As soon as Allison was out of the Physician’s line of sight, she made a run for Lawrence’s study. Sadly not much of a run, given it was only down the hall from the Physician’s office, but any distance between them was a relief.
She was less relieved to find Lawrence’s door was locked. She swore in German, a language she found expressed frustration most efficiently.
There was someone in the study with Lawrence; Żywie, judging by the song. Even through the thick jarrah door, it was clear they were arguing. Allison didn’t consider herself an eavesdropper, but she did occasionally like to listen to the conversations of others when they didn’t know she was there. She leaned against a carving of a Galapagos finch. The door muffled the sound a bit, but luckily one of Allison’s classmates possessed a measure of enhanced hearing. She did however have to filter out Mabel and Maelstrom debating the merits of The Chrysalids1 and The Midwich Cuckoos, as well as the confirmation of her worst suspicions as to what it meant when two songs combined.
“…You really couldn’t let me sit in on them? The girl was clearly upset!”
“I didn’t think it was wise after the last time. And you can’t hold a child’s hand through all of life’s unpleasantries.”
Bitter laughter. “Yes, because the Physician is something every child will have to deal with on a regular basis when they grow up.”
“He just acts according to his nature.”
“Nothing ‘he’ does is according to nature. Just please don’t invite him to their Naming. If Allison’s powers work anything like she’s described, I can’t rule out that the Physician’s song isn’t a health hazard. At the very least, I think it’d spoil the mood if one of the guests of honour felt like someone next to her was scraping their nails down a blackboard.”
“I appreciate your concern for our students, but I wasn’t planning on it. He doesn’t go in for it, anyway.”
“Good. How is that coming along, anyway?” Her tone had become more civil.
“Well enough. Took me a little while to narrow it down for Allison, though.” A chuckle. “I briefly considered simply stringing all the other students’ names together, but I figured that would put her at a severe disadvantage when she gets her driver’s license.”
Żywie laughed. “I don’t know, if the aristocracy manages…”
She moved towards the door, Allison scrambling backwards as it opened and doing her best to look above suspicion. “Try to encourage him to leave by bedtime, would you? I highly doubt sleep will come easily to Allison, otherwise,” said Żywie, still looking back at Lawrence. She turned and spotted Allison. “Oh, hello. You here to see Lawrence?”
“Well, go right ahead. Oh, how was the check up?”
Allison held up the Physician’s lollipop.
“I see. Coke with dinner?”
Żywie smiled, a little wanly. “I hope the rest of your first day treats you better, little one.” Remembering some carrot plants that needed to be reminded of their place2, she headed down the stairs.
“Well, are you coming in?” asked Lawrence from his desk, still looking at what was no doubt a very important sheet of paper3.
Allison stepped into the study. A large window behind Lawrence’s desk let in some natural light, but most of it was devoured by the dark wood of the walls and the bookcase that lined them.
What drew Allison’s eye, though, was the oil painting hanging on the left wall. It was a portrait of Lawrence with his eldest students, all standing together in solemn dignity, its frame bearing the legend “New Human Institute, 1953”. It looked like it had been painted when Żywie and Basilisk were in their late teens or very early twenties. Tiresias and Melusine looked like they might have been somewhere between twelve and fourteen. Lawrence’s beard was still completely red. They were all dressed quite nicely, which kind of surprised Allison in Basilisk’s case. Artistic license on the painter’s part? Or was Lawrence willing to throw away a good suit for a picture? Of course, that was probably a drop in the ocean for someone with portrait money. There was only one person Allison didn’t recognise, a gangly Asian lad with the beginnings of a rubbish beard standing on Żywie’s left.
“I’m afraid AU is no longer with us, if you’re wondering,” said Lawrence.
Allison looked away from the portrait. “That’s AU?” she said, shocked.
AU had been making national headlines with his raids on gold mines for nearly a year. From what Allison had read—because if nothing else, supervillains always made for interesting reading—he had the ability to telekinetically manipulate gold. A few witnesses even claimed he could transmute it out of base metals. She recalled Arnold being confused by that. “Why’d he go to the trouble of stealing it then?” he’d asked. It made a little more sense to Allison, but then, her father had taught her about inflation. Once even on purpose.
AU may have further strengthened the superhuman scare4, but in truth all he did was nurture an existing dread. Just another shadow looming over Australia. AU, the Witch, the Fox, Redcap, Circle’s End…
A few months before the Flying Man even descended upon the White House, a little mining township, named Circle’s End by its less than enthusiastic founders, went silent. Located deep as it was in the interior of WA, and with very few households having access to a phone anyway, it was two days before anyone noticed.
Eventually, spurred to action by glimpses of odd lights and bizarre creatures, some men from a nearby cattle station had ventured into the settlement to investigate, or at least tell the locals to tone it down a notch.
Every man, woman and child was dead.
About eighty of the town’s nearly two hundred inhabitants had been piled into heaps in what passed for the main street. They had lain untouched by any animal, for they too had perished. One of the men would later tell that they couldn’t even hear any insects that day.
The rest of the town had been left where they fell. Babies lay dead in their cots. Entire families had passed away over dinner. One or two homes had burned to the ground thanks to unattended ovens.
If a cause of death for any of the townspeople was ever established, it wasn’t released to the public. The perpetrator—whoever or whatever that was—would never be found. As the ones who stumbled on the scene told it, the people of Circle’s End looked as though they had died in absolute terror.
The news spread slowly across the country. The government wasn’t exactly eager to publicize a catastrophe both unexplainable and horrifying. The lack of photographic documentation didn’t help. Still, spread it did, and the consensus quickly formed that the only forces that could be responsible were superhuman powers, or God. And getting a warrant for the latter was unlikely.
Only one clue ever emerged. Just before the generally agreed time of mass-death, the local mine boss had been on the phone with the insurance company. The conversation was proceeding as one would imagine, when the head of the mine announced, rising panic in his voice, that “…There’s a man.”
Allison couldn’t remember grownups talking much about Circle’s End when it happened. Admittedly, it may have been that they didn’t want to discuss supernatural mass murder in front of a five year old girl, but sometimes, when she could bring herself to care why folks suddenly decided they hated people like her, she wondered if the Flying Man was really who people like Dr. Carter feared. Sure, he radically altered the geopolitical landscape of the entire world for all of time, but he did it from far away. At the end of the day, he was essentially another strongman, if one operating on an entirely different level than any before him.
And at least he didn’t leave dead towns in his wake.
“Oh, you wouldn’t have seen any pictures of him without that costume of his, would you? Gaudy thing, but I suppose you work with what you’ve got,” remarked Lawrence, startling her from her reverie. He might have been discussing the weather, instead of the infamous supervillain that used to live with him. “Why don’t you take a seat, Allison.”
She fell into one of the large, exceedingly comfortable chairs in front of Lawrence’s desk. Nice as they were, they did make Allison feel like she was four instead of eight.
“I’m guessing you didn’t come here to talk about my wayward student?”
“Yeah. Um, I’m not sure if this is how I should be asking this, but what was that?”
He peered at her over his reading glasses. “What was what?”
“You know…” She tilted her head sharply in the direction of the Physician’s office.
“Well, I know English, Latin, the offside rule… quite a few things, really.”
She stared angrily at him, patience exhausted. “You know what I mean! The Physician! Who is he? What is he? Why is he?”
He sighed. “It’s important to be direct, child. You spoke with Żywie outside. I imagine you heard our disagreement?”
Unexpectedly deprived of fuel, Allison’s indignation collapsed into guilt.
“Don’t be ashamed. It’s a natural instinct, wanting to know what the grownups are talking about, and I don’t truck with keeping things from children. It’s condescending. Do you know what that means, Allison?”
At least he was trying. “Yes. But the Physician is still weird. And scary. I’m sorry, but he just is.”
Lawrence silently wished that Żywie hadn’t explained the long term effects of tobacco so graphically. Or at least refrained from smoking her Dunhills in front of him. “You know, Allison, a lot of people out there would likely say the same of you.”
“I know, I know,” he said, “but it’s true. Tell me, who was nicknamed Darwin’s Bulldog?”
“Thomas Henry Huxley,” she answered, immediately and without any real thought.
“Whose grandson wrote?”
“Brave New World.” As soon as she said it, she immediately tried forgetting the opening of that book again.
“Who was Sigmund Freud’s philosophy tutor, and why did he leave the priesthood?”
“Franz Brentano, and he didn’t believe in the doctrine of papal infallibility.”
The words felt strange in her mouth. Foreign.
Lawrence was pouring himself a scotch from a bottle on his desk. “Some might find a girl who can pull knowledge from a man’s head like that unsettling. The paranoid might jump to the conclusion that she can read their thoughts as they think them. The insecure might resent how she equals or surpasses them at any human endeavour, especially if they knew how effortlessly she becomes what they have struggled all their lives to be.” He set the bottle down. “Except, you and I both know this is no hypothetical. You wouldn’t be sitting before me if it were. Now tell me, was that fair?”
Allison sank into her seat, deeply uncomfortable.
Lawrence sipped from his drink. “As for the Physician, let’s just say he’s an old friend of mine—an immigrant, you might say—without whom I would understand you and the other children a great deal less. And if you or I were to find ourselves in the land he hails from, I suspect the children there would be asking much the same questions as you.”
“He’s a space alien, isn’t he?”
“You know, something from another planet. I mean, if he was from another country or something, you’d just say it. It isn’t a big secret that Żywie’s Polish, or that Melusine’s French. That is where they’re from, right? Or are they aliens, too? Are we all aliens? I’m not sure how I’d feel about that.”
Lawrence ran his hands down his face, and made his drink a double. “You know, I suspect that if he really put in the effort he could seem more human. He probably just hopes people will assume he is for a lack of alternatives.”
“Oh. Really? My God. I didn’t think I was actually right. Or that you’d admit it like that!”
“Why deny it? You all figure it out eventually. It hasn’t even taken some of you this long.”
“Oh yes. Metonymy was screaming that he was an alien as soon as he walked into the office.”
Okay, so the Physician was an alien monster from beyond the Moon. At least Allison wasn’t imagining it. “So, what’s his story?”
Lawrence looked more relaxed now it was all out in the open. “I met him a few months after I and the young men and women in that nice picture on the wall returned home from Europe.”
“Home?” asked Allison. “I kinda thought you were from England.”
He laughed. “Allison, one thing you have to learn about the upper class in this country is that we go to a great amount of effort to sound like we’ve never stepped foot in Australia. It’s deeply pointless and probably unhealthy, but at this point me trying to sound ‘Strayan would be no less false. Didn’t help my parents shipped me off to Eton as soon as possible. It’s the one thing I have in common with MPs, captains of industry, and Zulu chiefs.
“Anyway, I honestly can’t tell you much about the Physician. He tells me he arrived on our world in 1941, but I’d forgive you for thinking he came down during the last long weekend. He landed in America, but migrated over here in ‘48. Says he was ‘tired of waiting’—for what, I don’t know—and thought marsupials sounded interesting. Helped that Australia has a higher rate of superhuman births, or so he tells me. Something like one in every hundred thousand, the sort of number that only sounds impressive when compared to everyone else. What I can be sure of is that his people are thousands of years ahead of us in… well, likely every field of science, but biology and medicine especially.”
Allison looked skeptical. “He didn’t look like a very good doctor to me.”
Lawrence chuckled, raising a finger. “I’m afraid I have to correct you there, Allison. He’s not a bad doctor, he’s just very bad at pretending to be a bad doctor.”
Allison tried parsing that statement. She failed.
Lawrence decided to elaborate. “Imagine you studied medicine at Oxford.” He smiled. “That might be easier for you than most children. Now imagine that you were forced to treat a patient for the flu, using only the equipment and techniques employed by a tribal witch doctor. I believe he took a blood sample, didn’t he?”
She grimaced at the reminder. “Yeah. He also complained about you letting Żywie fix us before he does it,” she said, her voice positively brimming with what sounded like, but could never be mistaken as sympathy.
“Given that Stratogale came to us with early stage leukemia, he’ll just have to deal with it. But believe me, child. With that blood sample, the Physician could diagnose your great-great-grandfather’s first childhood illness.”
A thought struck Allison. “If he’s that good, why do people still get sick?”
“I’ve thought about that, too. Sometimes I wonder if he’s worried about his people’s science being misused, but truth be told, and I know this will sound awful, I think he just doesn’t care that much about us.”
He was right. It did sound awful.
“That’s not to say I ascribe any maliciousness to him. It’s just… Have you seen a nature documentary?”
Allison hadn’t, but she could remember some well enough that nodding didn’t feel like a lie.
“Well, I’m sure you found the subjects of those films interesting. Maybe even felt a twinge of sympathy when a mother’s cub got carried away, or when a lemming migration went horribly wrong. But did you feel the way you imagine you would if you saw another human child die?”
It was then Allison realised how much she appreciated that the songs didn’t transmit every kind of memory. “No.”
“Imagine what it must be like for the Physician. At least you and the lemmings ultimately spring from the same source. Unless our friend Fred Hoyle is onto something, the Physician likely isn’t even descended from the same molecules as us. We have more kinship with an ear of corn than with him. I’m skeptical that truly alien lifeforms can form meaningful connections with each other. Our story is not his. Just remember, child, the Physician has vastly different emotional reactions to you or or I. Here, I’ll show you.”
“Physician!” shouted Lawrence. “Could you come in here for a moment?”
“It’s okay, Lawrence, I understand—”
The Physician stepped into the doorway, and then was as still as a statue. Or a corpse. Allison half expected the tips of his smile to loop back around the front of his face. “Ah, Miss Kinsey. Were you and Lawrence discussing something?”
“Yes. We were talking about the utter revulsion you inspire in her, particularly how your amateurish mimicry of our species feels less like a disguise and more like tasteless satire. I was just explaining that it’s likely because you feel nothing stronger for our kind than mild amusement,” said Lawrence, like he was discussing the weather.
If the Physician was at all taken aback by this, it didn’t show. “…And?”
Somehow, only his lips moved when he said that.
“Nothing else, just illustrating a point. Now, could you make sure you’re gone by eight? We don’t want your soul to give Allison nightmares.”
“Got it!” he replied jovially, already heading back down the hallway.
Lawrence and Allison sat in silence for a while, before the former stood up from his chair. “How about a stroll?”
“Do you think we might actually be aliens?” Allison wondered aloud, skipping between half submerged rocks at the edge of the river. Her mood had improved considerably once Lawrence brought her away from the house, thirty-plus human5 songs insulating her from the Physician’s. She felt even better when she heard that particular tune drifting away down the road.
Lawrence seemed amused by the question. “And what do we mean by that?”
She jumped into the water. She didn’t particularly care if her clothes got wet, but if they did, well, that was what Maelstrom’s song was for, wasn’t it? On the whole, she decided, powers were neat. “Well, maybe me and Arnold and everyone have aliens for grandparents?” She suddenly had to suppress some unpleasant mental images. Sometimes knowing what she knew was less than nice. “I mean aliens who were less… fake, than the Physician. Maybe it’s like how sometimes two people with dark hair have blond kids.”
She was very proud of her theory, even if she knew it was technically a hypothesis.
Lawrence smiled indulgently, like a father whose child was enthusiastically revealing the gnosis hidden in their favourite cartoons. “That’s a nice idea, Allison, but you’ve been around learned people. I’m sure you know how astronomical the chances of two unrelated species producing viable offspring.”
“I guess… wait.” An idea was trying to coalesce, but she was having trouble grasping it. She was used to much of her mind being a patchwork of other people’s thoughts, but this was beyond that. It was like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, when all the pieces were perfect circles. “Oh God, I think I managed to pick up some stuff from the Physician.”
Lawrence looked delighted. “Don’t fight it, child. Imagine what you might be able to learn from him! If nothing else, if you can learn from his song, you’ll might be able to acclimatize to it eventually.”
Somehow, this prospect didn’t fill Allison with joy, but she suspected repressing her new knowledge wouldn’t be healthy. In fact, she could already feel a migraine forming. She screwed her eyes shut and did her best to translate the Physician’s ideas into English. “Earth isn’t the only place human beings live. There’s tons of planets out there with people like us on them, and a lot them can do things that’d be called powers here. The Physician thinks they all started off here, because humans are related to loads of animals on Earth.”
Lawrence nodded. “Yes, he’s told me about a few of those civilizations. The humanish races, he calls them. Enlil, Menrva, and Ežerinis are a few I can name of the top of my head.”
She beamed. “So my theory could be right!”
“It is, in many cases. The Physician tells me Tiresias has some traces of Enlil in his genome6, for instance. But it only accounts for a minority of new humans, and even then, it doesn’t explain their powers.”
Allison wrinkled her nose. “And what does that mean?”
“Before we continue, I’d like to remind you that when I speak of matters beyond our world, I’m just going from what the Physician’s told me. I’ve never known him to lie, except for that one year he decided to master the art of comedy and tried to convince me all my students had congenital syphilis. Still, this is all hearsay. I shouldn’t be considered an authority on anything besides dressing like I’m still at Oxford in over eighty degree heat.”
She giggled. “I was wondering about the gloves.”
He smiled. “With that being said, here’s what I know. On these other worlds, the humanish races went through a similar phase of history to the one we find ourselves in now. A small subset of the population develops wildly varied, apparently paranormal abilities. Some credit their empowerment to radioactive contaminants, or genetic experimentation, or their gods, or yes, alien interference. What usually happens next is that one particular power-profile—be it cryokinesis, grab-bag psychic, or something else—manages to stabilise, outbreed and replace their non-powered brethren, typically doing away with any competing powers in the process.” His expression darkened. “Of course, since, as you said, mutations and recessive traits are a factor, I imagine such cullings have to be… ongoing.”
Allison tried to imagine this bloody cycle, repeating from world to world, for probably thousands upon thousands of years. She then tried very hard to stop.
“So yes, you could be the far-removed scion of some lucky race of men for whom the educational system is merely absurdist theatre. But that wouldn’t tell how how your gift began. All these ‘just-so’ stories posthumans have for their abilities cannot be the whole truth. It’d be like a car being assembled via cyclone. No, worse: it’d be like that happening so many times in one day, you were able to open a dealership.”
“What about the Flying Man? Could he be an alien?”
“Does it matter?” he said, wearily. “Sometimes, it feels like our society isn’t capable of having a serious discussion about new humans without descending into yet more gossip about the Flying Man. ‘What’s he planning?’ ‘How powerful is he really?’ ‘Where’d he come from?’ ‘What’s his favourite breakfast?’” Lawrence was beginning to sound frustrated. “It’s practically voyeurism.”
Allison wasn’t sure what to say, if anything.
“I’m sure you’ve heard grownups claim the Flying Man is the vanguard of an invasion?” Lawrence asked.
They were now on safer ground: Allison had in fact heard Arnold’s father propose that very theory, though he typically named the conspirators as the Reds rather than aliens. Same thing, really, when Fred Barnes was the one talking. “Yes?” she replied.
“Posthuman powers aside, you’re a smart girl. I’m sure you can see the flaws in that reasoning.”
“Mhmm.” Now that she thought about it, she couldn’t imagine what you would need besides the Flying Man to conquer the world. Unless the rest of the coming occupation force was tasked with supplying him with post-genocide coffee and hot towels.
“Invasion!” He slumped onto the grass. “I wish the people who run the DDHA, those politicos up in Canberra, could know you children the way I do. If they could see how you’ve reinvented something as simple as tag, or hide-and-seek… Those fear mongers would have a harder time making monsters out of you if they sat in on a performance from our Watercolours.”
Many among the Watercolours’ audience would have argued that was more than enough reason for the natural population to hate and fear posthumanity, but Allison hadn’t sat through nearly three years’ worth of their performances.
“Sadly, there isn’t anything to do in Canberra besides making decisions about what you don’t understand. Believe me, I’ve been there far too much for my comfort. You probably understand far more than they do even at this young age.”
Allison laughed, charitably, inspiring Lawrence to launch into a long chain of anecdotes. Abalone keeping the rain off the students and faculty during picnics; Żywie’s labours to cultivate ever more exotic plant hybrids; a photokinetic student called Ēōs fighting off those same exotic plant hybrids.
Allison half-listened, letting Lawrence’s reminiscing wash over her, until two new songs abruptly came to her attention, their tunes drifting across the river.
Peering out from the trees near the far bank were two children, whom Allison recognised neither personally nor musically. One she thought was a boy, despite the distractingly fabulous hat he was wearing. It was so distracting, in fact, it took her a few seconds to notice his skin looked grey; almost blue, even. It then occurred to her that there wasn’t any reason his skin shouldn’t be blue. She knew that some demi-humans—though none at the Institute, it had seemed—couldn’t pass as natural. His song was bizarre, albeit not frighteningly so. Just frustrating. Whenever Allison tried listening to it, it was replaced with a completely new song, some perfectly baseline, some wildly superhuman. The other child—a girl, probably—was more typical, at least by the standards of posthumanity. The tune of her song even sounded slightly familiar. The only thing that struck her as particularly strange about the girl was the way her hair appeared to taper from yellow to brunette and back again. There was also the sailor’s outfit, she supposed, but it wasn’t like the Institute had a set uniform. She looked disappointed at something, while the boy was waving gleefully, though not, it seemed to Allison, at her.
She wouldn’t draw attention to them; wandering beyond the river was against school rules, and nobody liked a dobber. She wondered, without much real curiosity, how the pair had escaped her notice. Her first idea was that they might have snuck off to one of the nearby towns, but surely someone would have mentioned a couple of kids being missing for nearly two days? Even if they hadn’t, nobody ever snuck up on Allison, not even by accident, and there were less than fifty other people for over a mile. One of them was probably another teleporter, she decided. She was a little shocked how normal that explanation already sounded to her.
“…and then the pterodactyl pleaded with us for asylum. Well, naturally—Oof!” A soccer ball collided with the back of Lawrence’s head.
An Aboriginal boy, a little older than Allison, and whose song had hints of xylophone and intangibility, ran down to retrieve the ball. He smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, Lawrence. Ball pulled a runner on us.”
“Not a problem, Haunt!” he exclaimed cheerfully, rubbing his head. “I’m guessing Britomart didn’t kick it over here?”
Haunt laughed. “Would you be asking if she had?”
Lawrence’s smile was tinged with dark humour. “No, I imagine not. Who’s winning?”
“The Comets!” replied Haunt, proudly.
“And which team is Brit playing for?” asked Lawrence.
Lawrence chortled. “Don’t get cocky, lad. The Thunder Kings could still make a comeback if you let your guard slip.”
Haunt tilted his head. “How’d you know the other team was the Thunder Kings?”
“Lucky guess. Or I might need to throw myself a Naming. Either way, we’ve probably held up the game long enough, run along now.”
Haunt ran back to where the other players were just barely managing to wait for the ball to be returned. Aside from the children, a few of the teachers had been distributed between the teams in as egalitarian a fashion as possible, though Allison wasn’t sure having an adult natural on your team really mattered when superpowers were involved. Żywie and Basilisk languidly refereed from a couple of deck chairs. It was reassuring to know that even at the New Human Institute, kids—including, she was pleased to see, quite a few girls—still played soccer.
“That’s what I wish people could see,” said Lawrence, wistfully.
Allison was starting to think she should go take a closer look. Lawrence was nice and all, but there was only so much adult company a girl could take.
“Uh, Lawrence, I’m feeling better now. Do you mind if I leave you here?”
“Not at all! Go, be with your kind.”
“Thanks for keeping me company.”
“It’s what I’m here for, child.”
She was about to step out of the water, when she looked back out across the river.
“Is something the matter?” asked Lawrence.
“Oh, nothing,” replied Allison.
She was being quite honest. The new children were gone. She couldn’t even hear their songs on the wind. It was like they had both dropped out of the world.
Allison wandered around the Institute for a while. She was happy to discover that the school library had a copy of The Sword in the Stone. She’d been sorely tempted to nick McClare’s, but Melusine had insisted she be the bigger woman7.
At the moment, Melusine was levitating a large, ovoid mass of water in front of the house, allowing it to slowly drip down onto the children cavorting beneath it, eager to enjoy the sensation of rain before it once again became a daily annoyance. Allison thought it was great fun, even though there was something a little uncanny about the way Melusine stood there in her ice-state, smile carved and unmoving, like a mask. It didn’t help she either was unable or chose not to make any kind of sound while she was that way.
Eventually, once the kids were thoroughly drenched, Melusine let the water collapse on top of them. Thanks to Allison’s timely sampling of Britomart’s song, who appeared to manipulate kinetic energy and momentum to enhance her strength and durability, she was the only child left standing. Not bad for a girl whose name sounded like an off brand supermarket.
“Again, again!” she demanded.
Melusine resumed her regular form, her smile becoming much more palpable in the process. “I’m afraid that’s it for the day.” She tasted the air. “You’ll be begging me to make it stop in a month anyway.”
There were some spirited protests, but eventually the children dispersed. Allison decided to go find Arnold, enjoying the feeling of the sun drying her clothes as she ambled around. Some of the other kids had actually stripped off for the water feature, but it would be a long time before Allison was willing to be seen… as she was… by this menagerie of weird names.
Arnold, Mabel, and Maelstrom’s songs were all radiating from the same point, a weathered old barn on the northern edge of the property. As Allison approached it, she could hear voices coming from inside, and the clashing of metal. Whoever was speaking, they sounded angry. And Italian. Maybe Mabel’s trapped Tiresias, thought Allison. She quickly attempted to ‘undo’ the thought, remembering what she had been told about the man’s powers. She realised it was futile, though, and that, despite his protestations, he was probably used to hearing that kind of sentiment. She wondered, a little guiltily, if that was why he was the way he was.
As she entered the barn, the voices became clearer. And louder.
“Quare ad depugnandum nos cogis?8”
Thanks to Harvey’s parish priest, Dr. Lawrence, and a fair few besides them, Allison knew enough Latin to understand what that meant.
“Scelesta es, perversa—9”
Two gladiators were fighting in the middle of the barn. There were enough holes in the roof that Allison—even without the aid of the more visually oriented songs available to her—could easily see they possessed a similar unreal quality to the spacewoman Mabel had created. Or summoned. She still wasn’t quite sure what was going on there, and it seemed these gladiators had been illustrated in a more hyper realistic style.
The combatants were grinding their blades against each other in exactly the way real swordsmen didn’t. It was embarrassingly filmy; a child’s idea of what swordfighting should be. The fact she could recognise this surprised Allison. She wondered if some of the people in her hometown had led far more interesting lives than she ever suspected.
Mabel and Maelstrom observed the fight from the hayloft, wearing togas fashioned from curtains and the closest thing to laurel wreaths that the local flora allowed. Like his mother, Maelstrom was in his ice-state, perhaps to help preserve the self-consciously grim expression he was wearing. Mabel needed no such help. Lying on his stomach next to them was Arnold, who was watching the fight with far less pretense.
Mabel broke out in a grin when she spotted Allison. The gladiators became stiller than the Physician. “Hey, Allison! Did you figure out the Physician’s an alien yet?”
She smiled up at them. “It’s real obvious, isn’t it?”
“I know, right? Was he the one making you freak out in class?”
“No. Someone was just playing a really loud record only she could hear,” said Arnold, disdainfully.
“I don’t think I freaked out, exactly…”
“Are you alright?” asked Maelstrom, human again.
“Yeah. Lawrence talked to me for a long time after that. He’s like, um…”
“Wise?” Maelstrom suggested.
“That uncle who really hopes you like his jokes?” added Mabel. Arnold and Maelstrom both looked at her blankly. “Oh, come on, you don’t know what I mean?”
“All my uncles got blown up in Korea,” said Arnold, eternal font of good cheer. “Dad says if Uncle Barney bought it a day earlier they would’ve sent him home with his legs.”
“…I think I might still have a few in South Africa?” followed Maelstrom, a little limply.
“Don’t worry, I get it,” said Allison. “My dad was the first one in his family to get married and have kids, so his brothers all kind of practised with me. They were hardly ever funny, but it felt nice they were trying.”
“Yeah,” said Mabel, nostalgically. “My Uncle Scott was like that. He used to have this little…” Her voice trailed off. “Nevermind, had to be there. Now get up here so the melee can proceed!”
Allison climbed up the ladder and lay down besides Arnold. Mabel made a grand sweeping gesture with her left hand, and battle—as well as the torrent of bile and classical profanity from the gladiators—resumed below.
Allison found the spectacle more than a little questionable. “Do you think they feel pain?” she asked Arnold, whispering.
“They’re just drawings,” he replied, louder than she would have liked. Thankfully, Mabel didn’t seem to hear.
“We don’t know that,” retorted Allison. “Remember what Maelstrom said his mum thinks? What if those gladiators are people who just got… translated?” She huffed. “I hope people invent words for the things we do soon. And have you asked Maelstrom why he doesn’t call his mum mum? It’s weird.”
“His business, isn’t it? And even if those two are—were?—real blokes, they were already gladiators in the picture she got them from, and they were still fighting each other. Only difference is they’re doing it here instead of in Rome.”
“I know what they’re saying. They don’t sound happy.”
“And them chopping each other up in the Colosseum would’ve been better?”
Allison scowled at him. “If Mabel got a picture of lions eating Christians or something, and made that real, would it still be alright?”
He frowned. “No, that’d be gross.”
“Gladiators fought to the death, Arnold.”
“She’s being nice to us, can you not spoil it?”
Allison noticed something clutched in Arnold’s hand. “What’re you holding?”
He stuffed it into his pocket. “Nothing.”
“Come on, I won’t laugh.”
“But you have! More than once!”
Xylophones. She reached right through the fabric and pulled out a scrap of brown paper. “Proverbs 13:20” had been meticulously handwritten on it in blue biro.
He tried to wrench her hand open. “Give it back!”
“Did your mum write this?” It was a bully’s phrasing to be sure, but her tone was completely sincere.
“Who else do you think?” he snarled.
The sounds of clanging metal stopped. “Oi! What are you fighting about?” shouted Mabel.
Allison answered for them, letting Arnold snatch the paper back. “Bible verse. His mum used to write them on all his school lunches.”
There were probably actual prophets10 who took their faith less seriously than Angela Barnes. Dealt a life few would consider enviable, the butcher coped with a religious fervour that even many of her neighbours thought excessive. And yet Our Lady of Immaculate Conception didn’t always seem to appreciate Mrs. Barnes’ devotion. Perhaps it was the way she ran her household, or her husband’s open irreverence. Arnold, for his part, always suspected it was largely to do with her choice of profession: barmaids were at least respectably unsavoury. Or maybe it was the rather physical way she reacted to the parish priest’s refusal to baptise infants whose names weren’t down for the nearest Catholic school.
Very little of that faith had rubbed off on Arnold, at least as far as Allison was able to tell. He was like a sponge left in a bucket of water. There was only so much it could absorb. She was actually surprised he was still carrying any of his mother’s little messages. Aside from the sheer logistics of managing to hold onto it all that time at Roberts, they had gotten him viciously teased at times. Even by Allison on occasion, she was ashamed to admit.
Mabel looked over Arnold’s shoulder. “I don’t know much about the Bible aside from Ten Commandments being a smashing film—”
“The Sign of the Cross was better,” interjected Maelstrom.
“Oh, shush. Anyway, what does Proverbs 13:20 say?”
Arnold sighed. “I don’t know how Mum expected me to remember all those verses. Couldn’t she have written the whole thing down?”
“Wise company brings wisdom; fool he ends that fool befriends,” recited Allison.
Arnold laughed. “So that’s why Mum liked you so much.”
She shrugged. “She had it memorised, I have it memorised. How’d you sneak that into Roberts? They didn’t even let me keep my pencil.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m a witch.”
“At least your mum cared to enough to do it,” commented Mabel.
“And yours didn’t?” Arnold asked, with just a tinge of sarcasm.
“No idea. She died having me.”
Arnold went red. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Why? Did ya kill her?”
“It’s okay, really. Hard to be sad about someone you never knew. Dad did his best.”
Allison was looking up at the holes in the ceiling. “I wish I had something from Mum or Dad. Even Dad’s bankbook would do.”
They sat in uncomfortable silence. Allison and Arnold couldn’t help but look at Maelstrom. He noticed. “…Melusine loves all of us.”
“Basilisk’s your dad, right?” asked Arnold.
“…Yes. Why do you ask?”
To be frank, Arnold had mainly based his assumption on Basilisk being the only adult blackfella around. Allison had suspected the same thing, though she was also able to pick up the elder’s influence on the younger song. Except when it came to powers. All Melusine there.
“Well,” said Mabel, “if we’re all clear on Maelstrom’s proud lineage, I’m going to let our friends down there finish up.”
She stood and walked to the edge of the hayloft. The gladiators resumed fighting, only to stop once more when Mabel raised a hand. Allison was very concerned that she could smell their sweat.
The gladiators looked up at her, desperate hope in their eyes. She extended her fist out in front of her. Thumbs down.
Allison might have noticed that the gladiators reacted less like men being condemned to death, and more like men being condemned to an audit, if it weren’t for the lion that leapt from the darkness.
Their blood was strange.
“So, you guys looking forward to your Naming?” Mabel asked, perfectly cheerfully.
“I guess,” replied Allison, relieved that Mabel hadn’t waited long to dispel the lion—and his lunch. “How does that work, by the way? Will Lawrence just start calling us ‘Not-Here’ and ‘Every-Power’ one morning?
Mabel laughed. “Oh, no, it’s a bloody big deal. We build a bonfire, Lawrence decks you out in your Sunday best, he makes a speech, Kirk’s Lemonade flows like water; it’s pretty fun. They also cancel lessons on the day, so thanks for that.”
“You’re welcome,” said Arnold, grinning.
“How long do we have to wait?” asked Allison.
“Until Lawrence comes up with something he thinks fits,” replied Maelstrom.
“So you’re better off the longer it takes,” added Mabel.
Maelstrom frowned. “He’ll probably wait till he’s decided on both your names. Wouldn’t want us missing too much classes.”
“Very nice of him,” said Arnold, flatly.
“Hey,” said Mabel, “you guys want to see something neat?”
They nodded their assent. Mabel skipped to the back of the loft, returning with a magazine. “Now, I’m only showing this to you three because Maelstrom’s my best mate, and you two… Well, you’re here and you seem nice.”
It was a Time magazine. Specifically, the 1962 “Man of the Year” issue. Its cover was a blurry photograph of said Man of the Year floating above the White House, Rudolf Anderson clinging to his arm for dear life.
Arnold and Allison stared at Mabel, gobsmacked.
She grinned at Allison. “I found this in Lawrence’s office while he was outside giving you the speech about how great it is that we were born super. Even if we weren’t.”
Before she could voice the obvious conclusion, Allison remembered something Mabel had said the day before. “You’re not going to try making him real—I mean, real here—are you? You said you couldn’t do photos.”
Mabel sighed. “I know, stupid, isn’t it? Doesn’t help he’s so blurry in the picture. Must be his jillion11 and oneth power or something.”
It was hard for Allison to hide her relief. Luckily, Mabel eliminated the problem when she continued. “Good thing they drew a picture of him for the article!” She flicked to the appropriate spot. It was a beautifully painted double-page spread of President Kennedy12 and his cabinet confronting the Flying Man on the North Lawn. “That’ll work just fine.”
Allison couldn’t speak.
Mabel strode towards the edge of the loft again, Maelstrom trying to block her way. “Um, Mabel, you sure about this?”
“It’ll be great! He can give us all rides!”
“You sure he’ll be up for that?”
She looked at Maelstrom, puzzled. “Doesn’t matter. He has to do what I say.”
Would he, Allison wondered. Over the course of three years, the Flying Man had proven himself impervious to gravity, bullets, bombs, heat, cold, and pretty much anything else you could care to name. Why should Mabel’s power be any different?
“What if your powers do just take things from other places? He could be busy!”
And if Mabel’s powers did create rather than summon, would it matter? The Flying Man could lift thousand ton ships over his head, expertly dismantle thousands upon thousands of missiles all over the world in under a week, and occasionally, things he looked at straight up exploded. Could he know if someone out there usurped his image?
“Oh, I’ll let him keep saving people. I’m not a monster.” She threw the magazine onto the floor below, and pointed at it with an odd gesture13.
Maelstrom grabbed her arm. A futile gesture, as he well knew. “Lawrence will be mad!”
“Then the Flying Man can go to the Quiet Room for us.”
“Do it,” said Arnold.
“What?” shouted Allison and Maelstrom, almost simultaneously.
Arnold got up to stand beside Mabel. There was a glint in his eye Allison didn’t like. “Think about it for a sec. We could get the Flying Man to dig us a diamond mine. Or the government could pay us to make him smash the Reds! Hell, we could be the government, with the Flying Man on our side! I call Queensland! Well, if Mabel is nice enough to let us in on it.”
She giggled. “Sure! I’m not greedy.”
Arnold looked back at Allison, grinning unreservedly. “You could have his song, Allison. Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.”
Allison frowned at him, hugging her legs. “Her pictures don’t have music.” She hated the part of her that was disappointed by that.
“Oh. Well, it’ll still be great. He can smash Roberts, and McClare. Burn them to the ground, drop those doctors and nurses from the sky—”
“Arnold!” shouted Allison.
“It’s a bit much,” agreed Mabel.
“Okay, okay. Maybe just beat them all up. We can decide when he’s here. Do it!”
Mabel resumed her stance, squinting in concentration.
In the gloom of the barn, the Flying Man flickered into being. He turned to face Mabel, smiled, closed his eyes, and shook his head.
The magazine burst into flames.
“Eeep!” exclaimed Mabel.
Maelstrom melted into water, flowing out of his clothes and onto the burning magazine. The fire extinguished with a hiss.
“Damn it, Maelstrom,” yelled Mabel. “I was going to put that back!”
The water and steam reformed into Maelstrom. His nakedness didn’t appear to cause him any shame. “Yes, the thing that would have given away your plan to enslave the world with a picture of the Flying Man was a missing back issue of Time. Could you chuck down my clothes, please?”
She did so. “I wasn’t really going to conquer the world. Just sorta… run it for a while. Till I got bored.”
“That’s nice,” said Maelstrom, pulling on his shorts as he hopped towards the barn door. “I’ll talk to you later. Thanks, Allison. Though, next time, could you just teleport it away? There’s still hay in here.”
Mabel glanced her way.
“What? Hot day.”
Mabel hurried down the ladder. “Maelstrom, wait!”
Arnold glared daggers at Allison. “Yeah, thanks a lot.” He followed after Mabel.
Allison slumped against the back wall of the barn and shut her eyes. After about twenty minutes, she was almost able to convince herself the Flying Man wasn’t coming for them.
The next few days were awkward, to say the least. Admittedly, it was hard for Allison to call them unpleasant, not after McClare, but the incident in the barn did cast an undeniable shadow over them. Class, at best tolerably boring, didn’t help. Indeed, the only reason she was even still attending regular lessons was that the staff had yet to come up with anything else to occupy her time.
If Maelstrom had told Lawrence or any other adult about Mabel’s little experiment, nothing came of it. The two of them were already laughing and joking together again by dinner. Allison wasn’t surprised. She’d known plenty of friends like that at Harvey Primary. The kind that probably never went a week without some major row, but needed each other too much for any of them to matter. Both still kept their distance from her.
They’d also cut off Arnold, which Allison felt was more than a little unfair; he’d been at least as stupid as Mabel in the barn. He certainly seemed to be taking it harder than her. He’d always had a tough time making friends, even before you took his family’s reputation into account.
Allison, having written off Mabel and Maelstrom, and being half-terrified of the former anyway, had started making an effort to get to know the rest of her schoolmates. They were all friendly enough. She hurled a few of the Institute’s least loved trees over the horizon with Britomart, and made a game of faking certain powers with others, just to see if anyone saw through it. Even the Institute’s adolescent residents had deigned to keep her company for the better part of an afternoon, basking in the instinctual awe most children have for older kids and ignoring the slight bemusement that came with it. Allison couldn’t help but find their almost-rule breaking a little adorable compared to Mabel trying to make the most powerful being on the planet do her evil bidding.
None of the children had tried excluding her from their games, and had welcomed her readily into any conversation she decided to take part in.. Except, she noticed, they didn’t make much of an effort to invite her into anything. There was a faint but definite distance between her and the other students. She’d put it down to her newness, or maybe her lack of a silly enough name.
As it turned out, she only had to wait three days for that to be rectified.
When Allison awoke that morning, she found herself alone in the dormitory. Judging by how the light from the windows fell on the walls, it wasn’t far off noon. A note had been left on her bedside table:
Good Morning, Allison. It’s Naming Day! We thought we’d let you and Arnold sleep in; if he hasn’t woken up yet when you read this, you hereby have my permission to prod him awake. I’m sure you know how boys can be. Festivities kick off at 5 O’clock. If you don’t think your hair has reached a suitably feminine length, come see me.
Allison looked around, a vestigial response left over from millions of years of evolution spent without the advantage of ESP. Looked like Arnold was more of an early riser than her. She gathered up her clothes and enjoyed having the shower block to herself.
Once she had deemed herself presentable, she decided to burn some of the hours between her and the Naming in the library. Halfway up the hill, a boy ran up to her. He was about eighteen, tall, flaxen haired, and—as much as she was capable of judging these things from her prepubescent perspective—quite radiantly handsome.
“Hey, Linus.” Linus had what could only be described as broad ‘music’ powers14, and after word had gotten to him about the musical bent of Allison’s own power, he’d grown quite fond of the girl. He claimed to be a son of Apollo—god of healing, music, and pretty much anything else Hermes or one of the other supposed theoi hadn’t already snatched up—but nobody bought that for a second. Apollo and the other Olympians lived all the way in Greece, after all15.
He grinned. “Morning, Allison. Looking forward to trading the name in? What’re you hoping for?”
She shrugged. “Not too fussed, long as it isn’t too long. Maybe Symphony, ‘cause of all the songs?”
He slapped her on the shoulder, laughing. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for ya. Maybe dad’ll nudge Lawrence in the right direction.”
He walked off, leaving Allison to wonder how seriously he meant that.
She made her way inside and, soon afterwards, was ambushed by Britomart in the main hallway. She was a serious looking, deceptively slight—although Allison would probably have been more surprised if she had looked as strong as she was—seven year old. “You gonna bet on yourself and Arnold?” she asked.
She sighed. “Did nobody tell you about the betting pool?”
“We like to put bets on the Namings,” she explained. “How many syllables you end up with, whether Lawrence goes for something Greek or T. S. Eliot, if you end up with a double nickname before the year’s out, how long it takes him to decide on the name.” She allowed herself a small smile. “I’ve already won pretty big on the last one. Lots of different factors. You interested?”
“Not really? What do you even bet with?”
“Oh, lots of different things. Snacks, chores; sometimes Lawrence lets us do odd jobs in town to prove we aren’t freaks or something and lets us keep the money. Not sure what he expects us to spend it on, but it’s nice to know it’s ours. Windshear finds ways for people to pay.”
“She’s kind of in charge.”
“Isn’t she, like, five?”
Brit shrugged. “Six, but who’s counting?”
She giggled. “Happy Naming, Allison.” She ran off, at clearly inhuman speed.
Much to her discomfort, Arnold was already sitting in the library. “Oh, hi,” he said, not looking at her.
“Good morning,” Allison replied.
“I think it’s the afternoon now.”
“Who cares?” She sat at one of the tables and opened her copy of The Secret Garden, less reading it and more ensuring she wasn’t looking at anything else.
“Good book?” asked Arnold.
“Would I be reading it if it wasn’t?” Actually, she did find she was dwelling a lot on the various ways the main characters could be done away with using the songs at her disposal.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you were checking if it needed burning.”
“You know, I’m pretty sure I could snap a kid in half right now.”
“And I could teleport them onto the Moon without a spacesuit.”
“That might not be so bad. Tea at the Gatehouse?”
“Yeah. Not surprised you need to aim at the biggest target.”
Allison smirked. “Looks like they’re safe.”
Arnold muttered something and looked back down at The Fellowship of the Ring, hoping to prove something to someone by not skipping the songs.
Aside from lunch, where Lawrence made a game of not quite referencing the party that evening, the two children mostly stayed in the library that afternoon, better to avoid the avalanche of congratulations and eager speculations that greeted them whenever they left.
“Do you think we’ll have to do anything?”
“What do you mean, Arnold?” replied Allison, testily.
“Well, are there words we’ll need to say? Is Lawrence going to make us do a dance or something?”
“You can make a speech, at least.”
“When are you going to drop that? Mabel and Maelstrom hate me now, too, isn’t that enough?”
“They can’t hate either of us. We barely know them16.”
He scoffed. “I thought you were meant to be smart.”
Allison raised up in her chair. “Listen—”
She was irritated enough to not notice the song drifting towards the door. A plump, matronly old lady opened it. “Children, it’s time to freshen up,” she declared in a thick, West Country accent.
“…so remember that next time, you little piece of—Hiiiii, Mrs Gillespie.”
Mrs Gillespie’s brush snagged in Allison’s hair. “Ow!”
She tutted. “Dear, I’ve already accepted that all my efforts will be dashed as soon as you two are out on the grass, but for now, could you please sit still?”
Allison stiffened. “Sorry.”
“It’s alright, let’s just—Easy on the brylcreem, Arnold!” She rushed over just in time to prevent him from looking like Bob Hope on his worst day.
Allison liked Mrs Gillespie. The other natural teachers put a lot of effort into making themselves seem as approachable and friendly as possible. As any child who’s ever dealt with a youth pastor—or certain breeds of student counsellors—will tell you, this had the unfortunate side effect of making them seem a touch pushy; hungry for the personal approval of their students. Mrs Gillespie, however, was to all appearances quite comfortable in her position of authority over her students, but did not wallow in it. It helped that she mainly taught history, which was close enough to being a story that Allison could get some enjoyment from the telling, even if it was still more like a pleasant reminder than actual learning.
Mrs Gillespie was also the only teacher who preferred not being called by her first name. “I’m sure you new humans can forgive a very old human some backwardness,” she’d explained to Arnold and Allison. Then she’d offered them barley sugars. That and a sharp whack of a ruler just short of a distracted student’s fingers comprised much of her strategy for dealing with children.
She was presently occupied fussing over the two of them before their Naming. She’d put Allison in a white gown that was not wholly unlike the one she’d worn for her first Holy Communion. Same hair ribbons, too. She’d dressed Arnold up ‘smart’, which meant he was quite acutely uncomfortable, but incredibly convenient for wandering family photographers.
“So, what do we do when we’re in front of everyone?” asked Arnold, hoping to God he wouldn’t have to wear the bowtie all night.
Mrs Gillespie smiled warmly. “Try to look thrilled by the attention. I don’t expect you’ll succeed, but at least everyone will know you’re human.”
Neither child seemed particularly reassured by this, but they did appreciate the honesty.
“Just remember this: every boy and girl out there went through the exact same thing. Well, apart from Maelstrom, but he’s a special case. I can tell you now, you won’t be able to match Phantasmagoria’s faux pas.”
Allison frowned at the mention of Mabel. “What’d she do?”
“Well, it wasn’t so much anything she did as much as what she said when Dr. Lawrence Named her.”
“And that was?”
Mrs Gillespie cleared her throat dramatically. “‘That’s it?’ ”
The children tried to suppress giggles, poorly.
“She’s been such a good sport about her name. Even if she’s usually run off before we’ve finished saying it.”
Arnold raised an eyebrow. “You don’t like the name?”
She smiled, a little impishly. “Let’s just say that if you want to be a proper grown up, you need to accept that other grown ups—even the ones you most respect—will sometimes come out with some silly ideas. And I’ve noticed that you two have been keeping your distance from Phantasmagoria and Maelstrom. Those two were all over you when you got here.”
“We haven’t been here a week,” mumbled Allison.
“Now don’t be giving me any of that,” said Mrs Gillespie, sharply. “I was a mother once, you know. I can tell the difference between kids just not playing together and those same kids avoiding each other. Why don’t you tell me what’s the matter? Parties aren’t nearly as much fun when there’s bad blood in the air.”
Arnold looked down at his hands, and not because the cufflinks made him feel posh. “…We’ll get into trouble.”
Mrs. Gillespie looked thoughtful. “Did anyone get hurt?”
They both answered without hesitation. “No.”
“Hmm, is anyone likely to get hurt?”
Allison fielded that one, though she had to think about it. “No. Me and Maelstrom made sure of that.”
As a mother, grandmother, and educator, Mrs Gillespie was fairly confident in her ability to discern thoughtfulness from hesitation. “Is the larder in order?”
“And the latrines?”
“Then I think I can live without the specifics. I think we’ll let you go first, Allison.”
Arnold opened his mouth to protest, but Mrs Gillespie held up a hand. “You’ll have your turn, Arnold. This isn’t a race.”
Allison tried to sum up as best she could. “So Phantasmagoria and Maelstrom were doing something creepy in the barn, and then Phantasmagoria wanted to do something really stupid that’d let her do more creepy things. Me and Maelstrom told her she was being stupid and kind of evil, but Arnold egged her on. Then I sort of… burned the—”
“What do you mean ‘sort of’?” interrupted Arnold, bitterly.
“Don’t interrupt,” ordered Mrs Gillespie.
“So I burned the magazine, and Maelstrom put it out.” She figured she wasn’t giving away too much with that.
Mrs Gillespie nodded. “Arnold, would you like to give us your side of the story?”
“She bloody burned it! Who does that? And now nobody likes us! And… And—”
She put a finger to his lips. “Breathe, boy, breathe. Count to ten, recite a psalm, make a list of all the curse words you know for all I care. Just make sure you can say what you need to say without tripping over your words.”
He went with all three suggestions. That out of his system, he started over. “I thought he could keep us safe. Who was gonna try locking us up again if the Flying Man was on our side?”
Allison flinched. If Arnold’s admission disturbed Mrs Gillespie at all, she didn’t let it deter her. “I can’t begrudge you the sentiment, if even a little of what Dr. Lawrence has told me is true.”
“But it wasn’t just that.” Arnold’s voice was beginning to quaver. “I wanted him to hurt people. Not even just the people who shoved me in Roberts. I wanted him to hurt naturals for letting all that happen to me. I wanted him to hurt every bloke in Harvey who talked crap about my mum and dad. But I… But I…” He broke into tears.
“Shhh.” Mrs Gillespie hugged him, tight. “There, there, that’s quite enough for now.”
“…I wanted him to hurt them, too.”
Allison was clearly horrified. “What’s wrong with you?”
“That’s enough, Allison,” warned Mrs Gillespie.
She didn’t listen. “Why would you want to hurt your parents?”
“…Because I thought they might have told on me.” It sounded childish even to his ears, but he could think of no other other way of putting it.
Mrs Gillespie wished dearly that she could have told Arnold that he was being ridiculous. But she had worked with children like him—and their families—for over a decade now, and she liked to think she was an honest woman. Her grip tightened. “Oh, Arnold, honey…”
“I doubt that,” said Allison.
“And how would you know?” spat Arnold, tears still hot on his cheeks.
She shrugged, dismissively. “Just doesn’t seem like them.”
“They’re not your mum and dad.”
“It’s just… Your dad hates the government. More than he hates anything besides the Reds. And even if your mum thought the Devil was in you or something, she’d have made you take a holy water bath or something before handing you over.”
“Don’t talk about my mum like that!”
“You were the one who wanted the Flying Man to beat her up!”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
“Please, children. Don’t do this to each other.”
Weeping is often contagious, and Allison was beginning to catch it. “They came for you, Arnold,” she said. “You let someone see you, and I got a rifle butt slammed into my head! Nobody would have ever noticed me if you hadn’t messed up. We’d both be home right now, I wouldn’t have had to see two blokes get eaten by a bloody lion, and neither of us would’ve been poked and prodded by a scarecrow wrapped in skin!”
They were both crying too hard to argue after that. Red and puffy eyes flickered towards the door, worried that someone would barge into the powder room to see what was the matter. Mrs Gillespie doubted it. She found that the prospect of Naming had a way of dredging up submerged emotions.
Arnold caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. “We ruined all your work,” he moaned.
Mrs Gillespie chortled, managing to make even that sound dignified. “Oh, dears, there’s a reason I always start a couple of hours in advance.” She pulled two hankies out of the floral patterned handbag she had on the counter. “Now, if you would both take these, we can get started on the restoration efforts.”
The two of them silently let her work on them. Mrs Gillespie rambled on about her own children and the old classroom she had presided over in Poplar, London. She held no delusion that either child was paying her much attention, but she figured they’d rather have her anecdotes than silence.
“Allison,” she said while putting the finishing touches on said child, “you don’t have to answer this if it hurts too much, but what exactly do you think made the fellas from the DDHA decide to take you in as well?”
For a moment, Allison found herself unable to answer. She knew she had nothing to fear in telling the plain truth, but the habits of secrecy and denial she had developed at McClare were not dying easily. She managed to push through it. “I didn’t know I could do powers before they came for Arnold. I didn’t even know Arnold had powers. I just thought his song was very pretty.”
Arnold blushed. Allison didn’t notice.
“New human songs are just better like that. Um, sorry, Mrs Gillespie.”
She shrugged. “I never much fancied myself a musician, anyway.”
“We were at school when they came. They just marched into our classroom with guns and told Miss Rossi they were to bring Arnold in. Said someone had reported him ‘causing paranormal phenomena with intent’.”
“I find the DDHA has a need to use as many words as possible to describe very basic concepts,” opined Mrs Gillespie. “If they were in our Żywie’s English class, I imagine she’d find their prose quite purple.”
“Miss Rossi didn’t argue. They pulled Arnold out of his chair and dragged him out of the room. We all followed to watch, even Miss Rossi. He was trying to squirm out of their arms, and I’d just realised why his song sounded so different.” She looked at Arnold. “Why didn’t you just use your power on the soldiers?”
“I didn’t want them to know for sure I had one. If they thought I was a natural, they’d have had to let me go home, right?”
“Very prudent,” said Mrs Gillespie. “Although the DDHA is allowed to detain suspected superhumans for up to eighteen months before being required to provide evidence of a power.”
Allison continued. “So I just kind of took your song and threw it at the soldiers. I didn’t even know I teleported them away17. I might have felt guilty if they weren’t trying to throw you in super-kid jail. Then one of their mates got behind me and…” She couldn’t finish the sentence, not without reminding herself of that explosion of pain.
“Why’d you do that, anyway?” asked Arnold.
Allison didn’t look at him. “I didn’t want to see you go, alright?”
Allison sighed. “Because we’re mates. Even if I did laugh at your mum’s Bible lunches. They’re just weird.”
“Well, thanks,” he muttered.
Allison grunted. “It’s fine. You got me out of McClare, anyway.”
Mrs Gillespie seemed pleased. “There we are! Prim as princes. They should be ready for you two about now.” She took the children by the hand and led them out to the front door. Before she opened it, she knelt down in front of them, meeting them at eye level. “If you’re still nervous, I can always escort you out to the stage.”
“There’s a stage?” Allison asked. But she shook her head, trying to smile as bravely as she could. “I think I’ll be okay.” She looked to her friend. “Arnold?”
Mrs Gillespie smiled. “I’m glad to hear it. Don’t worry about the names you end up with, dears. I find names tend to grow to suit their bearers. Oh, wait a sec, almost forgot.” She removed a small, aquamarine brooch from her breast pocket, affixing it to Allison’s dress. “Belonged to my daughter. I like to have the girls wear it for their Namings, as long as they don’t mind.”
Allison was honestly touched. “Not at all, Mrs Gillespie.”
She smiled. “Don’t think you’re being left out, young man. Those cufflinks belonged to my own dad.”
Arnold appreciated the sentiment, though he would have rather not known the cufflinks’ origin. After seven Anzac Days—as well as two uncles and a granddad—he was a little over wearing the heirlooms of dead men. “Thanks, Ma’am.”
She opened the door onto the night. “Well, your audience awaits you.” She broke out laughing. “I shouldn’t have said that. Good luck, kids.”
Arnold and Allison stepped outside. A white carpet had been laid out from the porch steps to just a little short of the river, where a large fire pit had been erected. Aside from Mrs Gillespie, who Allison could sense making her way down via the farmhouse’s backdoor, everyone was assembled around it. She could hear their expectation, their curiosity; also impatience, boredom, and the vague hope they would get something to laugh at.
She grabbed Arnold’s hand. He did not reject it.
“So, what do we do?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “we either stay up here till we’re old enough to leave, or we can let Lawrence give us Dan Dare names.”
“It’s not Roberts. They can call me Lord Silly Squire for all I care.”
Allison laughed. “Wait. You strain your brain for an embarrassing name, and the worst you could think up was a regal title?”
Arnold bit his lip. “Let’s just go, Every-Power.”
“Right behind ya, Not-Here.”
They made their way down into the crowd. Allison did her best to wave like she imagined Princess Elizabeth would. They were surrounded by smiling faces; some, Allison could tell, were more sincere than others. Even the youngest students seemed to tower over the pair of them. They walked past them to where Lawrence and his eldest students stood waiting before the bonfire.
When they reached them, they all shook Arnold and Allison’s hand in turn, apart from Basilisk, who settled for a thumbs up in their general direction. “Glad you could make it,” said Lawrence, too low for anyone but the two of them to hear. They were a little amazed he could pull that off.
He turned back to the crowd. “My friends!” he bellowed. All the subtle murmuring that arises when large groups of people are left idle stopped. “We’ve come out to welcome these two children into our family.”
“And because there was booze out here,” interjected Tiresias.
The guests of honour laughed, as did a few others, but Lawrence ignored him. “As you all know, I’ve travelled a fair bit in my time. I’ve met new humans from every corner of the globe. I’m probably the only white man to look upon Fantomah20 and live—at least in a state worth being alive—though that’s entirely on her, believe me. I was lucky enough to be joined on my travels by these four fine men and women beside me, and then by all of you. And though I’ve been settled and sedentary for nearly thirteen years now, I like to think we’re all still on a journey together. And now, I wish to formally invite Myriad and Elsewhere to join us.”
The crowd applauded, which was good, since it took Allison and Arnold a moment to figure out which was which.
They let the newly christened Myriad—or maybe Snapdragon via Myriad—light the bonfire, which she did with aplomb, conjuring a pair of flaming Chinese dragons to breathe life into it. She found it funny that Snapdragon’s fires only burned if he willed them to.
The teachers got utterly smashed, to put it generously, resulting in a drunken reenactment of the Nativity, with Mrs Gillespie standing in for that eternal cuckold, Joseph. Żywie, Basilisk, and Melusine, arms linked, sang “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back”, as loudly and as foreignly as possible. In what was without a doubt his greatest possible contribution to the party atmosphere, Tiresias kept to himself.
Myriad and Elsewhere—who had been expecting much worse, if they were being honest—had what might have been the best night of their lives. They danced like pagans in the lurid imaginations of Christians. They consumed enough party food and fizzy drinks to earn the hatred of their next morning selves. Bowties were discarded. Most importantly, for the first time since either of them realised what they were, they didn’t feel alone: the barrier between them and the other children had well and truly crumbled. They both stretched their powers, or in Allison’s case, the powers she found most appealing at any given moment, in ways they never before imagined.
There was only one note of confusion that evening. It occurred to Allison that she hadn’t seen either the blue boy or the girl in the sailor outfit since the day of her check-up, so she’d decided to ask after them. By that point of the night, Lawrence had drunken approximately a pub-and-a-half worth of lager, and was thus slightly tipsy. He was entertaining Mrs Gillespie’s theory that the various books of the Bible should each be paired with a different alcoholic beverage when Allison ran up to them.
“So, for the Apocalypse of Saint John you’d obviously be drinking absinthe, like Byron—Oh, hello Myriad.” She beamed at her, not even caring about the grass stains.
“Hi, Mrs Gillespie! Thanks again for getting us ready.”
“No problem,” she slurred.
She giggled. There was a reason she tried to stay up as late as possible when her parents had company. “Um, Lawrence, have you seen the blue kid and the girl with the badger hair anywhere? It’s been days since I heard ‘em.”
Lawrence chuckled. “Blue kid? Badger hair? Did you lick that lollipop the Physician gave you? I told him it wasn’t appropriate putting hallucinogens in those.”
She rolled her eyes. “No,” she lied. “It definitely wasn’t a dream.”
Mrs Gillespie hiccuped. “Don’t fret, child. It was probably just some of Ma-, I mean, Phantas-Phantasma-Drawing Girl’s creations walking around. Or maybe Żywie’s plants have learned how to give birth.”
Lawrence looked at her warily. “You think so?”
“Oh, I’m sure she’s thought about it.”
Allison decided she wouldn’t press the issue till the two of them had sobered up. Slightly exhausted from the the new enthusiasm her classmates had for her and Arnold, she decided to experiment with Brit’s power for a bit. Thanks to how she played with kinetic energy, it allowed her to leap tall buildings in a single bound. There were of course no tall buildings for hundreds of miles, so she contented herself with jumping over the house and the barn. At least until she spotted Mabel sitting alone by the river, looking out over the black water.
Inspired by the camaraderie she’d enjoyed that night, Allison decided to set down and try being friendly. It wasn’t like she was even mean to her or Arnold. Sure, she tried roping them into a campaign of world domination, but that was simple courtesy. If anything, they should have been flattered. It helped that she didn’t appear to have her binder nearby.
“You got lucky, Myriad,” she said as Allison approached her.
She stopped. “Thanks, I think. Probably be a while before I start calling myself that in my head. Where’s Maelstrom?”
Mabel patted a neatly folded set of clothes beside. “In the river. Or being the river, I guess. He does that sometimes when the other kids get rowdy.”
“I can get that. Hey, I wanted to say sorry about the barn. I overreacted.”
She laughed. “Nah, I think you were right. Mostly. I would’ve gotten bored with the world pretty soon, anyway. Or I would have picked one bit to do stuff in and let the rest of it go to waste.”
Allison decided that this was likely what passed for good sense from Mabel. “So, friends?”
She waved a hand. “Whatever you want to call it, Every-Power.”
Allison sat down beside her. “Mabel, do you have a Socii?” she asked. “The Physician said a lot of us have them.”
“Yeah. That’s what he said when he checked me out, at least. ”
“Were you born with your powers? I think I was,” she said, not without some pride.
“…No. I was like five or six.”
Allison decided to ask Mabel something she’d been rather curious about since coming to the Institute. “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Getting powers. You know, if you weren’t born with them.”
“I think it’s different for everyone.”
“Okay, but what about you?”
She didn’t answer. Eventually, Allison craned forward to get a better look at her face. There was something haunted in her eyes.
“…There was a man.”
1. Mabel found the former “preachy”. She did like the bit with the helicopter, though.↩
2. Specifically, the garden.↩
3. Namely, the cricket results.↩
4. And driven the sales of silver jewelry through the roof.↩
5. Or at least human shaped.↩
6. All of Enlil’s various governments would like to formally apologise for this revelation.↩
7. Then, being free of the obligation to be the bigger woman herself, she used her power to make the staff toilets overflow.↩
8. “Why are you making us do this?”↩
9. “You sick, twisted—”↩
10. Looking at you, Jeremiah. ↩
11. More than a million, but less than a squillion. ↩
12. John Fitzgerald Kennedy would later resign as US president in February of 1963, citing health issues. He was succeeded by his Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson. ↩
13. From a book on medieval witchcraft. Lawrence confiscated that quick smart.↩
14. Spontaneous song and dance numbers had thankfully decreased in frequency after Linus’ first year at the institute. ↩
15. Some might argue that the Olympians—and similar beings such as Father Christmas—were who most people would have immediately associated the term “superhuman” with prior to the Flying Man. This is only half true. While the Olympians arguably possess superhuman abilities, most authorities would hesitate to call them “people”. Sapient weather patterns might be more accurate.↩
16.Allison’s model of human relations did have one flaw, in that the DDHA was in all probability not run by the girls she didn’t like at school. She ignored this.↩
17. Privates Barrie and Harris—after a harrowing journey through the space between spaces—found themselves deposited in a paddock five miles east, along with some incriminating sweet wrappers, one of Mr. Barnes’ beer cans, and a very angry cat.↩
18. It went about as well as the Soviet attempt to reverse engineer the spaceship from Tunguska. Worse, in fact: Arnold didn’t even accidentally discover a more efficient way of dying fabric red.↩
19. For both Arnold and Allison, the United States were little different than Narnia or Middle-Earth, except less relevant to day to life. At least the White Witch never snapped every magic wand in the land and expected everyone to thank her. ↩
20. Fantomah: A Kongo vengeance spirit believed to have been summoned into our reality in 1894, during the reign of King Leopold II over what was then called the Congo Free State. It was not called that much longer. It is advised that any non-Kongo individual who comes into contact with Fantomah retreat as quickly as possible, rather than risk offending her. Most practical theologians maintain that Fantomah’s powers do not extend beyond her native Congo, though some point to Leopold II as evidence against this presumption, due to him being found devouring the flesh off of his own hands. He is yet to stop.↩