonna work, mate.”

Doc Danny whimpered. He clutched his gun with both shaking hands and fired again, hitting David in the chest. 

David’s neck cracked and creaked as he looked down at the bevelled hole blown through him. A sigh like wind over ice fields. 

His body melted all at once, the water evaporating before it could hit the ground. The cloud drew up and around Doc Danny, plunging the young super-scientist into David’s cold glass-harp voice:

“Stop being a git and give us back our plane!”

Doc Danny squeaked, flailing and swiping at the mist. 

Easiest thing would be to kill him. David seriously considered it. Wouldn’t be hard. Just scramble his brains…

That was what Grandfather would do. Without a question. But doing things the granddad way wasn’t making him happy anymore. And Mabel would be mad at him. Right when they were having fun together again—  

Who cared? This kid was putting Mabel in danger. His Mabel. Screw him!

The mist swirled around Danny faster. Tiny flecks of ice bit at his skin.

She didn’t have to know. David could liquify his flesh and stash his bones on the plane somewhere. He could tell everyone he teleported away. That was something people did, sometimes… 

David felt hot, angry tears leak from Doc Danny’s eyes. The boy screamed, “Piss off! I’m sick of it! I did what everyone told me, because they said I wasn’t a real super! That I should be on their side! Then they say I am a super and throw me in jail to get beat up by the rest of them. Then I try to help them, and they never-never me wherever without asking! What am I supposed to do?”

David’s mist slowed. The ice-shard melted. He condensed into boy-shape again, this time flesh and blood. 

Doc Danny panted, but didn’t raise the gun again. 

“You’re from the prison, right?”

“I just said that!”

David pointed a finger at one of the security monitors hanging above the controls. “Well, the guards are coming to get us.”

Doc Danny swung around to look at the screen. The remnants of the Supermax guards were indeed gaining fast, a phalanx of black trucks ahead of a line of men and drones. 

The boy growled, his freckles bunching together into leopard-spots. “Like hell.” 

He stabbed at a few buttons.

Outside, Ralph Rivers looked up to see a large black projectile arcing from the plane over his head.  

The thing landed a few paces ahead of the guards, before exploding into a baby-blue mushroom cloud.

Screams echoed over the desert, but not quite of pain. 

David looked over Doc Danny’s shoulder at the last button he pressed.

“Mozzie gas.” He squinted at the other boy. “You hit them with bug-spray?”

Doc Danny grinned sharply. “Nope. It’s gas that itches like mozzie bites.”  

David laughed and slapped Danny on the back. “Okay, you’re fun. Mind letting my friends in before the idiots stop scratching their arses?”


In less than a minute, Ralph, Sarah, and Mabel were clambering up the bunker’s retractable stairs. David and Danny were standing in the middle of the cabin.

Doc Danny rubbed his arm, eyes turned down towards his feet. “Sorry for locking you out.”

“Yeah, yeah, we forgive you.” Ralph turned his eyes up towards the ceiling. “Auto-pilot, get us to rendezvous alpha, stat!”

An inauthentically placid impression of Maude’s voice said, “Crimson Comet voice-print acknowledged. Please take a seat.”

The antigravity strips under the plane’s wings lit up, buoying up the mobile bunker on a cloud of virtual particles before its jets launched it into the empty sky.

From a white leather chair next to one of the windows, Mabel watched Circle’s End disappear for the last time. She smiled at the site of the deep, wide pit where the Supermax had been.

Mabel Henderson was a lot like her father. Today, they were both miners.

Circle’s End Supermax did not appear on Titan. Instead, it re-entered real-space amongst vast tree-dotted grass plains near the Northern Territory coast, still bright green from the last wet-reason, the air spiced with the faintest suggestion of sea-salt. Just as Maude Simmons had projected, the whole complex loomed over the landscape like a new Leaning Tower, its formerly buried heights now exposed to the sky. 

Clearing out the guards and staff wasn’t hard. Arnold and his new personal guard rose through the complex, scattering resisters to the winds.

One of the canteen cooks charged at the teleporter with a ladle, screaming, “You’re not getting—”

A green flash. The man was gone. 

“Where’d you send him?” asked Andrea, mentally keeping tally. 

Arnold grunted. “Peru.”

Meanwhile, Allison and Maude came across a long, dark chamber, its walls lined with riveted steel coffins with poison-green windows. Songs radiated from each one—tightly ordered notes of pure rage.

Drone storage.

“So, what do we do with them?” asked Allison. “They’re sorta people.”

“Dangerous people,” elaborated Maude.

“Still, killing them might be murder, I think?”

Maude nodded. “Not the image we want right now.” She made a pinching gesture. “Put a cork in it, I think?”


They kept Frances McNoll. They had plans for him. Besides, he helped Maude decide who to let out of their cells.

“Harold Franks, no alias recorded. What’d he do?”

McNoll sighed in his chair. “He resisted confinement at Roberts.”

“Right then.” Maude checked Harold’s name on her list. “Vera West, alias Cyclone Sigma.”

“Grand larceny and assaulting a police officer.”

Maude laughed. “Amateur hour.” Check. “Name unknown, alias Ixchel. Bit of an outside reference, I respect that, but what about their resume?”

“Building without a permit.”

A scoff. 

“The building was made out of cats.”

“…Scratch that.”

Just as she said, Thunder-Tiger’s parents were both there. 

“Mum! Dad!”

The little girl ran into the supervillains’ waiting arms, forming a kind of human sandwich.

Her father tried to hold back tears by focusing on Billy and Allison watching from the side. “Told ya, Thunder, in company we’re…”

His girlfriend let out a choked laugh. “Oh, shut up, John.”

Both Billy and Allison tried not to look directly at the scene. It hurt too much.

“So,” Maude said to her latest release. “You were a superhero?”

“Yep,” answered the thin young man. “The Neon Ghost. Was chasing up leads for a book when I got dunked in some concoction… they don’t have our gear here, do they?”

Maude gave the Ghost a flat look. “We both know they don’t. They’re not that stupid.”

The Ghost sighed like one of his namesakes. “Yeah. I just really liked that trenchcoat…”

All in all, they only left ten prisoners in their cells. Soon, everyone who could fly or swallow their fear of heights enough for one of the former to ferry them down was gathered in the shadow of the new tower.

Tom, surprisingly, didn’t need Allie’s help down. He simply turned transparent and walked down through the air like it was a spiral staircase. 

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Billy commented when he reached the ground. 

“Sure I can,” replied Tom. “I’d fall through the floor otherwise.”

Louise jumped down next to the boys and pointed to the sky. “Plane’s coming!”

Mistress Quickly’s mobile bunker descended onto the grass vertically, no runway needed. Ralph Rivers and his companions quickly disembarked and approached the crowd.

The sight of the Crimson Comet drew cheers from most of the prisoners, quickly silenced by glares from the supervillains amongst them. 

Ralph swallowed. He hoped to God he could sell this to them. 

An older man gently cleaved from the throng of people. Even in his off-white prison coveralls, he carried himself with a patrician stride. The wrinkles of his face and his handlebar moustache gave him the air of a graceful, intellectual walrus. 

Ralph smiled crookedly when he recognized the man. “Close-Cut. I didn’t think we’d be seeing each other again.”  

“Nor did I, Comet. The young lady and the children tell me you helped them spirit us away somehow.”

The Crimson Comet nodded. “A bit, yes.”

“Why would you help a prison break? You don’t exactly bat for our team.”

“This place was a concentration camp. I’m a superhero, helping folks is my job. No matter who.”

Close-Cut raised an eyebrow. “Even us criminals?”

“You knocked over a few banks and a fabric store. They’re locking up kids. Who cares?”

The supervillain nodded. “What happens now?”

Ralph took a breath. “We crack open every stinking one of these prisons. Carve out a place where kids like us can be safe. If you and yours want to help.

Murmurs and distant bird-calls.

The two men shook hands.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter

Chapter Eighty-Nine: The Harrowing

Mistress Quickly landed in soft darkness:

A slide? Who built this place? A kid?

The shadows shifted with a whir. The chute retracting, Maude guessed. The furry mass clinging to her tightened its grip.

Maude gave it a pat. “Good boy.”

Sterile white-blue light bloomed under her. She was lying on a raised mattress in the middle of a small dome made of tightly wound cogs and gears. Maude had expected that. 

What she hadn’t expected was for the entire cell floor to be a TV screen. Warden McNoll was sitting behind a black desk in front of a grey brick wall, staring up at the ceiling like Big Brother’s confused cousin. 

That’s considerate, thought Maude. Letting the inmates walk all over your face.

Warden McNoll’s upper lip bulged as he licked his teeth, clearly trying to remember his line.  After a second, he blurted, “You have been sentenced to this facility for crimes against the Commonwealth of Australia.”

“Technically,” Mistress Quickly said aloud, “I wasn’t sentenced at all. Haven’t even had a trial yet…”

Well, there were all the absentee ones. Maybe righteous indignation wasn’t her calling.

“This modular holding environment—”

“This cell, you mean.”

Why was she talking to a recording?

“…Will be your home until you have been deemed fit to reenter decent, human society, or a way is found for you to serve said society.”

“No points for guessing which comes first…” 

“As a low-powered, low-risk inmate—”

“Piss off!”

“…You are entitled by law to one hour of supervised, outdoor exercise each week. This is currently being appealed.”

Offense subsided, Maude wondered if they stitched different bits of video together, or if McNoll had to record a message for every little variation.

McNoll kept reciting, “You will receive three meals a day, as is also mandated by Australian law.” His right eye twitched. “Paid for by us, the taxpayer, because you f—”

The video skipped. Now McNoll was holding his hands together in front of him. “To continue, your prison issued furniture also functions as a toilet…”

Definitely the latter.    

The warden droned on about meal times for a while, before the floor turned dark again and the cell was filled with warm, even light. Mistress Quickly was alone, more or less.

Maude got up from the bed and ran her hand over the walls. Normally, spider threads of inspiration would be binding stray information and spontaneous insights into plans as solid as a finished product. Her fingers would twitch, hungry for materials to work into miracles. With this collar clinging to her throat, though, all Maude could’ve told you about this cell was that it looked like a bird’s nest made out of a clock, the floor talked, and it wasn’t at all dark despite a dearth of light fixtures. For her, it was like looking at a man’s face and not being able to tell if he had a nose.

So this is what being normal is like. Don’t like it. 

Could be worse, Maude told herself. Despite far too long spent staring at pictures of her brain and batteries of tests besides, Maude couldn’t shake the fear that suppressing her powers would render her… as she’d been. Before she became Mistress Quickly1

Unless it had. Looking around this cell was hardly any different from struggling through Dick and Jane readers at fourteen, trying to make sense of symbols and scratchings everyone else her age had found so self-explanatory. Maude had gone from “slow” to “impossible.” What did she know about normal

To her shame, Maude rushed over to an alcove in the wall housing a dozen, probably heavily vetted volumes. She blindly snatched up a copy of Of Mice and Men and flicked through it:

She could still read. Good.

Maude sighed in relief, slid down the wall, and waited. This whole plan was scraping her nerves like a violin bow. So much of it—so much of her future—now rested on the actions of others. Why had she agreed to it? Loyalty to her people? She was barely on the same continent as most supers, and patriotism was never Maude’s strongest instinct. Concern for the inmates? Maude was no altruist. Besides, the place was full of superheroes. Villains, too; but for all the drinks Mistress Quickly had shared with folks like Jimmy the Bastard or Close Fit2, supervillainy was no fraternity. 

It was the booty, Maude told herself. So much technology, some of it literally out of this world… but then, Maude had access to the multiverse. If she tried hard enough, she could’ve found a timeline where this facility had already been abandoned. 

Maude found herself remembering the Cuban Crisis. She’d just finished packing her bags for the Miracle Constellation3 when she’d heard the tapping at the window. At thirty-five thousand feet.

She agreed to help that curly haired bastard before he even offered her anything. God, she was a sucker sometimes. Maybe she hadn’t changed… 

After somewhere between forty-five minutes and forty-five years, Billy appeared in his super-suit on the bed, Mistress Quicky’s battle-suit tied around his waist. He was looking at a watch with a cat-shaped face. “It’s time, Miss Quickly!”

Maude shot up. “Oh, thank you more than Christ.” She held out her hands. “Toss me the suit.”

She slipped the costume on and pulled the mask down over her face. She nearly started as the communicator built into the neck snapped to life. Then, her own voice started talking through it.

“Now, Maude,” said the recording, its voice loud, slow, and forcibly cheerful. “I know you might be frightened, but I need you to do exactly what I say, alright? There’s people who need your help out there. Now, put your hand into the belt-pocket with the apple sticker on it and say ‘ballistic spray.’ That’s ‘bah-lis-tick spray.’ It’ll give you a little spray-can, like bug repellent. Spray it on the kitten-boy—”

She muted the recording. 

“You’re a bitch, Maude,” she told herself flatly. 

“Kitten boy?”

“You know it’s apt, kid.” 

Maude retrieved the “bah-lis-tick spray” and advanced towards Billy. “Alright, costume off for a second, got to bulletproof you.”

Billy crossed his arms. “Do you have to?”

For that, he caught a glob of ballistic foam in the face.

Maude shook the can. “Billy, you’re a living stuffed animal. They’d burn me at the stake if I let you get shot. Now stop whinging. Everyone should be busy gawking at the SLF, but I give us three minutes before someone glances at our camera. Now, one of us is spraying you, and I know which one we’d both rather that be.”

Billy sighed and took the spray. “Costume off.”

Soon he was covered in a layer of thick grey foam like he’d just gotten out of a concrete bubble bath. “My fur’s all sticky! And it makes my costume squelch!”

“Tough.” Maude stuck her hand into another pouch. “Gyges.” 

A ring jumped into her hand. She slipped it onto Billy’s clawed finger. The air around him shone and glinted.

“What’s this?”

“I used to get really cross at people for calling it a forcefield ring, because it’s not technically forcefields, but I can’t remember how it’s not right now, so fuck it, it’s a forcefield ring.”

Come to think of it, how did she fit all that into a ring?

Then why do I need the spray? And don’t swear!”

“Redundancy!” Maude looked around the cell, asking herself, “How do we get out of here? Vapourized time? Forcefield pliers?”

Billy cleared his throat. “Can I try?”

Maude hummed consideringly. “You aren’t going to try roaring in here, are you?”


“Go ahead.”

Billy raised his arms over his head. Silvery mist flowed up from his palms, spreading over the dome walls down to the floor. The mist swelled.

Billy smiled to himself.

The dome collapsed into confetti over their heads, letting in blaring klaxons like the world’s worst party-horns. 

Breakout from Juvenile Rehabilitation Area… Breakout from Juvenile Rehabilitation Area.

Billy clapped his hands over his ears. Mistress Quickly’s HUD highlighted six guards rushing around where the cell had been, word balloons helpfully pointing out their guns. They were shouting dimly beneath the roar of the alarm, taking aim.

Maude hugged Billy to her side. “Hold tight!” 

She clicked her heels. The battle-suit’s glider fanned beneath the pair’s feet.

Maude and Billy shot up above a storming of bullets, speeding over row upon row of clockwork domes towards the exit. Guards shouted and fired wildly up at the pair.

A bullet winged Billy in the shoulder. His ring-aura wobbed like a second skin of jelly. As did the ballistic foam.

“Feels funny…”

Better than what I usually hear when someone gets shot. Maude glanced up at the cell-block’s ceiling. “24” was written across the steel in white block letters. Good. Now they had some idea of where they were. 

Maude shoved her hand into a weapons-pouch. 


Five small metal orbs flitted into the supervillain’s hands. She looked down at Billy, still clinging to her thigh. “I suggest you hold your breath, kid.”

Maude tossed the orbs over her shoulder. They struck the floor below and bounced, before exploding into plumes of thick, pink smoke, rapidly spreading across the cell bay and swallowing the guards.

Wild, pained laughter broke out below the glider. A few aimless gouts of gunfire erupted from the smoke like fleeing fireflies. 

Well, at least the guards are having a good time, Maude thought as they zoomed out of the block.   

They soon reached a bank of four brightly coloured elevators: red, blue, green and yellow. 

Maude groaned. She felt like she was trapped on a game show. Fucking too-clever designers. She tried to remember the code. Red for surface-access and administration, blue for holding areas… 

A ghostly little girl poked her head through the yellow doors and looked around, catching sight of Mistress Quickly and Billy. She beamed. “Hi Billy!”

Billy waved. “Hey Miri!”

“I’m guessing Allison and Arnold got out alright?” asked Maude. 

“Yep! Made some friends, too! One’s pink, another’s the same colour as the Meanie, sounds meaner, but is actually nice, and there’s one girl called—”

Maude snapped her fingers. “Focus, girl.”

“Oh, yeah, we got out. Allie broke the sky!”

Maude tried to keep her eyes from rolling. “And have you found engineering?”

“The power room? Yep! Just a sec.”

Miri disappeared back into the elevator. The doors opened, revealing Miri floating beside a badly shaved young man in white scrubs vacantly prodding at the “door open” button.   

Maude and Billy filed inside the elevator. The former prodded the man in the shoulder. His only response was a slight gurgle in his throat.

“Did you drug him?”

“What’s a drug?” asked Miri. “Allie just tapped him and now he does what she wants.”

“Why didn’t you go inside him?” asked Billy.

Miri frowned. “Boy.”

Maude reminded herself to never let Allison touch her.

It turned out Mistress Quickly had no more fondness for long elevator rides than the Crimson Comet. Especially not with an imaginary girl and a zombie. She glanced at Miri’s illusionary body. Her midsection trailed off into mist like Casper the Friendly Ghost’s little sister. A concession to modesty? Pure aesthetic?

“You know,” said Maude. “I don’t dabble in biology too much, but I could probably work you up a decent body, especially with the blood I picked up in Maestro-land. Not sure how I’d move you into it right now, but it’d be a start.”

Miri was quiet for some time.

Billy nodded eagerly. “We could play more! And hug!”

Miri bit her lip. “Wouldn’t it be lonely?”

Billy tilted his head. “But you’d still have us.”

Miri looked at Maude. “…Would I be able to fly?”

Maude shrugged.

“Probably. The Grand Duchess of the House of Pancakes or whatever could fly through space, but I’m not smart enough to know what I could knock together for you right now.”

The elevator doors opened before Miri could respond. 

Maude had half-expected the reactor room to be bathed in shadow and mood lighting. That was silly. People had to work here. So no, the chamber was flooded with pragmatic, ugly fluorescent light. Not that the rest of the design was as sensible to Maude’s eyes. The roof was held up by angled pillars. Control consoles were arranged in a magician’s circle around a concave pit—all straight lines and edges, beveling down into the floor like a crater carved with a slide rule. Water cascaded down the steps into a bright blue pool at the bottom.

Technicians in white scrubs wandered around dazed like badly directed film extras. Mixed among them were over a dozen much more alert looking children.

Allison looked up from where she was crouched at the bottom of the pit. “Hey, you made it!”

An aboriginal boy smiled crookedly at one of the zombified technicians. “Looks like I owe you a fiver.”

The techie groaned.

“Forget it? Sure!” Tom waved up at Billy. “Good to see ya, Bill!”

Billy blinked. “Tom?”

Brit was sitting on top of one of the consoles, swinging her legs. “I’m here too, by the way.”

Billy only had one response to this news. “Yay!”

A little girl ran up to Maude. She was light blond, and surprisingly muscular looking for a child Allison’s age. She put Maude in mind of a more sturdy Miri.

The girl was hopping in front of her like a puppy begging for treats. “Are you really Mistress Quickly?”

“…Should I answer that?”

The girl trilled with excitement, apparently taking that for a yes. “I’m Thunder-Tiger! Huge fan of your work! My mum and dad are in the scene too, ever heard of them?”

“And they are?”

“Armagetcha and Miss-Demeanor!”

Maude decided to be kind. “Oh yeah, them. Real up and comers, them.”

Thunder-Tiger hugged herself and spun in place, grinning.

Second-generation supervillain. Tragic. Maude reminded herself never to have kids.

She looked at the water-pit, listened to the soft roar of the water. She had no idea what it did . This could not be tolerated. 

Maude spotted Arnold milling about one of the consoles and pointed at her collar. “Oi, teleporter! Get this thing off me!”

A spark. Air on her neck. Maude looked down into the pool again. 

It screamed. 

Maude laughed and broke out in a run towards the edge of the pit. She jumped, clicking her heels and riding her glider down to Allison at the central pool. “Budge over and let me look!”

Mistress Quickly got on her knees and pushed the little girl aside, peering down into the too-blue water. There was a mass the size of a fat ten year old floating in the centre. Delicate feathers of stained glass as fine as silk radiated from a central jewel, caressing the water with long, gentle strokes. 

It put Maude in mind of a drowning chandelier. 

Allison was lying sideways beside the scientist, trying not to let her offense show. “I think it’s alien. You ever heard of Dr. Smith?”

“I’d put money on it,” said Maude. She spread her arms. “Do you think a real person would build a reactor room like this?”

“…Didn’t you once kill a man with bouncy balls?”

“Shut up.” 

Maude said, “Argus,” and suddenly she could see Allison Kinsey’s deeply strange insides. 

Maude looked up and around the reactor room, sliding-scale sonar peeling away the walls. Tubes ran out from under the glass feather-star, feeding the fluid it soaked in up into the complex before returning it via the cascade.

Maude whistled. “Wow, the whole place is a giant watermill.” She pointed down at the feather-star. “That thing draws energy from the space between spaces, dumps it into the juice it’s swimming in, which is then piped to every cell, lightbulb and coffee maker in this place. Hope you haven’t stuck your finger in there, stuff would probably burn a hole in your stomach.”

Allison frowned. “What do I look like? A baby?”


Allison sighed. “Can you work with it?

“Oh, yeah. Shouldn’t take—”

Mistress Quickly spotted movement in the elevator shafts. “Allison, we’re about to have company.”         

Allison nodded and rose out of the pit. “Look alive people, baddies coming!”

The three access elevators disgorged twenty armed men out into the reactor room. 

Face red, neck-veins bulging like ropes beneath his skin, the squad leader screamed, “Hit the deck—”  

A bright white filament snatched the gun out of his hands, waving it over his head like a bully with a stolen toy.

“The hell—”

A pink streak raced and weaved through the guards, stripping all of them of their firearms. 

The blur came to a stop a few feet before the men, revealing Andrea clutching a bundle of automatic rifles, a few of the guns spilling from her arms and clattering on the floor.

“Looking for these?”

It was terribly unfair. Taking a human’s tools was like pulling a wolf’s teeth. What else did they have?

The guards broke out in a chorus of swearing and shouting, charging towards the girl. 

“You asked for it..”

Andrea’s eyes glowed bright red, along with those of the hissing snakes growing from her scalp. 

The front most men froze mid-run, toppling forwards when the guards behind them smacked into their backs.

Andrea screwed her eyes shut and proceeded to grow twenty five feet in size. She raised her right foot over the half-paralyzed pile of men. “Say mercy!”

Many out of synch cries of “Mercy!”

Tom golf-clapped. “Nice one, Ann.”

“I try,” said Ann. 

Tom called over to Arn, jabbing his thumb at the human pile. “Get these fools out of here.”

Arnold wondered why Tom thought he could give him orders all of a sudden. Probably because he was Tom Long, he decided. 

Languidly, the boy zapped away the guards. 

“I meant to ask,” said Allison, rolling gently in the air, “where’ve you been sending the guards?”

Arnold shrugged. “Some place I saw in my atlas. ‘Phaeacia’ it’s called. It said they liked guests.4” 

Mistress Quickly hadn’t even stopped working during the attempted incursion. From dozens of parts pulled from her belt, she had erected a metal cage like a spider lurking over the reactor pool, ready to devour whatever swum beneath its web. 

Allison floated back down to Mistress Quickly, loudly asking, “How are we going, Maude?”

Thunder-Tiger blinked. “Maude?”

Maude hissed, “Not when I’m in the suit, girl.” She cleared her throat. “Nearly done.” She shouted. “Hey Billy, ask Blanchey if we’re still connected to his quantum computers! Otherwise this thing is just the world’s most efficient paper shredder! And everything else shredder!”

Billy gulped and spoke into his watch. “You ready, Mr. Blancheflor?”

“Mistress Quickly’s set up and my processors are well on speaking terms, Master St. George.”

Billy gave the thumbs up.

Maude nodded, pleased. “Alright, all we—”

Klaxons. Again. But a new message:

This facility will self-destruct in ten minutes. All remaining personnel must make an orderly exit… 

There was a second of stunned silence. Then the children started screaming.

Arnold paced in a tight, frantic circle. “Crap, crap crap…”

“My mum and dad are in here!” cried Thunder-Tiger. “And—and—me!”

Tom took a lot of very short breaths. “Okay, everyone huddle up, Arnold can…” 

Allison wondered what everyone was panicking about. Then she remembered she hadn’t gotten around to telling anyone this was a possibility. Precognition could trip you up like that.

Electric guitar.                

“Everyone shut up!” Allison yelled with a touch of Billy’s power. “I’ll handle it!”


Allison turned transparent and floated through the ceiling like a ghost finding her way home. Up and up. She passed through a cell containing a white-haired old man, startled from his copy of Brave New World5 by the sight of her. Water tanks and layers of rock. Then a panicking cook up in the guard canteen, much to their mutual horror.  

Finally, Allison found herself in the pastel nightmare of the warden’s office.

A bullet whizzed through her wireframe body. 

Warden McNoll was standing behind his desk, a smoking Colt.45 shaking in his hands. He looked like his bones were turning to rubber. 

“Stay back!” he cried, voice warbling. “I warn ya!”

Allison returned to flesh and smiled. “You’re about to blow me up, who cares?”

The girl started walking towards the Warden.

He fired his gun again. He might as well not have bothered. Allison saw it coming before he even pulled the trigger. She dodged to the right.  

McNoll fired again. Allison dodged again, laughing. 

Frances screamed as Allison closed in. The girl grabbed his arm and grinned.

“It wouldn’t have worked anyway.”

Allison wrenched the gun down to her forehead. McNoll’s trigger finger jerked involuntarily. 

There was a bang like a whip being cracked. The warden yelped in horror. 

The bullet fell at Allison’s feet, hot and pristine. A patch of her skin the size of a penny glowed with Brit’s own light.


Frances McNoll dropped his gun. Without thinking, he sat down in his chair and pressed a few buttons, with more certainty than he’d ever mustered before. 

He leaned towards his microphone. “Command code #23432. Cancel the self-destruct.”

There was a second of hanging quiet.

Self-destruct cancelled. 

In the back of her head, Allison felt hundreds of sighs of relief like a cool breeze. 

“You know you didn’t want to die, don’t you?” asked Allison.

“It’s what I was supposed to do…” 

“Sounds dumb.”

“What are you going to do to me?” asked McNoll. 

Allison hopped from foot to foot. “Nothing that bad. We haven’t even killed any of your guys.”

“…Can I ask you something, girl?”

“Why not?”

“What’s it like?”

“What’s what like?”

“That power. Having it inside you.”

Allison considered the question. “Pretty good, if I’m being honest.”

Somewhere, Alberto smiled.

Allison put her fingers to her temple. Okay Maude, take us away.

Many floors below, Maude gripped the handle of her trigger device. She’d kept working all through the droning automated countdown, even with muscles as stiff as concrete.

The metal spider released a bundle of metallic tubes into the reactor fluid, drawing the blue liquid up into itself. 

Beneath her mask, Maude smiled. She still wasn’t sure why she’d signed up for this. But she knew one reason she’d seen it through. These fuckers thought they could build a prison to hold Mistress Quickly. So Mistress Quickly would take their prison.

She pushed the button. 

And they were gone. 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter

1. Technically before she became “Professor Wit.”

2. Wallace Grimsby, a brilliant fashion-designer turned mad scientist, specializing in the production of bespoke super-suits and high-tech armour. Originally hailing from London, Grimsby fled to Australia after drunkenly attempting to assault long time professional rival Norman Hartnell.

3. A sequence of realities linked by an outbreak of strange superhuman transformations in a long terraformed solar system.

4. A month or so after the assault of Circle’s End Supermax, a large, thought-driven galley sailed into Port Jackson Bay, Sydney, delivering those guards that hadn’t married into the local aristocracy of Phaeacia.

5. Technically a deeply strange, clumsily edited double edition of Brave New World and Adolus Huxley’s spiritual follow-up Island.

Chapter Eighty-Eight: The Garden of Earthly Delights

Before Allison could say anything more to her fellow juvenile delinquents, the rent opened in the air again, ejecting a whooping Arnold onto the spongy grass.

He scrambled to his feet, knees and shoulders bouncing with excitement. “Let’s do that again—” He blinked at the sight of the children behind Allison, rubbing his eyes and looking again. “Haunt? Brit?”

Tom and Louise both frowned. 

“Ah, sorry. Force of habit.”

A ten year old girl with pink skin and quietly hissing snakes for hair asked, “You know these two?”

“Yeah,” said Louise. “They’re from the Institute.”

Allison ran over and tried her best to hug both Tom and Louise. “We thought you were dead!”

Tom stiffened, then relaxed slightly, patting the girl half-heartedly on the back. “We were kinda wondering about you, too.”

Louise asked, “What about the rest of you guys? Mabel? Billy?” Louise’s voice rose in pitch a touch. “David?”

“Yeah,” said Arnold. “We got out.” 

“But I heard you all die!” insisted Allison. “Your songs went away.”

Tom sighed. “Sit down, everyone, this is going to take some explaining…”

Tom and Louise told the story of the raid like a joke they’d been forced to repeat once or twice too many at a party. The soldiers; the fire-fight; Linus and his father…

“…It was like we were taking a bath in the sun,” said Tom, “Then Apollo or whoever he was said he was taking us to where we needed to be…” He grunted. “Then me and Louise got dumped right in the bloody lobby here.” Tom cast his eyes up at the painted ceiling. “This is why nobody worships you gits anymore.”

Many floors above, heat lightning crackled across the wide desert sky. Not even a whisper reached the children.

Tom smiled bitterly. “One advantage of being underground I guess. You can cuss out the ultra-white-people much as you like.”

“I know it sounds wild,” said Louise, “but Linus was telling the truth.”

Arnold shrugged. “I can buy it. We met David’s granddad.”

“Really?” asked Louise. “What’s he like?”

“Evil. But kinda fun sometimes?” Arnold jabbed his thumb at Allison. “He liked Allie a lot.”

Everyone looked at the girl. Allison was clawing at the trampoline grass. 

“Ah, you alright Allie?” asked Tom.

It was odd. For nearly two months, Allison had known in her gut that all the other Institute kids were dead. But she was wrong. Some of them were still alive. More could still be out there. She should’ve been relieved. 

But some of them weren’t out there. Allison knew how they died now. Their songs lost forever all over again.

“Nope,” she answered. “But I will be soon. When we get out of here.”

The other inmates laughed derisively. 

“Yeah, sure,” said a pasty skinned teenage girl with long dark hair. “I bet you’ll be gone before the Chester Fingers speech.” 

Arnold lip curled. “Chester Fingers?”

A twangy “boing” taken directly from a cartoon sound effects library echoed through the sky, growing louder and closer with every repetition.

Arnold and Allison looked up. Nobody else did. A figure was bouncing between the sheep-fleece clouds like a demented transitional Superman. 

Allison frowned. “The heck—”

It leapt down onto the grass in front of the kids. It was a fat party-clown in a half polka-dotted mustard shift and a blue top-hat. His eyes were glassy, manic saucers, and his big red nose bore an unfortunate resemblance to a tumour.

“Hi kids!” it screeched in a far too jaunty, generically American voice. “I’m Chester Fingers!”

Allison felt a whimper in the back of her head, barely noticeable, along with a voice sourly spitting “pagliaccio.” Was that what Miri and Alberto sounded like without telepathy? “Chester Fingers,” she said flatly. “Really?”

“That’s right, [NAME TO BE INPUT], Chester Fingers!” The clown pulled out a handkerchief and violently blew his nose, spewing streams of multicoloured ribbon from his nostrils. Then he stood perfectly still, as though holding for laughs.

Chester Fingers received none. It didn’t seem to bother him.

Fingers capered between Allison and Arnold, somesalting and bouncing. “I’m here to get you settled into the Garden, where you’ll get to play with tons of new friends while all the clever scientists work day and night to make you all normal little girls and boys!”

Allison glared fire at the clown. “Normal?”

Tom rolled his eyes. “Piss off, Fingers.”

Chester Fingers turned to the older boy and wagged a finger at him. “Now, now, Mr. Long. You already have [234] attitude demerits. You don’t want to miss Movie Night again, don’t you?”

Tom scoffed. “You project the bloody films on the clouds! You can see it for miles! Fake miles, but still!”

“That sounds kinda cool…” murmured Arnold.

“You’d think so,” whispered Louise. “But it’s always some weird kiddie crap where the mouths don’t match the voices and all the boys sound like old ladies. Tom reckons they get them from Mexico1. Tough on the neck, too.”

Chester Fingers threw his arms up, Apollo butterflies and emerald swallowtails escaping from his baggy sleeves only to dissolve mid-air. “Well, let’s get started on the ground tour!”

Allison and Arnold’s surroundings blurred. The ground was sliding like a treadmill beneath their feet, speeding them far away (or so it seemed) from the other inmates. Allison—biological treasure that she was—managed to keep her balance, but Arnold fell backwards on his rump.

They found themselves in front of a cluster of rabbit holes dug into a small hillside. Unfortunately, Chester Fingers had joined them:

“This is where the handy dandy Rabbit Reserve Corps delivers you kids three square meals a day and fresh clothes!”

A yellow-white rabbit lopped out of one of the “warrens” with a large brown package tied around its back.

Arnold grinned. “Bunnies!” 

He saw how Allison was looking at him and quickly cleared his throat. “I mean, probably fake bunnies, right?”

Chester Fingers added something like wryness to his grin. “Who’s to say what’s real, [NAME TO BE INPUT]?”

The clown winked with an audible twinkle.

The ground shifted again. Now they were in a forest clearing, where a giant, matronly dressed goose sat on a tree stump surrounded by child-sized blow up mattresses, mumbling her way through a particularly tame version of “Hansel and Gretel” from a storybook the size of a coffee table.

“And this is Mother Goose, who is always here to tell approved bedtime stories!”

“I wonder if she does Famous Five,” remarked Arnold. 

He almost startled when Chester Fingers responded, “Lucky for you, Mother Goose has indeed memorized the complete works of Enid Blyton!”

“Figures,” said Allison.

“We can never tell Billy about this.”

Again, they were carried away, this time to a shocking boring concrete toilet block in the middle of a suspiciously manicured green field.

“And these are the restrooms! Remember kids, just because we’re in the great outdoors doesn’t mean we’re animals!”

“They shoulda put a bit more imagination into this part,” said Arnold.

“Do you really want an imaginative toilet?” retorted Allison.

“Maybe not.”

There was one last stop on Chester Fingers’ tour: a pond about the size of an olympic swimming pool, filled with a bright yellow water.

“Welcome to Lemonade Lake!” cheered the clown. “Where you kids can swim and wash up to your hearts’ content! Just remember, maintain a distance of one metre from other swimmers, and no mixing boys and girls. Don’t want to catch cooties, do we?”

Chester Fingers’ head shook like a bobble-head, his pupils bouncing off and around the edges of his eyes.

Allison grimaced. “Eww! Why’d they have to make it yellow?”

“Doesn’t even look like lemonade,” said Arnold. He toed the water. “It’s not even fizzy!”

“I think they’re using it the American way. It’s what they call lemon cordial there.”


Tour concluded, the floor returned Chester and the children back to where they started.

“Just so you know,” said Tom, “By now Lemonade Lake is almost exactly what it looks like.”

Chester Fingers still had speech left in him. “We at the Garden all know how scary it can be adjusting to our new home, so I hope you all are very nice to [NAME TO BE INPUT] and [NAME TO BE INPUT]. But remember, if you ever need another buddy, just call on ol’ Chester Fingers.”

Chester Fingers’… fingers detached from his hands, swimming through the air like pale, bony sea-snakes, lunging at the children and tickling them under their chins and ribs, their master giggling all the while. 

Screaming broke out among the children. Arnold flailed like he was in the middle of a swarm of bees. Tom swatted at the fingers with a scowl like Hades. Louise was curled up on the grass with her hands over her head. Allison meanwhile just shut off the nerves in her skin and stood there with her eyes screwed shut.

“Eww, ewww, eww…”

Thankfully, the tickle-fest quickly concluded with Chester summoning back his fingers. The clown threw his top-hat into the air and jumped inside, tugging the rim into the hole after him. “See you at dinner, kids!”

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

“So yeah,” said Tom, “that Dante bloke was a bloody winger.”

After that introductions were made. The Medusa girl was called Andrea, and could paralyze people with sustained eye-contact. And move at tremendous speeds. And shrink and grow in size.

“Wow, that’s”—Allison tried to think of a word the other kids might know—“eclectic.”     

“Yeah, she’s a real Billy,” said Tom, master of context-clues.

“Was that the kid who dropped dead?” asked Annie.

No,” Tom said firmly. “The one who looks like a tiger.”

“Oh, the one you never shut up about, got it.”

Arnold grinned

“Look, there isn’t much to talk about in here.”

“Sure. Softie.”

Tom didn’t dignify his old schoolmate with a response.

Then there was Liam, a slightly goatish boy with stubby horns growing from his forehead:

“So you’re a wizard?” asked Allison. “Like Penderghast?”

Liam shrugged. “I guess. Kinda self-taught. I think Mum’s a witch, but she’s real into God now. Still, I found an old book in the drywall. Probably that ‘evil’ Mum kept screaming about when she tried burning the house down.” He shook his head sady. “Freak-finders took it off me. But I still remember a lot” He started fretting his hands and speaking very slowly. “Or—I remember remembering, before the collar.” Liam tugged at it. “But how is knowing something a power? God, magic’s confusing.”

“I hear ya.”

Brent had skin like diamond and the strength to match. Paula could shoot garrote wire made of light from her fingers. One girl would only answer to the name “Thunder-Tiger2” and claimed to be the scion of two South Australian supervillains locked up a few floors down. 

All in all, a good bunch, Allison decided, though it occurred to her that she had no way of knowing if these kids were being honest. Still, they had to be in here for a reason.

“So what’s your plan, Allie?” asked Louise.

“You don’t really think they’re getting us out of here, do ya?” asked Andrea, hair hissing and snapping at the air around her head. 

“I don’t know,” said Louise. “Allison’s pretty smart. Or her power is, anyway.”

Thanks,” said Allison. 

“Doesn’t matter how smart they are,” said Liam. “Doc Danny built the stupid place, and he’s been in here long as anyone.”

“Look,” said Allison, “me and Arn—wait, who’s in here?”  

“Doc Danny,” said Tom. “Mad-scientist kid. ‘Bout you and Arn’s age. He built ‘the Garden’ for the freak-finders before they threw him in.” 

“Served him right,” added Angela.

Tom looked a touch queasy at that.

“Huh,” said Allison. “Like Daedalus.”

Arnold looked at her. “Who—oh, forget it…” 

He remembered, but decided not to mention it. Sometimes Allie needed her moments.

“Take us to him,” said Allison.

The inmates exchanged looks. 

“That might be tough,” said Andrea. “He’s hiding.”

Neither Arnold nor Allison needed to be told why.

“Can’t be that hard,” said Louise. “There’s only one place to hide here.”

Everyone trapsed to the toilet block. Allison kept her enhanced eyes trained on the horizon. She could make out the miniscule points of light that made up the “sky” like Ben-Day dots in a cheap comic, and even the seams behind them where two walls met. The illusion of distance.

Allison could feel the ground flowing subtly under her feet, too—not nearly so jarringly as during the tour, but enough they were essentially walking in place. Motion without progress. Instead, Lemonade Lake and Mother Goose’s hollow drifted past them like lily pads in a stream.   

“What have you guys been up to since… you know, the thing?” asked Louise.

“Um…” Arnold wasn’t sure where to start. 

Allison decided to start with the worst. “I ate Alberto.”

Louise stared at the other girl. “What?” 

“I mean, I kinda… sucked his soul into my brain. So now I have his power. And everything else.”

“Then we went to live with the Physician on his spaceship,” added Arnold. “He had a mermaid!”

“Jesus,” said Tom. 

“It was kinda alright until he made me eat another kid so I could fly.” Quickly, Allison added, “It’s okay, but. We’re friends now!”

Tom was beginning to wonder if he and Louise were better off in the Garden.

“And then the Flying Man killed him to death,” said Arnold. 

Tom nodded thoughtfully. “Guess that figures..”

“And now we live in his house.”

Louise asked, “You live with the Flying Man?” She glanced reflexively at the simulated sky. “Is he helping you?”

“Not really,” explained Arnold. “Just his mum. The Flying Man’s dead.”

Louise wasn’t sure what she ought to ask next. “…Does she have powers too?”

Arnold shook his head. “Not really. Just sorta old.”


“…I killed Lawrence.”

Louise went silent. Horror warred with a sick smile creeping towards her lips. She wasn’t sure she should be shocked at Arnold’s admission: she’d killed too, now.

“Aww, mate,” said Tom. “Sorry you had to… that.”

“I know.”

A second’s quiet, then Arnold shrugged. 

“He was an arse though, right?”


It went on like that until they reached the toilets. Or the toilets reached them.

Tom stood at the head of the crowd, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. “Oi! Danny Doc! Come on, we know you’re in there. Get on out here!”

A small whimper echoed out from the concrete block. 

Tom sighed and slumped his shoulders. “Look. I’m not gonna beat you up.”

“Again,” muttered Louise. 

 “Not proud of it,” Tom shot over his shoulder, before turning back to the block and yelling, “These new kids want to speak to ya!”

An angry but shaky little voice, “Oh, all the new kids want to speak to me!”

“Really speak to ya! They wanna ask you about this place!”

“I’ve told you, there is no ‘secret passage’! I didn’t build the place with my hands!”

“That’s it, I’m going in there,” said Allison. She stalked towards the entrance to the boy’s toilets.

A kid darted out of the other doorway, taking off into the distance.

Allison frowned. He’d been hiding in the girl’s. The creep

“Get back here—”

Allison shot past Tom after Doc Danny, pursuing him across the sponge carpet of the Garden. Symbols flashed in her mind’s eye, increasing the flow of adrenaline and blood to her legs, boosting her breathing and quieting protesting muscles. 

…Yet she couldn’t close the distance. How was this twerp—  

Oh, yeah, treadmill. 

Allison bent her knees and leapt as hard as she could, sailing a full ten feet into the air.  

The treadmill grass crossed the distance better than Allison ever could, pulling Doc Danny in underneath her. She landed on him with a thud, the ground flexing beneath them. 

Allison flipped the boy under her on his back, finding a mousy haired boy with thick clouds of freckles. He had a fading black eye and a missing tooth. Allison doubted it was a baby one.  

“I’m sorry!” he wailed. “I couldn’t say no! I don’t have powers like you—” 

Allison put a finger to Doc’s mouth. “Just tell me: what happens in here when they put the prison in lockdown.”

Doc blinked. Something like hope was born inside him. Or maybe just confusion. He tried to remember the protocols he’d written (dictated) when he was seven. “…Chester Fingers calls us all for a surprise movie. Supposed to distract us.”

Allison got off him. “Thank you.”

Come on, Comet, get a move on.

The other inmates gathered around the two.

“…Is he done explaining already?” asked Louise. “Seems pretty quick.”

Allison managed a smile. “He’s told me what I need to know.”

The cartoonishly springy sound sounded again over the Garden. Chester Fingers jumped down into their midst. 

“Oh lucky us, kids! It’s time for a surprise viewing of Tom Thumb and—

Allison nodded at Arnold. “Now!”

The pair struck the most dramatic poses they could:

“Costume on!”

A white flash.

The inmates oohed and awed at the sight of Arnold and Allison suddenly in their costumes. Allison though, shuddered. 

Their collars were gone. 

The music swamped Allison like a flood pouring into a canyon. So many songs. Orchestras of songbirds singing in strange, rarified atmospheres. Wind howling over mountains of delicate crystal. Drums like the breath of volcanoes…

An increasingly familiar voice chirped in Allison’s ear, “Yay, you can hear me again!”

Hi, Miri. 

“Oh, thank fuck. It was like being shoved in a footlocker.”

…Hi Alberto.

Allison grabbed onto as many songs as she could at once. It was hard, carrying them all on her soul—like trying to keep her toes curled around tightrope in zero gravity—but it felt so good.

The colours of her costume ran together until they were pure, gleaming white; except for the faint, flowing rainbows of the Muse’s star on her chest.

“Wow,” said Tom. “You look neat.”

Louise looked at her friend, surprised. 

“Well, she does.”

Allison looked down benignly at Doc Danny. She extended a hand for him. “You did good, Doc.”

Doc took the offered hand cautiously and pulled himself to his feet. “What happens now?”

Allison tapped a finger to his collar. “Let me get that for you—”

A green spark, and the collar vanished. Doc gasped with relief.

“I’m smart again!”


Allison tapped his neck again. The boy’s eyelids fluttered shut as sleep took him. He dissolved into green light with a thunderclap before he could hit the ground.

A murmur of confusion snaked through the inmates.

“You didn’t send him to the sun or something?” asked Tom. 

“He was fragile,” answered Allison. “I sent him somewhere safe.3

Chester Fingers spoke up. “I see you two have misplaced your safety bands. Allow me to give you a big hug while we wait for replacements.”

Chester Fingers’ arms shot out, extending like pythons and coiling around Arnold and Allison, and constricting tightly around their chests. Arnold lit up with lightning, but the arm around him only fuzzed like a bad TV signal. The other children shouted and pulled at the clown’s sleeve, trying to free the boy in the cloak.

Chester Fingers beamed. “Does someone want a tickle fight?”

Again, his fingers flew from his hand, swooping at the children like greedy magpies. 

“Everyone get back!”

The inmates obeyed, though mostly in a blind attempt to flee the fingers.

Allison burst into red and purple flames, becoming a white-hot coal at the centre of a hearth. Chester Fingers shimmered as the air broiled, the disruption melting him into a mess of light and force fields4

Allison and Arnold both fell to the ground, breathing heavily.

“Okay,” said Allison. “Now—”

The grass slid fast beneath every child, rapidly carrying them away from each other. 

Allison wished she hadn’t evacuated the Doc so fast.

Arnold lay on his back as the landmarks of the Garden swirled around him. He saw the toilets sailing off in the distance like a lifeboat current in a riptide.

The floor’s like a sliding puzzle.

He pointed at the toilet block. Lightning whipped from his fingers:

A mound of concrete and water exploded from under the middle of the Garden. The grass came to a screeching, grinding halt.

The children groaned and rubbed various sore spots as they collected themselves in the corners of the Garden they’d stopped in.

Arnold looked around. “Allie?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Arnold saw his friend fly at the sky: a white star in broad daylight.

Allison quickly reached the border of the false sky, clawing at it with fingers dressed in diamond skin. Thin fissures of white light spread through the blue, like cracks in a window about to shatter. 

The sky vanished, revealing grey concrete riddled with lights like hundreds of spider-eyes. The “grass” was now dull and grey, like a cross between lunar wastes and kitchen sponges. A slide spiraled down from the middle of the ceiling. The whole Garden it turned out was about the size and shape of a high school auditorium. 

Most importantly, there was a large, vaulted door set into the east wall, which Allison was presently smugly alighting in front of.

Arnold and the inmates ran to meet her, the former darting amongst them and teleporting away their collars all the while.

“You guys have a choice,” Allison said when all were gathered. “You can help me and Arnold mess with the people who locked you up, or we’ll send you to the same place we put Doc. No shame.”

The inmates exchanged looks. 

Tom’s eyes flashed white. It was good to be able to see through little things like two foot reinforced doors again. For the first time in months, he turned wireframe, almost casually strolling through Allison and the door.

There were very muffled shouts. A few seconds later, the door turned transparent and promptly fell through the floor.

Tom was standing in a sterile white lobby. A few guards and orderlies were sunk down to their waists in the smooth, polished floors, swearing and struggling.

“Well,” said Tom. “You guys coming?”   

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter


1. In the case of Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood and Santa Claus, he’d be right.

2. Similar to many other children of supervillains, Thunder-Tiger was her only legal name.

3. Specifically, the cabin of Mistress Quickly’s mobile bunker.

4. The administration considered having the Physician produce a warden, but aside from the upkeep costing more, it also occurred to them a physical drone could be ganged up on.

Chapter Eighty-Seven: The Supervillain Liberation Front

The Great Sandy Desert was slowly but steadily reclaiming Circle’s End. Its main street was clogged by sharp-toothed spinifex—nests for painted finches with bellies like the starry sky and tails like wicks of flame. Flying foxes roosted in burnt out miners’ cottages, out of reach of the feral cats prowling for hopping mice over charred and broken floors. 

The only part of Circle’s End that had escaped this transformation was Mabel Henderson. Until today. 

The most childish part of Mabel had feared finding her father or neighbours still lying in her hometown. But that was silly. It’d been three years. The bodies had been cleared away long ago. In some ways that was worse. Mabel couldn’t stop picturing her dad’s brain being dissected in some cold morgue. The freak-finders might as well have rounded up the ghosts and locked them up too.

Sarah Allworth put a hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault, honey.”

Mabel didn’t look up at the old woman. “So you know about me and here? Who told you? David, I bet.”


“I don’t remember saying she could tell you.”

David was jumping between spinifex bushes. “I think she wanted her to know in case you started… crying.”

Mabel frowned. “Why would I start crying?” she asked, hands on her hips.

David shrugged. “It’s just… this was your home. And you… there’s a lot of bad here, isn’t there?”

“Yeah. That’s why I didn’t tell.”

“I don’t think Allison meant any harm,” said Sarah. “She just wanted me to understand.”


Mabel couldn’t get too mad at Allison. She was trying, in her own weird Allie way. It was more than she could say for some people, lately. 

“I mean, you’re tough. I know you’re not gonna start crying, but it has to be better having people who know why this place is kinda spooky for you, right?”

“It’s not spooky!”

“Yes it is!” insisted David, stamping a foot in the dirt. “Your daddy died here! Lots of people did! Then they built a great big jail next to it for people like you! And I saw some big bats asleep in a house!”

“What do you care?” Mabel asked sourly. “We’re just… what does your granddad call us? ‘Souled animals’?”

David tilted his head. “Why wouldn’t I care? You’re my friend! You’re my first friend.”

Mabel pouted and turned her back to the boy. “Haven’t been treating me like it. These days you only play with Arnold and Allison! And that’s only because Allie’s weird like you and Arn’s’s pretty!”

“You’ve been getting all lovey dovey with Arnold too!”  

“You’ve been hogging him!”

“…Not my fault he thinks I’m prettier than you.”

“You take that back!”

“Oh, for crying out loud!” cried Mrs Allworth. “We’re here for a prison break! Can you stop mooning over Arnold for five minutes?”

The children both looked at Sarah. 

“…Most grown ups are weirder when David says Arnold’s pretty,” remarked Mabel.

Sarah scoffed. “My son was from outer-space and shot lasers from his eyes. What I would’ve given for queer some days.”

David looked back at Mabel, before stepping over and giving his friend a stiff hug. 

“I think being all… Grandfather isn’t working anymore.”

Mabel hugged him back. “Coulda told you that ages ago.”

David sniffed.

“Doesn’t mean I want to be Mealy again, though…”

“You weren’t Mealy for ages back at school. You were fine. Didn’t play with me nearly enough, but fine.”

“I don’t know how to go back there.”

“Me neither.”

“…You’re still mad at me, aren’t you?”


“I still love you and junk, Mabel.” 

“Love ya too. Still mad. Not as much now, but still.”


Sarah looked on with approval, deciding not to spoil the moment with commentary. 

Her radio-watch buzzed. Sarah raised her wrist. “That you, Ralph?”

A few miles away, crammed in a bathroom stall with his shoulders squished between the walls, the Crimson Comet hissed down his own communicator. “Who else would it be?”

“Blancheflor, for one.”

Ralph pretended to wait for the bloke in the next stall to flush before answering. 

“Are Maude and the kids in?”

“Yep! Threw them to the lions myself! Can we get a move on?”

Sarah frowned. “What’s eating you, Mr. Rivers?”

“Besides the prison break masterminded by the thief and the nine year old I just watched get collared like dogs? Maybe it’s the fact I’m stuck playing nice with concentration camp guards. It’s like giving a press conference to the SS!”

“I see. Hang tight, Ralph. It’s all part of the plan” 

The connection clicked off. Ralph sighed. The guards would probably send a search party if he didn’t get back to jackboot zoo.

Mrs Allworth turned back to the children. “It’s time, Mabel.”

Mabel nodded. “Okay.”

“Find somewhere shady to sit,” ordered Sarah. “I don’t trust sunscreen.”

She also didn’t trust the camera-jammer Mistress Quickly had given them. Or the gun. 

Mabe quickly pointed to an adolescent desert walnut growing next to the general store. 

“It was a sapling when I left…” 

Mabel sat down cross legged in the dusky green shadows of the walnut’s canopy and laid her sketchbook open in her lap. Mrs Allworth and David settled either side of her.

“We’re both here if you need anything, child” said Sarah. “And keep taking sips from your water-bottle. Dehydration can sneak up on ya.” 

“I know,” said Mabel.

She took a deep breath, turning her gaze down at her drawings. The skeins of pressure that always curled around Mabel’s veins flowed from her fingertips into the paper.

Not too far away, a glowing, statuesque woman with colourfully streaked white hair appeared on the desert sands. She wore a catsuit like a rainbow being eaten by a black hole. 

Polychroma, Mabel called her. She’d gotten in the super way when a comet smashed into her daddy’s paint-factory. Mabel had discovered her drawings were more keen to step into reality when they had a name and story waiting for them, even just half a paragraph scribbled in the bottom corner of the page.

Next came Sam Stretch in his bubblegum pink body-glove. He got caught in a radioactive taffy-puller. Then the WAR Correspondent, the rogue photojournalist with the plutonium powered camera, cursed never to take another picture without blowing his subject to smithereens. 

“Or he could buy a new camera,” pointed out David.

Mabel elbowed him in the ribs. “Thin ice, buster.”

Evolvulon, the man from the year 1000,000,000 with a telekinetic brain shaped like a planet. Mabel didn’t know if Lawrence would have laughed or winced at that, and she didn’t care. The Thing from Venus, a living puddle of liquid lead. For nostalgia’s (and her ray-gun’s) sake, the lady astronaut Mabel had finally decided was called Captain Williams. 

Soon the desert was crowded with over fifty colourful characters. Titans and monsters. The Supervillain Liberation Front. Mabel was drained. She had enough power left in her for one more animation. Nothing fancy. No flying, or energy blasts, or quantum warping—whatever that meant. Maybe super-strength. Or a big, booming voice.

Mabel knew she had enough characters for the plan. Might’ve been smart to keep something in reserve. 

She sighed and turned a page.

“Ooh,” said Sarah, “I like that one.”

Mabel gave her a small smile. “Thanks.”

One more figure appeared facing the Supervillain Liberation Front. He was broader than he was tall, covered in heavy armour the colour of the evening sky, with what resembled a tuning fork topped with a bubbling sunspot jutting out of his forehead. He wielded a heavy pick-axe, its blade forged from cyan light like an aurora caught in clear winter ice. A gemstone beard grew from his stoney chin, and his cheeks were riddled with craters and striations. 

Or smallpox scars.

If you asked the creature his name, he would have told you his name was Garox, King of Saturn: soon-to-be ruler of Earth. Mabel would’ve told you the same thing. But she was thinking of someone else when she was drawing him. Mabel hadn’t dared give Garox that man’s name, but she couldn’t put him out of her thoughts. The gits had turned their home into a prison. They’d defiled her dad’s grave, such as it was. How could she not let him have a go at them?

In a rough, cigarette scarred voice, louder than thunder but softer than the washing tides, the alien king that had once been Drew Anderson boomed, “Time to get to work, lads. Everyone’s waiting on us.”

Mabel leaned back against the gnarled bark and smiled sadly.

Go get em’, Dad.  

The Crimson Comet leaned against the kitchen bench in the Supermax break-room, sipping a mug of very bad coffee. 

It was amazing. A secret, state of the art facility—where even the bloody staff kitchen looked like an unused Forbidden Planet set—and they still wouldn’t spring for a bean that didn’t taste like a bushfire. 

Eleven guards were clustered around the superhero, watching him with giddy expectation like he was about to start vomiting sweets or break into song and dance. 

They were about a third right: it did make Ralph want to be sick. 

“Can you show us how you make your wings come out again, Mr. Comet?”

A sigh threatened to break Ralph’s false smile. He forced it down. “Sure thing!” Ralph cleared his throat. “Daedalus.”

The silvery metal mound on the Crimson’s Comet’s back unfolded into his new wing harness. An anticipatory crackle of electricity rippled across the metal

Ralph was told that was a clever reference. He wouldn’t know.

The guards whooped and applauded. Ralph felt like he was doing primary school assemblies again. If he had hated children. 


The wings retracted into the backpack again. That allusion Ralph got. Mad scientists and their whimsy.

“So,” asked a young man with a schoolyard bully cast to his features, “how did you get into your business?”

Ralph gulped down the latest mouthful of liquid ash. “I got a costume and started beating up robbers till I started running into supervillains.” 

“Oh,” said another guard. “I heard a burglar broke into your mansion, shot your ma, and then your dad sewed wings onto your back so you could fight crime.”

Ralph had to force his laugh not to sound derisive. Was that what those comics were pushing? He didn’t know what was more outlandish. The stuff about his wings, the idea his father knew how to sew, or him growing up in a mansion. “Maybe he did!”

A guard with a ginger cowlick protruding from under his helmet raised an eyebrow. “Wings made of solid metal?”

Ralph grinned hollowly and threw his arms up. “Why not?”

“Wings that changed shape…”

Ralph finally allowed himself to frown. “Look, boys, I’m not here to share my secret identity, you feel me?”

The murmured grunts of acknowledgment and poorly masked disappointment blended seamlessly into the office muzak. 

Ralph started calculating how much more coffee he needed to drink to justify another bathroom break, but the guards refused to let the conversation die:

“Who knew Mistress Quickly had such a figure,” exclaimed one of them. “You’d think she’d be all pasty and flabby from working in a lab all day.”

Oh, God. “Guy talk.” Straight guy talk. They had invented gay bars so he could avoid this shit.

The overgrown school tough waggled his eyebrows at Ralph. “You gonna tell us how you got her out of—” 

Gross straight guy talk. 

I’m in Hell. Mistress Quickly killed me, and this is my Hell. 

Before the Crimson Comet could either try to fake piggishness or launch into an appropriately moralistic lecture, a siren blared through the staff-room.

Red alert, red alert. All hands stand ready for potential incursion by enemy demi-humans. 

The automated warning was interrupted by the shaky voice of Warden McNoll. 

“Ah, could the Crimson Comet report to my office? Please?”

Oh, thank fuck. 

Ralph practically tipped over the table in his haste to obey, but he couldn’t resist firing just one jab over his shoulder as he went: “Are you boys really that desperate?”

Frances McNoll was pacing back and forth in front of his space-age desk, plowing a trench in the thick shag carpet.

The Crimson Comet flung open his office door:

“What’s going on, warden? Bloody siren just about popped my eardrums!”

McNoll let out a high-pitched yelp of surprise. The last thing he needed right now was people who dressed like that bursting in on him.

“I—they…” He pointed resignedly at his desk. “Just look at the screen.”

Ralph rushed behind the work station. He whistled at the sight of the inbuilt television monitor. “Wow, colour! Wish I had one of these for the old Fortress of Solitude…”

“Focus, man, focus!”

Ralph made a show of blinking in shock. 

The monitor was tuned to a camera facing out over the raw desert plains between the Supermax complex and the Circle’s End ruins, where a crowd of loudly costumed figures had gathered in a loose rabble. Some of them were only recognizable as people because they happened to be screaming and shouting, albeit mutely  Many were waving bizarre weapons: startlingly streamlined ray-guns, laser-swords, or in one case, an oversized camera with a glowing green rod jutting out of it1. The whole scene was like a Georges Méliès film from a world where colour had come before talkies. 

The Crimson Comet tutted gravely. “Just as I feared—”

By a stroke of kismet, Mrs Allworth chose that moment to switch on one of the gadgets Mistress Quickly left her:

The sirens died, replaced by a gravelly voice heavy with menacing bass notes:

Circle’s End Supermax, your ears are privileged to hear the voice of Garox: Emperor of Saturn and its associated moons, and acting leader of the Supervillain Liberation Front!

If Frances McNoll weren’t completely filled with terror right then, he might have been surprised such a voice belonged to royalty. It sounded more like colleagues he’d known whose life choices could be boiled down to “tradie,” “prison-guard,” or “prison-guarded.” A small part of him dimly recalled hearing that Saturn didn’t have a solid surface, but that was drowned out by the rest of him screaming.  

Ralph, conversely, had to suppress a smile.  

Garox continued, “Listen here, Circle’s End. You are harbouring one of our enemies, the blasted Crimson Comet! He has delivered three of our greatest allies into your filthy human hands: Mistress Quickly, Elsewhere, and the mighty Symphony, sum and total of us all! You have but one hour to hand over them, along with the rest of your inmates!

Frances shook his head. “He can’t be serious…”

“Dead serious, I’m afraid,” said the Crimson Comet. “I barely escaped the SLF with my life.”

A new voice replaced Garox, this one high and wheedling:

I am Evolvulon: man from the year One Billion AD.

“The year One Billion?”

“I think he’s rounding up,” commented Ralph. 

The history crystals of my time reveal that all attempts at resisting the SLF are doomed to failure. We will succeed in transitioning the Earth into a supervillainy based economy. That is all.”

Ralph had wondered during the planning sessions if Evolvulon was over-egging things a bit, but given how McNoll was clutching the sides of his head and cursing at the carpet…

“Shitting fucking Hell!” The warden glared up at the Crimson Comet. “What does ‘supervillainy based economy’ even mean?” 

The Comet shrugged. “I didn’t stick around for a lecture. I think it means everyone gets powers and a costume. Oh, and instead of jobs, people do heists.” The superhero smiled and twirled a finger next to his head. “Wacko, right?”

Mcnoll growled, “You brought them here.”

Ralph’s expression snapped back to solemn. “I’m sorry, Warden. I was sure I’d lost them around Kalgoorlie.” He let out a theatrical sigh. “It’s my fault.”

Frances moaned. “What am I going to do?”

“Well, you could do as they say?”

Worth a shot.

McNoll sputtered. “Are you mad? I can’t hand over a hundred and ten demis to other demis! Valour would shit down my throat!”

Ralph believed him. “Of course not, I was joking.”

“Clearly!” The warden’s knees nearly gave out beneath him. “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die…”

Ralph sighed again, this time genuinely. He walked over to the warden and gently took the man by the shoulders. “Calm down, mate. We can get through this.”

Frances looked up at the superhero. The beginnings of tears were beading in the corner of his eyes. In a very small voice, he asked, “We can?”

Ralph nodded. “You just have to trust me. I have a plan.”

Those words were like pure light to Frances McNoll. Big decisions were the one aspect of authority he could do without. The warden of Circle’s End Supermax was a creature of routine and protocol; carrying out orders from higher ups so distant, they might as well have been God Himself. 

One aspect Frances was very into, though, was deferring responsibility. 

  Within twenty minutes, the Crimson Comet was standing on the access road in front of the prison, preparing to address over two hundred and fifty guards and soldiers. Not a bad turnout. Allison no doubt would’ve liked even more of them out here, but every bit helped.  

For every two true humans, there was one hulking Physician drone, their faces concealed behind armoured black gas-masks. Ralph wondered if they even had faces under there2. He could make out their muscles twitching with anticipation under their Kevlar sleeves. If what Blanchefor had told Ralph about them was true, this was probably like standing at the gates of Paradise for them.

Ralph cleared his throat. “I know you all must be frightened—”

Hundreds of shouted protests. Vain fools. But not strictly speaking incorrect

“…Or not. The enemies we go to fight are fierce! Inhuman! But we are men. Today we fight not only for our lives, but for the future of our country! Perhaps the future of the bloody human race! And are we going to let a bunch of freaks trample on us?

A “No!” like the roaring sea. 

One near the front though raised his hand like a boy in a classroom. “But the future man said he knew we’d lose…”

Ralph glared at the guard. This was no time for  short-term memory.

“Well, of course he’d tell you that, wouldn’t he? Use your head!”

The dissenting guard’s neighbours all started booing and shoving the poor bastard. 

Ralph raised a hand, barking. “Enough of that! We have a job to do! Follow me!”

Ralph turned and launched himself out onto the desert, scorching the road and fusing the sands below him into glass.

Behind him, a siren blared the windowed rim of the prison building closed shut like a frightened clam. Lockdown. Just as McNoll eagerly promised the Comet. Just as Allison had hoped. 

Ralph came to a sharp stop with the help of his new wings. Had to give the men time to catch up. He wished he had a cigarette. 

The Supervillain Liberation Front were still milling about when the Crimson Comet and his conquering army fell upon them. 

Garox roared, “Attack!”

 In seconds, the desert plains burned with combat. A squad of men tried to flank the WAR Correspondent, only to get blown back with the force of a focused hurricane as he manically snapped picture after picture. The villain giggled shrilly. “I’m shoo-in for the Pugilitser with these snaps!” 

Ralph rolled his eyes. He wondered whether he ought to compliment or chastise Mabel for that one later. 

 Bullets bounced off Sam Stretch’s elongated form like raindrops on a trampoline, until a couple of drones managed to grab him by the arms, savagely pulling until the rubber-man tore in half, splattering the surrounding guards with blood like corn syrup.

Most of the guards caught in the splash-zone squirmed and groaned in disgust. A few of the less battle-high ones even screamed. The drones roared in pure, ecstatic triumph.  

Evolvulon was standing serenely in the middle of the fray, fired bullets orbiting him while half a dozen guards thrashed and shouted ten feet above his head. A drone was struggling to escape the heavy liquid grasp of the Thing from Venus.

If any of the guards or dones were in any state to objectively examine their situation, they might have noticed that they’d failed to sustain any casualties. The SLF seemed content to just knock about the forces of the Supermax, even as their own numbers were slowly, painfully whittled down. One side was playing Cowboys and Indians, the other Vietnam. 

Ralph was “dodging” poorly-aimed energy bolts from a lady astronaut’s laser-gun when he found himself being pulled around by his shoulders.

He found himself facing a blue-armoured brick wall of a man with a face made of rock and almost purple eyes. Garox, if Ralph recalled right.

Ralph Rivers grabbed Garox’s hands and pushed him back. Garox resisted, the force of their grappling sending shockwaves through the sand surrounding them. 

The guards were cheering. The “villains” were jeering and snarling like the caricatures they were.

The fictional tyrant shouted, “You’ll pay for this, Crimson Comet!”

Garox winked. Ralph winked back.

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1. Mabel thought of it as plutonium, not that plutonium ever glows green in such a manner.

2. They did. The Physician deemed jaws to be a useful weapon in a pinch.

Chapter Eighty-Six: Purgatorium

Warden Frances McNoll was painfully out of place in his office. He was a stolidly middle-aged civil servant whose slightly oversized midsection could’ve terminated at the waist in a complaints desk. Yet here he was parked behind what resembled a starship’s command console, bejeweled with gently flashing switches and buttons. It’d taken McNoll the better part of a month to figure them all out, with the manual. 

The whole room was the nightmare brainchild of mod mad-science and baroque alien design. The walls were a mess of clashing pastels, holding up a mirrored ceiling reflecting down the pink shag carpet like a hairy sunset sky.  

The decor didn’t bother the warden. He was its boss, goddamnit! 

Circle’s End Supermax was a crime. A place where people were left to be forgotten or rendered down into second hand miracles, where even a life sentence was too finite. A place where the only crimes that mattered were accidents of birth and chance.

A better man would have balked at being asked to run such a place. A worse man could have nurtured it into an empire. Frances McNoll, though, was content with being called “sir.”

The DDHA and Australian prison service could’ve done much worse than put Frances McNoll in charge of the Circle’s End Supermax. He wasn’t a sadist by any standard. But fifteen years at Fremantle Gaol had thoroughly calloused McNoll’s social conscience. He didn’t question that men and women he knew as heroes, and children not ten years old were left to rot in his prison. He was courteous and obliging when Dr. John Smith and his disciples came looking for test subjects.

That was only the bare minimum for the job, though. What made Frances McNoll a perfect fit was his utterly unambitious power lust. It was the same clammy thrill he got being picked for milk monitor1 in primary school. It was what inspired awed jealousy in him watching the prefects march through the halls in grammar school. The simple, pure power to say, “No. Do this.” And wielding that power at the behest of absent authority meant he didn’t even have to think of what to say. 

Not that Frances would ever have put it in those words. Far as he was consciously concerned, the chief benefits of his position were the paycheck and the excuse to not live with his family. He did hope he could retire directly after it, though—Frances wasn’t sure how you put running a secret prison on your resume.   

The television screen built into McNoll’s desk cycled through different camera-views while he sipped his coffee and thumbed through a copy of Women’s Day2. Soft desert plains glowing red like the sea at dusk behind a force-field reinforced fence. Burned out hovels in the Circle’s End Quarantine Zone, empty for the moment of hazard suited scientists waving geiger counters like dowsing rods. The Level 7 holding cells: ten spheres of silver cogs sunk halfway into the floor—each containing a trapped super like a carton of eggs.

The uncertain voice crackled from the speaker on McNoll’s desk. “Uh, sir, there’s a superhero parked at the fence.”

Huh. Frances wasn’t expecting Valour till Thursday. “Buzz him—” His eyes bugged. “What?”

“I mean, fella’s all dressed up in a shiny red costume, so I’d put money on it. He just rolled up in this panel-van—oh, he’s opening the boot. He’s pulling out… some kids? And a naked lady? And they’re all tied up—” A pause. “Are we sure he’s a superhero?”

Mcnoll’s coffee sloshed out of his mug as he slammed it down on his desk. “God’s alive, Menches! Which camera?”

“F-6 should give you the best view.”

His television screen switched to a shot of the prisoners’ gate. The Crimson Comet of all bloody people was waving at the camera from behind the force-field. Except his wings were wrong. They weren’t feathered, but sharp and angular, like an art-deco angel. A little boy and girl were squirming, trussed up like hogs beside his feet. He had his hand clamped hard on the shoulder of an angry woman standing next to him in her underwear, hands bound at her waist. The superhero had placed a placard in front of him:


A broad, if confused grin spread across Frances McNoll’s face. He had a feeling a lot more people would be calling him ‘sir’ soon.

“Buzz him in.”

Ralph Rivers was swimming in his costume. He didn’t feel the heat as keenly as some men, but this was the Great Sandy Desert, and the Crimson Comet wore all leather. He bet he squelched when he moved. The weight of his new wings was strange. Too light. Maude said these things could deflect bullets, but he felt like he was wearing foam. 

He was ashamed of his discomfort. It had to be nothing next to what Maude and the kids were in for. 

“You sure about this?” he asked Maude.

Mistress Quickly made a good show of struggling against Ralph’s grip, grunting, “I’m standing in my knickers in the middle of a scorching desert in front of a prison stuffed full of drooly blokes—some of whom have records as long as my arm and superpowers—hundreds of miles from civilization. What makes you think I haven’t thought long and hard about this?” She glared down at Allison. “At least you picked the gay guy for this.”

Ralph looked down at Allison wriggling on the access road. “Remind me why Miss Simmons has to be naked?”

Allison sat up as best she could and shouted. “Everyone knows Mistress Quickly is just an inventor, you big meanie!”

Ralph nodded. “I guess that makes sense.” He turned his head back to Maude, but seemed to look past her. “Stay close.”

Maude felt a brush against her hand. It was reassuring. 

Arnold strained against his bindings, trying to scratch the itch on his neck against the asphalt. “You sure they’re gonna come out and get us, Allie?”

“Yep,” replied Allison. “Only thing I am sure of.”

The next few minutes worth of futures were very consistent. But then the clouds of probability gave way to barren blue sky. 

It was… creepy. Expected, planned for, but creepy. Funny how quickly you could grow accustomed to precognition.

Allison tried to put the rapidly approaching void out of her mind, instead focusing on the overwhelming abundance of music. Since the Institute, she’d had to content herself with the familiar rhythms of her friends. They were powerful. Comfortable. Reliable. But it was lean

Here, song rose from the desert sands like shimmering heat. A buried orchestra of power over a hundred strong. Allison’s kind, trapped beneath the earth. 

There would be silence soon. But not for long.

“Oh, great,” said Maude. “That’s real comforting.”

“Shush up,” said Ralph. “They’re coming.”

A beige uniformed man with a ruddy freckled face was trying to march confidently up to the prisoner’s gate, flanked on both sides by oversized, rifle-toting guards clad head to toe in black. The man in the middle appeared to be struggling to keep apace.  

The guards’ outfits made Ralph wince. He was better dressed for the desert.  

The three reached the gate. 

“Well I’ll be,” said the man in the least painful looking uniform. “The Crimson Comet. Warden Frances McNoll. I’d shake your hand but…” He gestured at the force-field enclosed gate between them.  

Ralph smiled. “Understood, sir. Have some prisoners for ya.” 

Allison writhed on the ground. “You’ll all die! You’ll get the gas!”

Arnold joined in, “Eat your life! Eat skulls!”

For her part, Maude just stood there scowling darkly at McNoll. 

“Is that the Mistress Quickly?” asked McNoll. “Does she always… underdress?”

Ralph forced a laugh and slapped Maude heartily on the back. It felt like smacking tensed steel.  “Well I couldn’t let her keep her utility belt on, could I?”

“Could’ve let me keep my overalls…” 

Ralph said, “Should have thought about that before trying to bring back the Black Death, young lady3.”

God, he felt like a bastard. 

Mcnoll blinked. “The Black Death?”

“Yeah!” Allison cried. “Quickly was brewing it so it’d wipe out all you stupid humans!”

“I told you it was a dumb plan!” Arnold shouted. “We shoulda killed them with our bare hands.”

The warden swallowed. “I think we owe you a debt, Mr. Comet.”

“Think nothing of it,” said Ralph. “I just want them secured before they get up to any more shenanigans.” 

Mcnoll nodded. “We’re on the same page then.”

The warden punched in some numbers on a keypad by the gate. The force-field vanished as the grill of the gate retracted like vines growing backwards. 

The guards stepped forward. They were both nearly a head taller than Ralph, and neither had uttered so much as a word until now:

“We shall restrain the children’s powers.”

The guard’s accent was unplaceable, but there was a tension to it that reminded Allison of her parents when they’d discovered what she’d done to the shower.

She looked into the pair’s minds. The lights of their thoughts were as ordered as she remembered Mr. Thumps’ being, but wobbling with rage like stars being pulled at by gas giants. Blazing fires of anger under cold lakes of sedatives and Pavlovian conditioning. 

Miserable gits. Probably doing them a favour… 

The guards each removed a metal strip from their belts, both adorned with a jewel filled with glowing blue fluid. They bent down and snapped them around Arnold and Allison’s necks almost in unison. 

The collars tightened like second skin. Allison gasped. 

The music fled. The air became thin and empty. The entire world had become the Quiet Room. 

Allison clenched her fists.

Don’t freak out, don’t freak out…   

The guards proceded to hoist the children into their arms like new fathers picking a baby for the first time. 

Arnold screwed his eyes shut. It felt like his mother was carrying him to bed. But wrong

“Would it be possible for me to escort the prisoners to processing?” asked the Crimson Comet. “I worked hard to catch them. Peace of mind, you know.”

“Of course,” replied McNoll. “The men will all be clamouring for a look at you.”

The guards led the way through the gate with Maude squished between them, the Comet and McNoll following a few steps behind. They were bordered on either side by long force-field walls. Guard posts loomed over them every yard or so, manned by snipers. Allison couldn’t guess if they were human or Physician-made. As far as she could tell, they could’ve been store mannequins. 

Ralph was looking ahead at the prison’s main building. It was an odd looking building—like a grounded flying saucer with a rim of glass windows. Well, Blancheflor had said an alien designed it. He also said the holding cells were all underground. A flower with deep, poisonous roots.      

 “Comet, I’m sorry to ask, but how’d you know where to find us? We aren’t exactly in the yellow-pages.” 

“The freak-finders have me on call.” He tapped the side of his nose. “Need to know, of course.”

McNoll nodded warily. It made sense, he supposed. He’d checked the Comet’s file before he’d even stepped outside. The man was sanctioned, but the file didn’t say for what. Still, it was all very irregular. Frances didn’t like irregular. Irregular meant his bosses asking questions. His bosses asking questions meant a reminder that McNoll had bosses. That there were more rungs on the ladder, and people at the top waiting for him to slip.

Still, if he didn’t let the Crimson Comet in, his men would sulk at him for months. And he was giving him the three most wanted supervillains in the country. Tim Valour would worship him as a fucking god.  

Doors of reinforced glass slid open with a hiss. A desert breeze shriveled and died in crisp climate-controlled air. Mercifully human guards immediately fell upon the drones, removing the children from their arms and cutting the ropes around their wrists and ankles. They didn’t replace the bindings with handcuffs, much to Arnold’s surprise. Not Allison’s, however. They were just kids now. 

She let the walking corpses prod and poke at her. One of the men hissed in her ear, “My sister was at Royal Exhibition Hall, you little shit.”

“Was she the fat lady or the one with the wispy little beard?”

The guard slapped Allison across the face. She barely flinched. Everything felt numb right now.

Ralph frowned, resisting the urge to bolt forward and clobber the man. He did allow himself to remark, “A bit excessive.”

McNoll shrugged. “Girl’s a terrorist, Comet. Besides, not like she’s a real kid.”

The Crimson Comet raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“The stuff these kids can do, kind of disqualifies…” The warden remembered who he was talking to. “I mean—it has to vary, don’t it? For every few weirdos like her and Miss October over there, at least we get one of them that turns out proper like you.”


Allison was pushed into a small, lilac-lit room. One of the walls was dominated by a one-way window. Allison felt like she was back at McClare. Or not. At least McClare had music. At least this place probably didn’t have any pianos.

A neutral, female voice filled the room. “Please step into the circle.”

There was indeed a dark purple circle in the middle of the floor. 

Curiosity pricked at Allison. “What happens if I don’t?”

“The floor will be electrified.”

Well, they were better at this than McClare. Allison trudged into the circle.

“Scanning. Please stand still.”

A wall of purple light appeared to Allison’s left, closing in on her.

The girl rolled her eyes as it washed over her. She needed to introduce this computer to Blanchey. Maybe the purple and the blue was a boy-girl thing. 

“Scan complete. Inmate is clean of unwanted technology. Biology shows signs of physical enhancement, adjusting containment parameters.”

A panel in the ceiling slid open, dropping a set of folded, child-sized white coveralls in front of Allison’s feet. 

“Please dress in the garment provided.”

Allison frowned at the mirror. “Doesn’t look easy to go to the bathroom in.”

“Floor will be electrified in sixty seconds.”

“Okay, okay, I’m doing it.”

She quickly stripped off and slipped into the jumpsuit. 

“What now?”

“You will be deposited in the Juvenile Rehabilitation Area.”


The circle gave way like a trapdoor beneath Allison’s feet. She screamed as she dropped into a dark tube.

The tube quickly curved beneath her. She was sliding. It was a slide, bending and turning as she built up speen.

Even through the fog of her sudden deafness, Allison had to grin. “Wheeee!”   

She turned a corner and found herself hurtling towards a light. Allison braced herself.

She shot out of the transport slide (the DDHA’s one positive contribution to mankind), landing with a thud in something thick and spongy. 

Allison recovered fast, rolling over and getting back to her feet. She was standing on what felt and looked and felt like a field of grass made out of trampoline, surrounded by boundless hills and skies. But there was a hole in the world just in front of her, a dark mole in the skin of the world. The slide exit, she realized.

She stepped forward to examine it, only for the hole to close, leaving only thin air.


Allison looked around. The sky was shoddy. She swore she could see paint streaks. The clouds were cartoonishly fluffy and regular, like they’d been sourced from her old bedroom wallpaper. There was a forest in the difference, but the trees were all too-triangular illustrated pine. 

Fake. The whole place was fake.

She felt a sudden urge to set it all on fire.

“Hey, new meat.”

Allison turned around to find a small crowd of children regarding her with wary fascination, all in coveralls like her own. 

At the head of the crowd was an elfin looking girl with dark blue hair, next to a brown skinned older boy with a look of disdainful confusion.

“Tom? Louise?”

“Jeez, Allie, they got you too?” Tom Long squinted. “And what the hell happened to your eyes?”

Small worlds. 

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1. A staff member or student trusted to make sure school children drank their state mandated milk.

2. As in all government buildings, it was seemingly the only magazine on site.

3. Technically speaking, the bubonic plague had yet to be wiped out in 1965.

Chapter Eighty-Five: The Comet’s Wake

Iszac Steel was wiping down the counter of Clark’s when the menagerie of liquor bottles behind him started shaking and rattling. The mechanical barman swivelled on his base, alarmed. 

“Blanchey, my man, why didn’t you tell me we were due for a sea-quake?”

“My apologies Mr. Steel, but I detect no unusual seismic activity.”

“Then what’s—”

The bottles began exploding, one after another, glass shrapnel raining almost musically against Iszac’s metal body. Their contents swirled together above Steel’s head, flowing like a river down to the floor and forming into the shape of a child in front of the bar. Currents of blue, green and amber liquid flushed warm brown as it transfigured into flesh and blood. 

“Stupid Allie, tricking me…” 

Iszac Steel let out a burst of loud, staticky swearing. “For crying out loud, kid, some of that stuff was a thousand years old!”

“Not my fault you didn’t have a fountain or something in your stupid bar!” David shot back. “Besides, if it was so good, why did nobody drink it in a thousand years?”

A quick program query confirmed for Iszac that Mr. Allworth did indeed consider corporal punishment of children injurous to humans. 

Okay, but— 

It also turned out that Mr. Allworth didn’t discriminate between human children and the offspring of elemental chaos gods. 

Inwardly cursing Asimov and all his works, Iszac Steel settled for telling David, “You know kid, one of these days you’re going to tick off someone who can put you in your place.”

 “I doubt it,” David said over his shoulder as he stormed out of the cocktail bar. Momentarily curious, he licked at the liquor coating the back of his hand. His face screwed up in disgust.

Bleh. It tasted like too-ripe bananas, times a million. How did Alberto stomach this stuff? 

David stifled a yawn as he stalked through the halls of Lyonesse, leaving boozy footsteps behind him. He was bone-tired. It was so unfair. He’d only slept three days ago. He was a god. Why should gods need to nap?

He didn’t want to sleep. He didn’t want to dream. 

Another yawn. 

Stupid person-body… 

He could do this, David told himself. He wasn’t afraid of anything anymore.  

Instead of setting up in one of Lyonesse’s many artfully and not-so-artfully decored bedrooms, David had taken to sleeping—trying to sleep—in the moonpool in the submarine bay. Mattresses (and hammocks) were for humans. Air was for humans. He didn’t need it.

Today, he found someone sitting on top of the submarine. 

“Hello David,” said Ralph. He averted his eyes slightly from the boy’s nudity. “Mind putting your costume on, mate?”

David glared at him from the edge of the moonpool. “Yes.” 

What Ralph wouldn’t have given for a dead Nazi’s jacket. He sniffed and frowned. “Why the heck do you smell like booze?”

David sat down and dipped his legs in the water. “None of your business.” 

The water around the submarine boiled and surged. If that scared Ralph at all, it didn’t show. He gave David a melancholy smile. “Your mother used to do this when I tried giving her a bath. Not sure why a mermaid would be so against that.”

David fumed. He wasn’t sure why that made him so angry. Nothing wrong with mermaids. Except when he said it. “Mummy was not a mermaid.” 

Ralph ignored the rudeness of the boy’s tone and instead forced a chuckle.

“Hah. She’d have disagreed with you, once upon a time. Told me that was what she was every time I asked.”

“You wouldn’t have understood if she told you the truth. None of your lot do.”

 Ralph shrugged.

“Try me.”

“We aren’t people,” said David. “We’re water.”

Ralph raised an eyebrow. Gently, he asked, “Could you tell me how water is different from people?”

David scowled, but didn’t respond right away. The boy had shadows under his eyes.

“Water’s bigger,” he said eventually. “Purer. Less… muddy.”


David nodded.

“Normal people do bad stuff just cuz someone tells them to. Normal people don’t know what’s important. Water’s… bigger,” he repeated.

Ralph had to make an effort not to just yell at the kid, yell about how wrong he was.

“I’ve seen your grandfather do some pretty awful things, you know. Ripped people apart in front of me. You telling me that’s pure?”

David shrugged.

“Sure. He’s bigger. Why should he care about you?”

Ralph chuckled.

“Because your mother cried the first time she ever ate a sausage roll.” He smiled at that, the memory making his heart a little lighter, even decades later. “Sat there on a sofa just babbling about how anything could taste so good. Water didn’t figure out sausage rolls, David. Neither did gods. That was people. That’s why you care.”

David snorted angrily.

“Whatever. Some guy out there was cool enough to make sausage rolls. So what? Does he want a cookie? He was probably just as messed up as the rest of you.”

Ralph pondered that for a moment.

“How about Arnold?”

David looked over at him.


“Arnold.” Ralph repeated. He held out a hand a few feet above the ground. “Thin kid? About this tall? Likes to teleport stuff?”

“What about him?”

Ralph shrugged.

“Is he a fuck-up too?”

David hesitated.


Ralph let that hang there for a minute or two, then asked:

“Is he a person?”

“No—” came the angry reply, aborted halfway through. “—I mean. Sure, he’s a person. But he’s better!

“Better because he has powers?”

“No!” David snapped. “He’s better cuz he’s not an arse!”

Ralph sighed. That was a relief. At least the kid wasn’t completely racist. Just… biased. Ralph supposed that was understandable. He hadn’t exactly had the best of role-models back at the institute.

Ralph let the silence stretch for a bit, then he sniffed.

“Lawrence was an arse,” he murmured, shooting a sideways glance at David. The boy was glowering at the floor, not responding. Ralph nodded. “Yeah. Right old cunt, that one.”

Again, David didn’t disagree.

“… Then why’d you leave my mummy with him?”

Ralph shrugged.

“Because he wasn’t as obvious about it when I met him. Hell. He was a goddamn war hero. Some madman of an Oxford lad, wandering across Europe, rescuing supers from the concentration camps.” He shook his head. “If you’d heard that Eliza girl talking about him, you’d have thought the man was Christ himself, come to give the world a talk on human ethics.”

Ralph’s expression hardened.

“All that breeding bullshit happened later.”

David nodded, but still didn’t look at him.

“You never checked on her?”

Ralph sighed. “When your mother was twelve, Herbert caught her with a girl from town. Kissing, I mean.”


Ralph was surprised. Then he almost laughed. The old bastard had tried so hard to keep the world from queering his stud, he’d never even warned David against it. An own goal if Ralph had ever heard one. “Look, a lot of people…” Ralph decided to narrow it down. “Lawrence didn’t like Fran being with girls because that couldn’t give her a kid.”

“What does that have to do with you?”

Ralph took a deep breath. “I like men, David.”


Ralph frowned.

“So, Lawrence thought I was passing that stuff on to your mother. He didn’t want her learning from a fag.”

“So…Just men?”

Why was Ralph not surprised? He smiled sadly. “Yeah. Call me picky.”


Ralph had no answer for that beyond a bemused shrug.

“I don’t know. Maybe God’s hands slipped when he was making me.”

“Didn’t slip with Arnold,” David pointed out. “He’s extra cool for thinking I’m cute.”

Ralph just sat there for a moment. There was something uniquely odd about so brazen of a statement.

“…You like being the centre of attention, huh.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” asked David. He actually smiled. “I’m great.”

Ralph rubbed the bridge of his nose. 

“The point is that Lawrence didn’t like it. The old wanker told me to leave and said if I didn’t let him raise the girl his way, she wouldn’t have a place there.” He shrugged. “So I left. I thought he was the better father for her, and I was wrong.”

David sat there, mulling the words over.

So that was it. That was the choice that made him. That left him to Lawrence. 

That left him to Alberto.

When he spoke again, his voice was quiet.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” he muttered. “Every time I try, I get these…” He shook his head. “I dunno. These flashes. I think when Alberto was alive, he was sorta holding stuff back inside my brain. Stopping me remembering.” He shrugged. “But now, he’s stuck in Allie, and he can’t make me push it back anymore.”

He looked the Crimson Comet in the eyes, then raised a hand.

“Wanna see how bad you messed up?”

It took a few moments for the water to pool, forming into a mound, then a tower, then a human, then a boy.

It was another David, sculpted from the water; a pair of knitting needles clenched in trembling fists.

Ralph looked at the copy, then back at David, nonplussed.

David looked back, cold.

“This is what he did to me.”

Ralph turned his gaze back to the copy, just in time to watch it slam the needles through its eyes.

“You made the wrong choice,” David said. “It’s your fault.”

Ralph nearly retched. He turned back to the boy and leapt through the air, landing beside David and trying to pull him into a hug.

David flinched away from him. “Nuh uh!” 

“I want to help you, David!”

Ralph shouldn’t have shouted; he knew that. But he was only human.

David just glared at him. “You messed everything up enough already.”

He turned and started running out of the sub-bay. 

Ralph reached out. “David, wait! I’m sorry!”

David didn’t look back. Tears were stinging his eyes. Water wasn’t meant to betray him this way.

It wasn’t fair. Grandfather was supposed to have washed this ache off of him. The tide was meant to carry away the past.

It was being a person, David told himself. He only hurt because he was inside his father’s flesh. The boy evaporated. The vapour of his being wafted up through the tiny apertures between Lyonesse’s decks. 

No. He was still hurting

He drifted into the art-studio, carpeted with regenerating newspaper siphoned from other realities. He sensed Allison, Arnold, Billy’s shapes. Thank God. David needed a hug. He needed to play

Arnold looked over at the other children from where he was sketching. Sketching, not drawing. With a lead pencil, because he was doing serious art1. He frowned. “Can you two stop torturing the cat?”

Arnold’s friends were sitting across from each other, Ralph’s cat trapped between them. The middle-aged companion of a confirmed bachelor, Pearl wasn’t prepared for sustained contact with young children. Like her captors, the poor cat was mottled with bright acrylic paint stains. 

The cat mewled pathetically and made a break for it, but Billy pulled her twisting and clawing into his chest.

“We’re not torturing her,” said Billy, nuzzling his fur against the angry cat’s. “We’re playing.”

Before Arnold could respond or intercede on Pearl’s behalf, David coalesced in front of him. The water-sprite yanked him sharply to his feet and kissed him on the lips. 

After a second, Arnold pulled away, blinking at David. “Uh, hi Dave.” He wiped his mouth. “You feeling alright?”

David was grinning far too toothily in Arnold’s face, the corner of his lip twitching. The shadows under his eyes were pitch black. “Course I am! I’m the ocean! I can crush submarines with my brain! Wanna kiss again?”

Arnold patted his friend on the shoulder. “Maybe later, bud.”

“Why would you want to break submarines? They’re neat!”

David rolled his eyes at the girl. “Yeah, Miri, sure they are.”

“I’m not Miri. It’s Allie.”

David stared at her. Allie was playing with Billy? He stood there stunned. Then he shook his head. Nuh uh. Allie was his. His forced smile returned. “Nice one, Miri. You’re getting better.”

Allison looked at him flatly. “It’s Allie, David.”

“…That’s not fair,” he said quietly. “You’re supposed to be my friend, Allie.”

Allison scowled. Arnold frowned. Billy, though, just looked confused.

“Can’t she play with both of us?” he asked.

“Shut up.”

Billy got to his feet and spread his arms. “You need a hug?”

David misted forward and shoved Billy hard in the chest, knocking the younger boy back to the floor. “I don’t need a hug from a wimp!”

Billy stammered. “Wh—what did I do?”

David glared around at the other children. “Why do you like him so much? He’s lame!”     

Arnold broke the silence first: “I mean, so were you, when you were cool.”

David squinted at him. “What?”

Arnold shrugged. 

“Old David was kinda boring and sad sometimes, but he also, you know, cared about other people? And wasn’t a prick? Billy’s kinda like how old David was.”

David looked down at Billy. The other boy was sniffling now, tears running through his fur, but his eyes were hard.  

“You beat up Talos after he broke my tail. You were so cool back then.” 

For a moment, David almost felt ashamed. 

Then Billy continued. “I want that David back…”

David screamed and savagely kicked Billy in the side. 

Billy gasped and curled into a ball.

“Why does everyone want me to be like him again! Mealy was a coward!”

Allison tackled David to the floor and started punching him in the face. “I told you to stop being a dick!”

Beneath her sister’s skin, Miri cringed. The mean boy needed to be opposed, but punching was icky. The way skin and bone flexed and tore under their blows….  

An instinct long since silenced inside Allison echoed through Miri: get a grown-up.

She fled Allison’s body, diving through Lyonesse.

A few decks below, Ralph Rivers was stalking down the hall, muttering to himself. “Where the fuck did that boy go? Oh, David…”

He startled when Miri appeared in front of him.

“Mr. Ralph, Mr. Ralph! You gotta come help! The mean boy’s beating up Billy!”

“…You’re the girl from my dream!”

Miri cocked her head, before looking down at herself and smiling. “You can see me! Neat!” Her grin vanished as she remembered her mission. “Follow me!”

By the time Miri led Ralph up to the art studio—bemoaning his restrictive tangibility all the while—Allison and David were tussling like wildcats. Pearl was curled up shaking in a corner. Blood had joined the paint on the newspaper. 

“Jesus Christ!”

Ralph ran over and pried David off Allison as delicately as he could. It was like handling angry tissue-paper. 

“For God’s sake, David, stop it!”

David misted out Ralph’s arms, reforming behind Billy and twisting his right ear.

Billy screamed. Then he growled.

Billy became a blur of orange, scratching David across the face, his claws leaving livid, bleeding streaks across his face.

Billy clapped his hands over his mouth in horror. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

David clenched his fists. “You’re gonna—”

The boy exploded in a green flash. 

“That’s enough of that,” said Arnold, borrowing the phrase, along with a hefty dose of stern authority, from his mother.   

“…Where’d you send him?” Ralph asked.

Arnold shrugged.

“Some place in the Gobi Desert.”

Ralph’s face went pale. “The Gobi Desert? Jesus, boy. He’ll fry!”

Allison sat up. “I doubt it. He’s made of water.”

“I figure he’d get back fine,” Arnold said. “But getting around the world should take long enough to make him cool off.”

Billy was crying softly. “I cut him…”

“He gave you a black eye, mate,” Arnold replied. “Fair’s fair.”

“A black eye isn’t as bad as making him bleed.”

“He had it coming,” said Allison.

“Yeah!” cried Miri, hovering above the scene like a pouting guardian angel.

“I don’t want to be hurty!” moaned Billy.

“It’s not your fault.” Allison said.

“What the fuck is wrong with you kids?” shouted Ralph. “Who made you lot like this?”

Billy flinched, making it almost halfway through an automatic child-apology before Arnold held up an arm.

“At least we’re still trying…” Arnold muttered under his breath. 

“Trying to do what?” asked Ralph. “Kick the shit out of each other?”  

“Trying to fight,” said Allison.

“Trying to help,” said Arnold.

Ralph scoffed. “With your barmy little prison break plan? That’s how you think you’re going to help?” 

Had Arnold been raised by a different woman, he would have sworn.

“Well, what’s the better choice, huh, genius?” he shouted. “Let a whole bunch of people rot in jail just cuz people hate them? Just sit around waiting to die like some old wanker?”

“Not all of us have the luck of being big famous superheroes,” added Allison. 

“For God’s sake!” roared Ralph. “Why does it always have to be me? Why do I have to save us all over, and over, and fucking over!”

Fuck it, no more kid gloves.

“You kids ever heard of a place called Auschwitz?”

“What’s Auswhwitz?” asked Billy. 

“Bad Nazi World War Two place,” explained Allison. Then, she turned to Ralph. “Careful what you say next. I’ve been a prisoner… And a test subject.”

Ralph let out a bitter, mirthless laugh. “You don’t know the half of it, girl. These weren’t prisons. They destroyed people there. Like rats. I saw folks whose bones were just about jutting through their skin. I saw graves flooded with women and children. Piles of ashes that used to be people.”  

Billy whimpered. Allison scoffed right back.

“Yeah, sure. You saw. Poor Ralph saw the bad stuff. But it didn’t happen to you, princess.”

The vein on Ralph’s neck pulsed. His voice shook. “Don’t you dare, you little shit. My goddamn boyfriend burned to death in my arms. His skin stuck to my suit. Nothing in your tiny nothing of a life gives you the right to talk down to me.” He grit his teeth. “The soldiers who were with me were kind. It even killed a few of the prisoners. They tried giving them food they couldn’t even stomach anymore. But they did try.” He took a deep breath. “Except the men with the pink triangles. Nobody was kind to them. They let the Jews go. They let the Gypsies and the Witnesses and the Polacks go. But not the faggots. Not the men like me and Finch! They threw them back in prison to rot!” His voice cracked. “They saw what hate does, right in front of them, and they didn’t learn a fucking thing.”

“… And where was the Crimson Comet?” asked Arnold.


“Where were you.”

“I was right there!”

“Then why weren’t you helping them?” asked Arnold. “Not like you weren’t strong enough.”

“…I couldn’t. I mean, I needed to—if they’d known I was…” Ralph trailed off. He had no answer.

“And why can’t you help us now?” asked Allison. 

“Why do the people who spit on me keep asking me to kill for them? I’m not built for it.”

“I like boys too, you know,” Arnold answered. It was the first time he’d ever said that out loud. “I think you’re just a coward. Who said anything about killing?”

Ralph stood there for a while. Only Billy’s quiet sobs and Miri’s attempts to comfort him broke the silence.

Without a word, Ralph turned and left the children alone.

Ralph avoided the Watercolours for the next two days. David hadn’t returned yet, but nobody except Sarah seemed concerned:

“How are you kids not worried?” Sarah asked at the kitchen table, worriedly cutting at a lamb roast with a carving knife. 

Arnold was pushing around a baked potato with his fork. “Eh, his granddad hasn’t tried to kill me yet. He’s fine.”


Ralph spent most of his time in the Sunken Sub, Lyonesse’s designated dive-bar. It was much cozier than Clark’s. Drebbel—a kettle-black potbelly stove of a bartender—was a far quieter creature than Iszac Steel, which suited Ralph just fine. The riveted steel walls and dim yellow lights reminded him of the bowels of ships that had carried him to Europe not so long ago. 

Most importantly, there were no windows. The sea couldn’t find him there.

Gentle, sad guitar plucks over violin strings sang from out of the jukebox: 

Play the guitar; play it again, my Johnny…

A lit cigarette tucked behind his ear, Ralph Rivers lined up a shot at the pool-table. 

He wasn’t there. He was back in Sydney, in an underground pub off some forgotten alley with walls like mossy cave-rock. The sort of joint that catered to what tactful, heartless psychiatrists called “sex variants.”

Ralph wasn’t alone, either. There was a man standing beside him, watching him squint at the billiard balls with playful contempt. If he weren’t standing next to the Crimson Comet himself, most might have called him tall. Well muscled, but so subtly you’d never suspect he was strong. 

“Just give up, Rivers. Bloody felt ripper, you are.”

Him and Finch rarely used first names. Even when they were alone. Even when they were in bed. Furtive habits die hard. And acting so familiar with each other might’ve meant admitting to themselves that it was love. 

I was always a fool for my Johnny,

For the one they call Johnny Guitar…

Both Ralph Rivers raised their cue, sliding it back past his shoulder. The one back in Sydney said, “Shut the fuck up, Finch.”

Finch—Bart bent down beside Ralph and whispered in his ear: “Make me.

What if you go, what if you stay, I love you…

Ralph had already left the table before the billiard balls stopped dancing to that old, familiar chaos. Pointless. Pool was no fun alone. He sat down at one of the barstools. “Pint of Tooheys Old please, Drebbel.”

“Coming up, Rivers,” rumbled Drebbel. “Just give the molecule-still a bit to synthesize it.”

“Thanks. Tell it to make up the next one while I’m drinking, would you?”

God, Ralph hated this place. But it didn’t matter. He wasn’t there.

What if you’re cruel, you can be kind I know.

Long ago, right at that very moment, Ralph was clutching his glass hard enough that white spider-web cracks were shooting through it. “What do you mean you’re going?”

Finch—Bart—locked eyes with Rivers. God they were blue. In Ralph’s memory, they almost blurred with Fran’s. “I mean I’m going to Europe. My number came up. That’s that.”

Ralph mutely shook his head. “You’re a cartoonist, Finch! Not a soldier.”

Finch looked taken aback. “You think just because bullets don’t bounce off me I can’t handle myself?”

Yes! Nobody can ‘handle themselves’ when they’re being shot! For God’s sake, Finch!” Ralph pointed at the grimy bar entrance. “I have to keep one eye on the door in case the cops come charging in, for having a drink together, and you want to go and shoot folks for ‘em?”

“It’s not for them, Ralph,” Bart said evenly. “People at the paper have been hearing stories. The Germans are rounding up queers in camps, Ralph. Jews, too. Whole towns worth of people.” He took a sip of his beer. “If I have to fight, at least it’s for something like that.”

The two men sat in silence together. 

“…I’m coming with you,” Ralph said finally. “You’re not going over there alone.”

Finch looked at his lover, before letting out a confused, sputtering laugh. “You? You’re a superhero! You don’t see superheroes in war-zones!” 

“The yanks have Miss Victory.”

“Alright, yeah, but you’re… you’re you.”

“So what?” asked Ralph. “If the Nazis are as bad as you say, it sounds like they could use a good Crimson Comet thumping!”

“…Who says we’ll be together? They could send you to the Pacific and me to Europe.”

“No,” Ralph said firmly. “You’re with me. I’ll make it a condition.”

Finch smiled wryly. “Won’t that give the game away, Mr. Rivers?”

“I’ll just tell them you’re my wing technician or something.” Ralph flexed one of his great biceps. “Trust me, the recruiters won’t be asking too many questions.”

Bart kissed Ralph, long and deep. “God, you’re arrogant.”

“I’ve earned it.”

There was never a man like my Johnny,

Like the one they call Johnny Guitar,

Play it again,

Johnny Guitar.”

Tears fell into Ralph’s beer, spreading out as dark gold ripples. 

He wasn’t there. He wasn’t here.

Fuck it, Ralph decided. 

He rose from his stool. “Forget the second round, Drebbel.”

“Turning in for the night?” 

“Not quite,” said Ralph. “Just need to beat the shit out of something.”

One part of Lyonesse Ralph Rivers did like was its gym. It had weight machines that could simulate Juptier’s gravitational pull times five. Dumbbells made of white dwarf star metal. An aqua-therapy pool that gave way to an underwater rabbit warren of dark tunnels2. So much for having to pull an old camper van full of rocks to get his workout.

Ralph heard the commotion before he saw it. A kid was shouting. Well, screaming, really. He could hear thumps, like a punching bag being hit wildly.    

Ralph sighed. This was sure to be productive. 

The screams increased in pitch, becoming ragged, like a creature in pain.

Ralph remembered the state David was in when Arnold sent him away. He remembered his mother and grandfather.  

Oh shit. Billy!

Ralph took off in the direction of the screams, now subsiding into sobs.

Billy wasn’t there. It was just David, curled up crying under a swaying punching bag.

“Stupid Arnold. Stupid granddad…”

Ralph approached the boy cautiously, like he was a feral cat. “…David?”

David looked up at Ralph with angry, tired eyes. “It was supposed to stop hurting. Grandfather promised!” David curled back in on himself, body shuddering with sobs. 

Ralph awkwardly patted him in the shoulder. “It’ll be alright.”

“No it won’t!” David dug his nails into his skin. “Nobody likes me! I don’t like me! Nothing works!” He let out a long wail. “I want my mummy!” 

Ralph picked David up. The boy didn’t resist. “I know.”

Ralph wasn’t equipped for this. At least this time, he wouldn’t be handing the kid over to a monster. 

Five minutes later, Ralph was knocking on Sarah Allworth’s bedroom door. 

Mrs Allworth answered in her nightgown, squinting without her owlish spectacles. She caught sight of David, still shaking. “Ah.”

“He’s missing his mother,” said Ralph. “There’s… a whole lot, really.”

Sarah nodded. “Right. Give him here then.”

Mrs Allworth had missed out on many common experiences bringing up Joe. He’d never scraped his knee, or broke his leg. He’d never gotten beaten up on the playground or come down with a bad fever. 

He had, however, pined for his mother, so many times. 

Sarah wrapped a blanket around David’s shoulders. “You want me to make you some hot cocoa?”

David nodded mutely.

“Okay, let’s go to the kitchen.”

Ralph watched Sarah lead David down the hall.

Useless. So goddamn useless.

Maude Simmons was sat at the bar of Clark’s, tapping her pencil on the rim of the beer glass which sat atop her latest, soon to be discarded plan.

“That’s not gonna work,” she muttered to herself. “Mars is shit this time of year anyway.”

She heard someone sit down on the stool next to her. Ralph.

The old superhero had his costume on, bar the mask. And the wings, of course. 

“Good to see you again, boss!” enthused Iszac. “Thirsty?”

Ralph raised his fingers. “Vodka sunrise, Steel. Long as it’s Russian vodka.” 

“You got it.”

Ralph looked at Mistress Quickly, a small smile playing his lips. “A commissar made a convert out of me back in the war.”

“Clearly,” said Quickly, not looking up from her work.

“I remember you now.”

“Took you long enough.”

“You were the one who wanted to turn all the silver into… teeth, wasn’t it?”


Ralph actually chuckled. “But why?”  

Maude’s upper lip creased in thought. “Don’t remember, honestly. Was nearly twenty years ago, now. Probably something to do with Marx. I’d just learned to read back then, and I was really into Marx.”

“Just learned to read?” repeated Ralph questioningly. “But you had to be fifteen, at least.”

Maude waved it off. “It’s a long, sad story. Sure you’ve already got plenty of those.” She looked Ralph’s suit up and down. “I take it you’re going to help, then?”

“You don’t sound too surprised.”

Maude shrugged. “Allison put money on it.”

“Sounds like her dad.”

“…I’ll explain everything wrong with that later. Still, good on you. Means I didn’t waste my time making you that new stabilizer harness.”

“…You mean my wings? Thanks a bunch.”

Iszac set down a glass of yellow liquid tapering down to deep red at the bottom in front of Ralph. The super took a long, thoughtful sip. 

“I don’t think I can kill again.”

“Even if it was them or one of the kids?” asked Maude. Fast, she added, “Sorry, just seems like something I ought to know.”

Ralph exhaled. “It’s not a moral thing, Quickly. I just… can’t.”

Mistress Quickly stuck her hand in one of her blazer pockets. “Booty 1-4.”

A classical ray-gun flew into her hand.

Ralph frowned. “Betsy? You went through my things?”

“I’m a super-thief. ‘Course I did.” She twirled the stun-ray. “I can recharge the batteries for you. Mazur was always… baroque, his stuff’s always interesting to work with.”

Ralph nodded. “That’d… you don’t know how much of a lifesaver that is.” He leaned over to examine Maude’s notes. “You got a plan, yet?”

Maude rubbed her face. “Not yet. So many variables. Be easy just to tear the roof off or vanish the walls, but there’s some real psychos in there I’d rather not deal with, you feel me? Honestly, I probably would rather get rid of the guards…” 

She trailed off.

“Say,” she said to Iszac. “Do you know how Mrs Allworth got here?”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

1. Doodles of potential new chest insignias. Jagged edges dripping flaming blood were a common motif.

2. Also containing a small art gallery and a bedroom for Palaemon.


Chapter Eighty-Four: Prisoner of the Sea

Ralph Rivers stood sobbing in the ruined hotel lobby, ankle-deep in the pulped and shredded remains of dozens of human beings. The good, bad, and the in-between all ran together. 

Commissar Fyodor was patting the superhero on the shoulder with a trembling hand. “I understand, friend. There is no shame in tears…”

Ralph cast his red streaming eyes down at the newly-named Fran. She was looking up at him with complete befuddlement. How could any child be so calm in the midst of this carnage? How could she happily wear blood like it was water or mud? How could she kill so easily—so inventively—like she was just playing with a garden-hose?

Rivers felt a stab of guilt. Why did he want a child to be unhappy? Why did he want anyone to feel like he did?

He spied something out the corner of his eye: a little blonde girl as naked as Fran, but clean, and with surprisingly mundane hazel eyes. In fact, she was standing on top of the gore, frowning down at it like it was raw sewage. Or blood, for that matter.

“Eww, eww, ewwwwww!” She shot upwards, clinging to the comparatively clean ceiling and pointing down at Fran. “Make her put them back together!”

“…Hello,” Ralph said cautiously. He wrapped an arm around Fran, who didn’t seem to notice the new girl at all. “You this one’s sister?”

The child tilted her head at Ralph. “…No? My sister’s Allie!” She blinked when she examined the other girl more closely. “Is that David’s mummy? No wonder he’s so mean.”

Ralph shook his head slowly. “She’s six. And David? I don’t—”

The Crimson Comet suddenly remembered. This wasn’t now. This was a long time ago. 

He remembered what happened to Fran. 

Ralph hugged the memory of her tight. “Oh, Fran. I’m so sorry…”

Miri screwed her eyes shut, pushing away all the… bad she was seeing.

“Okay. Waking up time now.”

Ralph Rivers awoke with a gasp. The ghost of a headache buzzed behind his eyes. He reflexively threw the lavender bed sheets covering him to the side. 

He was still in his trousers and singlet, much to his relief. All he was missing was his boots. Ralph didn’t know what would be worse: being undressed by an old woman, a trumped up supervillain, or a gaggle of schoolkids. 

Definitely the last one.

Still a superhero to his bones, Ralph took stock fast.

He was in a decent sized bedroom. The decor was, simply put, funky. The walls were patterned with splotches of pink, yellow and blue watercolours. Illumination was provided by white lava-lamp ceiling. Multicoloured globs of wax1 the size of bean bags bobbed in the paraffin above the glass, strangely casting no shadows below them. There were two opaque glass doors, one in the wall to his left, the other in front of the bed. 

The whole place looked like the lair of a shifty hippie on Dragnet, or so Ralph would have thought if colour television had reached Australia yet. His bed was even curvy. It definitely looked like a cell a bunch of little kids would design2

 Ralph smacked his lips. Rum. That explained the headache. Very old-fashioned sort of knock-out drug. Also explained the pressure in his bladder

Rivers swung around and got out of bed, finding his boots waiting for him on the floor. 

Considerate. Too considerate.

After thoroughly checking the boots for scorpions, mousetraps, or strange, toe-based mind control devices, Ralph slipped them on and opened the side door, fingers-crossed. 

“Oh thank Christ,” Ralph muttered under his breath. He desperately needed to get rid of that rum.

A thought briefly paralyzed him in front of the toilet bowl. What if this was some scheme to steal his cells and make a bio-android of him, like Dr. Sin and his Blue Asteroid? 

Ralph sighed and unzipped his fly. If they wanted his DNA, they probably got it already. Besides, there was a thin line between “career superhero” and “paranoid schizophrenia.3

Biological needs sorted, Ralph checked the thing on the dresser, picking it up and letting it unfurl in front of him.

It was his costume. Not only that, it was pristine. Ralph had always tried to keep the Crimson Comet suit in good knick—for appearances if nothing else—but he was no seamstress, and his sainted sister only had so much time on her hands. He couldn’t exactly take it to the local tailor.    All the burns, bullet holes, and patch-jobs were gone. The red leather was brighter and more flexible than it’d been in nearly two decades.

Ralph was a touch offended. It was like his history had been wiped away. Was this even the original suit?

Ralph considered putting it on. If this… facility or whatever it was anywhere near a city or town, it’d be wise to protect his identity. If not, well, it’d definitely get him in the fighting spirit… 

For a moment, Ralph felt the tack of blood beneath his fingers. 

He dropped the costume, kicking it away.

Stupid idea, Ralph told himself. The thing could be bugged for all he knew; or even poisoned, like the shirt that did in old Al4

A hoarse but girlish voice invaded his thoughts:

Aww, come on, don’t be a sook. 

The main door exploded as Ralph Rivers burst through it into the adjoining hallway, specks of glass raining down into rich purple carpet like grains of sand.

Ralph took off in a dead run. They were in his damn head— 

A soft English voice blanketed the hall. “Sir! Do control yourself! The master of this house worked very hard on that door! Also, please consider that we are under the ocean—”

Fuck! More of them! Under the sea? The submarine pirates again? They never had digs this fancy… 

Ralph turned left at a fork in the corridor, running on blind instinct. 

You’re going the wrong way! 

That only made Ralph more confident in his choice. He sped past dozens of copper-plaqued  doors, picking up speed like a freight train. 

A new, Italianate voice muttered in Rivers’ ear:

Jesus, Ralph, I never took you for a pussy. 

“Shut up!” Ralph spat at the unseen stranger.

He turned a corner to find a monster bearing down on him: a broad, kettle-black robot with baleful red eyes and waving pincer arms, with a body like a giant megalodon tooth pointed right at Ralph. 


“Sorry mate!” Ralph transformed into a beam of red light and cannonballed right through the mechanical beast, steel-plate and nuts and bolts washing over his face like gritty ice-water. 

The poor cleaning-robot never knew what hit it.  

Ralph slid to a stop by an elevator, assuming it wasn’t a teleportation cubicle or something stupid like that5. Good. Assuming he was really underwater, anything that got him closer to the surface was sorely needed. 

After ten gut-churning seconds waiting for the doors to open, Ralph stepped inside and punched the top-most button. 

Ralph clenched his teeth and fidgeted his feet as he felt the elevator rise. Elevator rides were the Crimson Comet’s kryptonite. Claustrophobic little coffins delivering him into fresh new hells, assuming Dr. Sin or Jimmy the Bastard6 didn’t cut the cable. 

The elevator stopped midway up the constellation of backlit buttons. The doors opened with a chime. 

Ralph’s face went white. The Crimson Comet was standing in front of him, young and clean-shaven, a full set of golden metal wings sprouting from his back. His skin had a rotoscoped sheen to it. 

The comic-book man grinned, revealing two solid rows of white where his teeth should have been. “Stick your foot in the door for me, mate?” he asked in Ralph’s own voice.

“Nope!” Ralph punched blindly at the buttons. The doors slid shut in front of the walking flashback. 

After only a few more floors, the elevator came to a stop again. 

Ralph got into a boxing stance. What now?

The doors opened to reveal one of the children who’d broken into Ralph’s house: the boy with the starry black cloak. 

Ralph scowled at the lad. “What do kids think you’re doing? What if I’d broken through the roof? We’d have all drowned!”

The boy snickered. “You’d have drowned.”

Ralph growled and grabbed the boy’s arm. “You kidnapped me!”

The boy raised a finger. It sparked green. “Yeah, we’re not doing this.”

“Wait, what—”

Everything went green. When the light faded, Ralph found himself in what looked like a swank cocktail bar, the kind that occupied the top floors of expensive hotels. Only instead of a city-view, the curved window wall looked out onto a deep blue sea. Rich, sultry jazz singing over minor-key twelve bar blues filled the air:

If you had prepared twenty years ago,

You wouldn’t be a-wanderin’ now from door to door,

Why don’t you do right, like some other men do…

Ralph looked towards the source of the music. A lady was performing on a thrust stage to a garden of empty tables. A woman made of bright blue light.

Get out of here and get me some money, too…

“What the hell…” Ralph said aloud.

He caught sight of the clamshell footlights rimming the stage. Projectors. She was a hologram.

Ralph scratched the back of his neck in puzzlement. Seemed like a lot of effort to go to for a record player. 

“Can I get ya a drink, buddy?”

Ralph swung around to face the bar. There was a bartender behind the counter, or an approximation of one. It was clearly a machine. Unlike the one he’d totalled just minutes earlier, this one was roughly human shaped. Its bean-can torso was painted like a white button-down shirt. Its head was a big silver bullet decorated with a riveted metal moustache and a cyclopic red eye like a bicycle reflector.   

Ralph approached the bar cautiously. “Depends,” he said. “What are you?”

“Iszac Steel,” the robot replied in an artfully crackly baritone, his eye flashing with every word. Or was it an upside down mouth? “Bartender and receptacle of all sorrows. So, would you like a drink?”

Ralph decided to go along with the contraption. Maybe he would stay talkative. “Got any beer?”

“A hundred brews from fifty-two star-systems7,” Iszac answered proudly. 

“…Anything from Earth, thanks.”

A pint-glass popped out of the countertop like a conjuring trick. Iszac pulled a beer-tap out from under the bar and filled it with amber liquid. An excellent pour, Ralph had to admit. Not too much head, but not nothing, either. He still didn’t drink.

“Where am I?”

“You’re in Clark’s! Finest drinking establishment on all of Lyonesse. Not like that dive the Sunken Sub down on level 32.”

“So this place is run by a guy called Clark?”


“Then who is Clark?”

“… You know, I never asked.8

“Then who does run this place?”

“Joe Allworth.”

“And who’s that?”

“He’s the one who built me.”

Ralph growled in the back of his throat. Fucking robots. 

“I’ll tell you what, I’m glad you’re here,” said Iszac. “Bar hasn’t been this crowded since Mr. Allworth threw that party with all them gods and goddesses9.”

“But I’m the only one here.”

Someone cleared their throat. Loudly. 

“Not quite, boss.” 

Iszac pointed to a white-leather conversation pit in a far corner of the bar, near the wall-window. Mistress Quickly, the old woman, and the red-eyed little girl were all sitting around a table, watching Ralph intently. 

“He’s still in plainclothes,” said Mistress Quickly. “Looks like you owe me five dollars, Allie. And that’s American dollars, girl.”

Allison grumbled at the injustice of it all. Mrs Allworth tutted to herself.

Ralph took a deep draft of his surprisingly good beer and stormed towards his captors, splashes of booze spilling on the smooth black floor. “You do know I’m a goddamn superhero, right? Don’t think I don’t still have mates in the police!”

“Sure,” said Mistress Quickly. “I’m sure the New South Wales police have some scuba gear they’re itching to break out.”

“Too deep for scuba,” said Allison, sipping lemonade from a curly straw. “They’d need to use submarines.” 

“Stop being horrid,” Sarah snapped at the girls. She turned diplomatically to Ralph. “I am sorry about this… can I call you Mr. Rivers?”

Ralph sat down hard on the couch, facing Allison and Mrs Allworth. “Why not?” He looked pointedly at Allison. “Not like I have any other name these days.”

“I wanted to be there to explain things,” said Sarah, “but you woke up early.”

“It’s Miri’s fault,” Allison grouched, arms folded. “She wussed out.” She turned her head slightly and wrinkled her nose, whining at the air in front of her, “You did!” The girl’s eyelids fluttered like she’d taken a breeze to the face. Allison sighed and reached a hand out towards nothing. “Come, on, don’t cry…”

Ralph watched with a mix of horror and irritated pity. He glared at Mistress Quickly. “You seriously want this girl to storm a maximum security prison?”

“It was her idea, actually.” 

“Good God!”

“It’s not what it looks like,” cut in Sarah.  “Allison has a… unique relationship with her sister.” Her mouth twitched as she tried to think of a gentle explanation.

“Lady, I’m a superhero, I’m sure I’ve heard weirder.” 

“They share a body.”

Ralph thought about it for a moment, tallying. “…No, still not the strangest thing I’ve seen.”

“You haven’t met the Italian one yet,” countered Mistress Quickly.

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here!” Allison cried, her red eyes darting angrily between the two women, only to lock onto Ralph like she’d forgotten he was there. She tried to compose herself as much like a grown up as possible, folding her arms over her legs and closing her eyes before evenly intoning, “…We really, really need your help.” 

Ralph was reminded of the mimic games Fran played when she was small. Those faltering, half-unconscious attempts to become something she didn’t understand.  Why were these women humouring her?

Softly, Ralph said, “I’m sorry girl, but your plan…” He slapped his knees. “Like I said back home, I’m retired.”

And also, you’ll get us all killed, he didn’t say.

Allison’s eyes hardened. “Fran would’ve helped us.”

Allison almost flinched when she saw the vein on Ralph’s neck pulse. The lights behind his eyes were all white. 

“Maybe she would,” Ralph said in the same cold, brittle tone Allison’s father used when she drew all over his paperwork, “but she’s dead. And being the sort who would have helped you is probably what got her killed.” He looked at Mrs Allworth. “You should be ashamed of yourself, ma’am.” Ralph jabbed his thumb at Mistress Quickly. “Nothing her lot does suprises me—” 

“And yet I’m the one who didn’t pack it in my forties.”

“—But you’re old enough to be this one’s grandmother! How could you go along with this… this nuttery!”        

“Afraid I’m just a mother, Mr. Rivers.”

Ralph scoffed and leaned back against the couch. “I’d hate to see how those kids turned out if this is what you let them get away with.”

“My son is dead,” Sarah said, steadily, but with a clear lump in her throat. “He died saving thousands of people, Mr. Rivers, including his murderers. I’ll say this once, don’t insult him.

It sounded more like a threat than a plea. Ralph’s shoulders slackened. He didn’t meet Mrs Allworth’s eyes. “Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t think—”

“Clearly not.”

Ralph looked around Clark’s. He connected the scope of what the old lady said, and what the newsagent had said before he’d been snatched. “Is your son…”

“He’s exactly who you think he is.”

Ralph tried to imagine this utterly ordinary looking woman bringing up the Flying Man. He’d always imagined him as some more proactive cousin of Fran’s father. Not a creature with a past.

He took a deep breath and looked back at Allison. “I still can’t help you this way. I can’t be responsible for what might happen. I’m sorry.”

“Fine,” said Allison. “We’ll start looking for someone else after we drop you off next week.”

“That might be best—next week?”

Sarah, nearly as confused as Ralph, looked at Allison. “Next week?”  

“Next week,” repeated Mistress Quickly. “We’re not running a taxi service around here.”

“But Arnold can—”

Allison raised a finger at Mrs Allworth. The sheer gall of the act managed to silence the woman for the moment.   

“You kidnapped me!” shouted Ralph. “I have commitments.”

“I’ve read your mind,” said Allison, “you don’t. It’ll be a month before anyone in Mogo notices you’re gone. Trust me, I checked.”

Ralph’s eyes narrowed. “You’re Alberto’s daughter, aren’t you?”

Allison smiled wryly “Yep.”

Alberto sputtered and raged in the back of Allison’s head. Sometimes having roommates was fun.

“Your dad’s a dickhead.”

Allison didn’t disagree.

Ralph was going to ask the girl if Eliza was her mother or if Lawrence roped some other poor bitch into his scheme when he remembered his predicament. “I have a cat! Who’s going to feed Pearl?”

Allison put her fingers to her temples. 

A green flash deposited a deeply confused white cat beside Ralph. Chirruping, she climbed onto his familiar lap. Much comfier than the boy’s had been.

Allison called out to Iszac, “Could we get some milk for Pearl here?” 

“Sure thing, little miss.”

Allison looked back at Ralph. “Happy now?” 

“You kidnapped me! I don’t need an excuse to—”

Something like slowed birdsong echoed through Clark’s. There was a blue whale just outside the window. 

Without a word, Ralph Rivers climbed out of the conversation pit. 

“Come on, man,” complained Iszack. “Don’t scuff the leather!”

Ralph ignored the robot, stepping close enough to the glass that he felt as if he could reach right into the ocean.

The whale bellowed again. Ralph could see a child perched on its head like an oxpecker on a great elephant. His eyes shone milky white in the night-sea gloom. 

“So,” said Mistress Quickly, “okay with waiting a week?”

“Sure,” Ralph said autonomically. “Could use a holiday anyway.”

“A holiday from what?” Mistress Quickly muttered under her breath. “Your couch?”

Ralph put his hand on the glass. He had to speak to the boy. Properly. At least once. He owed it to Françoise.

He pulled back his hand. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get another drink.”

Sarah Allworth sighed and shook her head as she watched the superhero head back to the bar. “That’s a nasty trick you two pulled.”

“I once ransomed the New Year,” said Quickly.  “This doesn’t really rate.”

“Besides,” said Allison. “He wants to talk to David. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.”

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1. Not exactly, but close enough.

2. Or a twenty year old man.

3. Also, urine is sterile.

4. Short for Alcides, more widely known by the latinization of his later nomen, Hercules. Ralph Rivers had met the god on a few adventures against the Nazis during his time in Greece.

5. Joe Allworth had not yet managed to source those.

6. Newspapers and other facets of polite society referred to James Ulles as “the Fiend,” but everyone in the business knew what he was really called.

7. Some of them were even drinkable by humans.

8. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. 1917-2008.

9. Artemis drank all the Lemon Lime and Bitters.

Chapter Eighty-Three: The Übermensch Hunt

The blond boy hanging from the lampost couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve. Someone had taken the time to tear the diamond swastika from his jacket sleeve. Grey dust and specks of rubble powdered his shoulders as though he’d come in from the snow. Flies rested over his unseeing, glassy eyes like coins for Charon. 

The Crimson Comet could hear the creak of the cord as the child swayed in the weak winter wind, even with the rumble of mortar and gunfire in his ears. His fist tightened. “Why?

The two black-coated German officers behind the hero stumbled over each other’s words in their attempts to explain themselves to the Soviet army men and the rifles brandished in their faces. A gaggle of Hitler Youth were watching, stiff with terror, by a nearby wall of sandbags, guarded by a pair of scowling soldiers.

Ralph’s commanding officer, one Commissar Fyodor, raised his hand, silencing the officers. He turned to the Comet. “They say the boy was a deserter from another unit.”

Ralph didn’t take his eyes off the child. “A what?”

Fyodor scowled back at the officers. One was trying to look stoic, the other was begging with his eyes. 

“They mean they found him hiding in the alley with some bullets in his pockets.”

“Bring ‘em here.” 

Fyodor cocked his head towards Ralph, spurring his comrades to frog-march the Nazis before the superhero. 

A globule of spit hit the Comet on the cheek as he turned to face the officers. One of them was cringing with his hands clutched protectively over his head, but the other was standing damnably tall, screaming and cursing at Rivers in German. 

Ralph pressed the pair of them against the wall. A hand to each of their windpipes. The fearful one cried as he died. The other simply fought. It didn’t help.

The children screamed and wept, only kept from rushing forward by the soldiers forming into a wall of menace and gunmetal in front of them. 

Fyodor stood beside the Comet, and looked up at the dead boy. Behind his little round glasses his eyes were sympathetic yet weary. “I could have had the men do that, you know.”

“Wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself.” 

Fyodor smiled joylessly. “Trust me, Comet, killing Nazis is no burden for us.”

“Besides, you would’ve used bullets.” Ralph kicked one of the dead Nazis in the chest. “Why should they get better than the kid?”


Ralph looked back up at the hanged child. “Have your men take whatever they can use, and tell the kids to wait here with their hands up for someone to surrender to. Reckon it’s their best chance at not getting shot before this is over.” He stepped over to the base of the lampost. “I’m going to get the boy down.”

“We don’t have time—”

Ralph bent the lamppost about the middle, as easy as folding a coat-hanger. He lowered it until the boy’s shoes were almost touching the ground. “Well, help me out then.”

Fyodor sighed as he removed his combat knife from its sheath. “Damn you, Comet.”

Once he was cut down, Ralph laid the boy down in the doorway of a relatively intact haberdashery, draping one of the Nazi’s jackets over his face. He didn’t want to leave the child out in the open, the ruins of his home looming all around him like the graves of giants. 

“All right,” Ralph said as he turned away from the boy, “let’s move.”

The Race to Berlin was over. The Nazi war-machine was running on fumes and spite, but the Western Allies had little interest in throwing more men at a city that would soon fall into Soviet orbit. That wasn’t to say the western powers hadn’t contributed to the final push—the USAAF1 and RAF’s Mosquitos2 had softened up Berlin with over a month of raids and bombings. The city had been hollowed out before the ants could even reach it.

That wasn’t all. Whether so America and her allies could say they had boots on the ground, or just to keep an eye on the Soviets, Eisenhower had sent the bulk of SHAEF’s3 “meta-corps4” ahead to help storm the city. Not that it made a difference. The Nazi’s people and industry were exhausted, and they could no longer pillage enough from “the Greater Reich” to keep going. Nothing short of a miracle could save Hitler now.

Unfortunately for the führer, the Crimson Comet was here to kill his miracle-workers. 

The Crimson Comet gave the Youth members one last look as they left them behind. A few of the younger ones were kneeling on the road by the dead Nazis, weeping. 

Those two were probably their den-leaders, Ralph realized. The bastards had dragged those poor lads into war like they were men, and they were still crying for them.

…Had they helped string up the boy? 

Ralph shoved the idea down as deep as he could. He couldn’t let his rage anywhere near children. How long had it been, since he hadn’t been angry? 

Rivers, Fyodor, and his men marched through the broken streets. Ralph saw snatches of civilians peering from the windows of bomb-scarred homes and buildings like frightened ghosts. Every city-smell was tainted by the stink of gunpowder and concrete dust. Smoke and ash rose to mingle with the clouds above. Ralph had seen many cities so reduced since he’d shipped out. The war in Europe was like two waves of death colliding by the shore. 

Until Auschwitz and Bitburg, Ralph had wondered if it was worth it. He still wasn’t sure.

They passed the skeleton of a townhouse almost completely buried in a mound of rubble. An arm jutted out from the foot of the hill like some morbid flower. A gold watch glinted against the grey-dusted flesh.

Fyodor pulled the watch off and slipped it onto his own arm, revealing alternating bands of silver and gold beneath his olive drab sleeve. 

“I thought looting was punished by death,” Ralph remarked coolly. 

The commissar shrugged. “The dead have no use for jewelry. I do.”

“For a political officer, you’re not a very good communist.”

“I’m not getting lectured on socialism by an American, friend.”

“I’ve told you, I’m Australian.”

“Same difference.”

Honestly, Ralph couldn’t judge Fyodor too harshly. The man did have his principles. Just the day before, Ralph had watched him shoot one of his own men in the back for trying to “loot” a Berlin woman. 

Ralph shook his head. Why couldn’t anyone be decent? 

The platoon trudged on. At one point, they hunkered down in a deserted hotel lobby so Fyodor could make a call on his bulky field-telephone. 

The commissar spat some irritated Russian down the line before slamming it back into its cradle.

 The Comet asked, “What’s the latest on Hel and Baldr?”

Hel and Baldr (the man who couldn’t die5) were the exemplar Nazi super-soldiers. Conveniently for Goebells and his propagandists, they were the only ones to make it to 1945. Baldr—Hans Sommer to his mother6—was the golden boy, not only because of his archetypically Aryan good looks. Reputable sources even outside the Reich proved he’d served in the Great War, but he didn’t look a day over twenty-one. Given the man had survived gas-attacks, headshots, and being bathed in napalm, it wasn’t difficult to believe. 

Hel, on the other hand, was the wildcard. Nobody could agree on what her powers were. All anyone really knew for sure was that she could send a man’s head flying with the back of her hand7, but  some people reckoned she had healing powers on top of that. Confirmed German casualties had been spotted again on the frontlines mere days after she passed through. Others claimed mind-control: Allied soldiers had been spotted fighting alongside her to their deaths. 

“It’s bizarre,” said the commissar. “Reports say they’re killing indiscriminately.”

“…Wouldn’t it be stranger if they weren’t?”

“I don’t just mean our boys, Comet. They’re killing Germans, too. Soldiers, civilians, doesn’t matter!” 

“Really? For the love of God, why?” 

Christ, had the Nazis finally stopped discriminating? Did all those people have bullets in their pockets, too?

Fyodor shook his head. “I don’t know!” Noticing the questioning looks from his soldiers, Fyodor  loudly repeated his explanation in Russian. The men all shouted back.

“Your boys have any ideas?” asked Ralph.

Fyodor frowned, “Best they’ve got is… how you say it? Ah, ‘paranoia,’ but something—” 

A scream shattered the air in the lobby. It was loud enough to make ears bleed, but the noise itself was poisonous. It was grief and hate, entwined with rage and every other foul thing in the world. It was what pain sounded like. 

The sound forced Ralph to his knees. He clamped his tight over his ears, but it did nothing to muffle the shriek. It wasn’t only noise. It was images, too. His first kiss calling him a faggot in front of his friends. His father changing the locks on the front door. 

Most vivid of all was Finch, dead and burnt. Oh God, Finch. He could smell the roasted flesh of his lover. 

Ralph wanted his eardrums to burst. He wanted to die. 

The sound of gunfire pulled Ralph out of his pain. One of the soldiers was lying on the floor, blood seeping from a new hole in his head, sidearm in hand.   

“Oh, shit.” 

The scream continued, more shots accompanying it. One soldier was pulling out his knife, raising it to his throat. 


Ralph lunged for the poor man, but it was too late. The soldier cut a red line across his neck, gushing blood down the front of his shirt. 


Ralph turned to Fyodor. The commissar was leaning against the reception desk, knuckles white. His right hand was drifting towards his pistol-holster. 

“Not you, too!”

Ralph exploded forwards, stumbling to a stop a few feet to Fyodor’s left. He whipped the gun out of the officer’s hand and crushed it like a beer-can. 

Before Fyodor could do anything else, Ralph threw his arms tight around him. “Don’t you dare!” 

The scream faded. The horror subsided. Fyodor shook in Ralph’s eyes, murmuring softly to himself in Russian before taking a deep breath.

“…I think you can let go of me, Comet.”

Ralph let go of the commissar. Fyodor looked around the lobby. All but one of his men were dead, and the survivor was curled up on the floor moaning.

“Those poor men…”

“You two are strong,” a feminine, teutonic voice drawled behind the pair. “But I don’t need you to volunteer for my army.”

Ralph and Fyodor swung around to find a crowd amassed at the hotel entrance. It appeared to be a mix of civilians and soldiers—German and Soviet. At the head of it were a man and a woman dressed in black leather SS coats8.  The man was six-foot five, sculpted blond-and-blue-eyed perfection. The woman was only a foot shorter, and her blonde mane gave way to darkening roots. Hel and Baldr. Baldr looked like a child at the gate of a carnival, while Hel regarded the Russian and the superhero imperiously. 

“Just so you know,” said Ralph, “me and the commissar are with the Allies. You’re not. We heard you two were getting fuzzy about which side you’re on.”

Hel chucked and smiled coldly. “Trust me, Herr Comet, Baldr and I know exactly what side we’re on.”

Baldr folded his arms, unconsciously spreading his legs ever so slightly. “We’ve been doing some recruiting.”

“Bull,” said Ralph. “You can’t even feed your real army!”

Hel’s lip curled in a smirk. “When you join my army, Comet, you don’t need food. Or rest.” She looked back at the crowd with some disdain. “Or doubt.” 

“Look at the rest of them,” Fyodor hissed out the corner of his mouth. “They’re all… broken.”

Ralph’s eyes scanned over the crowd. Everyone behind the two super-soldiers looked bloodless, with blank, unfocused eyes. Many were grievously injured. Bullet wounds, deep bruises, and even missing limbs abounded. One man was missing half his head, resembling a living, gory Picasso painting. They were deathly silent, too. Ralph couldn’t even hear them breathe.  

“Good God,” said Ralph. He glared at Hel. “You’ve turned your own people into vampires!9

Hel wagged her finger at the Comet. “No, no, no, Comet. My soldiers are no parasites.” She spread her arms out for emphasis. “They are the peak of selflessness! Serving their race even in death!” Hel allowed her arms to drop back to her sides, affecting a poor imitation of an easy smile. “And if those of lesser blood can pitch in, who am I to deny them the chance?”

Ralph and Fyodor both turned at the sound of whimpering and boots scraping against the damask linoleum behind them.   

Fyodor’s surviving soldier was scrambling away from his dead comrades, who were all climbing back to their feet, guns in hand. The corpse closest to the survivor aimed his rifle at him. 

The commissar tried to run towards his man, shouting, “Yahontov!”

A gunshot. Yahontov fell backwards dead, a rose of blood blooming on his chest.

Then, he got up.

Fyodor stopped in his tracks, his shoulders slacking. He turned to glare at Hel. “Suka! Gnúsnyj vedma10!”

Baldr cracked his black-gloved knuckles. “Don’t worry. You’ll be joining the rest of your Slavic dogs soon enough.”

Fyodor’s troops and the armed corpses flanking Baldr and Hel all took aim. 


Ralph pulled the commissar into his chest, swinging around to try and shield Fyodor from the bullets striking him like hailstones. 

Ralph could feel Fyodor swearing against his pecs. They were being fired on from both sides; a stray round could strike the commissar any second.      

Rivers looked past the undead Soviet firing squad. There were two banks of elevators at the back of the lobby. One of them was open. 

The air around the Crimson blurred and glowed. “Brace yourself, mate.”

A muffled, “Wait, what—”

Ralph became a streak of red light, blasting between two of Fyodor’s ex-men. 

With all the discomfort of a hard-braking car or a man cutting off a piss halfway through, the Crimson Comet stopped dead just before he hit the sea-scape hanging up on the back wall of the alcove. 

Ralph felt Fyodor’s fingers dig into his ribs. 

Zhizn’ ebet meya1…”

He was still alive. Good. 

Ralph threw the commissar into the open elevator, hopefully not hard enough to break anything. Before Fyodor could pull himself together, Ralph pulled the gilt doors shut with his bare hands, a new storm of bullets spraying against him all the while. 

Ralph felt sorry for Fyodor. Being tucked away like a puppy in a cage couldn’t be good for his pride. But this was no moment for mere men… 

A fist slammed into Ralph’s temples, sending him hurtling sideways into the painting at the back. Reports of Hel’s strength had not been exaggerated. 

“Look at you,” said Hel as the Crimson Comet slid down the wall, ruined painting draped over his shoulders like a cape of canvas, “nurse-maiding these untermensch!” The living dead amassed behind the superwoman, numbly moaning “Heil Hitler” with rotting vocal-cords. “But soon you’ll serve a worthier cause.”

Baldr forced his way through the throng of dead, rushing over to Ralph and kicking him savagely in the chest and groin. Ralph barely felt a thing. 

“Can’t wait to see the look on the swine’s face. The Crimson Comet: soldier of the Reich!”

Ralph found himself laughing. This joke of a super was trying to hurt him with what might as well have been human blows. Idiot was a puppy nipping at the heels of a Great Dane. He wondered why Hel kept him around. Was this the team-up equivalent of a pity-fuck?

Baldr noticed the hero’s amusement. He scowled. “What’s so funny?”

The Crimson Comet shot to his feet and grabbed Baldr by his thick blond hair. He grinned evilly right in his wide-eyed face. “Man who can’t die, eh?


Ralph wrenched Baldr’s head from his shoulders, pulling a length of bloody spine with it. The Nazi’s body reached up and tried to snatch its head back, but the Comet punched it in the mid-section, sending it backwards into the crowd of corpses.

Baldr’s head silently mouthed at Ralph, robbed of lungs with which to speak. The Comet smirked and threw the head into the army of the dead. If he was lucky, the poor fucks would eat it12.  

Before Ralph could bask in the satisfaction, he was hit head on by another of Hel’s screams. 

Ralph stumbled backwards a few steps, back to the day Dr. Mazur’s stun-ray finally ran out of juice. The day he had to start killing. 

The horror subsided. Hel was bent over, out of breath. 

Ralph straightened himself and spat in her face. “You think you’re the first person to make me want to die, Nazi?”

Hel mutely touched the spittle on her forehead like she’d suddenly grown a horn.

Then she roared.

The dead surged forward into the alcove like a flood through a drinking straw. Soldiers, bakers, bankers, housewives and schoolchildren all pulled at Ralph—maenads trying to tear apart an adamantine man. 

Ralph looked down at one of the corpses pawing at him. The hanged boy. He’d cut the poor child down just so he could be made a puppet. 

Hel struck Ralph in the face. Unlike his decapitated ally, she could punch worth a damn. A blood vessel burst in Ralph’s eye. She hit him again. He felt the cartilage in his nose crack and break. He tasted salt and iron. 

Hel clutched the sides of Ralph’s head. “I will make you peel back your face, scum! You’ll be a horror!”

Ralph smiled. “Sure, honey.”

The Crimson Comet glowed and burst forward like his namesake, barreling over Hel and smashing through body after body like they were walking water-balloons. 

He emerged out the other side back onto the street, covered head-to-toe in cold, rotten blood and torn strips of clothing. As Ralph wiped the blood from his face, a shouting Hel leapt onto his back, sending them both falling onto the road. 

Ralph managed to get on top of the woman, wrapping his hands around her wind-pipe. “What’s the fucking point of winning if you’re all fucking corpses?”

Hel arched her back and bit the Comet on the pectoral, hard enough to draw blood. As the superhero grimaced in pain, she used the opening to knee him in the chest, shoving him off her. “If one German man and one German woman live to see our victory, it shall be worth it!”

Ralph fell into a sitting position. “From what I’ve heard about Baldr’s family, I believe ya!”

Hel screeched and lunged forward, scratching long red gashes across the Comet’s face. 

Baldr’s headless body stumbled out of the hotel. Something was bulging under his shirt… 

The Nazi’s chest exploded, a small red shape tumbling to the ground in a gush of gore. The mass unfolded into a naked little girl, completely slick with blood. She beamed toothily at the Crimson Comet.   


Hel frowned in deep shock and confusion. “Was zur hölle13?”     

Ralph was gaping. The girl again. He’d seen her on and off ever since France. His strange little fan. “You…” 

The bloody girl started trotting down towards the two supers, Baldr’s split open body staggering around blindly behind her.

“No!” shouted Ralph. “Stay away!”

Hel screamed at the child with all her hellish might.

It washed over the little water-nymph like a chill-breeze. Stinging images of the man who tried touching her months ago returned to her mind’s eye, but she pushed them away with ease. Hel’s scream was meant for humans. 

Hel seized Ralph by the hair.

“What is she!?”

He gave her a grim laugh.

“If you’re looking for the ubermensch, love, she’s right there.”

The girl kept walking.

Hel stared on in horror. Does she not have a soul? she asked herself, not knowing how right she was. She grabbed the Crimson Comet by the neck. “Don’t come any closer… I’ll break his neck!”

“Don’t listen to her!” cried Ralph. “Just run!”

The girl pouted. The lady with the funny hair kept trying to hurt her pet. It was fun to watch at first, but now it was getting boring.

An idea was born within her. She grinned. Father would be so impressed. 

Behind the child, dozens of human forms popped

A wave of blood rushed towards the hotel doors, rearing upwards and spewing out into the street like a great scarlet serpent. It loomed above Hel and the Comet, casting a red shadow. 


The blood poured down on the two in a torrent. Ralph was ejected from it within a second. Not Hel.

The Crimson Comet sat there for a couple of minutes, watching the child impassively regard the nightmare she had wrought. Once or twice Hel’s arm or head forced its way out of the blood-tower, only to be pulled back in near-instantly. Each time she did so, it had a little less of its skin. 

Eventually, the blood collapsed, spilling across the road like raspberry syrup. Hel lay in the middle of the enormous puddle, dead.  

     Ralph Rivers staggered up to the little girl, putting his hands gently on her shoulders. “I told you to stop following me! There’s things—a child shouldn’t…” He gave up trying to chastise the girl and hugged her. 

The child nuzzled her head against the Comet’s stomach. “Ralph…”

In the pitch-black of the elevator, a crack of light cut through the middle of the darkness. A second later, the doors were shoved open. 

Commissar Fyodor looked up at the Crimson Comet. He appeared to be drenched in blood. Double-crimson… 

“Good God,” he said, “what happened to you?” 

A little girl stepped out from behind the Comet. She too was covered in blood. And nothing else. 

“And who the hell is she?” 

Ralph helped Fyodor to his feet. “This is…” She looked down at the girl, who smiled up at him. If she had a name, she’d never told Ralph. 

“Fran,” the hero said on a whim. “Françoise.” Well, they had met in France. He grinned. Might as well have some fun. After all that blood… “Françoise Barthe. She… dealt with Hel. And Baldr. I think.”

“Fran” tilted her head in confusion. 

The commissar looked down at her with some interest. “Well,” he said, “she’s red.” He smiled. “That, I like.”

Ralph laughed till he cried. Then he kept on crying.

1. United States Army Air Forces.

2. The de Havilland Mosquito, a British twin-engine combat aircraft introduced during the Second World War.

3. Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, the headquarters of future US president General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Western Europe during the latter half of World War 2.

4. A nickname for the superhuman agents employed by the Allies during WW2, referring to both the superheroes (along with the odd well-compensated supervillain) who volunteered their services, as well as superhuman members of the regular armed forces and intelligence services.

5. Until he did.

6. In order to cover for some potentially murky ancestry, official sources claimed Sommer was the son of his mother and maternal uncle, not so subtly implying the concentration of Aryan blood was responsible for his apparent immunity to death. A baffling decision to most eyes, but not an unprecedented one by the Nazi regime, as Field Marshal Erhard Milch could attest.

7. Enhanced strength and durability is disproportionately represented among superhumans. Some researchers attribute this to survivorship bias, due to the often extreme circumstances that accompany superhuman transformations.

8. In comparison to Allied superhumans, the Axis super-soldiers weren’t overly fond of colourful, personalized costumes. Some cultural theorists have speculated this is due to an inherent incompatibility between the individualism of superhero personas and the conformity demanded and celebrated by fascist regimes.

9. In the 1960s, Soviet-influenced or simply paranoid presses would frequently accuse the United States of having sourced its necromancy program from studies of the Nazi program, or even having “papercliped” Hel to the United States in secret. This is simply not true: America’s necromancers were all homegrown.

10. Roughly, “Bitch! Vile witch!”

11. “Life is fucking me.”

12. Fortunately for the International Court, he was not.

13. “What the Hell?”

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Chapter Eighty-Two: He Had Wings

In the sleepy non-town of Mogo1 by the Tasman sea, there lived a wingless angel. He was tall and solid as stone, his eyes like chips of coal. Though no longer young by any means, he wasn’t what you would call old, either—yet his hair and beard were white as Jupiter’s. 

“Poor Ralph went white in the war,” the old folks around Mogo said. Mogo had a lot of those. “Horror’s as good as bleach for hair.”

Mogo was perfect for Ralph Rivers. The town had sprung up during the Gold Rush, and hadn’t quite been able to scatter to the wind when the streams and mines dried up. Home to less than four hundred people, the local tavern was friendly, but not too friendly. Folks who passed through on Princes Highway barely noticed the little smudge of town.

Most importantly, there weren’t any super-heads in Mogo. 

And sometimes, when some coded, unspoken signal passed between Ralph and a transient at the pub or the petrol-station… 

It was always quick. Rough. Furtive. Tainted by the dread of betrayal or discovery. Nothing like with Vince or Finch. But he’d learned the hard way it was all men like him could hope for. 

He tried never to look in their wallets. Always that little fear of seeing a wife and kids staring back.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. When he could bear to be around children, he would head up to Sydney and look in on his niece and her kids. Stop off with an old lay of his on the way back. Sometimes his family even visited him back:

“Who’s that, Uncle Ralph?” Ralph’s youngest grand-niece asked, pointing at his refrigerator.  

“Hmm?” Ralph followed Josie’s finger to what she was pointing at: an old black and white photograph from the war.  

Ralph was standing on an airfield (in plainclothes, of course; none of Jan’s kids were old enough for that chat) grinning at the camera besides a fair-haired little girl wrapped in an oversized German army jacket with the sleeves torn off. She didn’t look happy to be so attired. Or attired at all, for that matter. There was a strange shine to her eyes, apparent even in faded monochrome. 

Ralph smiled wistfully. “Oh, that’s Fran. She’s… a friend of mine.”

Josie giggled. “She’s too little to be your friend.” 

“What, we’re not friends?” Ralph asked with a mock-frown.

“No! I mean, yes but—”

Ralph chuckled and raised his hand. “I’m kidding ya, Josie. Fran was… I took care of her until I could find her a proper home.”

“Does she live close? Could we go see her?”

“Nah, she lives in WA now.”

“That’s far away.”

“It is. She has a baby boy of her own now, too.”

Josie’s eyes lit up. “A baby?” Her mother had gotten her a baby doll that Christmas, and she was very intrigued by the whole business. “Have you seen it?”

Ralph smiled at the memory of a bronze skinned toddler pressing his face against the fish-tank glass. “Just the once, a long time ago.” 

God, David had to be what, seven now? Eight? When was Fran’s last letter? 

Ralph had been surprised when he’d first gotten the news. Not so much by Fran having a kid out of wedlock. Even if he could judge anyone else’s romantic choices, he never expected Françoise to lead a conventional life. But with Hugo? He’d sooner have expected Alberto, or Chen. Hell, even Eliza seemed like a more likely prospect. He was glad of it, though. Hugo was the only lad there who wasn’t… prickly.

“So,” said Josie, “Why couldn’t Fran stay at your house?” 

The little girl glanced about the kitchen. “Did the washing machine leak? Ours did. Daddy had to call to tear up the floor, and call a plumber, and…” 

Ralph stood there as his niece rambled, hoping to God she didn’t find the lead again. How the hell did he explain this to a five year old?

Jan rescued him, plucking her daughter up from the kitchen stool. “Time for your nap, love.” 

“But I’m not tired!” Josie whined against her mother’s chest.

“And that’s how I know you need it.”

Jan turned and carried Josie off to the spare bedroom, looking apologetically over her shoulder at Ralph.

Bless Jan. She never judged him. Friends with Finch, even. Still, what decent mother wanted her little girl knowing her uncle was a fag?

Life was quiet in Mogo. An endless stream of garden work and odd jobs around Eurobodalla Shire. He wasn’t short on cash. Hell, he’d bought Jan’s house for her. It was more to keep himself fossilizing alive than for the money.  His occasional employers gawked and joked when they saw him hammer in nails with a closed fist or drive posts into sun-baked soil like it was water, but nothing ever came of it. If anyone talked to the freak-finders about him, they never followed up. Ralph didn’t know if his solitude was born out of goodwill, fear, or genuine obscurity. Either way, Ralph and the rest of the world were content to ignore each other.

It was a whisper of a life. The residue at the bottom of the glass. An early sunset more fit for a man thirty years Ralph’s senior. Most days spent growing steadily more vapid in front of the TV. Most evenings on an empty fishing pier, downing beer after beer as the stars moved around him. But it was bearable. Better than the black days after the war. After Fran left. After Vince. The days of broken razor-blades. 

But one day, far away but everywhere, something happened: 

Ralph slapped a newspaper and a carton of cigarettes on the counter. “The Australian and a carton of Winnie Blues, thanks.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Rivers.”

Ralph’s eyes fell on the paper’s front-page. There were two children, a boy and a girl. They were dancing on a frozen over lake in front of Parliament House. Their eyes were both aglow.

“…What’s this?” Ralph asked quietly. 

Gary the newsagent shrugged. “Some demis put on a show for the Prime Minister. Apparently some bloke has a whole school for them out west.” He grinned at Ralph. “Glad it’s not our coast, right?”

Ralph ignored the unintended slight. He emptied his wallet out on the counter, snatched the newspaper, and ran out the door. “Keep the change!”

“But you gave me a tenner!” Gary waved the Winnie Blues carton. “And what about your fags?”

Ralph’s voice echoed down the street. “Fuck em!” 

Robert Menzies had invited Herbert Lawrence and his students to Canberra. The prime minister invited Fran’s son to Parliament. All of a sudden David occupied Ralph’s every other thought. Was he happy? Did he take after Fran or his father? And who was that girl dancing with him? Did Fran have a daughter? When? Ralph certainly hadn’t been told. Not only that, she looked the same age as David. And she was too white to be Hugo’s.

He cut out the front-picture and pinned to his fridge next to Fran’s photo, proud as horses. He wrote a bittersweet, alternate biography in his head. One where he had gotten to watch David grow up.  

Things were going to change now. They had to. He knew they would, eventually. 

They didn’t. 

Ralph sent more letters to Françoise, congratulating David and his unknown partner. He received no answer. Ralph couldn’t blame Fran. Why should she make time for the old queen who gave her away? 

The stillness soon returned to Ralph’s life. Months flowed like water through his fingers, if a little colder for that brief flush of hope. 

Then Canberra was bombed. Ralph spent days at his kitchen table with the radio on, expecting police or soldiers to kick down his door any second, not sure what he would do if they did.

By the time he ventured outdoors again, the papers were proudly blaring new horrors. Turned out the bombings were the work of a demi-human cult in Western Australia, led by a mad Oxfordian psychatrist obbessed with the obsolescence of human kind and selective breeding.

David. The girl. He’d left Françoise at a human cattle ranch.  

That wasn’t all. The papers said that the brave Australian soldiers were forced to put down some violent cultists.

Ralph wasn’t sure how he knew Françoise was among them. Maybe it was a bitter taste in the water. Maybe he just knew Fran would die before letting anyone or anything harm her son. The black days were back.

Before the week was out, the shattered remains of the world were ground into sand. Two photographs vied for space on the front page of The Australian: a bizarre, tear-shaped spaceship hovering over the city of Melbourne, and a blurry photograph of the five children who’d held the Royal Exhibition Building and the senior staff of the DDHA hostage. Rumour was that the ring-leaders were the very children who’d performed for the deceased prime minister that winter. 

Ralph only had to glance at the paper to know those rumours were true. There was little David, wild hair and luminous eyes, dressed in water. Out of the fish-tank.

That night, Ralph Rivers stood in front of his bedroom mirror, resplendent in his old suit, minus his long destroyed wings. The golden eagle stamped above his brow glinted in the starlight drifting through the window. Ralph didn’t know what he was about to do. Go and stop David and his friends? Help them? Whatever it was, he wasn’t going to stand by and let the world slide deeper into Hell. He was a superhero, goddamnit. He was the antidote to apathy. He should’ve gotten back in the game when they started rounding up kids.

But whenever he tried to step out of the house, he remembered the feeling of arms tearing from  sockets. Of flesh and bone exploding around his fist. The plaintive looks of fear and pain on soldiers’ faces. The images blurred together. He wasn’t brutalizing Germans or Italians, but David, or the girl, or Fran. Their blood sticking between his fingers… 

Curled on his bed, he wept. He was useless. Utterly fucking useless.

When he could weep no more, Ralph rose and peeled off his costume, shoving it roughly under his bed. 

And then, he got on with it.

“Hey Rivers,” Gary called out to Ralph as he passed the newsagent. “You hear? The Flying Man’s dead!”

“Good,” Ralph grunted, carrying a bag of fertilizer on his shoulder.

He was soon walking up the path to his flat through his garden. He saw his white cat creeping skittishly along the fence. 

What’s the matter with Pearl? Ralph wondered to himself. 

He unlocked the front door and stepped inside. 

There were people in his sitting room. Five gaudily dressed children, an old lady, and a younger woman in skinny jeans and a pink blazer over a black undershirt. The last was grinning wickedly at Ralph from his favourite armchair.

“Hey Comet,” said Mistress Quickly. “Nice place you got here.”

Ralph didn’t answer his old enemy. He was too busy looking at the dark-skinned boy leaning against the bookcase. His eyes were like nothing he’d seen since the war. 



“The Crimson Comet? What do we need him for?” Allison asked. “Bloke flies around and punches things. I’ve got the first thing covered, and the rest is pretty… simple.”

Maude extinguished the acetylene torch she was using to solder some circuitry, flipping her mask up and wiping sweat from her brow. “Never underestimate your standard flying strongman, Kinsey. Need to be flown to safety? Want a wall torn down? Need someone to complete a circuit with their bare hands? They’re good for all of the above!” Maude frowned thoughtfully. “Well, unless their secret weakness is electricity. Surprisingly common, that.” She shrugged. “Eh, most of them are heroes, they’d be up for it.”    

After the party had staggered exhausted through the dimensional rift, half the North American Maestros hot on their heels, Mistress Quickly had taken being teleported into Lyonesse’s foyer well. Her only response to the grand surroundings was to mutter, “Well, Joe was holding out on me…”

Maude more or less moved into the wardrobe for a day and a half after that. Well, it was called the wardrobe. It was closer to a small warehouse, containing hundreds of different outfits on motorized racks. Apparently Joseph Allworth felt it vital he had easy access to a clown costume, eighteen zoot suits, and a hooded winter version of his Flying Man outfit. 

“Why do you even need a fancy outfit?” Mrs Allworth asked as Maude tossed a full length Georgian gown into her arms. “I thought you ran around all the time in those overalls.”

“That’s just when I was robbing other dimensions, honey. It’s like working from home in your pyjamas, but with more fresh air and strangers shooting at you.” Maude jabbed her thumb towards Allison trying on some far too big dresses2 over her costume a few yards down the rack. “Plus, I don’t want to look underdressed next to that lot. Not that it’s easy to be underdressed with David around…” 

Sarah chuckled. “Not if I can help it.”

“Doing the Lord’s work there, Mrs Allworth.”

“Why other dimensions?” asked Allison. “Seemed like a lot more work.”

“Bunch of reasons,” replied Maude, holding a red leather motorbike suit in front of her. “One is that nobody cares if you steal the crown jewels and Prince Philip if they never go missing.” She threw away the suit. “There’s also harm minimization. Instead of robbing a lot of people in one reality, you spread them out across multiple universes.”

Sarah hummed dubiously. “Still sounds like common thievery to me.” 

Maude rolled her eyes. “With all due respect, Mrs Allworth, your son was the most painfully principled man I’ve ever met. Even he couldn’t get upset for me for robbing the Thousand Year Reich3 or the Theocracy4.”

 Allison was pulling a sky-blue satin dress over her head. “So, the Maestro world got took over by the super-people?”

“Yep,” said Maude. “Whole place is like someone built a funfair out of freak-finder nightmares. They swooped in when everyone was tuckered out from the war. Theirs lasted two extra years, can ya believe it?”

“Didn’t seem like they were doing a bang-up job of running things,” commented Sarah.

“Yeah,” said Allison, twirling in her dress like she was at the centre of a whirlpool. “We’d do a way better job.”

Sarah and Maude laughed uncomfortably, sharing a look. Neither woman had been brave enough yet to talk to Allison about how casually she’d dispatched Scrapper.

Once she’d settled on an outfit, Mistress Quickly had locked herself in Lyonesse’s machining workshop, ministering over what looked like an unravelled butterfly made of circuits and wires. 

The super-scientist let Allison watch her tinker from the edge of one of the workbenches, legs kicking the air as she took in Maude’s song. It was a strange tune, like a lullaby played on strings of pollen strummed by lightning. It didn’t let Allison do anything new, but it weaved stray thoughts in her head like silk threads. She’d already idly constructed a freeze-ray. Not that Maude had been overly impressed. Everyone had a freeze-ray in them. It was like the ABCs of enhanced science.

“It’s not even his powers we need,” Maude said as she guided a fuse into place with a pair of pliers. “It’s the image. I know half the supervillains in the super-max. If they’ll listen to anyone, they’ll listen to me.”

“Why’s that?” Allison hoped to God they hadn’t recruited a paper-tiger.

Maude smirked. “Kid, you’re looking at a three time winner of the Crime Olympics, and Villainy in Review’s5 Mad Scientist of the year for 1958.”

“…There’s a Crime Olympics?” 

“Well, a bunch of us get drunk and see who can steal the most shit in a week. But I still won.” Maude turned around and wagged her pliers at Allison. “Trust me, I’m at the head of that herd of cats.”

Allison was beginning to suspect Mistress Quickly didn’t often have a reason to explain herself. “So you’re like the boss of the baddies… so we need a superhero to… help us?”

Maude gritted her teeth. “You’re not listening, Allie. I can wrangle the villains, but—”

“Oh, you mean we need the Comet to get the superheroes on our side.”

Maude inhaled deeply. “Yes and no. You’re right that it won’t hurt, but getting the heroes to team up with us outlaws isn’t as big an ask as you might think. We’re practically the same species. Besides, we’re already breaking them out of a desert hell-prison. Right now, the only difference between a supervillain and a superhero in Oz is attitude, far as the law is concerned. It’s the regular folks at the super-max I’m thinking about.”

Allison cocked her head. “…You think the Crimson Comet will help with the guards?”   

Mistress Quickly threw her arms up. “No! I mean, yes! Quite possibly! But I mean the civilian prisoners.”

“But they’re not regular folks!” Allison retorted, a whine creeping into her voice. “They’re supers.”

Maude looked at the little girl for a moment, before smiling and shaking her head with a light laugh. “Oh, Allison. You and me? David? Even Mabel and Arnold, a bit? We might be different from the common man, but most supers? You’d hardly be able to tell the difference when they aren’t flying or throwing fireballs.”

Allison folded her arms. “I don’t believe you. Humans are boring. Even the nice ones.”

“You don’t have to believe me. But you have to understand, Allison, most of the people in that prison are scared out of their wits. Probably half-convinced themselves they deserve to be there. Their first instinct isn’t going to be to stand and fight. It’s gonna be to run and hide, or maybe curl up in a ball.” Maude stood very straight. “Nothing like a right proper superhero to get folks all revved and ready.” She turned back to her project, plucking away at it like a surgeon. “Besides, there’s our image to think about. You want people to think your little super-town is legitimate, right?”

“I don’t care what the humans think.”

“You should. Ralph Rivers might be the difference between all Australia thinking you’re the world’s biggest villain team waiting to strike, and just another friendly country town.”

Allison huffed. “Okay, okay. I’ll talk to the others about it. Billy and Mabel will be thrilled, I bet. Think he’ll even go with us?”

Maude grinned. “Of course he will. Altruism is like marching powder for superheroes.”

“What do you mean ‘no’?” Maude shouted, thrusting the large white box she was holding out between her and Ralph Rivers and shaking it. “I spent all week making this!”

“I don’t care!” cried Ralph. “You’re talking nonsense! Busting open the—what even is the super-max?” 

Allison shook her head in mute disgust from the big couch. “You don’t know? It’s where our people are being locked up!”

“To be fair,” Arnold muttered out the corner of his mouth, “that’s meant to be a secret.” 

Allison stuck her hand over her friend’s mouth, still scowling at Rivers. “Don’t you want to help your own kind?”

A sad, bitter sputter of laughter. “Girlie, we’re people with superpowers, not the Twelve Tribes of Israel!”

“We could be, if you helped us.”

Sarah Allworth cleared her throat from the kitchen doorway, a cup of tea in hand. “I know what Miss Quickly and the children are proposing is… audacious. But their hearts are in the right place, and I’m sure you’d be a great help.”

“I’m retired!” Ralph pointed an accusing finger at Mistress Quickly. “Who even are you?”

Maude exploded with indignation. “I was your last case!”

So?” Ralph swung around to look at the four weirdly dressed children, all wearing looks of badly blended surprise and disappointment. “You shouldn’t be here.” Whoever out there was working up superhero costumes for kids ought to be shot, Ralph reckoned. Like dressing up preschoolers in fucking camo. “If someone looked through the window and called the freak-finders—”

“I’d feed them to a dinosaur,” Mabel finished for him.

Ralph raised a finger, made to speak, then sighed and shook his head. “You’re all goddamn mad, you know that?”

Ralph’s eyes fell on David again. In the flesh, after all these years… 

Rivers pushed the other invaders and their lunatic sales-pitch out his thoughts. Whatever they were selling didn’t matter, not with David standing right there. He bent down and put his hands around the boy’s shoulders. “David, I never thought—your mother, is she…” 

He didn’t dare finish.

Contempt poured from David’s eyes. His grandfather’s eyes. This man was touching him like he was Grandfather. Like he knew him at all. “Dead,” he said. “My mum’s dead.”

A new blister of despair burst inside Ralph. He’d known for weeks, but to hear it from her son’s mouth…  He ran a hand along David’s cheek. “David, what happened to your eyes.”

David slapped Ralph’s hand away. “I stopped being weak.” 

Ralph squeezed back tears. “You’ve met your grandfather, haven’t you?”

David answered with a cold silence that broke River’s heart. He looked away from the boy, glancing at Allison and her burning red eyes. “You’re not his sister, are you?”

“From a different mother.”

For a horrible moment, Ralph wondered if she meant that figuratively or literally. He felt a hand on his back. The old woman was looking sympathetically down at him. 

“I’m sorry,” said Sarah. “I know what it’s like to lose a child.”

No. She didn’t understand. He didn’t deserve—  

“Yeah,” said Mistress Quickly. “Allie, I think it’s time for the contingency plan.”

“Wait,” said Sarah, “when did we discuss—”

Ralph Rivers shuddered and jerked like someone had poured pure pins and needles down his back. A curious expression overtook his face. He patted his hands up and down his body and grimaced. 

“Please stop making me be grown-ups,” Miri said with Ralph’s lightly smoke-scratched voice, “or boys.”                 

“Just temporary,” Allison assured her sister. 

“Better be.” 

“What in God’s name have you done to the poor man?” demanded Sarah.

“Allie stuck one of the people in her head inside Mr. Rivers,” Mabel explained. “I’m just glad she picked the nice one.”

“Happened in reverse a little while ago,” added Arnold. “Tell us if you ever hear Allie talking all Italian or if she starts smoking.”

Every day, Sarah regretted not taking Joe’s potion less and less.

The front door opened. A white cat bobbed through the air, twisting and yowling all the while. Billy became visible. “Can we keep her? Please, please, please! Someone’s got to feed her!”

“Team pet. Sure, why not,” said Maude.

Everyone looked to Sarah for a final verdict. She glanced wearily at Ralph Rivers experimentally flexing his pecs. 

She sighed. “Let’s just get going.”

Mistress Quickly stuck a hand in her left blazer pocket. “Liquid comfort.”

Blue light flared from the pocket, and she pulled out a long, brown square bottle. She undid the lid and handed it to Miri. “Drink this till you feel sleepy.”

Miri obeyed, only to recoil when the liquid within crossed her lips. “What even is this stuff?”

“Rum. It helps grownups sleep.”

Everyone got into a circle and started linking hands. Mistress Quickly watched Ralph Rivers suck down her booze like a baby with a very unpleasant bottle.

Man, he is going to be pissed when he wakes up.  

1. Not to be confused with the nearby creek, the historical Aboriginal tracker, or the planet.

2. The Flying Man was surprisingly convincing in drag.

3. An unnaturally prolonged German Empire, created by soothsayers in an attempt to avert the horrors of World War 2.

4. A version of Earth still dominated by the Roman Empire, ruled by Jesus of Nazareth after he got down from the cross and used it to clobber Emperor Tiberius to death.

5. An irregularly published piece of samizdat popular with supervillains, canny heroes and wannabes alike.

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