Category Archives: The Comet’s Tale

The strange, wondrous life of Ralph Rivers.

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-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.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

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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Chapter Eighteen: Full Fathom Five Thy Father Dwells

It was a rare night when children’s screams did not break the silence of the NHI dormitories. For so many young posthumans, nightmares were the price they paid for working dreams. Some cried out for their mothers—even if they knew in their bones that they didn’t want them. In their sleep, they clung to their memories, holding tight to pillows, stuffed animals, and even each other in hope of comfort. At any other school, such unhidden need would likely have been a cause for teasing or outright bullying, but every child at the Institute knew that longing. And so, when a student woke to find another clinging to them, common courtesy was to simply hug them back, and never speak of it when morning came. Some nights, especially in deep winter, when you could feel the chill pressing against the windows and seeping in beneath the door, half the hammocks in the dorms went unoccupied.

Myriad in particular found company helpful in warding off her night terrors. Elsewhere usually didn’t mind cuddling, but sometimes his self consciousness would rear up from the depths like the Devil Whale, and suddenly they were both too old for it. Growltiger was always amenable, and had the advantage of basically being living, humanoid plush—but that also meant that half the time someone had already called him for the night. Windshear and Elsewhere were both trying to convince him to charge for it.

Fortunately for Myriad, she always had Maelstrom. Apart, perhaps, from Elsewhere, she had never been so effortlessly comfortable with another child. Maybe it was because they both knew what it was like to be water: shapeless and mercurial, lacking any permanence or definition beyond the wordless, intuitive collaboration they shared as they passed particles and concepts between themselves, shaping the world both inside and around them, masters of one narrow yet vast element of creation. Twin minds sharing one utterly singular experience.

It also might have been because Maelstrom was nice.

The night held foes for him, too; poisonous fish circling the boy in the dark, waiting for blood. And tonight, they got it. He wept and shook, caught somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. Myriad tried to comfort him, much as his terror threatened to overwhelm her in turn:

“It-it’s okay, David. I’m here.”

He looked right past her—his eyes wild and gleaming—at a man with a cold, pale smile. He was always there, watching and listening. There was no escaping him, for David. He was inside him, threaded through his entire being. He let out a long, ragged scream. A few glasses of water fell and shattered.

Even by the generous standards of the Institute, this was getting a bit much. Each dorm was left to one of the older teenagers to police, who, in compensation for having to share a room with around a dozen small children, wielded almost dictatorial power within. That evening, the den-mother of David and Myriad’s dorm was Reverb, who had the advantage of not even needing to get out of bed to complain to someone.  

A few minutes later, Żywie slipped into the dorm, a blanket wrapped protectively around her like her much missed cloak1, along with a hard lash of wind that struck the children nearest to the door right in the face. Britomart and Reverb both irritably pointed towards Myriad’s hammock.

Standing over the two children in her purple brocade nightgown and cap, Myriad thought the healer looked even more sorcerous than usual. She placed her hands gently on Maelstrom’s shoulders. “Shh, shh, everything is alright, David.”

It was the first time Myriad had ever heard an adult use her friend’s human name, and whether by its own power or with the help of some biological witchery from Żywie (a sudden surge of cortisol, perhaps?), it seemed to rouse the boy from his haze.

“Ah-yeah-ahh,” he whimpered.

With surprising ease, Żywie lifted David out of the hammock and set him lightly on his feet, wrapping her blanket around him and pulling him close. Giving up your blanket to a Barthe is a pointless gesture to be sure, but that wouldn’t stop her from feeling like a monster if she didn’t. She smiled, wearily but kindly. “There’s a good boy. How about we go see your mother, hmm?”

She felt him nod against her side.

Before leaving, Żywie looked back down at Myriad. “You are very good to him.” She reached a hand down towards the girl’s face. For a terrible moment, she thought the woman was going to force sleep onto her, but all she did was brush her hair aside. “Very good.”

The moment teacher and student shut the door behind them as they ventured out into the cold night and howling wind, some of the still-awake students started grumbling.  

“Suck up.”

“Teacher’s pet.”  

“Mummy’s boy.”

Beneath the contempt, there was a clear note of envy. Myriad mused that perhaps that was the real reason Lawrence insisted David call his mother by name. If she were the only child in the world with a mother to comfort her, she doubted she would be very popular with her peers either.

The thought brought with it uninvited memories of every little kindness her mother ever did for her. All the small, unremarked on gestures of love that Allison hardly even noticed at the time, repeating over and over in her head. And with them came everything else she had lost. Clutching Miss Fluffers2, her Institute provided teddy bear, she cried herself to sleep.

“You know I don’t approve of this sort of coddling.”

“He was upsetting the other children. I cannot see the harm in letting her see him.”

“A boy his age shouldn’t need his mother to coddle him asleep.”

A sigh. “He is eight years old, Laurie.”

It was never a good idea to argue too hard with Żywie when she was in one of her crusading moods. “Fine,” he said, waving her off. “But this stops come New Year’s.”

Françoise sat in bed reading Heroes of the Outback—the mildly disappointing result of one journalist’s dogged but unfruitful survey of Australia’s superheroic community3—when she heard the knock at her door. Frowning to herself at the interruption, she got up and opened the door to find Eliza standing on the other side, her son clinging to the other woman like a limpet, his face vacant.

“He was having trouble sleeping, and I thought you might, if it wasn’t any trouble—”

“No, no, of course not.” Françoise managed to swallow the instinctual swell of spite and resentment that always rose within her when she saw someone else comforting her child. She knew it was an ugly and useless emotion, and that David’s life would have been poorer without the healer. She opened her arms. “Come here, darling.”

The boy detached from Eliza, burying his face in his mother’s stomach. So hidden, his tears flowed anew.

“Thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do.” She bent down. “Good night, David.”

The boy gave no response save his continued weeping, not that Eliza needed one anyway. She left the mother to console her son.     

Françoise had always been of two minds about the healer. She had a certain high-minded busybodyness about her. She was the spiritual descendant of the sort of Victorian moralist who preached the beginnings of women’s lib while warning the young about the evils of billiards and yellow-back novels. Françoise suspected the undeniable humanitarian potential of Eliza’s gift had deeply ingrained a sense of righteous burden in the woman, which she hid poorly.

Still, it made her kind.

Françoise drew David deeper into her room. When she first moved in, still very much a child herself, she had decorated her personal space with contrarian stubbornness. Françoise had tolerated no trace of the nautical in her room: painting the walls in deep forest greens and browns, trying to play to her tan rather than her oceanic aesthetic. Back then, she had kept a corner of the room perpetually covered in a laminate liner, for when she and Hugo would play board games. This had ceased to be an issue in her teen years, her control over her element maturing to the point that she had been able to simply scoop up her friend’s secretions as they were formed. It had never been relevant in adulthood. By then they had realized how irreconcilable their differences really were.

In her calmer moments with her son, Mel enjoyed the way he blended with the earthy color scheme of the room. While to her, it was an affectation, some way of distancing herself from the gravity her power held in the minds of others, David, for his part, actually seemed to fit the forest. If she was the ocean, then perhaps David was a brook, or a babbling forest stream. Her musings were cut short when the boy pulled himself tighter against her chest, the wet trails of his tears leaving slight imprints on her nightgown.

She fell backwards onto her bed, still holding her son. “Oh, David, sweetheart,” she sighed, switching to Occitan. “What’s the matter? You can tell me” she pleaded.

David looked up at her like a rabbit poking its head out of the warren, before weakly shaking his head. “I-I don’t remember. I-it feels like it’s there, but every time I look for it, it moves away again.” He said in broken, strangely accented Meridional French. He screwed his eyes shut. “It hurts. My eyes. Every time, my eyes.”

Françoise stroked his hair resignedly. This was the most information than she had ever gotten out of her son during these fits. She was sure he was covering for those little bastards Lawrence made him call his brothers and sisters. He was too good for that pack of monsters. Some day, so help her God, she’d make them cry every tear they had wrung out of her David, pour them down their throats and—  

No, that wouldn’t help. It never helped. But it was so easy to ride that rage. It was an unbroken stallion, so confident and ceaseless in its charge that you could almost pretend you were the one driving it forward. It was, she thought, her father’s other legacy to her.

Mourning her own helplessness, the nereid’s eyes fell on Heroes of the Outback, left open on top of the duvet like a resting moth. Embossed on its sherbert orange cover was the silhouette of a powerfully built, winged man, standing arms akimbo. It was a figure every Australian, even one terminally disinterested in the affairs of superheroes, would recognise.

The Americans may have Superman, Françoise thought. But at least the Aussies’ fella is real.   

“Have I ever told you about the Crimson Comet, David?”

“Yes.” The question was pure ritual, as was David’s answer. Françoise had told her son about that faded hero so many times, the story had paved a garden path in his mind; a safe and well trodden journey through an imagined past, in some ways more vivid and real than his present.

“Well, no harm telling you again. It must have been 44’, during the Liberation. And those wings he always had strapped to his back?” She smiled. “He wasn’t quite sure where one of them had gotten to when we met.”

The Crimson Comet stumbled through the bushes, his one functioning hand clenched against the wound in his side. Flecks of shrapnel were scattered throughout his shredded flesh and shattered ribs. He had a sinking feeling that if he saw just how badly he was injured, the sight would undo him. So he kept his eyes levelled at the ground in front of him, away from the hot, wet mess of pain that was his chest. He took a step, and felt something detach from his torso, only to smack into his knee. Shrapnel? A shard of rib?

“Don’t look. Don’t look.”

The Comet’s lurid red bodysuit had mostly been burned away above the waist, revealing the sturdy leather harness that held in place his intricately wrought, burnished gold pair of wings. The right one had been blown nearly completely off, its broken skeleton of wires and circuitry sparking uselessly next to its twin. Now and then, the relatively intact wing would glow as though freshly lifted from the forge, and the Comet would lurch forward wildly with all the speed and force of his namesake, only for his newfound momentum to die as quickly as it came, the wing’s light flickering and dying, sending him sprawling into the dirt more often than not.

His vision greyed and blurred with every breath, like he was wandering in and out of a film reel. Ralph Rivers wasn’t used to pain by any means. The last time he truly experienced it, he’d been just shy of ten years old, weedy and asthmatic—cowering before a cohort of bigger, meaner boys while wondering how they weren’t noticing the giant with stars in its eyes looming over them. That had been such a long time ago. Before the war, before the Crimson Comet, before even his first boyfriend (if that was even the right word for the two of them). Now, suddenly and viciously reminded of the human condition, he had no idea how the rest of them coped.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Rivers was meant to help the Yanks clear the Germans out of Ayoutre: an obscure Provencal village, if not just an extended family distributed amongst a few thatched medieval farmhouses, which Alexander Patch4 had explained was logistically priceless for reasons he did not and would never understand.  

The job was straightforward enough. Inspire hope in the people of Provence, strike the fear of God into some Nazis, draw fire away from the less puncture-proof members of the U.S infantry unit he was attached to; all that Jack Churchill stuff, if with sadly less longbows and bagpipes.

And at first, that was how things played out. The Crimson Comet had led the charge into the village, letting the Krauts empty a lead mine’s worth of ammo into his chest. The Axis, as he had discovered, were not too dissimilar in their habits to bank robbers, racketeers, and fifth columnists: they all never seemed to get it through their heads that, if their first, fifth, or seventy-third shots failed to accomplish anything, their seventy-fourth wasn’t likely to do much better. It was almost depressing, though at least nobody had tried throwing their empty sidearms at him.  He had been beating back a mob of soldiers with one of their own comrades, when someone landed a glancing shot. With a tank.

Without effective anchoring, the force of the high explosive had blown Ralph Rivers something like five miles out of the village. Some layer of his mind—deeper than the sunlit regions where his thoughts took the form of words, but still broadly rational—suspected the shock of the impact had triggered his flight reflex. Well, he called it flight. Without the aid of his ruined wing harness, it was more like exploding in a particular direction. It was what had made him pick the name “Comet” to begin with. He had appended “Crimson” to it after someone had told him about an American with disintegrator eyes who went by the Comet, too. Rivers always privately hoped that someday he’d share a pint with his namesake, but never more so than now.

He was getting slower and slower with every step. He wasn’t sure where he was trying to get to anymore. Dazed, he had mostly forgotten about the village, and even the war altogether. For a moment, he had no past, or future, only the settled agony in his chest and the wet blood on his palm urging him forward. He hardly noticed when he fell down the hill. What he did notice was something being pushed up into his stomach.

He came to rest facing up at the night sky. This far from any light pollution, the Milky Way shone boldy, spread out above him like sand blown across a tar road. The waning moon had drifted behind some clouds, somehow darker for the white haze that hemmed them.

Ralph took in every detail of the sky he could, being fairly sure that it would be the last thing he ever saw. Given the circumstances, he could have done far worse. He prayed silently, though he only truly believed in God every other week. Back home, he’d gone to confession regularly, even telling his priest about the blunders he made as the Crimson Comet. He hadn’t, however, mentioned anything about his love life. As he lay there, he wondered if his… inversion really did qualify as a sin. It didn’t seem to hurt anyone. Certainly didn’t hurt Albert. Or Finch.

Oh, God, Finch.

He didn’t want to die in the middle of a war. Maybe that went without saying, but it just wasn’t the proper place for a superhero. He should have gone over the falls with one of his arch-nemeses, like Holmes. No, that didn’t quite fit, either. He should have gone out helping someone. That was what men like him were built for. Anything else was a waste.

There was a movement in the corner of his eye, accompanied by a muffled splash. Turning his head weakly, Ralph glanced in its direction. There was a pond with designs towards lake-hood a few yards from him. A little girl was walking out of it, dripping water as she went. She was five or six years old near as Ralph could tell, and mother-naked, yet to all appearances unphased by the chill of the night air. Rivers shivered for her, or maybe just from blood loss. She looked like an illustration from the The Water-Babies.

As the child grew closer, what stood out to the Comet were her eyes. They were like nothing else he’d ever seen: two splinters of ice reflecting the moonlight. Wait, no, that glow was coming from within.

The girl was soon standing over Ralph, her eyes fading to a royal blue.

Was she Death? In some pictures angels took on the form of small children, which Ralph supposed had some advantages on the skull-and-scythe approach when it came to ensuring client cooperation. The girl regarded him with blank curiosity.

Faced with this apparition, the Crimson Comet only had one question. “…Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“How did he keep going when he was hurting so bad?”

Françoise cocked her head to the side slightly, surprised at the question from her son. He usually remained silent during her stories, allowing her words to lull him into a state of calm. This time, however, he was gazing up at her from his position on her knee, eyes shining with intent.

“How did he keep putting one foot in front of the other like that? How did he ignore the pain?”

“I…” Fran hesitated. With very few exceptions, physical pain was something she and her son could escape with a thought. “I never asked, really. Why? Do you think he should have stopped?”

“I think I would have,” David muttered, shifting on her knee until his cheek was pressed against her shoulder. “I think most people would have frozen up, you know? How do you deal with something so big like that?”

“I… I think you try and focus on other things,” she replied, a little concerned. “You try and remember why you risked being hurt in the first place, and remind yourself that being hurt is worth it as long as you can do what you wanted to. Don’t you think so, David?”

It sounded hollow and she knew it.

“Is this because of your eyes? Have you tried going icy?”

He shook his head. “Makes it worse.”

Part of Françoise wasn’t surprised. Whatever assailed her son, she doubted it was anything so physical. Picking up the story again, she tried to remember where she was up to.

“So the Comet was just lying there—I tried slowing down the bleeding, but I don’t think he noticed—babbling something about either sleep or death. It’s hard to remember specifics, didn’t speak any English back then.”

“And then what did you do?”

David knew the answer, of course. It wasn’t a nice one, but it was all a part of the Story.

“I took him to see my father.”

Ralph Rivers could only ever recall fragments of the next few hours. Grainy stills and disconnected scenes from a film whose negatives nobody had bothered to archive. He remembered something being slid under his back. At the time, he assumed it was a metal stretcher, so cold it felt to touch.

Then, motion, the moon above him drifting to the edge of his vision, like a child running to keep up with a train. After that, the girl had pushed him out onto the pond. It reminded the Comet of stories he had heard about Eskimos sending their sick and enfeebled adrift on the ice flows. If that was the little girl’s intention, he was rather offended. Surely she could tell he wasn’t going to be a burden for long?

Something was waiting for him in the middle of the water. To his regret, it was the one part of the whole ordeal that Ralph could always readily grasp in his memory.

The man was handsome, or at least he would have been, if hadn’t looked like he’d sat at the bottom of a lake for a week. His skin was marble-pale, the unhealthy, pallid tone accentuated by patches of what looked like algae spider webbing out across his flesh. There was seaweed strewn through his hair, tangling the long, sleek strands in bundles and knots of dank, solid rot. His cold, waxen lips were set in a smile. He was quite naked and, unlike the girl, it was not a wholesome thing. What they did have in common was the gleam of their eyes; but while hers glowed a pure, powerful blue, his were of a more sickly kind. They didn’t shine their light so much as seep it, the milky, ocean green of their glow roiling out from his face like moonlight caught in a nighttime mist.

He smelled of salt and decay, even at a distance. Had Ralph had the energy, he might have gagged.

“Have you brought me a present, child?” The man’s voice was the soft swoosh of waves washing rock, and while he understood him clearly, Ralph wasn’t sure he was speaking English, or even if he was speaking at all.

The girl said something back that Ralph didn’t understand, but he at least was certain were words. Provence was in some ways the Wales of France: a country within a country, complete with its own particular dialect. He was surprised to see that she was standing beside him, her feet seemingly on top of the water. Was he floating on a puddle?

“Really?” the man said with feigned concern. “He won’t like it.”

The girl pouted, folding her arms. If not for the circumstances, Ralph might have found it cute. Now that he could see the man and the child together, he thought he might have been her father, or at least his corpse.

The man sighed. A whirlpool formed nearby. “Very well, he’s your catch.” He kneeled down, examining Ralph as though he were a fish with its innards spread out on the dock, before turning his head up at the girl. “You really should learn to do this yourself.”

The girl beamed, giggling like Ralph’s own niece whenever she managed to con a piggyback ride out of him.

Then he was plunged beneath the water. The cold burned, knocking the air from his lungs. As he choked and sputtered, he saw that the man and his child had joined him below. The girl floated on her belly, watching him, her feet churning the water behind her. There was nothing in her face to indicate she was holding her breath.

The pseudo-corpse raised a hand, and Ralph felt the water press against his body, the cold stinging sharply against the wounds in his chest, arm, and legs. He opened his mouth to scream, and found not only that the lack of air made it impossible, but that the water took advantage of the move, a liquid tendril forcing his jaw further apart. When the tank shell had struck him, the blast had forced his lower jaw hard up into his skull, striking his teeth together in a violent hammer blow that had made him occasionally stop in his staggering to spit out blood and chunks of his own teeth. The water surged now around the shattered remnants of his mouth, pressing violently against raw, exposed nerve endings. It would be charitable to say that this only redoubled the pain.

For the first time in his life, Ralph Rivers wanted to die. The pain was too great, the damage too severe, and he found that, even forced into consciousness as he was, he was unable to muster his power enough to defend his shattered body against the constant, continual rush of water. He squeezed his eyes shut, reached into the depths of his agonized mind for something of comfort—his sister, Albert’s embrace, his old border collie—and took a deep, full lungful of the water.

Nothing happened. Ralph Rivers was still conscious, still in pain. The water man was laughing. Not a hearty laugh, just a slight, wispy chuckle, almost casual.

“Ah, see? The man hates it so much he tried to die. I told you he might not like it, little one.”

The girl scowled, turning her head away from the man and back towards their captive, resting her chin on her arms and puffing out her cheeks in irritation, sending a plume of tiny bubbles rising to the surface. In another frame of mind, he might have laughed.

Was this Hell? If it was, then he had been greatly misinformed about the climate. Burning would have been a pleasure, compared to this. His priest always said that he who lays with men would see their repentance, but Ralph had been hopeful, or perhaps childish enough to believe that his God was a less wrathful soul than that. If he was wrong, then God had a sick sense of irony. His mouth forced apart, tortured by things moving inside him. Ha ha. Very funny.

Ralph wasn’t sure if he had cried by the end of it. He was quite certain that he had screamed, or at least, made the best attempt his drowned lungs would allow, before the pain, ever so slowly, began to recede. It faded from his mouth first, the shattered stumps of his teeth going slowly quiet. It wasn’t numbness. He knew that much, because he could still feel the water pushing and prodding and forcing his jaw painfully wide. He felt around with his tongue, tentatively touched one of the splintered teeth, only to find a smooth, solid surface, near exactly the shape he remembered it being in just the day before. Even a tooth Ralph had knocked out when was eight had been restored. It was slimy, the surface covered in a film somewhere between mucus and mold. The taste was foul, and he retched, but somewhere in his mind, he understood. Whatever this creature was doing, it was healing him, in some broken manner. He stopped fighting, let his body hang limp where he could, and, finally, the blackness took him.

David’s usual passivity during storytime was well and truly absent that night. Sitting up, he asked his mother “Did you ever learn how to fix people like that?”

Françoise wasn’t expecting that. Half the time, David made her skip the part with her father altogether. “No,” she admitted. “Didn’t see the need once I met your aunt. And to be honest, I was never all that interested to begin with.”

Fran’s father had a lot of tricks she never picked up herself. Separating salt from seawater, peering out from pools half a world away, blasphemously changing water into wine; yet it was easy to rest on your laurels when you were a goddess among mortals. Sometimes, she regretted not being able to pass down those secrets to her son.

“Oh. That’s okay.”

Françoise thought David sounded put out. Maybe he wanted to be more like his aunt.

“What was it like?”

“What was what like?”

“Being able to do what you wanted. No one making you be better. Being able to love your dad.”

Françoise was quiet for some time. “Oh, oh, droplet. Basil loves you.”

David fell back onto the bed. “I know he does!” he moaned. “But I don’t think I do! I mean, I like him, and he’s nice, but he’s not my dad.” He broke down into sobs once more. “Bad, bad bad.”

Françoise sighed, the boy letting out a small yelp as his body rose from the bed, reorienting in the air, before being deposited on her knee. She could have used her power to wipe the tears from his eyes as well, but chose to do it with her finger, using the other arm to pull the boy close, holding him about the shoulders.

“You’re not bad, little drop.” She murmured, trying desperately to keep herself from joining her son in tears. “You’re sad, and you’re lonely. But you’re loved. You know that right? I love you with everything I have, and so does your father. It’s okay if you don’t love him back. Kids aren’t supposed to love their parents as much as they love them. We’re meant to care more. It’s our job. You know, I think, if you really did care more about your dad than you do, I think that’d hurt him, in a way. I don’t think your dad likes himself very much, and knowing you loved him might make that hurt a little more, you know? He’d be asking himself why you cared so much, when he knows he’s worth so little. I think not loving him is kind of you, droplet, I really do.”

David looked up at her, his wet eyes filled with complete and total bafflement.

She had done it again, hadn’t she? Her son had always been better at being a person than her. She brought a hand to her eyes, frustrated.

“What was it like, being with Grandfather?”

Françoise glanced down at her son. He was staring at her with an odd look in his eyes, eager, shining, but at the same time, it almost struck her as angry. “…Like moving from dream to dream,” she answered. “All of them were beautiful, but… It just didn’t feel real. Like… remember when you told me about Cinderella?”

The boy nodded. He had been taken to see it as a reward, following his and Myriad’s performances at the parliament, the tickets provided at the Valour residence by a surprisingly affable Robert Menzies. By David’s own account, he had been mesmerized by it. It was as though the humans had managed to imprint whatever magic Mabel commanded onto reels of film.

“Well,” she continued. “It was like watching Cinderella, in a way. Like, everything was perfect, but none of it felt real after a while.”

David considered this, then shook his head, scowling at her.

“I’m not a baby, Mummy,” he muttered. “I don’t just want you to tell me something that sounds pretty. I want to know what it was really like.”

Fran considered the boy thoughtfully, then sighed.

“You have to promise me you’ll never tell your friends or Lawrence I said any of this. My childhood was… not for children.”

For just a moment, the boy hesitated, loyalty to Lawrence warring with loyalty to his mother and curiosity to know more. Eventually, he nodded.

“Well,” she said. “Where to begin? My first memory is of a ship burning overhead while my father and I watched. It was a strange ship, not like anything we’d seen before, all grey tones and hard lines. We’d been playing tag in the water behind it, trying to see who could move about better in its wake without stilling the water. The first explosion was a shock. I screamed, forgetting all about the race. It was scary, but Father was there. In an instant, he was around me, keeping me safe. We went deep and watched this new ship, a smaller ship, approaching the first one from underneath the water. The Germans called them U-boats. The sailors on the bigger one didn’t stand a chance. The thing sank, and that was the first time I saw what humans could do. For all the miracles my father had ever shown me, this was the first time I had ever seen fire touching water. He’d told me that was impossible.”

She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts, making an effort to exclude the more upsetting details of it all. David was staring up at her, eyes wide, mouth slightly open. She leaned down, and gave him a small peck on the forehead, before she continued.

“My father didn’t care for this new human miracle. He thought it was some chemical trick, which, to be fair, it was. These humans, though, they entranced me. I started trying to seek them out, watching the lights and feeling the sounds echo through the waters. My father let me watch, long as I always stayed close to the water so that he could keep an eye on me. My second outing, I watched the men, and, strangely enough, they were all men, sinking beneath the water. Some looked scared, some, pained. I tried approaching one. He wasn’t at his best. The ship’s propeller had taken half his leg on the way down, and he was struggling. He didn’t seem to mind the pain. Too busy being terrified, I suppose. I wanted a closer look, so I made myself real in front of him. I can only imagine how it must have looked. This tiny little girl emerging out of the darkness in front of him. Maybe he thought I was an angel. He died not long after, but what I do know is that seeing me made him smile. He reached out to touch my hand and, curious, I let him. Then, he closed his eyes, smiled, and died. It was the first time a human being ever made me feel something.”

It had been an odd sensation. In retrospect, she knew it was best summed up as ‘melancholy,’ but at the time, she had had no such word for it. In truth, she had yet to find words for anything back then. It was only after watching the humans, particularly those engaged in a long, hard fought campaign along the outskirts of a city, that she would begin trying to understand their words. She would later come to identify the language they spoke as Occitan.

The men, and again, they had almost all been men, who had seen her while fighting on land, had been far less calmed by her presence. Their responses were raw, untamed, fueled by adrenaline and fear. Some had tried to chase her away, some had tried to shield her, guide her somewhere safe. One man—which side he had fought for she didn’t know—had taken her behind the wall of a house, and began to touch her. It had made her uncomfortable, but she did not stop him immediately. It was only when his hands reached too far, and she smelled his hot, desperate breath against her cheek that she had ended it. It was the first man she had killed for anything other than amusement, and unlike the other victims of her youth, she had felt the urge to hide this one, a pit of what she had later come to call shame forming in her gut at the thought of him. She had buried him in pieces, his head in a bomb crater, some distance from his legs. She wasn’t sure how much her father had seen, and if he had, why he hadn’t chosen to intervene. Perhaps he had intended that human to be a lesson. She still wasn’t sure.

It had been some months later that she finally came back to watch the men of war again. In the meantime, she pursued the company of other children, swimming and playing off of beaches half a world away from the flashes and the noise. Sometimes, she didn’t even seem out of place among them. Eventually, however, curiosity had once more gotten the best of her, and she had returned. She watched from a distance this time, more cautious, almost afraid.

 The iron ships had given way to metal carts now. Perhaps they had always been there, perhaps not, but this was the first she saw of them. The metal carts with their long, pointed horns that swiveled and pelted the land with fire and rock. She didn’t like those carts. They scared her.

Then, one night, she had come across two men. She wouldn’t have payed them even the barest of thoughts, but their actions, they were familiar. At first, she had mistaken it for grappling, a fight to the death of some kind. But both of these men wore the colors of the same side. She recognized the look in their eyes, the heavy panting of their breath. Watching had not been a pleasant thing for her, but, oddly, she found it gave her closure. There was less shame, she thought, to killing the desperate man if that had been what he intended to do to her. These men were discovered, not by friends, but opponents, and had been virtually drowned in a deluge of fire. The girl had expected that to be the end of it. But one man stood, covered in the blood of his companion, and, without a single tear, had laid waste to the opponents at his back, tearing them to pieces with his bare hands. The girl was in awe. Was this a man she watched? The same frail and feeble things that she had seen drowning by the dozens?

She watched as the man collected the remnants of his foes into a pile, and then set them all ablaze with a stick and some alien fluid she couldn’t touch. She watched as he gently, almost fearfully picked up his companion’s cadaver, and carried it away from the scene. Watching that made her feel something unsettling. It reminded her a little too closely of how her father held her. She did not see it, but she could feel the tears begin to flow gently from his eyes. He didn’t have to dig the man a grave alone. She helped him from the dark, parting damp soil and snow for him to ease his efforts. Looking back, perhaps that had been unkind. Perhaps the extra effort would have been a solace to him.

In the weeks that followed, she had watched the man from afar, as long and often as she could. By day, he wore a different uniform to those around him, all color and lights and power. Much later, she had realized that he had only worn the more common uniform so he could be with a man he called Finch. She watched this man day and night, desperate to learn more about what made him special, like her father. No matter how often she watched, however, she had never seen him hold another man as gently as he had Finch. Never seen that desperation, either.

She continued to aid the man, when she felt like it. None of the great, metal dragons that infested her father’s kingdom could touch any ship which carried her pet. On the rare occasions that his foes fielded their own godling against him, the girl tilted the odds in his favour. Not that the man really needed it. Even among the semi-divine, he appeared to be exceptional.

The only things the man seemed to truly fear were the metal carts and discovery. Once, one of the little men who hid behind her titan in battle spied him lying with another man, and had marched off in clear disgust. The child didn’t know much about human beings, but she had observed them enough to tell when someone was planning something, so she burst a blood vessel in his brain, and that was the end of that.

Eventually, the man found his way to the part of the world where her memories began, and where her father still haunted. It didn’t matter much—her father was omnipresent wherever there was water, his currents cradling her in her sleep and bringing her fish when she was hungry—but there was a joy to watching her favourite exercise his might in such familiar surroundings.

But then a metal cart had managed to break her man. Broke him bad enough that she needed her father to fix him.


The Crimson Comet did not regain consciousness so much as find himself forcibly pulled back into it. His first action was to gag violently. His mouth felt slimy, the sharp taste of rot and long dead fish still lingering. Then, he became aware of a pressure on top of his chest, something cold and wet and slimy. Opening his eyes, he almost yelped as his gaze met two cobalt specks less than half a foot from his face. It was the little girl, legs to one side like the Little Mermaid in miniature, leaning forwards on her slender arms to stare at him. Well, that explained the pressure against his ribs. Ralph took a moment to find his composure, before carefully lifting his hands to the girl’s shoulders. She flinched ever so slightly at his touch, leaning back from him.

“I-it’s alright, kid,” he said, as gently as he could. “I just need you to hop off me for a second so I can stand up, there’s a good girl.”

The child cocked her head, uncomprehending. Ah, yes, French. Or Provencal. Or something else he didn’t want to know. Well, at least the softness of his intonation seemed to have helped. Otherwise, Ralph could only hope that pantomime was their lingua franca. Slowly, he pushed himself up from the ground, coming about a third of the way to a sitting position when the girl lost her balance with a squeak. He steadied her with an arm about the shoulders, and allowed himself a small laugh, trying not to sound cruel. Surprisingly, she laughed as well, and awkwardly clambered off of him, sitting herself on the dirt floor a few feet away. He pushed himself upright, and took a quick stock of the situation.

Dawn had broken through the night, leaving a pleasant spring morning in its wake. It annoyed Ralph a touch that those were still allowed to happen in wartime. Mother Nature, Father Time, or whoever was in charge of setting up days ought to be indicted for harming troop morale by means of inappropriate backdrops.

Looking down at himself, Rivers saw that his chest was streaked with mottled grey algae, roughly corresponding to where he had been so traumatically healed the night before. He winced at the memory, before tentatively feeling his ribs with his fingers. He worried for a second that his ruined flesh had been replaced by bilge and silt, but he was able to wipe it away, revealing normal, if a sight paler skin underneath. He picked up a rock from the ground, and struck it against the flesh. No pain. He tried again, harder, this time shattering the stone into powder. No pain. Good. He didn’t know what he would have done if his new skin was merely human.

He really couldn’t abide the taste in his mouth. Looking towards the pond (it seemed so much smaller in the daylight) his chest tightened as he remembered what he’d found there the night before. Blessedly, it appeared vacant. He glanced at the girl, who was watching him intently with her legs bent against her chest. “Just going to wash my mouth out, honey. Won’t be a second.”

He was about to lower his cupped hands into the water, when it exploded upwards at him, sending him—a man who had once jumped onto a grenade with only a deep bruise to show for it—sprawling backwards, completely drenched. Behind him, the little girl was on her back with laughter.

Ralph Rivers was no fool, and he’d been in the superhero business long enough to put two-and-two (and three-and-four) together. He stood back up, shaking some of the excess from his comic-book black hair. “Very funny,” he said flatly. He decided to try and extract some benefit from the situation. He scraped some of the foul mould from his teeth and showed it to the child. “Mind playing dentist?” he asked, miming a path from his mouth to the girl.

She seemed to mull the request over a little, before Ralph suddenly felt the slime being pulled from his mouth with a sensation like putting his lips over the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. Of the many, many possible reactions, Ralph Rivers chose to sneeze, spraying the ground in front of him with a porridge of snot, and dark, subaquatic sludge. If the girl had been laughing before, she was positively choking on it now, a few tears running down her cheeks as she clutched at her sides. He stuck out his tongue at her, and she replied in kind. Scowling, he dipped his hand once more into the water, before swiping his arm forward to splash her. The child let out an outraged little shriek, glaring up at him, but Ralph was too busy assesing the condition of his teeth to notice. Everything seemed just as it should be, the teeth still sat in the neat little row his government appointed dentist had put them in to make him nice and pretty for his photo ops, and if he wasn’t wrong—yup, the fillings were gone, too. He’d had a few crowns and coverings placed over chips in the past, but now they were gone. His teeth were anatomical model perfect. That sort of explained why his tongue still felt odd in his head. The map no longer matched the territory. “Thanks, ki-”

Another wave of water knocked him off his feet.

“…Pushing your luck.”

He sat down next to the child, looking her over. She looked healthy enough. Surprisingly so, in fact, lacking any signs of the trademark malnourishment that afflicted so many this close to the frontlines. In contrast to the thing in the pond, she was tan, her flaxen hair tangled and riddled with bits of water-plants. Somehow, they almost made her look regal, like a wreath. She turned her head slightly to look at him, smiling.

“You speak any French?” Ralph asked in said language. A dear lady friend of his who had kindly helped deflect suspicion from him all during high school had painstakingly tutored him to the point that he could pass for a French half-wit in casual conversation. If his father only knew the number of times he had allowed said friend up to his son’s room with a knowing wink for “French lessons,” only for her to actually be teaching the boy French. The idea made him smile.

In answer, the girl only giggled.

Scratch that, then.

“Ralph.” He pointed at himself as he spoke, then at her… Nope, no response. He tried again. “I AM RALPH.” He said, enunciating each syllable loudly and clearly in the full understanding that this would indeed assist the dialogue. In a sense, it did. The girl grinned, gestured grandly at her breast, and positively bellowed:


He put his head in his hands with a groan, which the girl copied.

His lamentation was interrupted by a distant, yet all too familiar pop. The girl yowled in horror as her kneecap exploded, falling from her perch beside him and instinctively huddling her arms around the wound. Ralph wasted no time, and knelt around the girl, covering her as best he could with the breadth of his shoulders. As a boy, his size had been something of a knock to his self confidence, having always been a small, wiry sort as a young child. As the Comet, as a soldier, he was eternally glad of his newfound bulk, for now he could be a larger shield. More bullets pinged off his shoulder blades.

“It’s okay, girl,” he cooed, trying to reassure her as best he could. “You just need to trust me, okay?”

No answer. The girl was too busy sobbing, her left leg crumpled beneath her, hanging by a few strands of skin and muscle ligaments. Running on some mad instinct, he picked her up, still shielding her with his frame, and, lacking anywhere better to hide her, he tossed her into the pond. “Go down low!” he shouted, before turning towards the source of the shots.

Invulnerability opens the door to certain tricks. Some of these are obvious, others less so. Most soldiers, for example, never get the chance to use muzzle flares to track the placement of their enemies, because by the time they’ve registered the shot, they’re usually already dead. For the Crimson Comet, on the other hand, it was like tracking the whine of a blood fattened mosquito after a bite.   

Five German soldiers stood on the crest of the hill, the forest green of their uniforms making them stand out against the luminous aqua of the sky behind them. They had probably been out looking for him all night, Ralph guessed. If the tank hadn’t finished them off, no doubt they were meant to deliver the coup de grâce. Probably planning on stripping the flesh from his skull and putting it on display in Berlin as phrenological evidence of race-mixing among Allied supers or something. Four of them had rifles trained on the Comet, while one tried and failed to surreptitiously ready a panzerschreck.

Cocky cunts should have led with the rocket. Ralph Rivers let out a scream as he ran towards the infantryman trying to prepare his ordinance, the air around around him blurring and becoming singed. Half a second later, the soldier exploded against Ralph’s shoulder, painting his skin red. The Crimson Comet, it would seem, was back.

None of his comrades had time to react. It was more of a scourge than an engagement, really. The Comet ripped the gun—along with both arms—from one of the soldiers, before slamming the butt of it into another’s face, sending fragments of skull and nasal bridge into his brain. The fourth man, he lifted up by the chin, before bringing him down on top of the barrel, running him through.

The Comet advanced on the last soldier. In all the commotion, he had fallen onto the grass, and was now scrambling backwards in fear of the herculean figure. As he did, Rivers stepped over the soldier whose arms he had torn off, seizing and sputtering from the shock. There was a crunch, and that was the end of that.

The remaining soldier was in hysterics now, frantically repeating something under his breath, leaving no spaces between the words5. Was he begging for his life? Praying? Reaffirming his loyalty to something or other in the face of death? Ralph couldn’t bring himself to care.

Some part of him, the superheroic part, perhaps, was begging Rivers to stop. This man could do him no harm, and if he wasn’t technically surrendering, he might as well have been. But, whenever he tried giving that notion quarter, he remembered his own wounds, and Finch (oh, God, Finch) and that little girl screaming and screaming at the ruins of her blasted leg. He raised his fist to strike, when the man convulsed, a spot of blood blooming on his chest like a rose. Then another. And another, again and again. It was like a drawn out execution by a phantom firing squad. Before the Crimson Comet could make any move to end it, the man was dead.       

There was a smug “hmph” from behind him.

The little girl was standing there, her features set in a triumphant grin, on two perfectly intact legs. She was completely soaked, her hair now slick and free of detritus. The colour had gone from her skin. Most tellingly, her finger and thumb were extended, her hand pointing toward the corpse like a pistol.

Being a career superhero, miraculous healing was well within Ralph’s realm of experience. What was new to him was the utter lack of concern, either for herself or the suffering she inflicted. He understood the little girl lashing out so viciously, he really could. Except there was no hint of trauma on the girl’s face. She had had her leg nearly blown off, killed a man for it, and if anything, she had chosen to make a game out of it. She toed the ruined face of the soldier Ralph had felled with the rifle, before looking back at him with a smile. She looked impressed.

Ralph shuddered. The Crimson Comet hadn’t been a killer, before the war. A brawler, sure, and maybe he hadn’t been all too concerned about the long term effects of the concussions he handed out like pennycandy, but he never went into a fight looking to kill anyone. But since the war… since Finch, it had gotten so easy. And the worst thing was, it barely even bothered him much of the time. Even then, his thoughts kept drifting to more pragmatic concerns. How far he was from his unit, how long it would take him to reach them on foot, the girl…

Oh, yes, the girl.

She would slow him down, that was certain. Even ignoring that she was a child, he could barely communicate even the simplest of concepts to her. Far as he could tell, she was totally feral, a waterborne Mowgli. Shamefully, he considered the possibility of simply leaving her by the pond. She had some power behind her, that he knew for sure, and the monster that had so tortuously spared him appeared to be fond of her. Maybe he would come back for the child, eventually.

The mere fact that was the best case settled it for Ralph. He gestured to her repaired leg, arching his eyebrow in exaggerated curiosity, and she glanced down at it, kicking the ground once or twice, before looking up at him with a grin. Nothing, no memory of pain.  

Best not to look that particular gift horse too hard in the mouth. He shrugged and looked around at his fallen foes. The armless man’s jacket was, for obvious reasons, a little the worse for wear. It wouldn’t do to cover him, same for the impaled one. The man the girl had riddled with invisible bullets, on the other hand, his jacket was largely intact, apart from a few holes. And stains. Ralph stripped the article from the corpse, and pulled it on, pausing to tear away the insignia and empty out the pockets. He scavenged the panzerschreck (a very adolescent part of him hoped none of the heroes he knew found out that he had started using firearms), then returned his attention to the armless man. The jacket wouldn’t serve him, but the lack of sleeves might suit the girl’s shorter arms. He pried it free of the corpse, and tossed it to the girl. It landed at her feet, and she glanced down at it, confused, prodding the fabric with a toe, before turning her face to him, an eyebrow raised, seemingly in imitation of Ralph’s earlier expression.

“Put it on,” he grunted, waving a hand in an “on you go” sort of gesture. Again, she prodded at it, before returning her attention to him. Ralph sighed, then, very slowly, very deliberately, put both hands in front of his eyes for a few moments, before pulling them away, and gesturing for her to do the same. Still utterly mystified, the child raised her hands to her eyes, covering them. Ralph strode forward, businesslike, picked the makeshift dress up off the ground, spread the waistline of it between his hands, and pulled it down over the girl’s head. She squeaked in surprise, pulling her hands from her eyes and giving him a reproachful sort of look, her bottom lip sticking out slightly, before realizing what he’d done. She gazed down at her first garment in wonder, slipping her arms out through the holes in either side, and running her palms along the fabric. She looked up at him, grinned, and spoke.

“Ralph,” she said, pointing at her chest.

He snorted, shaking his head. At least the girl was trying.

“…And that was the start of my little human experiment.” Françoise smiled. “And you already know my eye for fashion remains as clear as it ever was.”

It was a tried and true punchline, and normally David would have giggled, but this time he just stared up at his mother. “So Grandfather just let you go away and live with land people?”

Françoise shrugged. “I wouldn’t have called it ‘going away’. My father is everywhere there’s water. He might be watching us right now.” She only realized how that sounded once she said it out loud.

“But it’s so long! You were a little girl, and now you’re grown up!”

“You’re thinking about your grandfather like he’s a person. Something that only lives a few years, so every year feels like this great big chunk of time. But he’s not a person, David. My father was old when the first fish hatched. Probably hardly anything older than him, besides maybe rocks. Twenty-one years for him is like the time it takes you to take a breath.”

“But Lawrence said Grandfather is just—”

“Lawrence doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” Françoise snapped. She never took to the old man’s attempts to fit her father into his little boxes.

David flinched.

“I-I’m sorry.” His mother let her apology hang in the air for a moment, before adding, “He used to visit me, sometimes. Even after we came to Australia. So did Ralph. He saw you once, you know.” David was about to question this, but Fran stopped him. “You wouldn’t remember, droplet—you were very small.”

David pondered this. “…Why doesn’t Ralph visit anymore?” He hesitated, before asking, “Why haven’t I ever seen Grandfather?”

Françoise spent a full minute trying to give him an answer, even making to speak once or twice, the words dying on her lips, before she gave up. “Not tonight, David. Please?”

Her son nodded.

“…Mummy, are we bad people?”

“Bad people? No, I don’t think we are. Bad at being people? Sometimes, I think so.” She ruffled her son’s hair. “You’re much better at it than me, though.”

The conversation wound down after that. David sometimes mentioned something about the other children, or the Watercolours, or The Tempest. He brought up Myriad at lot, which Fran didn’t know how to feel about. Eventually, sleep managed to find him.

Françoise lay there for a while, feeling the rise and fall of her son’s chest against her side, content for a moment. One arm still around David, she picked her book back up, flicking past the section covering the Raven to the account of the Crimson Comet’s last known case.

Apart from it being the last one, there wasn’t much to distinguish that caper from any of the Comet’s post-war adventures—those last few bursts of glory before the winter of Australia’s superheroes. Some teenage mad scientist with the disappointingly mundane name of Maude Simmons had threatened to transmute the world’s supply of silver into calcium. What possible benefit this could have held for the young woman the book didn’t explain. The first page of the chapter was topped by a black and white news photo of the Crimson Comet gently but sternly escorting a grim faced nineteen year old in a lead apron down the steps of a police station. She looked like she was running out the clock till she could be a crotchety old crone. With a name like “Maude”, what else could you do?

Françoise smiled to herself as her eyes passed over the Comet’s wings. What the author of the book couldn’t know was that they were foam mock ups of the originals. Ralph had never been able to find functional replacements, and so had simply spent the rest of his career without the ability to change direction in flight.

There was no real reason Maude Simmons had been Rivers’ last case, except for the fact that he wasn’t seen in costume again after that. No hostages died, he hadn’t been forced to betray some deep seated moral principle in order to save the day, and he hadn’t been injured as far as anyone could tell. He had bowed out of the game with grace, the author speculated.

She wished he was right.

There was a knock at the door, answered with a “shhhh” loud enough to wake the dead.

Lawrence opened the door. “Ah, I see Maelstrom’s asleep. I’ll just pop him back down to the dormitory.”

“Please, Laurie,” said Françoise. “Can’t we just leave him in here tonight? What harm will it do?”

The headmaster shook his head. “We can’t be seen showing favoritism, Melusine. It would only upset the other children.” He grinned with ill-timed humour. “Unless you want them all in here for the night.”

Fran set her book down again, gently sliding her arm off her son. “Fine,” she hissed. “But don’t wake him up!”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” replied Lawrence, moving over to beside the boy. He caught a glance at the cover of Heroes of the Outback and smiled knowingly. “You tell him one of your Rivers stories again?” he said as he hoisted up Maelstrom. The child looked even younger in his arms. “Impressive fellow in his time, he really was. Shame about his… predilections. Awful the way people hounded him about it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hardly a productive lifestyle, is it?”

 Françoise’s long nails dug into the doona cover. “Good night, Lawrence.”

Alone once more, Fran somehow felt even more like a counterfeit woman than she usually did. Everything about her was a pretense. The French cooking, the Occitan, the affected Provencal patriotism, all of it. She didn’t even know if her poor, poor mother had been from France at all. Her father might have snatched her from the watermen’s steps along the Thames, for all she knew. Even her original name was a fiction. Françoise Barthe, bah! She had only called herself that so Lawrence and Mary would stop badgering her about it. Not that it mattered, anyway, they wasted no time in making her discard it. Her father had never needed a name for her, apart from maybe the sound of sea-foam drying on the shore.

She didn’t know why she stayed, sometimes. Being human was a game that had dragged on long past the point of being any fun, at least in this venue. But there was David to think about…

Except, she didn’t even know why that was an issue. She knew her son wasn’t happy—and he’d even just told her he didn’t love his father. What was there for him at the Institute? A prescribed, regimented life, held to the impossible standard of the flawless prototype; the perfect first draft of a new human race designed by someone who read too much Stapledon. A life of being the odd one out even among nature’s misfits. Well, whether old or new, neither she, nor her son were human.

She could take him away from all that. Nobody could stop her. She doubted even the Flying Man himself would last long up against her. She closed her eyes, imagining it. Her son’s hand in hers, as they crossed the sea, on foot if need be. Great jade mountains rising and falling around them, the dark shapes of whales beneath their feet. Oh, how she had dreamed of showing the boy whales.

They could go to France—or anywhere, really, but it would be nice to salvage some truth out of the lie. She’d find a village, invent a story about a drowned husband, and her David would know how she felt on those American beaches long ago: commonplace.

Or maybe they would dive deep beneath the waves, past the point where even light gave up, all the way to the bottom of the world. And then, perhaps, David would know his grandfather.

She rose from her bed, her fingers clenched, a smile forming on her lips. The kind of smile she hadn’t worn since she was a little girl. She was going to do it. She and David were going far away from this place. She would take him somewhere he could be happy, and if one could not be found, then she would carve a place out for him. A sliver of her conscience hoped Basil would—  

She sat back down on her bed. She was being stupid and selfish. David wouldn’t want this. It would be taking him away from everything he knew: from Mabel, from Myriad and (much as she struggled to admit that she was a concern) from Eliza, and who knows what else she had missed. As for showing him to her father, she had her doubts about that. While her father loved her unconditionally, he had not always necessarily cared for others just because she did; Ralph was a case in point. He might even find the boy offensive. David might not have been human, but whatever he was, it was a kinder creature than either of them.

She reached over to her bedside and shut off her lamp. Then she went to sleep, and dreamed of watching whales crashing down into the sea, a small boy’s hand clutched tight in her own.   

1. Her favourite orange cloak had needed to be thrown out after Basilisk bodily prevented Ophelia from carrying her into the sky. She of course still had her red cloak, but it just wasn’t the same.

2. Gendered according to some inscrutable child-logic.

3. Aside from the general secrecy and intrigue surrounding superhumans, the author’s attention became divided when he himself developed superpowers and took up a crime fighting career.

4. General Alexander McCarrell “Sandy” Patch was grateful he was being shot at somewhere without malaria.

5. “Mutter, schwester, ich liebe dich. Mutter, schwester, ich liebe dich…”/“Mother, sister, I love you. Mother, sister, I love you…”

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