Allison was surprised by how little notice the other diners at the Rose Hotel dining room paid Dr. Lawrence and his companions. She supposed they all looked more or less normal, at least at a glance. Perhaps it was their songs that made their nature seem so obvious to Allison. It still seemed odd that other people didn’t pick up on the superhuman strains running all throughout their group. They were so loud. And deaf as most people were to the songs, surely Dr. Lawrence himself was loud and clear enough to draw the attention of more mundane senses.
“Yes, a school,” he said between bites of his steak and mushroom pie. To say Dr Lawrence’s voice was deep was an understatement. It made you feel like you should sit in a hyperbaric chamber after hearing him speak for any length of time. “The New Human Institute. Little place out near Northam I’ve been running for, hmm, twelve years now?” He seemed to drift a little into nostalgia. “Gorgeous countryside. Took me an age to find somewhere by a river.”
Allison looked across their table at Arnold for confirmation. He shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I haven’t been there yet.”
Allison and Arnold had been friendly with each other since they met at the start of kindergarten. Allison had originally approached him because his song was the least boring in their class. By the time the novelty had worn off, she had grown used to his company. They wouldn’t have called each other best friends—mostly because neither of them would admit to that sort of thing—but they did spend an inordinate amount of time in each other’s lounge rooms. The Barnes were not the most well liked family in Harvey. Arnold’s father had left most of his legs—and it was widely agreed, much of his sanity—in Korea, so it was his wife’s butchershop that sustained the family. For reasons that nobody ever got around to explaining to Allison, the fact that Arnold had been born after Mr. Barnes’ return home was also somehow scandalous.
As for the boy himself, most people back home regarded him as a bit of a sulk. They weren’t wrong, but Allison didn’t think that was necessarily a point against him. Arnold had a face built for sulleness; cheerfulness would just be a waste of good real estate.
They did have a couple of things in common. Both were functionally only children, although Arnold at least claimed to have two older brothers serving in the special forces1. There was also the small matter of them both being demi-humans, but they had only found that out when they were apprehended.
“Before I could get the school off the ground, I had my first students to keep me busy,” Dr. Lawrence continued, gesturing at Alberto and Françoise.
“I hope you appreciate the detour we made for you,” said Alberto, peering over a copy of the West Australian. Apparently, there had been another sighting of the Witch of Claremont2. “It’s added three days to our trip.”
Françoise pushed a few locks of blond hair away from her face, in what looked like a practised gesture. “Two, at most. And Żyw- Eliza and Hugo can hold down the fort a little bit longer, I think.” She winked at Allison.
The intended effect was marred by her eyes. Theoretically, they should have been startlingly beautiful. Most things about Françoise were, to be honest. When artists were begged by their lovers to paint them like one of their French girls, Françoise was probably the one they were talking about. Yet when Allison had met the woman, her first thought was that she must have lost her original eyes in some terrible accident, and then had them replaced by a well meaning yet not less terrible prosthetist. They were of a shade and hue that seemed more mineral than biological. She imagined that if someone put out the sun3, she would still be able to see Françoise’s eyes, burning in the dark.
Someday, Allison hoped, familiarity would allow her to appreciate those eyes. Till then, she would try her best not to make it too obvious when she addressed Françoise’s sandals. At least she got to add Meridional French and Occitan to her repertoire. And her song was pleasant. Allison thought it sounded like it was being played on glass. When she wasn’t being mindful, she sometimes found herself trying to hum it.
Dr. Lawrence laughed. It finally made a few heads turn. “Don’t scoff, Françoise. Alberto’s concerns are perfectly valid. I mean, imagine what troubles could arise if the school was left understaffed. Plague could break out. Plague!”
Françoise seemed to find this delightful. Alberto’s paper, meanwhile, appeared to become at least ten times more fascinating.
She wanted to ask what was so funny, but decided to pursue a simpler line of inquiry. “New Human? Uh, isn’t it meant to be demi-human?”
Allison could almost feel Alberto rolling his eyes from behind the paper. Arnold suddenly remembered he had a toasted sandwich to finish.
Dr. Lawrence rubbed his temples. “You know what the problem with ‘demi-human’ is, Allison?”
“Super is shorter?”
He chuckled. “That is a definite disadvantage, but it goes deeper than that. Do you know what the prefix ‘demi’ literally means?”
She shrugged. She of course knew exactly what it meant, but she liked to avoid rattling off dictionary definitions when she could. “Half something? More or less?”
He thumped his fist down on the table, sending the cutlery rattling. “Exactly! Half-human, less than human. The very word our government uses for children like you, for men and women like Alberto and Fran, is an insult! And a petty one at that.”
Allison was keenly aware of the other diners looking in their direction. She shrunk in her chair, wishing she had been given a hood when they left the centre. It would have covered the buzz cut, at least.
Françoise was the first to break the silence. “I suppose you could take it to mean we’re only half as afflicted by the human condition. And for the love of God, Herbert, do not call me Fran. Ever.”
That broke his stride a little. He let out another foghorn of a laugh.“Like Allison said, it’s shorter. And won’t come up very often.”
She swore a bit in Occitan. Allison was dearly tempted to translate it.
Alberto laid his paper down. “Labels can be funny. I mean, you call someone a demigod, they’ll usually take it as a compliment. A compliment made by a pretentious, preening git, but a compliment. Call someone that on Mt. Olympus4, and you’ll wind up with a drink in your face.”
“Regardless, I think we can agree whoever came up with the term did not have favourable things to say about your kind.”
“Indeed,” said Alberto, mildly. “I think I’m with Allison on this one. Super is just more to the point.”
“Far too confrontational, though. That’s why I prefer new human. Less judgemental. ‘Posthuman’ appeals to me on a more clinical level, but people seem to react badly to that, too.”
A busboy had come to collect the adults’ empty coffee cups during Dr. Lawrence’s attempted etymology lecture. He was staring at the group like they were plotting a derailment in front of him. Alberto brushed his hand off the table with two fingers. “Sanctioned supers, mate. Call the DDHA if you don’t believe me.”
The busboy nodded nervously and walked sharply back towards the kitchen, dishes forgotten. Alberto snickered, “Bloody baselines.”
Allison was rapidly beginning to learn that adulthood came in many different timbres and tunes. Going by his song, Alberto had probably celebrated the same number of birthdays as Françoise, give or take, yet he had the look of a much younger man. He reminded her of the probably underage drinkers she often saw stream out of the pub while she and her mother waited for Mr. Kinsey in the car. He even smoked like a seventeen year old. He was lanky, and dressed in the sort of clothes her father might have worn to work at the bank–if he had the misfortune of being born a scarecrow5. It was as if Dr. Lawrence had used up more than the fair share of personal presence available, forcing Alberto to make do with whatever he could scrape from the bottom of the jar.
If Allison hadn’t been trying her best to avoid eye contact with Françoise, she might also have noticed that Alberto had been looking at her all day in much the same way the staff at McClare did6. When he wasn’t trying to ignore her in the same manner. His song, like Allison’s own, seemed heavily dependent on percussion instruments.
Lawrence did not look amused in the slightest. “It’s exactly that kind of attitude that’s turned people against your kind, Alberto.”
“Everyone abuses busboys, Bertie. I suspect it might be what unites our two species.”
Allison felt odd about being implicitly referred to as a different species. If she was judging the look on his face right, so did Arnold. Françoise remained ever the image of poise and dignity.
“Bloody minded arrogance! Overwhelming smugness. Callous indifference to the beliefs and needs of others.” Dr. Lawrence was yelling now. “Now, tell me, who does that remind you of?”
Alberto said nothing, returning to the the letters page. Not that he had very long to read it, for soon enough a well dressed, managerial looking fellow was striding up to their table. “Excuse me, sir, I’m afraid you and your party will have to leave.”
Dr. Lawrence stood up and fished his out his wallet, deep sadness painted across his features. “I don’t blame you for this. You’re only acting according to what the world has told you. Someday, when we’re all bigger men, I hope superhumans and baselines can sit down and enjoy a meal together in peace. Come along, children, our train leaves in fifteen minutes.” He handed the man some notes–in all probability far more than what was actually owed–and made his way towards the exit, head held high.
The man watched the group march out after him, Allison trying to somehow occupy every patron’s blindspot simultaneously, with some interest. Once they were all out of earshot, he turned to an old woman sitting to their right.
“They were supers?”
Neither Allison nor Arnold had ever been to Bunbury before. Not much point, really, with Perth to the north and Dunsborough and Busselton a little further south. Sandwiched between the state capital and some of the best beaches in the country, there wasn’t much reason to stay in Bunbury for longer than was absolutely necessary, unless you were especially fond of dolphins or lighthouses. Arnold was intrigued to see that three hotels managed to coexist within two streets of each other7. A marble infantryman stood atop the war memorial at the intersection of Victoria and Stirling Streets, head bowed in what looked like prayer. Allison thought he looked sad, but in truth he was merely sleepy. St. Patrick’s Cathedral loomed over the landscape, in silent judgement of the Bunburbinates’ innumerable sins8.
“I’m sorry for making a scene in there, children. I just got caught up thinking about… Well, how much do you know about the Flying Man?”
The children both made vague, noncommittal gestures. “Flies around, saves folks when he isn’t scaring them, looks a bit like Captain Marvel?” answered Arnold.
“I never understood why he’s called that,” commented Françoise. “Plenty of other new humans can fly, too. Even me, sort of.”
It was then Alberto decided to close the distance between him and the rest of the group. “Yes, but you cheat. Most new humans that fly do.”
Françoise scoffed. “What do you mean, cheat? Is there a rulebook?”
“You know exactly what I mean. When new humans fly, they usually do it by turning into fire, or riding mounts composed of primeval shadow, or by commanding the wind. I can count on one hand the ones I know of who just do it. And even a couple of them don’t look half as dignified as the Flying Man doing it.” Alberto replied.
Dr. Lawrence frowned.
“Oh, lighten up, Bertie, just an honest observation.”
Françoise sighed and shook her head. “I told Crimson Comet that you couldn’t pull off one fake wing.”
“Didn’t he turn up floating above the White House holding some bloke?” added Allison. “The Flying Man, I mean, not the Crimson Comet9.”
“That he was, Allison. Can you remember why they were there?”
She did, but just barely. “Something to do with Cuba?”
“Cigars?” suggested Arnold.
Allison and Arnold had only been about five during the Cuban Crisis. Harvey was so provincial as to barely be part of the world proper, but news, and the accompanying existential dread, had seeped into the town like radioactive fallout. Neither child had particularly understood what was happening, but none of the adults they knew seemed to, either. Allison’s parents tried to keep informed, which mainly served to feed their anxiety. It didn’t help that her mother had seen On the Beach three times in 195910. They had tried to suppress their fears for their daughter’s sake, but to little good. Even if their songs hadn’t screamed for them, it would have shown in other ways. Her mother lingering in her room at tuck-in time, her father coming home a little earlier from work, and hugging her just a fraction tighter when he left in the morning. Harvey Primary had even run a few half hearted drills urging their students to hide beneath their desks, should anything happen.
Arnold’s mother had prayed, which was her usual recourse, while his father had sent angry letters lambasting the Reds to every paper he knew of, and some he possibly imagined. This did little to deter them, though.
“…And so the Soviets and the Americans kept designing and building bigger and deadlier bombs, with the hope that each one would mean they’d never have to use them. A little like a man keeping lit dynamite around his house to scare off burglars. Eventually the Soviets decided to put some of their dynamite a little too close to the US’s, and that’s where the plan started going wrong. And they talked and they talked and they talked…”
If anyone passing caught what Dr. Lawrence was saying, they wouldn’t have found it anything strange. Just an old man explaining to the young why people now feared the sky.
“…So the Americans decided to send a pilot to find out what they honestly already knew in their hearts. That pilot’s name was Rudolph Anderson, and he was shot down on October 27th, 1962.”
“Yes, I suppose he did. But nobody knew that until three days later, when he returned Anderson.”
The Flying Man, Major Rudolph Anderson in hand, had been first spotted hovering about a hundred feet over the White House at 10:00 AM, EST. Immediately, the expected theories were posited. He was an alien invader, a herald of the Second Coming, the Antichrist, an optical illusion, or an angel of one kind or another. None of those had been definitively ruled out, even three years later11.
Less than five minutes after his appearance, the Flying Man had descended onto the North Lawn, allowing a grateful Anderson to collapse onto the grass. He had apparently been given a change of clothes since he disappeared from the cockpit of his U-2F. He took one wide eyed look at the Flying Man, and ran off into the distance.
“Major Anderson did not tell me anything I didn’t already know while in my care. I trust he will not be harmed?” he said to the suited man standing behind him.
“Uhm, yes. I can’t see why we would.”
The Flying Man turned around and grinned at the man. “Secretary of State, I assume?” A nod. “Ah, thought it would be you. Couldn’t expect you to send out the President right away. Speaking of which, could I see him?”
Secretary Rusk looked the Flying Man up and down. He was quite absurdly handsome, with a sharply defined jawline, hair like cornsilk, and moss green eyes—which the Secretary thought betrayed a sense of urgency that belied the inappropriately casual attitude he projected. Six foot-five, he had a physique reminiscent of a ballet dancer, which might have explained why he felt he could get away with the skintight costume he wore. It was pure white, with the exception of a diamond emblazoned on his chest. Its colours were divided evenly down the middle between crimson and sky-blue. In the months and years to come, there would be much speculation on the significance, if any, of this symbol. The most commonly accepted theory was that it represented unbreakability, and some suggested that the purple was meant to invoke royalty. Some of the more superhero oriented scholars also had ideas about the wine coloured cape he wore. Among demi-humans, they claimed, a cape was an instantly recognizable symbol of power. Supposedly, wearing one signified that, if it got caught in a jet turbine, the super would be the one sending flowers to its funeral.
What went through Rusk’s head, however, was the question of what this idiot was doing dressing up like Superman. “And why would that be?”
“I have vital information for him, concerning the Soviets, you see.” He said this like he wanted to return a lost library book.
The Secretary tried to peg the Flying Man’s accent. It might have been British, or possibly Canadian. Not that he thought the Soviets couldn’t train one of their own to sound North American if they wanted. “Well, it would be helpful if you told me your name.”
His grin faded a little, but didn’t vanish completely. “Tell me, Secretary, do you read Superman at all?”
“Not since the army, no.”
“But I’m sure you know he doesn’t go around telling everyone his real name.”
It went on like that for a while, until eventually the 35th President of the United States decided to venture out and meet with this strange visitor of his own accord. Many objections were raised by his aides, the VP, his cabinet, his wife, and the man in charge of delivering the President’s nude photographs to Sidney Mickelson for framing, but eventually he won out.
“Mr. President! So glad to finally meet you.” He said with absolute sincerity while vigorously shaking the President’s hand, to the disconcert of some of his secret servicemen. The President got the distinct impression that the Flying Man was making a concerted effort not to break him in half.
“Glad to hear it. I was told you had intel for us?”
“That I do! In short, the Soviets have withdrawn their missiles from Cuba. And everywhere else, for that matter.”
The President and his entourage took a moment to process this. “What do you mean, withdrawn?”
“Well, it would be more accurate to say that I have withdrawn them. Their nuclear arsenal, I mean.”
“That is exactly what I’m saying. And the British, and yours.”
The President stood there for what felt like a solid four years. “You did what?”
“I dismantled every nuclear weapon I could find, which I’m fairly certain was all of them.”
Nobody could think of a response worthy of this, but Secretary Rusk settled on “Why? For the love of God, why?”
All trace of good humour vanished from the Flying Man’s face. “Because, to be brutally honest, you and the Soviets were going to burn the world over economic models. If the planet has to go up in flames for some reason, I’d hope it’d be more interesting than that.” He turned from the President’s men, and starting walking towards the fountain.
“If you think this is about economic systems, fly to Berlin.”
“I just might, Mr President. But first I have to drop in on the Kremlin and give them the same message I just gave you. I expect they’ll be begging you to inspect their nuclear sites, lest it turn out I missed a few of yours. If I have, please be better than that.”
Before the Flying Man took off, the Secretary of State called out to him. “What do we do now?”
The Flying Man turned around. “Go home, Secretary, hug your children. You’re going to live.”
And with that, the Flying Man left the Secretary of State, the President, the White House, and the Earth itself behind.
While someone was sent to retrieve Major Anderson and get him some desperately needed coffee, Secretary Rusk looked up at the clouds disturbed by the Flying Man’s passage. He had always viewed the world as a series of revolutionary changes, never remaining the same for any appreciable length of time. On October 30th, 1962, that belief had received all the validation it could ever need.
Over the next few days, it became clear the the Flying Man had delivered on his claims. Every American nuclear warhead, and reportedly that of every other nation on Earth, had been expertly sabotaged beyond repair. And not one person had noticed him doing it.
It was a testament to the adaptability of the human race that it only went as mad as it did.
“…And that’s how a tiny fraction of one percent of the entire human race became the focus of as much scrutiny, bigotry, and fear as when men burned witches. The country was already unsettled, what with that unpleasantness up in Circle’s End, but this was something else altogether.”
By then, the travellers had reached the train station, and were only waiting for their train to pull in.
“He mostly sticks to natural disasters and war zones, these days,” said Françoise. “Sometimes, he just gets weird. Like when he tore down that slum in New York. Said it was to force the government to build better housing. They did, too.”
Dr. Lawrence grunted. “Probably just his excuse for some sport. Witnesses say he was laughing while he did it, even when the Air Force got involved.”
“I heard he declared war on cars once,” said Arnold.
Françoise laughed. “There’s all sorts of rubbish rumours, like that he makes the sun come up now.”
“Or that he impregnated every girl in Midwich,” interjected Alberto. He snickered a little before noticing the look Françoise was giving him.
“Regardless of any of that,” said Dr. Lawrence. “We now have a situation where the most visible representation of posthumanity is a being who treats the world like his own personal toy. And so the world is poised to smother the next step in evolution in its crib.” He looked at the children sitting on the bench beside him, and forced a smile. “But maybe we can change that.”
Allison nodded blankly. It was all too much to take in. She decided to focus on the sound of the train pulling into the station. Trains were nice.
1. If Arnold was being truthful, then his eldest brother spent much of the 1960s infiltrating the Australian counterculture.↩
2. In Belmont.↩
3. This was quite unlikely, as He Who Culls All Light was only recently spotted in the Perseus Arm. If you think you might have information on His whereabouts, don’t hesitate to give your Gatehouse a call.↩
4. Accepting an invitation to a dinner party on Olympus is widely considered one of the most dangerous things a person can do. Almost as dangerous as turning it down.↩
5. Which is not to say that many scarecrows have not gone on to lead interesting, successful lives. They have become a cornerstone of the minion industry, and some have even served as heads of state.↩
6. She might have also noticed Eduard Keller sitting a few tables to their left, having delayed as long as possible his inevitable return to that most dreaded of lands: Darwin. At least Bunbury had less crocodiles.↩
7. The rumours that the Rose, Lord Forrest, and Prince of Wales Hotels hoisted themselves off their foundations and did battle in the dead of night had not yet reached Harvey.↩
8. It was said it and the town library refereed the hotel brawls.↩
9. The Crimson Comet was once found on the roof of Parliament House in 1948, also holding some bloke, but he was just drunk.↩
10. Deprivation and extinction hurt even more when Gregory Peck is involved.↩
11. There are still those who insist the Flying Man is merely the product of cleverly used strings and mirrors. If that is the case, presumably the strings and mirrors are superpowered instead.↩