Aleister Johnson (“Al” to his friends, “Alice” to his friends if they were in a certain mood) lay flat on his stomach, blades of sun-yellowed grass stabbing uncomfortably through his rugby shirt, and peered from his hiding place amidst the bushes and bent trees through his dad’s old army binoculars. His mates Eddie and Bazza crouched on either side of him. Both strained to look over his shoulder, as if they might somehow glimpse whatever their friend saw in the clearing below, reflected and magnified in the field glasses pressed firmly against his eyes.
“That her?” asked Eddie Taylor, voice lowered to a whisper—not that they were likely to be heard from that distance over the autumn bluster and the flow of the Avon River. He was a very solidly built young man, whose parents had let leave school the year before to pursue an electrician’s apprenticeship—a decision which baffled many of his friends, as he seemed the sort incapable of understanding electricity as anything other than Jupiter’s anger.
Al squinted. “No,” he said, sounding put out, “just that kraut with the hooked snozz.”
Said “kraut” was presently sprawled out on a checkered blanket a few yards from the riverbank, contentedly sipping from a visibly steaming beverage; an orange travelling cloak was wrapped tight around her against the wind, laden with harsh prophecies of encroaching winter. She was surrounded by a quartet of infants and toddlers, bundled up almost to the point of excessiveness, even taking the weather into consideration. A black fella in a leather deerstalker sat perched nearby on a moss covered rock, steadily working his way through a sandwich while watching the babies much more attentively than his lady companion.
In spite of the disappointment all round, Bazza took his turn with the binoculars. Training them on the lady in orange, he said, “I’ve spoken to her.”
Eddie eyed him incredulously. “You’re so full of it, Bazz.” It wasn’t a totally outrageous claim, not really. Even weirdos from the freak-farm needed to eat (presumably), and Northam was as good a place as any to do your grocery shopping. Usually, though, they were sensible enough to send one of the naturals that worked there. And Bazza’s penchant for “amateur herbalism” was widely known around town—and by anyone he met with even the slightest sense of smell.
“It’s true!” he insisted. “I think I was about twelve. She brought that ute”—he pointed to a truck parked a little way off—“into Dad’s shop for a new carburettor or something. Had me keep her company while he worked.”
Al gave his friend a sideways look, an eyebrow raised in curiosity. He hadn’t expected anything half as plausible. “Whatcha talk about?”
“Oh, crikey.” He ran his hands through his massive, dirty blond, Anglo-Saxon analogue of an afro, as if trying to pull away a veil of time and smoke. “The weather, mainly,” he answered eventually. “She asked a lot about about Dad’s health. I think she was worried about him breathing in engine fumes all day.”
Figures, Al thought. Your mate has a face-to-face conversation with the pumpkin-witch herself, and they natter on about nothing.
The lads had all been around four or five when Mad Laurie and his girlfriend rolled into town, their brood of queer foreign children in tow. None of the three had any real recollection of the months the couple spent in Northam proper, living out of a few rented rooms above Duke’s Inn, but if you went by how often the townsfolk felt the need to revive old gossip about them, you would be forgiven for assuming they had never left. Whenever conversation began to run thin down the pub, someone—without fail—would rhapsodize over the oriental who shouted for rounds of drinks with shillings made of solid gold1; or maybe sing the praises of the young continental woman who cured the landlord’s baby of whooping cough with nothing more than kind words and a cuddle2. When they were in a good mood, of course. Otherwise, they might bitterly recall the sullen little wog who always looked he knew something you would rather he didn’t, or the boong3 who smelt of burnt metal and broke every bloody thing he touched.
For the last twelve years, every child in Northam had been raised on such stories. The odd patchwork family had come to fill a folkloric niche usually occupied by gremlins, and were accused of causing any and all manner of strange occurrences. Old men still blamed unseasonable rains on the girl with the skylight eyes. Sometimes, they were even right. Eventually, though, Mad Laurie—being as well off as you would expect a man with a natural born alchemist at his side to be—managed to snap up some prime Crown land a healthy distance from town for himself and his peculiar retinue, and the good people of Northam were free to weave an illusion of distance between themselves and the superhumans. Apart from the infrequent new demi kid passing through on their way to join their kind, or when someone opened their shed to find a watermelon or a pumpkin snapping and hissing at them in the dark, both sides of the evolutionary chasm kept to themselves, which suited all involved just fine.
Then news of Circle’s End reached Northam, and all of a sudden the nest of supers a few miles off the road felt much closer. With those twin spectres hanging over the town, there was no way the Flying Man could have hoped to meaningfully add to the atmosphere of submerged paranoia; except maybe with the influx of new super-children into the region his emergence had prompted.
But none of that had much bearing on why the trio were making the clandestine trek to the New Human Institute. At least that’s what they told each other. No, they were spurred by tales they’d heard of the obscenely gorgeous French bird that liked bathing nude in the river. Hence the binos.
“…Think she might get her tips out?” said Eddie, willing to settle.
Al glared at him. “Really? Her?”
“She isn’t that bad looking,” his friend said defensively. “Once you get past the nose, at least. Pretty fit, all things considered. She must be—what—thirty summit’?”
Al just shook his head. “Her sprogs are right there, mate. You don’t look at a little kid’s mum like that.”
Eddie smirked. “What? You’re telling me you’ve never given Tamra Carpenter’s mum a good squizz?”
Al stammered, “Well—no—but not ever while she was being her mum.” He managed to regain his composure. “Why would she get her jugs out in front of her babies to begin with?”
Eddie put a finger to the side of his nose, looking very pleased with himself. “The smallest ones might need a feeding.”
“Brilliant,” Al replied, rolling his eyes. “Definitely going to get an unobstructed view that way.”
Thankfully, Bazza diverted their attention from the debate, before it degenerated into a very confused punch up over the pumpkin-witch’s honour. “I wonder if they’re really hers,” he pondered aloud, still looking through the binoculars.
Eddie made a “pass them here” gesture. “Could be,” he said as he held them up to his face. “Don’t look much like her, though.”
“Eh, babies don’t look like anyone, really,” said Al.
“Maybe the Noongar is their dad?” Bazza suggested.
His companions stared at him in mutual disbelief. “They’re all white, you bloody idiot!” Eddie half-shouted, any notion of stealth disregarded for the moment.
Bazz threw his hands up. “Hey, man, we don’t know how anything works for demis. I mean, for us it’s like mixing paint, but maybe for them God tosses a coin?”
“You can’t just throw out everything you know about… everything just because they’re demis.” Al protested. “You could just as well say they lay eggs, or get pollinated like flowers!”
“I heard,” said Eddie, “that he had a son with Blue-Eyes.”
The other lads were struck dumb with envy. Eventually, two words escaped Al’s lips, “…Lucky bastard.”
Eddie nodded, almost subliminally. “If that’s true, you have to wonder what he’s doing out here with—BUGGER ME, THAT BABY’S FLYING!4”
His mates crowded excitedly around him, eager to get a look in. None of them had ever seen superpowers in action, regardless of what they might have told the other blokes at Northam Senior High.
The pumpkin-witch was grasping frantically at the ankle of what might have been an eighteen-month old in a thick purple jacket, her inaudible cries of alarm snatched away and reduced to mist in the cold air. For its part, the child didn’t seem at all perturbed, gurgling happily as it attempted to ascend above the treetops.
“I didn’t think babies could have superpowers,” commented Eddie.
Al couldn’t see why not. He already thought it silly enough that eight year olds and people in their twenties had powers. “Why’d ya think that?”
“Don’t know. Guess I hoped the world had more sense than to let that happen.”
Never a good bet, thought Al. “Crackbone Pete from the off-licence told me once there was this posh lady down in Albany, whose baby put out all the windows in the house with his first cry.”
Eddie’s interest was piqued. “Is that true?”
“Just what Crackbone Pete told me, mate,” replied Al.
“Yeah. I mean, he also said the baby was a tiger.”
Bazza shook his head. “That’s Crackbone for ya—always oversells it on the last detail.”
By then, the pumpkin-witch had managed to grab hold of the baby’s leg, but was now being dragged into the air along with it. It could be argued this was an improvement in regards to adult supervision, but it was unlikely the witch saw the benefit, if her screams were anything to go by.
The black fella lept up and threw his arms around the woman’s waist (a pity, as she rather liked that cloak), trying to pull her and the infant back down.
As the boys had themselves a good laugh at the whole spectacle, the baby clapped.
It was like a star was born by the river, with a sound like the thunderous applause of God. The sheer shock of it sent the lads reeling into the dirt and dead leaves. They tasted music, and in the all-pervading glare glimpsed the very structure of time itself. Their nostrils were filled with a scent that could only be described as “blue”. Birds fell limply out the sky, having momentarily lost track of which way was up, or indeed why they’d been so dead set on avoiding the ground to start with. They got off easy. Every winged insect within a mile radius would spend the rest of their short, frustrated, and very damp lives labouring under the belief that they were in fact fish.
The boys lay prone on the ground, groaning softly. They were dimly aware of wailing coming from the direction of the picnickers. For a dreadful moment, Eddie was convinced the blast—if that was even what it was—had deafened him. Fortunately for him, though, it soon became clear that it wasn’t his ears that were ringing, but rather everything around them.
“God,” he muttered, “it’s like someone got hangovers backwards.”
His friends gave little response, being still in the process of recovering the power of speech.
Painfully, Bazza crawled over to where he had dropped the binoculars. He had decided that the risk of the baby in purple clapping again was outweighed by the risk of being caught unawares if it or its siblings somehow did something worse.
He had to be a little impressed by how fast the adult demis had got their bearings back. They were both already back on their feet and attending their young charges, if they had even been felled in the first place. He supposed they must be used to this kind of thing. The wind had died down a little by then, so he could hear much of what was being said down there.
“Why don’t you ever do this during the mozzie season, Ophelia?” the pumpkin-witch complained, cradling the small culprit gently. She wiggled in her arms, her face aglow with that look of ignorant omniscience so common in little children.
The man was busy trying to settle down the other babies, whilst simultaneously preventing one from poking and prodding a catatonic galah. Between his exertions, he chatted, “I still don’t know how you get that from flying and… well, you know.”
“I think that’s why Mendel got his start with peas and not übers.”
Having paid attention in year ten science, Bazza had some idea of what the pumpkin-witch was talking about, unlike his friends. Well, the bit about the peas, at least.
There was something the boys couldn’t catch about Thai food, or possibly art class.
“I’m thinking we should head back,” the man finally declared.
“Definitely,” the witch agreed, already carrying their esky to the ute.
“At least we got the childlers out in the fresh air before the weather turned completely. Winter’s such a miserable stretch down here.”
The pumpkin-witch looked back at him, grinning. “Hugo, did I ever tell you what Xhosa and Noongars have in common?”
“No, I don’t believe you have,” he said, his expression flat and neutral.
“Neither of them have any bloody clue about real winter.”
“You racist cow!” he shouted, cackling.
The two demis were packed up and ready to leave in short order, though the boys did note that Hugo didn’t seem eager to assist the lady with loading their truck. This seemed very shabby, regardless of species. The lads took advantage of the lull to recover from their psychic trauma with supplies from their own ice-box. Cold beef sandwiches and beers nicked from their fathers or purchased from Crackbone Pete at exorbitant black market rates were consumed with the sort of self-conscious furtiveness that only makes one both louder and more likely to draw the eye. Luckily, at least as they saw it, Hugo and the pumpkin-witch were very much preoccupied. Bazza offered to share some of his “special” cigarettes, but was met with what passed for polite refusal from his mates; they thought it best they kept their wits about them as they approached the demi-human lair. The tinnies were of course strictly to tame the nerves.
Once the engine noises and the sound of tires chewing earth faded into the distance, the trio followed the ute’s tracks. Babies tearing their minds asunder and flooding them with preternatural sensations were one thing, but the lads were on a quest. Sure, they knew it wasn’t exactly a noble quest. Certainly not one they would ever admit going on to their parents, or their priest, and most definitely not their girlfriends, but they had set out that morning to try and infiltrate a school full of creatures more than human in order to peep on an almighty water nymph, and by God, they were going to give it their all.
It soon became clear they still had a way to go before reaching the Institute proper. Those resilient birds who remembered they could fly before the wild dogs and feral cats discovered their good fortune made confused conversation above the boys’ heads. Over the river, sad, mad bugs made desperate, fatal attempts to find their way to a home they had never truly known. Gripped by a fit of generosity, Al passed along one of his decidedly regular fags to his friends as they trailed behind him. Perhaps by virtue of him being the pseudo-rightful owner of the binoculars, he had ended up, by unspoken agreement, de-facto leader of the expedition.
“It’s a wonder they haven’t blown up the world yet,” Al mused as they walked along the riverbank.
Eddie frowned in confusion. “Why’d they wanna do that? They live here, too.”
“I don’t mean they’d do it on purpose! I’ll give ‘em that much. But if even babies can do stuff like that, how is it they haven’t killed us all just by accident?”
“Maybe the older demis keep them under heel?” said Eddie absently, nudging downed birds out from his path with his boot as he trudged onward.
Aleister nodded, not that his friend was paying attention, or that he cared if he was. “There’s that. But it’s not as if you need demi parents to be a demi. Naomi Phillips didn’t.”
Naomi Phillips was the little girl who used to live across the road from the Johnsons. She was at least ten years younger than Al, had no older siblings who he might’ve ran with or lusted after, and her family kept to themselves to the precise extent that it drew no one’s curiosity as to why. She was less than an extra in the young man’s life, and he probably wouldn’t have even remembered her name if it wasn’t for how she departed town.
He’d been putting the bin out front when he saw the van. He had expected the DDHA to use armoured cars, or helicopters, or some sci-fi amalgamation of the two. Not something that looked like it was driven around by a dodgy tradie. Two men in ill fitting suits had each held Naomi by the hand, leading her out of the Phillips’ place. Still in her pyjamas, she had blinked at the streetlights, disheveled dishwater blonde bangs partially obscuring her face. She made no effort to resist, even as the two DDHA agents—who moved with haste, lest poorly concealed guilt give way to clear terror—loaded her into the back of the van. Perhaps she thought she was dreaming. Aleister saw her parents standing in the doorway. Their expressions were sobre, but they made no move to protest or resist their daughter’s removal. They even looked to be beckoning her forward.
Mr. and Mrs Johnson, along with half the neighbourhood, had joined Al out on the front lawn by then. He hardly noticed. “Cor blimey, the Phillips’ girl?” his father had asked, more to the air than anyone flesh and blood, and mostly out of astonishment that the Phillips could ever be up to anything that interesting.
“You never know anyone, do you?” his mum had replied.
Anyone hoping for a show was disappointed. Whatever Naomi could do, she displayed no hint of it before being ensconced in the DDHA van, which drove off without incident. The remaining Phillips made no acknowledgment of their fellow Northamites still watching from their front gardens, simply turning off their porchlight and shutting their front door to deal with their grief, or whatever it was they were experiencing, away from prying eyes.
Deprived of spectacle, the residents of Burnside Avenue had retreated inside, ready to spin their own explanations for what they had witnessed, no matter how outlandish or anemic.
Al had lingered for a bit, though, out there on the curb. Quite naturally, he tried to figure out what the girl’s powers might’ve been, not that he had anything to work from5. He pondered whether her mother and father had always been aware of their daughter’s true nature, if that indeed had always been her nature. Maybe she’d only come into her powers recently. Or maybe, they had just grown weary of sheltering her.
I wonder if she’ll be here, he thought to himself.
“No, she’s not,” an amused, Italian sounding voice said into his ear.
Aleister yelped, swinging his fist wildly in the air, just short of the bloke bent over with laughter at his side. Unconsciously, he wished his fright had sounded manlier. His friends’ reactions were about the same in tone if not in content, shouting and swearing as they tried vainly to figure out how they had been snuck up on. Even their own memories of the event offered no clues.
The way he was dressed, the man looked like he was either in mourning for autumn or eagerly anticipating meeting her daughter, practically mummified in dark winter gear, with a mulberry woolen hat emblazoned with the letters “NHI”6 and the vague picture of a galapagos finch. He was still laughing.
“You—should have—seen—the look on your faces!” he managed to get out between bouts of giggling. An idea struck him. “Actually”—he raised a hand and waved vaguely at the boys—“why not?”
The lads were suddenly overwhelmed by a second hand recollection so vivid, it momentarily blotted out all present perception: they saw themselves screaming and flailing about, all from the stranger’s mirthful perspective. Which only inspired them to a repeat performance.
“You’re a demi!” Eddie cried, unnecessarily.
The man straightened his posture, or tried to, anyway. Bazza thought he looked a little unsteady on his feet—and he was one to judge such things, having put a lot of effort into reliably inducing similar states within himself. The demi spoke, smiling dazedly, “No, I learned how to do this after filling out an ad in the back of an old Marvelman. If you would, keep it to yourself. It’s no fun if everyone can do it.”
Once the initial surge of fear subsided, Aleister decided the demi was a bit touched. Perhaps his sort were more susceptible to whatever the baby did. He couldn’t decide whether that made him more or less of a threat. Nevertheless, he had questions.
“Did you say Naomi Phillips isn’t at Mad Laurie’s?”
The man tilted his head. “What?” He then remembered what had spurred him to approach the lads to begin with. “Oh. That. No, no she isn’t.”
He didn’t appear troubled by this, but Al found himself saddened by the news. Saddened and offended, much to his confusion. “Why not?” he asked. “She lived right next to your mob!”
The interloper scowled. “What makes you think I’m with them?”
Eddie tried to narrow it down. “Your… hat?”
He looked up at his own cap, looking surprised by what he found. “Who put that there?”
Al wondered briefly if there was even any point in trying to extract information from the demi-human, but then, accurate or not, it wasn’t as though he’d be doing anything with it. “If you know Phillips isn’t at the…”
“The freak-farm, yes.”
“…Then you’d probably know at least why she didn’t get in, right?”
The man laughed. “Yes, because we all know each other! Why, just before you wandered by, me, the Flying Man, Pendergast7, and the bleeding Crimson Comet were all sat down for tea!”
He staggered over to Eddie, before stumbling and draping himself over the boy. With his wiry frame, an uninformed observer might have guessed the demi was the younger of the two, though for fairness’ sake, at seventeen Edward Taylor was already taller and broader than many full grown men. He was also fully aware how little that mattered when demi-humans were involved.
“Look at this guy,” the man slurred. “He got up this morning, looked at the thermometer, saw the fog on the window, probably had to chisel the cat out from the ice, and he chucks on a singlet! So now he’s standing here, trying for his life not to shiver, all because he wanted to look hard in front of you two!” He thumped Eddie’s chest limply. “Isn’t that right, big fella?”
Eddie made a face like his ribs had been shattered by the Flying Man himself. He couldn’t decide which was worse, that this weird wog was right, or that he hadn’t realised till he said it. “Al, Bazz… help.”
“You…” The man bent down in a shrill fit of giggles. “You baselines, you wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate little Ophelia’s ovation, am I right? Shame, really. She’s something, let me tell you. Just the right amount of ESP, and she makes you see the point in everything. Living, dying, having babies, everything. For just a few seconds, nothing’s a mystery, and those seconds feel like they’ll outlive time… then the bullshit creeps back into your brain and you’ve forgotten why you were so happy to begin with. But sometimes the memory of being happy is enough.” He closed his eyes for a moment, smiling to himself, then looked at Al. “Tell you what, son, throw me one of the cold ones you had in that cooler there, and I’ll answer your question properly.”
The cooler had been in Eddie’s possession when the demi-human had pounced on them, and he’d dropped it in the confusion. He extracted a can of Swan Draught from the spilt ice and tossed it to the man, who caught it rather smartly for someone so obviously addled. “What’s ya name by the way?”
He cracked the can and took a deep swig. “People with working brains call me Alberto, otherwise it’s Tiresias.”
Bazza thought he recognised the name—
“Yes, that was the bloke who saw the future in the old stories.”
That still made Bazza jump a bit. “…Man, conversation must feel real slow for blokes like you.”
Alberto smiled, quite warmly despite the lack of practise. Ah, so he’s smarter than his thoughts sound. He chuckled softly at the private absurdity. “Yes, actually. So let me speed this one up, if you don’t mind.” He took a long breath. “Yes, I can see the future—some of them, at least—too; no, I can’t talk to birds, that’s someone else; yes, Tiresias was the fella Odysseus met in Hell, but he definitely never shagged his mum.”
Once Bazza processed that barrage, he grinned waggishly. “But have you ever—”
“No,” Tiresias cut him off, scowling, “I’ve never turned into a ‘bird’.” He strode into Bazza’s personal space. “Are you calling me a checca?”
Bazza shook his head, three years of fear remembered in a moment. “No! I mean, I think I’m not, I don’t know what that means!”
Alberto nodded slowly, apparently placated. “Right, right. So, Naomi Phillips!”
Finally, Aleister thought, before he could stop himself.
If Alberto caught that, he didn’t seem to take offence at Al’s impatience. “I will admit, I was aware of her. They don’t call me ‘the witchsmeller’ at the Institute for nothing,” he lied. “I think I even mentioned her to Lawrence once.”
If there was one thing you could commend Al for, it’s that he didn’t immediately ask what Naomi’s powers were. “So why didn’t he take her on?”
“She wasn’t doing any harm where she was. Laurie’s a rich git, but even he can’t afford to put up every super-kid in the country. Be crowded, anyway.” He laughed. “I’m trying to remember what he actually told me, it’s priceless.” His brow knit in recollection, before smoothing in weary solemnity. “Oh, Tiresias,” he began, spreading his arms, as if hoping to embrace every glittering new human child out there, “you of all people should know how many of your kind live in ignorance of their gifts, subtle as they are. I’m sure you’d agree it’s best, in times such as these, we focus on those children so violently blessed, they can’t help but be what they are.”
It was a good impression, further enhanced by Alberto psionically layering his own recollection over it. If the lads had known Herbert Lawrence, he might’ve gotten some polite chuckles. As it was, though, they mainly thought he sounded like some of the long-haired, Bazza-smelling blokes who sometimes passed through town in their Kombi busses.
Alberto continued, his tone and diction unwavering, “And we already have two bloody sonic manipulators as it is!”
He broke into laughter again, but Aleister didn’t see the humour in it. “You really think that’s what he thought?”
Alberto slumped back, his face tilted skyward. “Oh, I don’t know. I try not to listen too closely to Laurie’s thoughts; don’t wanna catch the Anglo off him. Maybe he was worried another sound sorceress would throw off his naming scheme. And what do you care, anyway? You’re a baseline! And hardly knew the girl to begin with.”
“Yeah,” concurred Eddie. “Why are you so broken up about the freak-finders hauling off a demi? For all we know she was making us sterile just by walking around town.” He hastily added, “No offense, Alberto.”
“Can’t blame ya. Little kids with superpowers are like if nukes could have temper tantrums, except the Flying Man hasn’t ripped their guts out.” He grinned. “Not yet, at least.”
Al tried to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes. “I don’t know, it just seems like a crap deal locking up a young kid who didn’t do nothing in an asylum, even if they are a demi.” A comparison occurred to him. “They’re like a rabid dog, ya know? You can’t have it runnin’ around biting folk, but you’d cure it if you could before going for your gun.”
“Don’t ever let Laurie hear you running your mouth about ‘curing’ demis, kid. Or calling them demis, while we’re at it,” said Alberto.
“What, you’re a demi-lover now?” Eddie asked his friend, voice full of mockery. “Gonna go scrub dunny cans for Mad Laurie?”
“Aww, lay off him, Eddie,” said Bazza. “Nothing wrong with showing some sympathy.”
“Sympathy?” He gestured at the young man sipping his beer on the ground. “You heard Alberto here, demis are like the Bomb. You don’t feel sorry for it when you hear it ticking.”
It seemed to Alberto that Eddie had forgotten that he was a demihuman. He didn’t mind; this was the most fun he’d had since the river caught fire.
“Oh, so we don’t like nukes now? I thought we were all riled up because the Flying Man put them all outa commission. You know, my uncle served with the Crimson Comet in the War, and if he saw what—”
“Oh, piss off, ya bloody hippie!”
“Will both of you shut up!” Aleister shouted.
The other two boys both went silent, staring at their friend; Alberto meanwhile tried to shake the last drops of lager from the bottom of his can.
“Listen, I don’t want demis hanging around normal blokes, either. They scare the shit out of me. This one here actually went out of his way to scare the shit out of me.”
“And I’d do it all again!” Alberto piped up cheerfully. The after effects of Ophelia’s exuberance were only just beginning to fade, to be duly replaced by the effects of the grog.
“But that’s sort of on me, isn’t it? All being bastards to them is going to do is get the ones we can’t shove in that hole down south8 mad enough to try doing the same thing to us. And we’re kidding ourselves if we think we could stop them. We’re like abbos chucking spears at sailing ships. You might hit a deckhand or something if you’re lucky, but that just means they won’t even leave us the scraps.
“Who knows, maybe Mad Laurie’s right, and they are better than us—”
“Oh, don’t say that,” said Alberto, his tone almost perfectly approximating sympathy.
“—I mean, what have we got on them? Numbers? They’re finding more and more everyday!” He was beginning to sound panicked. Alberto could see suppressed anxieties clawing their way out of his subconscious like titans from Tartarus9. “You know what ‘superhuman’ means? It means you can do everything a person can, and more. It’s like God’s bored with us!”
Eddie stared at his friend, concerned. Even before the Flying Man, Alistair had always been the sort of kid who looked at clouds and saw only the flight paths of ICBMs. “Al, mate, are you alright?”
He was ignored. “Why can’t they all just pile into a rocket and bugger off to some perfect planet in Andromeda and leave us alone?”
“I could go for that,” said Alberto. “Just so long as they’ve got a decent vineyard up and running for when I arrive.”
Al laughed joylessly. “Maybe you can come back once we’ve gone and blown ourselves up. Can’t see how we’d do it without no nukes, but I’m sure we’ll manage10.”
Bazza moved to sit beside Al. “You came out here for Naomi, didn’t you?” he asked, not unkindly.
He nodded. “The idea of her is horrible, but so is her sitting in a cell, all alone.”
Bazza smiled gently. “Confusing, innit?”
“I thought it was a bit odd trying to catch a lady nude outdoors this close to winter,” Eddie grumbled.
“Well, I suppose you’ve wasted a trip,” Alberto commented. “If only Lawrence had picked the musician over the critic.” He looked around expectantly at the lads, but was only met with confusion. “…See, if you were espers—that’s literate person for mind-reader—you’d know the context there and we’d all be laaaaaughing.”
He was only mostly wrong.
“… Any of you want your future told?”
This garnered a bit more enthusiasm. “Sure, I’m game,” said Eddie.
Alberto extended a hand. “Ah, ah, ah, you must first cross my palm with beer,” he said in his best gypsy fortune teller voice.
Eddie made a sound like a wounded lion, but handed over the last can. “This better be good.”
After taking a quick sip of his fee, Alberto set it down between his legs and closed his eyes. It would be dishonest to claim that he saw any kind of definitive, concrete future for Edward Taylor. There were too many of the bloody things, with new ones being born and dying every time a housewife forgot their purse at the chemist’s, a mouse copulated, or an atom turned. Sometimes it made Alberto wish the determinists had come out on top. Still, looking at the commonalities between different strands of the mosaic could at least gave him gave him an idea of the most probable path a life might take, even as it branched and narrowed unto infinity.
“I’d be staying the course with Belinda Waites if I were you, pal,” Alberto said, not opening his eyes. “Keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll probably have tied the knot by ‘68.”
Voicing that prediction instantly had the effect of lightly culling the timelines where it was accurate. Alberto had expected as much. Counterintuitively, true foreknowledge invariably sent storms of change down people’s lives. That said, it hadn’t reduced the chances of Eddie and Belinda’s eventual union nearly as much as he thought it would, which he supposed reflected well on the pair.
As for the subject of the prophecy himself, this display sent him more off-kilter than even the mind-reading. It wasn’t necessarily unwelcome news—Eddie and Belinda had been going steady since they were twelve, and it was becoming increasingly difficult day by day for him to imagine life without her11. But to have it spelled out like that…
Alberto pulled a packet of clove cigarettes and a pack of matches from his coat pocket.
“Hey man, those things’ll give you cancer,” said Bazza.
“Maybe, but who wants to be sixty anyway?” he retorted, trying to spare a flame from the wind long enough to light the fag clenched between his teeth. Once it was lit, he continued laying out Eddie’s future for him. “You’ll only ever have one daughter. That’s on you, just so we’re clear. She‘ll be smart, though, so I reckon it evens out.”
Eddie looked conflicted by this revelation. Behind him Bazza muttered, “Heavy, man.”
Alberto hoped he wasn’t too put out. The boy had a bluntness of spirit he didn’t find totally charmless. “And then you have between one and ten grandchildren.”
The ambivalence in Edward’s expression was promptly replaced by indignation. “What do ya mean ‘between one and ten’?”
The demi exhaled smoke. “It’s called honestly, mate.” He pronounced the last word in as ‘Strayan a manner as possible. “I understand if you’ve never gotten that from the dried up old gypos you get in the wake of circuses.” His lips curled sardonically. “Huh, they all look exactly the same. You and Belinda aren’t cousins, are you?”
Eddie started to rear up off the ground, right hand balled into a fist. “Now look here, ya great—”
Bazza loudly cleared his throat, causing Eddie to look back at him and grunt, “What?”
Much as he couldn’t blame his friend for wanting to clock the demi one right there and then, Bazza couldn’t see any physical conflict going his way. Weedy as Alberto was, he had provided ample evidence that he could see what someone was going to do before they did it. Besides, violence would only harshen this interspecies dialogue they had going. “I was just wondering, if you see the future, why couldn’t you decide how many grandkids Eddie’s gonna have?”
Alberto shrugged. “There’s plenty of futures, I just try to figure out which one’s the most probable.”
“Isn’t that called guessing?” asked Al.
“Enhanced stochastic reasoning,” Alberto corrected promptly. He would never admit—not even with his dying breath—that it was Lawrence who first came up with that name.
“Great,” said Eddie, kicking Alberto’s first discarded can, “I wasted a beer on an ‘educated guess’.”
Bazza placed a placating hand on his shoulder. “I wouldn’t look at it that way. At least we know free will is real. That’s pretty righteous.”
“I don’t care about free will! I paid for real information!”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if I said you ended up in the gutter, thinking you could game the system by selling both your kidneys.”
“…Who’d want to buy one of my kidneys?”
A smile. “You’ll find out.”
“Know if there’s anything coming my way?” Al asked half-heartedly.
Alberto clicked his tongue thoughtfully. “Well, you don’t have any booze, but I’ll tell you one thing: they mostly speak Spanish in Paraguay.”
Al shrugged. “Guess I have a holiday to look forward to?”
“You could say that.” He looked to Bazza. “And before you ask, don’t take the pill, it’ll just make your todger fall off—if you’re lucky.”
At least he’s trying to be helpful, Bazza thought, ever the charitable one. “It’s alright, man, I don’t take anything the Earth didn’t give us.”
They made small talk for a while after that, Alberto doing a poor impression of an interested listener, while the boys sat in awe of how dull he could make living on a commune of super-children sound. There was something of a highlight when he demonstrated what he called psychometry on Al’s dad’s binoculars. Looking through them at nothing in particular, he claimed to see through time to the Battle of Thermopylae; sadly not the one where a society of over-militarised slaveholders got roundly thrashed, but instead the one where they won the day. It did occur to the lads that Alberto might have been leading them on, but he relayed what he claimed to see with such little interest, they could hardly see why he’d bother.
Eventually, Aleister stood up again. “Well, I’m heading off again, nice meeting you, Alberto.” He bent to shake the super’s hand, much to his surprise. “Maybe we’ll run into you again on your way home.”
Alberto pulled his hand back sharply. “You’re still going to the Institute? Oh, why am I even asking? Of course you are, but still, why? I told you, we don’t have Naomi.”
“Yeah, but we came this far. Might see something interesting.”
“That’s the spirit,” exclaimed Bazza, leaping to his feet and slapping his mate on the back.
“Or, maybe, we could head back into town, and I could buy us all some beer,” Alberto suggested. Al thought he could detect a note of wistfulness in the man’s voice. “Everyone at the Institute’s a nutter, anyway. They’re not like us.”
Al smiled awkwardly. “Ah, maybe some other time, mate.”
“Oh, alright then.” Alberto resumed his original countenance of bemused detachment. “If you should encounter trouble, just remember what your old dad said at Thermopylae.” He put on an expression of exaggerated terror, looking wildly around his person while shouting, “Ah, Germans! Germans everywhere! I want to go home, I want to go home!”
Eddie would have thumped any bloke who made a crack like that about his dad, but Aleister just laughed. “Be seeing ya, Alberto.” With renewed cheerfulness, he set off again down the river, Bazza following close behind.
Eddie however hesitated a bit, unsure whether he still had a stake in the journey.
Alberto sighed. “She’s impervious to cold.”
At that, Eddie immediately started running to catch up with his mates, shouting, “Wait up!”
Good kids, Alberto thought as they passed from his human sight. There was something refreshing about talking to someone who wasn’t so high on manifest destiny. He might have joined them, if he thought they had slightest chance of getting anything they wanted, and if Françoise hadn’t enthusiastically offered to help him better emulate his namesake the first time she caught him peeping on her. He could have told them there was little point in trying to sneak up on someone who could sense every drop of water in your body, but he didn’t want to begrudge the lads their fun. Might as well get some excitement in before their birthdays were pulled triumphantly out of that ghoulish barrel by sober-suited old men, and they were sent to find more excitement than they would ever have believed possible.
He sipped his beer. It was cheap, Australian piss, but he’d been drinking it since he was eleven, and at least they didn’t insist on serving it at a temperature that suggested it’d recently exited a human body.
In the back of his mind, a particularly amusing set of futures grew denser and brighter. He smiled. Maybe this day wouldn’t be a total wash.
There were almost as many stories about Mad Laurie’s demesne as there were about its inhabitants. Almost predictably, some interlopers reported large domed structures rising from the earth like bubbles of mercury. Others claimed that the new humans had dug deep underground, where they bred themselves into ever more bizarre forms and plotted to wrest control of the world above from their forebearers12, or that the land was merely used as a launch pad, with the Institute proper being located in orbit. The prominence of these theories in the discourse was generally proportional to Crackbone Pete’s bottom line. Pete himself maintained that the Institute was housed in an airy tower five miles tall possessing neither floors nor staircases. When questioned how it wasn’t visible from town, or space for that matter, he would say it was obviously invisible from about the third story up.
After all these tales, the lads might have been sorely disappointed—if it weren’t for the great serpent circling the air above the retired farmstead. It was a thing of smoke and flame, that chased and bit at its own tail as its dusky light washed over the land below. It made no sound, not even the roar and crackle of fire, yet the boys could feel its warmth on their faces. A normally well sublimated instinct in the back of their heads wanted to offer up fruit and fat oxen to the silent, burning phantasm.
“Jesus,” said Eddie, under his breath. “I knew these kids could do some wild things—but this…” He averted his gaze, rubbing his eyes as they watered from the glare. The snake’s afterimage still swam behind his eyelids.
Beneath the immense wyrm, tomorrow-children were at play. They wove through the grass in wild pursuit of one another, attacking each other with arcane distortions of reality. One small girl in pigtails and overalls looked to be corralling the wind itself into her service, filling it with vendettas against her kin, until the ground gave way under her feet. A cohort of children cowered under a large, shining shield of liquid light held aloft by a boy at their centre, a flock of rainbow lorikeets bravely flinging themselves against it, no matter how trying the day they’d already had. Adding to their troubles, they were also boxed in on all sides by a brigade of redcoats and Zulus, no doubt even more confused about their situation than the lads.
Some children, of course, just ran up and tried their best to tackle each other onto the ground, because some strategies never cease to be effective, no matter how far up the long-ladder you are.
All around, it rained in reverse, water droplets springing from the river and coalescing into an orb hanging above the serpent’s hunting ground, glowing like a second moon from its reflected glory. Bazza thought he glimpsed the shadow of a child within.
“I wonder what they’re playing,” said Al, leaning on the old copper log fence that bordered the Institute.
His tone vaguely mystical, Eddie said, “Dunno. Maybe they’ve evolved past real games.” He wiggled his fingers like he imagined a magician would.
Bazza was studying the firedrake13 as intently as he could without going blind. It occurred to him that, despite appearances, there was no way it could be burning anything. Even if it was fueled by the air, it would have had to continually consume and expand just to continue existing. It worked like how people in myths understood fire, as a substance, not a process.
Or a little kid, he thought. All he knew was that the snake took nothing from the world, and gave out warmth and light. That alone made it the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
The watery orb stretched and undulated through the air, sweeping up a flag fluttering on the big house’s roof up in its current. Below, a little girl with waist length chestnut hair14 in an overlong leather coat moved with such speed that lads’ eyes barely registered any movement at all. Watching her was like viewing a succession of still images, a dull white aura emanating from her skin. The lads were too far to feel the air turn bitter at her presence, as she robbed it of its heat and turned it into momentum, like she were reminding the space around her the summer the serpent brought was a falsehood. They did however see the patches of ice she left on the grass as she launched herself upwards at the twisting mass of water.
She pierced the globe like a cannon shot, before tumbling out of it alongside the flag and something that resembled a Greek statue of a boy, if it had been sculpted by someone with readier access to a glacier than marble. At that moment, whatever spell held the water together broke, sending it cascading down onto the girl like a vertical wave.
The girl was laughing when the deluge ended, chunks of ice rapidly melting around her. Instead of soaking into the soil as was proper, some of the water pooled instead towards a point slightly behind its attacker, and—with no thought to either gravity or fluid dynamics—resumed a boyish shape, before changing from a mere likeness to the genuine article. Once incarnate again, the brown skinned little boy tapped the girl on the back, and said something that was doubtlessly a variation of of “boo!”, startling the girl before provoking yet more giggling.
Eddie shielded his eyes. The boy’s power of personal transmutation evidently did not extend to trousers. “Uh, is this that ‘karma’ thing you’re always blathering on about, Bazz?”
The girl handed the boy her coat, which he took with a look of obvious gratitude. It covered anything objectionable.
“Aww, that’s what I like to see,” Bazza commented.
Al sniggered. “What, little boys?”
Bazza laughed and punched Aleister in the shoulder. “Piss off!”
The two children’s moment of camaraderie ended when they remembered the fallen flag a few feet away. They started scrambling for it, only for a dagger of green light to go whizzing past their heads. They both looked at each other, scowling. Most of the other children in eyeshot seemed to sense that wrongdoing had been committed.
None of this concerned the mousy haired teenager sitting on the sculpted diamond chair in the middle of the lawn. From all available evidence, she appeared to regard the frolics of her fellow superhumans as nothing more than an unwelcome distraction from her copy of New Idea. Only when a young half-caste boy (whom Eddie unfortunately assumed was the little water-sprite’s older brother) approached the foot of her throne to complain animatedly about something, did she display any reaction to what was going on around her, sighing and languidly raising two fingers to her forehead.
Every molecule of air for a quarter-mile spoke, in a low and smooth voice that sounded like Old Hollywood distilled. “Elsewhere, stop trying to teleport the flag directly, or the other littlies are gonna drag you behind the trees, and I can’t be held responsible for whatever happens after that.”
And with that, capture the flag could continue. Which it did. With vigour. The complainant, apparently not satisfied by the older girl’s verdict, crossed his arms and turned translucent, sinking sullenly beneath the ground.
From a wicker chair on the house’s veranda, a fat, grandmotherly woman in unseasonal but wisely donned sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat watched all this with frank indulgent pride. The boys recognised her right away as Mary Gillespie, who depending on who you asked, was either living in sin with Mad Laurie, or was kept around by him to handle modes of communication other than speechifying. Aside from occasionally being called on to prevent the townsfolk from needing to bulk order torches and pitchforks, she also sometimes came into Mrs Taylor’s salon to get her hair done.
Al was jealous. Incredibly so. And he was okay with that. He couldn’t see why a normal, sane person wouldn’t envy what demis could do on a whim. Humankind toiled for hundreds of thousands of years at the mercy of predation and the cold to pry the secret of fire from an indifferent cosmos, and then some kids wish it up so they don’t have to wear jumpers outside. That probably got to people just as much as the extinction anxiety.
He wished Naomi had been there. Much as Aleister still preferred for posthumanity to keep its distance, the Institute felt like somewhere she would’ve been happy. And far away. That was also important.
“Why do you think so many of them are kids?” he asked.
“Is there any reason they shouldn’t be?” Eddie answered.
“Maybe not, but where are all the old demis? You hardly ever hear about the DDHA carting off grannies who brew brainwashing tea or summit’, do ya?”
Eddie thought this over for a moment, then snapped his fingers and pointed back at Al. “Mrs G. She could be a demi for all we know.”
“Mary Gillespie is not a demi.”
“And how would you know?”
“Would your mum cut her hair if there was even a chance of it?”
“I read,” said Bazza, “that it’s like an Age of Aquarius thing. Like, the world’s… energy I guess is changing, and now better and better kids are being born, like in in prehistoric times when some monkeys stopped clubbing each other to death and started talking instead.” He frowned. “Okay, they also invented better and better clubs, but you get what I’m saying, right?”
Aleister did, and it was the exactly what he didn’t want to hear just then. He smiled queasily. “I guess us three missed the cut-off, eh?”
Eddie laughed, a little too loudly for his friends’ comfort. “Look at it this way, fellas, there’s still monkeys!” A thought struck him. “And I don’t support that theory, Bartholomew.”
Bazza winced, as he usually did when anyone other than a first degree relative used his Christian name. “And I suppose you’ve got a better one?”
“That I do! I’m gonna present it to the freak-finders, and it’ll net me a Nobel Prize for Demi-Hunting15.”
Al raised his hand. “Uh, I don’t think—”
“Quiet! I’m doin’ science here. Now, everyone started seeing demis under the bed after the Flying Man turned up, right?”
Aleister and Bazza both nodded.
“And most of those kids are pretty little, correct?”
“Didn’t I say that?” said Al.
“You did! And do you know why you said that?”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m guessing you’re going to tell me?”
“Yes! Because the Flying Man is clearly the source of their power!”
At that suggestion, Bazza looked intrigued. “How do ya reckon that works?”
“By him boffing their mums,” he proclaimed gravely, before breaking down in laughter once more.
If they had been smoking behind the bike sheds at school, Bazza and Aleister would likely have joined in. Here, so close to a concentration of power perhaps only once exceeded by nuclear missile silos, it felt flippant. To Bazza, it came off almost like a profanation. Aleister saw it more as taunting the tigers with the gate to their enclosure unlocked.
Eddie wasn’t thrilled by the reception to his hypothesis. “Come on, where’s your sense of humour? It even makes sense! While all the blokes are gawking at the boat he’s pulled out of the whirlpool or whatever, he’s having it off with their wives! Flying Man catches a falling plane, and he’s got all those scared stewardesses to comfort…” He thrusted his hips. “I bet the whole reason the DDHA wants to lock up all these kids is so they don’t grow up and make little clubfooted superbabies together.”
Even as his friend spoke, Bazza was shaking his head. “And he got rid of the nukes, why, then?”
Eddie put his hand to his mouth and stage whispered, “Because if we used them, all the sheilas would’ve gotten scabby. Might’ve made him wilt a bit, too.”
Aleister could have pointed out that children didn’t live in a state of invisibility until their fathers achieved international fame, or that a couple students he’d seen looked less than a decade younger than the Flying Man, or even that there’d been superheroes going back to Spring Heeled Jack—but he was more concerned with what was creeping through the grass towards Eddie.
“…you could just about rename this place Camp By-Blow, I reckon—What’re you two looking—AAAUGGH!”
He’d been stabbed in the ankle by a toy bayonet, wielded by a six inch high member of Napoleon’s finest. Until earlier that afternoon, the universe had assumed that, being only a block of wood carved and painted to resemble a man, the soldier should remain still, and not march in drills or make regular patrols of the fence. One of its younger tenants had disabused it of that notion.
Eddie collapsed, as much out of fear as pain. Being small, sharp, and shaped like a man without being one, the toy soldier was like a bingo card of all Edward Taylor’s phobias. It would’ve won if it had fired some weird space ray that transported him to a test he hadn’t studied for, without his clothes.
Aleister kicked the wooden soldier, sending it sailing into the bush. Bazza got down on his knees to get a better look at his friend’s wound. All three of them heard the distant young cry out, “Naturals!”
Al’s pulse quickened. “We need to run,” he said, slowly and purposefully.
“I wouldn’t bet on us being able to outrun all of them,” said Bazza.
The children had abandoned their game and were moving towards the fence, their expressions curious, or worse, gleeful. Mrs G followed, flanked by the soldiers and Zulus, but being both elderly and baseline, she was lagging behind.
“…Whoever sent the doll was probably just playing and got too excited, anyway,” continued Bazza, trying to convince himself it mattered at all. He’d seen photos of killer whales “playing” with seals. “Think you can walk, mate?”
Eddie nodded. “Yeah.” He swallowed hard. “Might as well be a mozzie bite.”
He managed to stand, and found he was able to support his weight unaided, if a little painfully. The lads, without feeling the need to discuss it, were making their way back into the safety of the trees; slowly, as to not exacerbate Eddie’s injury, or provoke the children.
They were almost there when they heard him. “Hi!”
Slowly, Bazza turned to face the speaker. Rudeness wasn’t going to get them anywhere.
The boy had climbed over the fence. Or flew, who could tell? He was eleven or so, blond almost to the point of transparency, and when Bazz looked closely, he thought he could see sparks burning inside his pupils. He wanted to ask if they hurt. Blondie was regarding the older boys with a look of amiable condescension, in sharp contrast to his fellows, who were smiling at them in a way more suited to scaring off big cats than conveying any kind of goodwill.
They had to have rehearsed that, Aleister thought. They watched Children of the Damned ten times, and then they practised their creepy smiles for hours in front of a mirror. Wait, did the kids in that movie even smile? Why is that what I’m trying to figure out? We’re gonna diiiiiiiiiiieeee.
For the moment, Bazza was keeping his cool. He’d decided to treat this whole adventure as a bad trip. Not even the worst one he’d ever experienced—at least this time he knew the monsters would still be there if he looked away. He grinned broadly. “Hey, man, pleased to meet ya.” To speak of things purely human, Bazza’s composure was without a doubt the most amazing sight his friends had ever seen. He walked up and took the demi child’s hand, who permitted it to be shaken. “Name’s Bazza.” He jabbed a thumb at the other lads behind him. “Those two geezers are Alice and Eddie.”
“Alice” grimaced. “Is this really the time?”
“And that’s why we call him Alice,” Bazza said, winking. “What do you go by?”
“Snapdragon.” The boy sniffed distastefully. “You stink, mister.”
That surprised Bazza, but he supposed it would be hypocritical of him to declare fault on someone for using a nickname. “Do I? Guess you get used to it after a while.”
He looked over the gathered children. They could have all passed for happy, healthy specimens of rootstock humanity; for the most part. A few had something nearly imperceptibly off in the cast of their skin, or the colour of their eyes. One boy he couldn’t decide if his hair was black or blue. In that mode of hyper-clarity fear so often engenders, Bazza thought he saw faint markings on some of the children’s faces, almost but not quite wiped away.
“…So, you’re all demis? That must be cool.”
“New humans,” insisted one girl, her every movement leaving a momentary outline in the air. “And that’s a stupid question.”
Bazza threw his hands up. “It’s whatcha’ say, isn’t it?
“Well, that’s what we are,” said Snapdragon. He pointed at Al. “Why’s he got binoculars?”
Al looked down at his binos like they were a laser dot hovering over his heart. By then, the teens could hear Mrs Gillespie calling out to the children, but deer are seldom comforted by the knowledge that the tigers will be gently rebuked by field mice.
Through the pain, Eddie thought fast. “They’re for watching you!” Fast, but not well. “I mean—not like that. Was that capture the flag you were playing? So badass. Puts us three rolling down a hill in a tractor tire in perspective, that’s for sure.”
Aleister picked up from Eddie. “We heard so much about about you lot, we just had to see for ourselves.”
The children found this to be a quite understandable desire. It solaced Al to find that his replacements had not yet progressed beyond the appeal of flattery.
Laughing, Snapdragon spoke again, “I totally get it. Actually,” he smiled knowingly back at his friends, “if you want to get to know us better, we could play a game! It’d make up for you guys breaking Captain Lester.”
Eddie made as if to protest, but then he saw the toy, sans his left leg, crawling wretchedly towards a stricken five year old. If he had been allowed a mouth, he would have begged forgiveness with his last ounce of counterfeit life for having failed her.16 “…What kind of game?”
“It’s not a hard one. We give you a—” He turned to look at the other kids, who were raising fingers and calling out numbers. “—two minute head start. Then we get you.”
Not “chase you”, Alistair noticed, “get you”. Like it’s a foregone conclusion. Cocky, but accurate, I bet.
“I don’t think Lawrence would like this,” piped up a fretful voice from near the back of the crowd. None of the lads could pin down the accent. It belonged to the former puddle, his hair somehow still damp despite the serpentine imitation of the sun skulking above. Unmistakably the naiad’s son, looking at him made Bazza feel distinctly guilty. “It’s ‘playing into the perception of posthumans as unthinkingly cruel and callous towards their predecessors’,” he dutifully recited.
The children all looked at him like he was a youth pastor suggesting they retire for scripture reflection and a guitar sing along. Snapdragon’s pupils were white. “Shut. Up. Mealy.”
“But it’s mean!”
Bazza’s hope for the species grew a little.
The girl in the pigtails flicked her wrist, and Mealy was blown fifty feet into the air. Mrs Gillespie and her accompanying warriors halted in their tracks and started running to where they guessed he would land.
Bazza never felt more justified wanting to wring a little kid’s neck, but he managed to resist the urge. “Look, kids,” he said benignly, “we’d love to play, but it’s getting late, and we’ve got mums and dads at home waiting for us.”
Snapdragon’s smile returned, but his eyes still smoldered. “So do most of us.”
The veneer of calm finally began to crack. “This is actually happening, isn’t it?”
The remaining children all nodded eagerly, falling only a little short of synchronicity. “Yes.”
“Do we start now?” asked Al.
The kids did not answer, or make any movement other than try to suppress laughter. High above, the firedrake was finally allowed to clamp its jaws around its tail and devour itself.
The lads moved into the bush, walking at first, glancing every few seconds back at the children, before breaking into a run.
The children did plan on letting them have that head start, they really did.
But then, they were young.
1. At least, if they didn’t pay much mind to current events, were quite amazingly stupid, or very, very drunk.↩
2. She was at the very least held in higher regard than the other itinerant medic who sometimes stopped by town. ↩
3. It wasn’t even the right slur.↩
4. The baby was actually manipulating her personal gravitational field in relation to the ground. Some consider this distinction to have meaning.↩
5. She was in fact blessed with the ability to reproduce any sound she had ever heard. It was a gift she would make much use of over the next few years: as would others.↩
6. There was once a time when Doctor Herbert Lawrence thought clothing which announced oneself as either a posthuman or a friend of posthumanity was a good idea. ↩
7. By a strange coincidence, Colonel Howard Pendergast was having a friendly tea with a young woman named Pham Sinh Hang at that very moment. They were discussing the VC guerrilla whose grenade had recently shattered her heart. She was taking it all rather well, considering. She even had a rather vicious smile. Pendergast always liked to see that.↩
8. Like with most classified government facilities, almost everyone in the state knew of McClare Demi-Human Containment Centre, and could probably give you directions if asked.↩
9. Except none of them were likely to bog off to a garden in Alberto’s homeland.↩
10. Aleister was not wrong in his assessment. Many otherwise technologically sophisticated Earths do not manage to harness the atom, but still innovate brilliant mechanisms of mass-death. Biological warfare is always a popular alternative, even on less deprived planes, but there are others. Why, on one world just a little to the left of Al’s on the probability curve, the human race was almost completely depopulated by memetic plagues delivered via music. Danse Macabre seized entire nations, their citizens dropping dead in the streets of exhaustion, while others bashed their heads open to dig the sometimes literal earworms out. The lesson of course being that humming is a terrible habit. ↩
11. One would hope life with her would involve less peeping on other women.↩
12. West Australia was historically prone to changing hands without much warning.↩
13. A close runner up for Snapdragon’s name.↩
14. She was overcompensating.↩
15. The first Nobel awarded for a discovery relating specifically to superhumans was bestowed on Dr. Melina Wilkins for the isolation of several neural signatures particular to many supers. The Wilkins Prize for superhuman studies was established in her honour in 1979.↩
16. “We’re coming to an end, aren’t we, Miss Andrews? That’s alright. It’d be a damn waste, you keeping me moving and thinking in this sorry state. Short as my time was, it was more than most get. It’s a tragedy, isn’t it? So many atoms make up this universe, and almost none of them ever get to be part of a mind? Complex arrangements of matter form and disperse without ever knowing the beauty they’re a part off. We’re a privileged few, we intellectual molecules! I’m sure my life would’ve seemed barely worth the bother to you, but even a moment of it would have been enough! My eternity was three hours long, my world towering grass, blood, and the bellows of falling giants. I thank you for all of it, Miss—” ↩