Aleister ran stumbling through the coarse undergrowth, his friends struggling to keep apace with him. His thoughts were lapine, concerned only with what lay directly ahead of him—and what made pursuit of him.
The chase had mostly pushed the lads in circles. This was largely the children’s doing, but the boys’ own panicked indecisiveness certainly exacerbated the situation. With no spare moment to stop and devise a plan of action, they were relying completely on their hind-brains, which randomly and rapidly alternated between urging them to flee as far and as fast as possible from the New Human Institute, and compelling them to try and make a dash for the farmhouse1, so that they might petition Mad Laurie for protection.
They were in a holding pattern: the children mostly kept out of sight, excepting the odd glimpse or giggle or gust of flame, only to pour out of the trees or rise from the long grass to subject the lads to some new round of terrors, before slinking back into cover. Sometimes they found themselves foes of the wind like poor Mealy, unable to take a step forward as the children flitted around them—poking and prodding and scorning—and an aviary’s worth of birds clawed and pecked at them. Then there were the times they were almost cut in half by the edge of sharpened light, or nearly crushed by fatally solid stones raining from the heavens like unwanted blacksmiths. The disembodied Audrey Hepburn soundalike leveled threats of punishment at the children, ranging from death to Italian lessons with Tiresias.
Eddie was convinced he’d have to be left behind. Now that the initial flush of adrenaline had given way to the banality of persistent fear, his right ankle was becoming more and more unbearable to move on. Even with Bazza supporting him, every step sent stabbing, shuddering waves of pain through his body. His grip around Bazza’s shoulders loosened, and he collapsed. “Shit, shit, shit shit shit—” he repeated, with no plan of stopping soon. “I can’t keep going like this.”
Bazza pulled him to his feet with uncharacteristic roughness. “Come on, mate, we just need to stay moving. They’re kids! They have to sleep sooner or later!”
Eddie looked at him, despairing. “Do they?” he gasped. “You learned this where? How do ya know staying up late doesn’t make them smarter and sharper?”
He was on the brink of tears.
That exchange slowed them down to the point where Aleister found himself three yards ahead of them. He might have gotten even further, if he hadn’t smacked face first against the iridescent dome that came into existence over the boys, severing the tops of any tree it intersected. “Oh, for God’s sake, what now?” he moaned.
His curiosity not yet deadened by horror, Bazza set Edward down for the moment, before moving to the edge of their enclosure. It was like a crystallized aurora, bright swirls of blue, green and pink suspended in the film of a soap bubble. He dared not touch it.
Oh, why couldn’t it just be beautiful?
“We’re finished!” Eddie shouted. “Any second now this thing is going to start closing in on us like the walls in that fucking Batman serial!”
The bubble did no such thing, but it did catch on fire, making Bazza yelp and jump back. Which he did again when he saw the filthy rag doll digging its way out of the ground in front of him, rusted butcher’s knife in hand.
The earth spewed forth toys of all sorts. Tin VWs with kitchen scissors fastened to their hoods extricated themselves from the ground, dirt falling away from their wheels as they spun in their arches, headlights beaming obscenities in Morse code. The sod became mother to autochthonous infants with bodies of stained plastic.
“I thought Alberto said you were going to be a granddad?” cried Al.
“Yeah, right before he said he was guessing!” Eddie slammed his fist into the ground. “Bloody wog owes me a brew!”
The toys were closing in on the lads. They huddled together in the centre of their prison, clutching one another. Their own faces, sculpted from flames, mocked them in silence just outside the dome. Beyond them, the children danced and laughed, their voices brimming with the kind of ecstasy known only by children and madmen2.
The ragdoll’s cross stitched mouth tore itself open, hissing, “We’ll kill you, kill you all. You’ll never see us. Beneath your pillows, in the toilet, inside your teapot! We can be everywhere!”
Eddie wet himself. “Nice knowing ya, lads.”
His friends responded in kind.
It was then that Aleister remembered something Alberto had said. It was a foolish thought, but what harm could it do, at this late stage? “Flying Man!” he screamed. “Flying Man! Help us!”
There was more screaming; it took a moment for the boys to realise it wasn’t their own. Then the bubble popped, the toys went limp and still, and the flames quietly extinguished themselves. There weren’t even any scorch marks.
The children were under attack by flying monkeys: taxidermied horrors with immense wingspans and blue, all too human, faces. They pulled at their hair, or menaced them with their scimitars. One boy lay curled in a fetal position under a much smaller version of the bubble that had entrapped the lads.
That’s not to say the children weren’t making any effort to fight back. Snapdragon was hurling flame from his person. The monkeys he ignited were unphased by this, until the boy shouted something. Then they fell to the ground, writhing and screeching. The lads could smell barbecue and burning fur.
Thoroughly forgotten, the boys wandered bewildered through and past the scene. Most of the posthuman children were making a run for it. One kid, his skin literally bronze3, was plucking monkeys from the air and tearing their wings off with the ease of a boy mutilating flies, before being overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
Once the boys were out of sight, Eddie spoke: “Do ya think, when these kids are being given the runabout by the the ultra-mega-superhumans, a buncha’ flying blokes with machine guns are gonna swoop in and rescue em’?”
Al and Bazza laughed, exhaustedly, their lungs aching with relief. “I don’t think the monkeys were for us,” Bazza said. “Like, whoever made them was more angry at the kids than they cared about us.”
Al shrugged. “Works for me. Maybe Mealy’s got someone lookin’ out for him.”
“His name’s Maelstrom,” came a young boy’s voice, “and she is.”
The trio turned as one to look in its direction. In a thicket of branches so dense, they prevented fallen trees from reaching the ground, a ball of lightning was obliterating a path through to reach them. Everything its thin, jagged limbs touched flickered out of existence.
When it was finally free of the covert, the light dimmed somewhat to reveal a child. At least, it was the size and shape of a child. It was as though his veins flowed with light rather than blood, the colour of ozone. Bright embers flecked the ends of his eyelashes, the eyes themselves glowing like they were trying to inform traffic if it was allowed to move.
The lads weren’t sure if that applied to them.
“Uh, hi,” said Eddie, “you from the Institute?”
The child—the glare made gender difficult to discern—nodded. It regarded them curiously. “And you’re the naturals?”
Its expression brightened. “Oh, good. I thought I missed my go.”
The kid threw its arms out. “SHAZAM!”
The boys tasted metal. For the second time that afternoon, they were blinded, this time by a green flash. And they were falling.
They landed with a thud in a perfect bowl, about twenty feet across and fifteen feet deep4. They had not moved.
The kid was already on its feet when the lads recovered and got their faces out of the dirt, dendrites of lightning lashing out around him. “Do ya like it?” it asked. “Rivers are cool and all, but I’ve always wanted a pool. And the rain will fill it up easy in a few weeks! It’ll be kinda cold, but that’s what Maelstrom and his mum are for. I could charge for entry!”
The boys weren’t able to offer their opinion, as they were busy trying to climb out over the rim of the sudden lake.
“Well that’s just rude.” He pointed his left index finger like a pistol and said, “Bang.”
A sheath of lightning shot through Edward Taylor’s heart. He didn’t even have time to cry out before his body shattered into light.
He was nothing. A jiffy5 later, he was something again. Something that was lying in some bushes, being looked down at by a half-caste boy, and a younger girl with an exceedingly boyish haircut and vaguely elfin, Semitic features. As Edward staggered and tried to scramble away, he noticed that her skin pulsed with the same white light that had surrounded the other girl, the one who had given her coat to Maelstrom.
“Oh, look. We found one of the naturals,” said the boy.
The girl hummed in agreement. “That we have, Haunt.”
“What do we do with him?”
The girl rubbed her chin. Finally, she said, “…Things.”
“Yes,” agreed Haunt. “Things.”
Back in the crater, the remaining lads were looking at the storm-child like it’d just killed a man. This was of not the case, of course; Eddie was only seventeen, after all.
Bazza boosted Al out of the hole, and Al wrenched Bazza out in turn, almost dislocating his arm. He didn’t care. The boys had only two things on their mind: what they would tell Eddie’s mother, and what Mad Laurie or Mary Gillespie would tell their mothers.
The child sighed, and with a look and another green flash removed a large amount of dirt from the side of the bowl, its absence creating a very serviceable set of steps. Bazza and Al ran faster.
Ahead of them, the air parted. Or maybe two points in the universe touched. Either way, a little girl stepped out of it. The same little girl that had knocked Mealy out of his watery vessel.
Like freight trains, the boys had built too much speed to stop easily. Luckily for them, the girl was more than willing to help. Smiling beatifically, she held out her arm, three golden globes orbiting her hand. They started revolving faster and faster, until the naked eye could only perceive a halo.
Something viscous splattered against the boys’ legs, and for an indescribable moment they felt it trying to decide what it wanted to be. It settled on diamond so molecularly pure, it would be dismissed as cheap synthetic trash by any reputable jeweler. However, it did the job of keeping Aleister and Bazza rooted in place just fine.
The girl clapped. “Elsewhere, I caught them!” she said, standing on her toes and looking over their heads.
The boys, too terrified by this point to even vocalise their fear or struggle against their bonds, craned their necks as much as possible to see behind them. Out the corner of their eyes, they saw Eddie’s slayer strolling casually towards them, hands in its pockets. As it drew near, its majesty faded, until all that was left was a fox-faced little boy with grey eyes and too much pomade in his hair. “Looks like Ex Nihilo and Cardea did most of the work from where I’m standing.”
The girl put her hands on her hips, frowning slightly. “So if you find yourself at the bottom of the river, it’s your own fault?”
He smirked. “I’d like to see me try.”
The two of them inspected their quarry, as though the two boys had already been stuffed and mounted over the mantle. The presumed Elsewhere rifled through their pockets, availing himself of their wallets, the key to Aleister’s bike lock, and two exquisitely rolled joints. He threw the last two behind his back, followed by the wallets, lighter by four pounds and ninety-one pence. “You don’t mind if I borrow this, do ya?” Elsewhere asked, cheerfully.
Bazza and Al made no protest.
“Cheers, mates.” He pocketed the cash and turned to the girl. “I don’t think these two are getting away from us.”
She beamed. “Yes! Kneel mortals, before the glory of Myriad and Elsewhere!”
For their lives, the boys tried desperately to comply, but in their fetters, they couldn’t even bend their knees. Aleister gazed at Myriad, his eyes full of helpless pleading.
She blinked a few times. Then, to Al and Bazza’s mutual surprise, her face became apologetic. “Oh, I didn’t mean you actually had to do it.” She tweaked Bazza’s nose. “Nice of you to try, though.” Bowing, she said, “Such is the mercy of Homo novus.”
Elsewhere grinned wickedly. “Yeah—Hey, what?” He glanced back at Myriad. “I thought we agreed we were called Homo superior?”
“Yeah, but we both know Homo novus sounds better.”
“But what does it mean?”
“It’s a term from Roman times, meant the first member of a family to get political honours,” explained Myriad, very proud of herself.
Elsewhere gave a derisive snort. “Oh, I see, it’s another swotty joke that nobody but you and Lawrence will get. Very clever.”
The freckles spread across Myriad’s cheeks crinkled with anger. “And what’s so great about Homo superior?”
Oh, God, she looks like my little sister, Bazza realised.
Elsewhere took a step towards Myriad. “Not great, superior. It’s in the name.”
Their noses were almost touching as they stood there, staring each other down, assured in the semantic righteousness of their convictions. The lads would have thought it adorable—if they didn’t think one half of the pair had murdered their best mate.
“What do you guys think?” Myriad asked, addressing the lads.
As Bazza especially would come to learn, superhumans have a way of making their baseline cousins almost forget their own existence in their presence, so his and Aleister’s reaction to the question was only slightly more pronounced than a plaster wall’s would have been.
“Ah, fellas? You two alright?”
There were many possible answers to that question, almost all of them accurate, but almost none of those were “yes”. “What do we think about what?” said Al.
“Which name’s better? Homo novus or—” Myriad sighed. “—Homo superior,” she finished reluctantly.
“It’s like a multiple choice question where the question is also the answer!” Elsewhere added.
Aleister froze up. He knew with certainty that both children could kill him without even moving, and he could see no way of pleasing both of them. It didn’t help that he could see lightning fork between Elsewhere’s fingers.
By that same token, Bazza saw no reason not to give his honest opinion. He briefly considered that his answer could well influence textbooks for generations to come, then dismissed the thought as pompous. “Sorry Elsewhere, but I think I dig Homo novus more.” He continued to live, and, seeing that as a good sign, elaborated. “Homo superior sounds too stuck up. Like, if you know you’re… that, why do ya need to go putting it in your name?” He smiled. “Homo novus, though, now that sounds groovy. Like those suns that explode when they die. It’s sad, for sure, but it spreads star stuff everywhere. And that star stuff becomes new stars, and planets, and you and me. Forever. ”
Myriad giggled at the idea. Even Elsewhere was won over, however much he didn’t want to admit it.
Bazza squinted at him. “You move things, don’t you?”
Elsewhere looked disarmed. “How’d you know?”
“What’d ya say a sec ago? ‘It’s in the name’?”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” Elsewhere said, blushing.
“Aww, don’t be embarrassed. That’s way better than blowing stuff up. Especially if you’re Eddie… where is he, by the by?”
“…I’m not sure,” he admitted sheepishly. “He can’t be more than a few metres away. I wasn’t thinking about it too hard.”
Al had to push anger down, but Bazza’s smile didn’t let up. Aleister was beginning to doubt his friend’s status as a natural. “That’s alright then. I was worried you’d put him on the Moon, in one of the parts you can’t breathe in.” He glanced down at the diamond encasing his and Al’s feet. “Maybe if you send this away, we could all look for him together.”
“That might be a good idea,” rang a voice like tempered silver.
The lads by then had forgotten what had brought them to the Institute—whether as pretext or genuine desire. But when they saw her making her way up the trail of flattened greenery, they remembered.
It is beyond useless to describe a woman as looking like a goddess. Some goddesses are graven images of desire; just as many are round, swollen icons of fertility. Many goddesses have the heads of beasts, or are beasts altogether. Sometimes, they are not even personified, and are simply the sky itself. Or the sea.
What she had, though, was the presence of a goddess. Leonine and severe, the lads felt pale and insubstantial before her. She was like something real and whole wandering a world of half-truths and reflections.
Her son walked hand in hand with her, along with a chunky little girl in a pink jumper and horn-rimmed glasses with the lenses poked out6, from which she glowered at Elsewhere and Myriad. Tucked away in the saddlebag she was carrying was a vast arsenal of weaponry more varied and deadly than any assembled in history, and a standing army waiting to put it to good use. Following at a respectable distance were a Zulu and a redcoat, who kept exchanging dark looks with each other.
Bazza waved brightly. “Hey!” He searched for a name that wasn’t coined beneath the benches at the sports green. “You’re Fran, right?”
Tight-lipped, she nodded reticently, “Some people feel they can call me that, yes.” The world felt quieter when she spoke, as though in deference.
He pointed then at her son. “It’s Maelstrom, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” the child confirmed meekly.
He nodded, impressed. “Badass name, if I may say so myself.”
Maelstrom and the girl seemed pleased by Bazza’s assessment; Fran, less so. She clamped a hand around each of the children’s ears. “Please try not to swear in front of the children, young man.”
He laughed abashedly. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“I’m Phantasma,” the girl with the purely aesthetic spectacles announced, not waiting to be asked.
“Hello, Phantasma.” Bazza nudged Aleister. “Say hello to Phantasma, Al.”
Al didn’t speak. Bazza was beginning to worry he never would again, but that was a matter to address later. “So, Elsewhere, think we could stretch our legs now?”
“Does he have to ask again?” asked Fran, her tone mildly reproachful.
Elsewhere shook his head. Lightning lashed from his eyes, some lucky souls on the other side of the world thought they saw four shooting stars at once, and the lads were freed.
Once that was done with, hands were shook, and awkward apologies made. “Sorry about getting all… excited,” said Myriad.
“Eh, I probably would have been just as bad your age. Really, it’s Maelstrom you should be apologising to.”
“…Why? I didn’t do anything to him. He told on us!”
“You didn’t do anything when that other girl was doing things to him.”
“Yeah, but Windshear and him go way back. Nothing to do with me.”
Bazza laughed. “You’re like, six—”
“—Eight. How far can any of you go back?”
“Are you two any kind of friends?”
Bazza said nothing.
She sighed. “Point taken.”
“So,” said Al, “you were in charge of the monkeys?”
Phantasma nodded, smiling. “Yep! How’d ya know?”
“Lucky guess. You were the only one I didn’t see chasing us who wasn’t Maelstrom, and flying monkeys on top of all the water stuff would be a bit much, I think.”
“Smart! Kinda weird that people’s powers tend to be so similar, though. Where’re all the kids who can fire atomic blasts, breathe underwater, and make insects do their bidding?” She pointed towards the riverbank, where the Zulu and the soldier sat exchanging jokes about their wives. “I also made those guys.”
Aleister didn’t even know what he couldn’t be bothered questioning.
Fran cleared her throat. “I was told there were three of you boys?”
That dampened the mood. “Yeah… I vanished him,” Elsewhere confessed.
“Well, I’m sure he’d prefer we find him sooner rather than later. Then maybe we could see about a ride back to town for you three?”
She phrased it like an offer, but Bazza and Aleister could tell a command when they heard one. “Sure, that’d be good,” Al replied.
She regarded the two of them wonderingly, “What were you even doing out—” She spotted the binoculars still hanging from Aleister’s neck. Her brow furrowed.
Al’s breathing stopped dead. He figured it might become necessary to kick the habit in the very near future.
“…I’m going to pretend I didn’t see those,” she said archly. She held up a hand. “Oh, I think that might be him now.”
Even with the warning, Eddie’s reentry into their midst was a sudden, violent thing. He burst screaming from the trees, wild-eyed and delirious. Still reeking of urine, his face was covered in fresh scratches, his bare chest smeared with honey, leaves, and lavatory paper like some polluted Green Man.
His gaze danced manically from his friends to the assembled posthumans, but all he saw were wolves. They spoke to him, but he didn’t hear what they said. Rational thought had left him when he felt the boy’s hand around his heart, only the smallest exertion of will away from crushing it. And he knew, more surely than he’d ever known anything else, that they had only let him go because they had bored of him. And who knew when they might need more diversion?
The unnatural woman in blue offered him her hand, but he knocked it away, before barrelling towards the river. Something old and forgotten told him witches could not cross running water.
The black boy with the cobalt eyes stood in his path, chatting with a fat girl and a time-lost soldier. He shoved him to the ground as he made for the water. “Out of my way, ya fucking boong!” he screamed as he ran splashing past the prone child.
The river was nearly at a boil before he was even in up to his knees. Improbable waves forced him back towards the shore. They would not harbour one who had offended their mistress.
When he crawled back onto the mud, sputtering and coughing, she was waiting for him. “Could you not guess whose son he was?”
Maelstrom had picked himself up, and was tugging on his mother’s arm, blood trickling from his nose. “It’s okay, Mum, really. I’ll go icy and it’ll be fine.” He bent down next to Edward. “Look at him, he was just scared!”
Eddie flinched away from the boy.
“I think that was clear, Maelstrom,” his mother said, cooly.
Bazza spoke up plaintively, “Fran, I swear to God, he isn’t usually like that.”
She nodded her agreement. “I don’t doubt it. I imagine most of the people he interacts with on a regular basis are human. And white.” She almost spat the last two words.
Phantasma was whispering something to the Zulu, while Elsewhere weighed whether he should send Eddie on another trip; the Gold Coast, perhaps, or was that too close to the ocean?
Fran crouched to Eddie’s eye level, her bare feet and pale fingers digging into the mud. Maelstrom stepped aside without question. Unable to escape her sight, Edward Taylor found his fear changing into something like animal awe. “You come to my home to have me with your eyes, and when you can’t, you gawk at little children, treat them like curios, or sideshow freaks. Here, the one place they should be free from that! And then, when they try to drive you out, you knock down and shout abuse at the only one who came to your defense.”
She added no comment nor qualifying statement nor rhetorical question, except, maybe, the sound of water flowing over stone. “I’m sorry,” Edward said, meaning it.
Fran brushed Eddie’s cheek. “I know,” she said, regretfully, almost kindly.
She reared up over him, staring down. The disguise was gone—she was no longer a woman, but a figure cut from glass, capturing and refracting the last glinting rays of a tired sun. She made no movement, uttered no sound. Edward’s heart, conversely, thundered in his chest, beat so hard it hurt. Everything hurt, as his blood rushed through his veins. Outwards.
There was an awful purity to Françoise’s anger when she was ice. It was guiltless, passionless even. The boy twisting and convulsing at her feet was mostly water, and she was stopping it from moving in ways which displeased her. Every thrashing limb was thrown back the way it had come with sickening snaps and gurgles. Dark, ugly bruises bloomed on every visible patch of skin. Eddie’s eyes roiled with an inner storm, and he tried and failed to claw at them.
His compatriots were shouting and begging for their friend’s torment to end, the tall ginger with the Railway Bombers jersey openly weeping.
The bruises began to fade. This proved to be only a slight respite when an almost indescribable pain wracked his hips. Blood drenched the front of his trousers. Eddie thrashed and twitched and howled, but could find no refuge from the revolt in his own body. His tears were tinged red.
Sometimes, he attempted to roll into the water, where he hoped to find escape of some kind or another. The waves pushed him back, every time.
Phantasmagoria was on her knees, folders and binders laid open in front of her as she frantically searched for anything she could use, spacewomen, goblin-kings, and will-o’-wisps being summoned and banished again between blinks. Myriad tried to find a tune in the air that might help. Elsewhere gathered power in his left hand—
Françoise was dimly aware that her body was no longer nearby7, so she fashioned a new one from the river water. Edward’s cries grew still higher in pitch.
Tears were welling in Maelstrom’s eyes. “You’re hurting him, Mum.”
She gave no reply. Maybe one day, he would understand.
“YOU’RE HURTING HIM!”
The blood that had been dyeing the grass red suddenly reversed direction and flowed back into Eddie, hauling with it the dirt and small creatures it contained. It was stuffed in his veins and capillaries with the clumsiness of a desperate child. They filled to bursting and took skin with them when they finally did. The water in Eddie’s body found itself torn between queen and princeling. And so was Eddie. He shook and twisted ever more violently and ripping sounds could be heard when he did.
Eddie heaved up blood. Maelstrom screamed, Edward whimpered.
“Stop this at once!”
Mrs Gillespie stood between Żywie and Basilisk, Tiresias trailing behind them. She did not look happy.
As soon as she saw the state Eddie was in, Żywie swiftly but calmly went to his side, kneeling in the water and placing her hands on his forehead. He shuddered as he felt wires worm their way into his body, before they delivered him into numbness and welcome sleep.
“What-what’re you doing to him?” Aleister asked, still shaken.
Żywie looked up disgustedly at the frozen effigy still looming over the bleeding teenager. “Right now? Seeing what the damage is.”
Françoise translated the ice into herself, like a contemptuous, freshwater Venus. “Don’t pretend you can’t put him to rights, Z. I’ve seen you fix worse playtime accidents.”
The cuts on Edward’s face were already sealing themselves. “And what if I had gotten here a minute later? Or if you had popped something in his brain? What would have been the excuse then, hmm?”
“He hurt my boy.”
Maelstrom was still standing in the river shallows, fidgeting with the sleeves of his father’s coat, while ice drifts formed around his legs. Żywie tried to convey a hug with her eyes, before looking back at Fran. “Yes, I can see how much you’ve comforted him.”
“You’d understand if you could have kids.”
If this stung Żywie at all, she didn’t let it show. “If this is what motherhood does to a woman, I’m glad I’ve been spared it.”
Bazza was instead confronting Tiresias. “Why didn’t you tell us this was gonna happen, man?”
“For the same reason I didn’t tell you how you were going to break your necks crossing the river, or have your faces eaten by dropbears. This was only one future among many, and one with a high coincidence coefficient at that.” He scratched the back of his neck. “But some version of you had to experience it, and I wish it wasn’t you fellas.”
Bazza was going to argue that, but he saw how Tiresias was looking at Eddie, and gave up on it. “I get ya, mate. I get ya.”
Mrs Gillespie was trying to make sense of the three Watercolours’ stories. They were talking all over each other, only sometimes remembering to pause between words, and switched between trying to recount what they’d witnessed and seeking comfort every other sentence. Eventually, she gave up on that, and tried to gather them all into a hug. What she already knew was bad enough.
“Shh, shh, it’s all going to be fine.”
Once they had sufficiently calmed down, she released the children. Then, she marched down into the river and, Basilisk by her side, slapped Françoise across the face.
She rubbed her cheek. “I suppose you’re going to lecture me on how cruel I was to the man who trespassed on our home and assaulted one of your students?”
Mrs Gillespie pointed down at Edward. “That is not a man. That is a boy. You ripped apart a child, Melusine. Because he pushed another child. Is that what you’ll do to Windshear next time she and Maelstrom have a tiff?”
“Maelstrom and Windshear do not have ‘tiffs’,” retorted Françoise. “He just lets her and the rest of his ‘brothers and sisters’ torment him while you all do nothing about it!”
“And you think half-killing some natural kid is going to help with that?” shouted Basilisk, stepping closer. “Getting your sanctioning revoked? I’d like to see you try mothering the boy from McClare!”
“They couldn’t hold me and you know it.”
“That’s not the bloody point! We need to be better than this!”
She raised an eyebrow. “Now whatever do you mean by ‘we’?”
Basil recoiled like he’d been punched in the face. Mrs Gillespie put a hand on his shoulder. “If you were still a girl, I’d tan your hide. I wish I didn’t have to be the one to tell Lawrence about this when he gets home.”
“At least you’re only his teacher,” said Fran. “What kind of half-man lets their son get kicked around like this?”
Maelstrom sobbed, tears and snot glistening on his face. “Why are you all talking about me when I’m right here?” He hugged himself. “I hurt him, too. I tried putting his blood and stuff back inside, but I made it worse!”
Żywie took her hands off Eddie. She’d stopped the internal bleeding and given his tissues strict instructions to repair themselves over the next few hours. By the time he woke up, he’d probably feel better than he’d ever thought possible, in body if not in mind. Melusine was right about one thing: she had great experience in dealing with exotic injuries. At least his wounds weren’t glowing.
She held Maelstrom close. “It’s alright, little one, you were only trying to be kind.”
“She’s right, dear,” said Mrs Gillespie. “Not your fault you have more sense than your mother.”
Maelstrom stared at them all for a bit, before pulling away from Żywie and running across the river and into the bushes on the other side.
Françoise started after him, along with Phantasmagoria, who Tiresias held back. “Sweetie, wait!”
“Oh, leave him,” said Basilisk. “I don’t think he wants to speak to either of us right now.”
Myriad had been listening to all this, silently thanking God that her parents were the sort to fight out of her earshot, when she remembered what Bazza had said to her. “I could go talk to him,” she suggested.
Phantasmagoria shook herself free from Tiresias’ grasp, but kept her silence.
“Go ahead, Myriad. You can’t do any worse than we have,” said Basil, perpetual optimist.
Françoise walked out of the water, saying over her shoulder, “Yes, Basil, get the little girl to do your job. It’s been working for you so far.”
Doing her best Yeshua impression, Myriad hurried over the river, seeking out Maelstrom by song and watersense.
When Eddie awoke, after convalescing a few hours in one of the spare dormitory beds, Żywie gave him and his mates a ride back to Northam. They had seen Olympus, and it was as the Greek always claimed: full of children.
Beneath the lengthening shadow of an old ghost gum, an ice sculpture rested. Carved with peculiar detail to resemble a melancholy child with a coat draped over it, a passing rambler might have mistook it for some kind of artistic statement. If they were wise, they would have fled the area with haste, knowing a lost street theatre troupe could not be far away.
For Maelstrom, there was a relief in the stillness. This way, the water his soul usually clung to would not betray him. Ice melts—it does not weep.
Drifting intangibly over the trees like the most junior partner in that most famous of trios he perceived a human shaped concentration of liquid and negative space making its way towards his vacated body; almost definitely someone his age, likely a girl, but probably not Mabel. That was the closest anyone had ever come to taking Maelstrom by surprise.
Myriad, still wearing his eyes, sat down against the bark-deprived trunk beside him. “Hey, Mael,” she said, aiming for casualness, but betrayed by the tenseness of her movements.
Maelstrom didn’t feel ready for a return to the intensities of emotional biology, but he was a polite boy. “Hi, Miri,” he said as soon as he had vocal cords again. “Did the grownups send you?”
She shrugged uncomfortably. “I kinda sent myself, but they let me. You okay?”
“Better than that guy.” He curled in on himself. “I should have got out of the way.”
“Oh, stop it. He could’ve ran at any of us.”
“But would Melusine have done that for any of you?”
Myriad thought about it. “Okay, maybe not for Windshear.”
Maelstrom didn’t laugh. “Windshear won’t go near Mels. You ever slipped in the bath?”
“Did the water ever pull you under and hold you down for half a minute?”
“Oh.” At least, that explained the indoor hurricane first bathnight.
They sat there for a while in companionable, if downcast silence. Eventually, Maelstrom asked his friend a question:
“Your parents, did they ever fight like that?”
Myriad honestly didn’t know. Her mother had a talent for preempting incoming marital strife, and usually had her daughter out the door with a little pocket money before any serious argument could break out. This did have the unforeseen side effect of creating an association in her mind between sweets and parental stress.
However, there was one time she could remember swinging around Elsewhere’s place, only to find him already milling about out front. She didn’t hear much of what was being said inside, but Elsewhere spent a lot of time at her house that weekend.
“I never really thought my parents loved each other. But it was nice when I thought they at least liked each other.”
Myriad’s only response was to shuffle in closer to him. It almost physically hurt hearing that; she couldn’t begin to imagine how it felt saying it.
They watched the sunset. The day was ending in an extinction burst of beauty, the clouds caught alight with gold, fading into sullen reds and the rich purple of a monarch’s cape.
“Why does the sky only get this pretty at the end of the day?” Maelstrom wondered out loud. He hadn’t spoken since his confession.
He quite courteously allowed Myriad to explain all the mechanics of a sunset. To her surprise, he was smiling a little by the end of her lecture. “I was asking… rhetorically? Philosophically?”
“Oh. Hey, is it okay if I ask you something?”
“Are you real?”
“…I think so. But could I tell you if I wasn’t?”
“I guess not. I had this bloody stupid dream once where Christmas came early, and I kept asking everyone if it was a dream. They all said no, but BLAM! I woke up, and it was still June. But that’s not really what I’m asking.”
“Are you a boy who turns into water, or water that turns into a boy?”
He considered the question. “Is there a difference?”
“Usually when I’m copying someone, I can just do something extra. With you and Melusine, it’s like I-you’re-we’re something completely different. Like our bodies are something we’re just walking around in, instead of our… us?” She huffed. “I know I have the words, but I can’t find them right now.”
Maelstrom stretched out. “I kinda thought it was like that for everyone—the difference was, me and Melusine weren’t stuck in ours.”
“Maybe you were right.”
He snuggled into her a bit, yawning. “You probably know more about it than me.”
He was right. The songs of supers conveyed to Myriad not only their powers, but also their knowledge and skill; same as any other talent. Right from the outset, she was at least as skilled in their use as their true owner. With Maelstrom, it was even more pronounced, what with the added wellspring of his mother’s lifetime of experience to draw from. When Myriad realised this, borrowing his posthumanity had felt almost akin to thievery.
Maelstrom gave her a reassuring smile, which just felt wrong, given the circumstances. “It’s fine—just the way you work. It’s nice, really, talking to someone besides Mels about it.”
Her guilt assuaged for the time being, Myriad pointed up at the dimming sky. “You ever played with the clouds? They’re nothing but water!”
He shrugged noncommittally. “Melusine sometimes puts shows on with them, but Lawrence doesn’t like it. Says it could have ‘wide reaching effects on the balance of nature’.”
Myriad continued looking at the clouds, pensive. “Well, we’re probably already in trouble, aren’t we?”
Maelstrom suspected she was right. But there was something liberating in that. He walked out from the shade and squinted at the sky. “Um, what do we do with them, exactly?”
Myriad hopped from foot to foot in thought. “Get a closer look?”
And so they stood there, arms flung out like a confused Moses parting the Egyptian sky, and called the clouds down to them. They billowed over the pair, leaving their clothes damp and covered in ice crystals. Neither of them minded: water would do them no harm. They didn’t even need to breathe when completely submerged in it. That was something Myriad could only bring herself to question when she wasn’t experiencing it.
Giggling, Maelstrom coaxed some of the newly relocated fog around his neck like a feather boa. “Oh, Lord Moxy, you must attend Lady Foppington and I’s flower show.”
“Classist8,” he corrected.
She proceeded to make it rain over Maelstrom, and he was a good enough sport to let it hit him. He did, however, send his own miniature storm cloud after Myriad, and for the next few minutes a weather war played out between them, droplets twisting and turning unnaturally in the air after their target.
When they tired of that, they tried their hand at sculpture—crafting and peopling fleecy kingdoms of clouds and vapour, before trampling through them like rampaging giants. For reasons perhaps best left unasked, they took turns pretending to be Jack the Ripper, stalking each other through the debris of their creations.
If someone, somehow, forced Myriad to pick one power and stick with it for life, she suspected it might be Maelstrom’s. She was beginning to wonder how she’d gotten caught up in all the fuss over the natural teenagers. Humans can’t do stuff like this together. Who needs them?
The two of them had almost forgotten how and why they had found themselves out there in the bush, when Lawrence made himself known:
“Enough of this, children.”
The thick forest of mist Maelstrom and Myriad had grown around themselves dispersed, the former instantly standing to attention.
“Um, hello, sir,” said Myriad, before clapping her hand over her mouth.
Lawrence just stood there, suit disheveled from his journey through the bush. He looked faintly ridiculous. Even heading into the coldest time of the year, in the wettest, coolest part of the country, Dr. Herbert Lawrence was something altogether too hothouse English to exist comfortably in the Australian outdoors. “Don’t call me sir. And for Christ’s sake, get dressed.”
Myriad looked down at herself. At some point she and Maelstrom had intermingled themselves with the fog, and not bothered to retrieve their clothes when they put themselves back together. Maelstrom wore clothes mostly as a matter of courtesy rather than shame, and Myriad had shared a bathtub with him, so neither of them minded. They felt considerably less comfortable under Lawrence’s dark look.
With practised ease, Maelstrom threw his dad’s coat back on. For Myriad, it was a bit more involved. She was pulling on her shorts when she heard Lawrence bark, “Oh, hurry up, girl!”
His tone stunned Myriad into inaction. In the month she had been at the Institute, she had never heard Lawrence snap at a child like that. She found her shirt being forced roughly over her head. “Don’t dawdle!”
She almost broke down in tears right there and then.
They made their way back to to the Institute, Lawrence half-dragging the children by the wrist, making very little concession for their shorter stride. Much to Myriad’s confusion, he rounded on Maelstrom first:
“I cannot begin to express how disappointed I am with you, Maelstrom.”
Myriad opened her mouth, then closed it. She wanted to defend her friend, but all her focus was on keeping her footing. Somehow, being pulled along by her massive teacher, she didn’t think to play any of the songs that might have aided her in this.
Maelstrom, though, clearly felt he deserved no advocate. “I’m sorry Lawrence. I should have done better.”
Lawrence grunted as he forced his way through some shrubbery. “The other children, they’ve all been dealt a bad hand. Poor, lost things were raised as though they were human beings! You’re the firstborn son of a new culture; if you don’t show them how a young posthuman is meant to behave, no one will.”
“But Lawrence,” said Allison, almost tripping over a rock as she did, “Maelstrom really did try. We just didn’t listen.”
His grip tightened. “Any other time, Myriad, maybe trying would have been good enough. And don’t think I’ve forgotten your involvement.”
Myriad didn’t need to worry, though—Lawrence was far from done with Maelstrom.
“…And what were you thinking with that stunt with the lad? Even I could have told you how that would turn out, and I’m not the one who’s been splashing around with water since the nursery! If your father’s power ever comes in, I can only pray you’re more responsible with it.”
“I will. I promise.” Maelstrom’s voice was quavering. He bit his lip.
“Running away like that was completely immature as well. Did you think that would get you out of talking to me? Were you planning on staying out here till I forgot?”
“The state of abandon I found you and Myriad in suggests otherwise. Enjoying yourselves, I take it?”
“And what should you have done instead?”
“Gone straight back to the house and waited for you to come home,” Maelstrom said, like he was reciting a commandment.
It went on like that all the way back to the Institute. Apart from the sins and foibles Maelstrom displayed that day, Lawrence also reamed him for his standoffishness towards the other students, his allowing of the Watercolours to preoccupy him… even the times he called Melusine “Mum” in public.
Maelstrom’s apologies and promises to conduct himself better were ceaseless. It was a tactic Myriad was well acquainted with: agree with whatever the grownup says till they leave you alone.
Except, she realised, he was being completely earnest.
Lawrence didn’t let go of the children till they were in front of the farmhouse. There was something to be said for a man who could keep ahold of mist.
Aleister Johnson irritably polished a long, already spotless patch of countertop, the Beatles blaring out “Yes It Is” from the wireless playing in the back of the Camel Stop Diner’s kitchen:
“…Scarlet were the clothes she wore, everybody knows I’m sure, I would remember all the things we planned…”
Al gritted his teeth. Sometimes he felt like the only bloke in the world who couldn’t stand those four. When it came to the British Invasion, he wasn’t capitulating to anyone but the Kinks. “Say, Sal,” he said, “would ya mind changing the dial for a bit?”
Aleister’s back was to the kitchen’s window, but he would’ve sworn he could feel Sal, a hulking mass of menace and scar tissue that had learned to cook somewhere along the way, flipping him the bird.
He sighed and resumed his busywork. He normally wouldn’t have bothered contesting Sal’s choice of work music—not the least because he might in turn contest the present arrangement of his bones and innards—but the week had not been kind to him. As of late, he’d found it necessary to circumvent Northam Primary School as widely as possible on his journey home, lest he pass through the front door in a cold sweat. And that was nothing compared to Eddie. Once, he’d caught the poor fella accusing a glass of water of conspiring against him9.
Bazza’s company was of little help. He’d gotten deep into the super thing, devouring every book, newspaper clipping, or fun-fact on a discarded Cherry Ripe bar he could find. His interlibrary loans had likely put him on some kind of watchlist. Al half-expected any day now to hear that the police had caught him, blazing bright on some obscure plant or another, attempting to stitch babies and unwary housecats together into the Shining, Perfect New Human.
“…Please don’t wear red tonight, for red is the color that will make me blue, in spite of you, it’s true for red is the color that will make me blue…”
The diner was virtually deserted that Sunday afternoon, which suited Aleister fine. He still got paid, after all. The only customers were a pair of middle aged ladies in a corner booth proudly discussing their sons’ numbers coming up, both holding back tears, and two children blowing bubbles in their milkshakes. One, an Arab girl dressed like a royal yachtsman, made Al wonder how her mother let her walk around with hair dyed like that. Her friend looked like he was about to drop dead of anemia, but seemed to be in high spirits. Maybe it was his hat. In fact, Al would’ve greatly appreciated it if they stopped laughing quite so much. It made him twitch.
The bell above the door jangled, snapping Al to attention. A man in an Akubra hat strolled into the diner, a newspaper folded under his arm. As he passed the children, he tossed a couple of what looked like chocolate coins towards them, like Father Christmas from the top of a fire truck. They were eagerly snatched up.
“…I could be happy with you by my side, if I could forget her, but it’s my pride…”
He greeted Al when he reached the counter. “G’day mate, the usual?”
Al nodded, before calling out to Sal over his shoulder, “Steak sandwich with peppercorn sauce!”
Sal made a disgusting, yet affirmative gesture.
The man pulled up a stool and opened his paper, grimacing at some new horror of Redcap’s down in Perth.
“You local?” Al asked, sure he already knew the answer.
“Nah, mate,” he replied, “Melbourne. Down here visiting family.”
That came as a surprise. “Oh, didn’t realise there were any of your lot in Northam, to be honest.”
The man frowned slightly. “You’d be surprised. Or maybe not.”
He ate his meal in silence, the children shooting him furtive glances, trying to hide what might have been disappointment. When he finished, he stood up and fished around his pockets. “Shit, mate, I’ve only got twelve pence. I’ll—”
Al smiled. “Eh, it’s two pence, we’ll survive.”
The man looked relieved. “Much obliged.” He dumped some coins on the counter, tipped the brim of his hat to Al, the children, and the ladies, before taking his leave.
“…In spite of you, it’s true, yes, it is, it’s true…”
The Oriental was gone before Aleister could yell after him. The profile of King George glinted up at him six times over, all set in gold.
1. It is a similar instinct that drives horror cinema’s protagonists to flee upstairs from serial killers.↩
2. And those individuals who remember being children, presumably.↩
3. Talos wanted to be called Don Savage, but Lawrence didn’t catch the reference.↩
4. Nurse Graves of Roberts Demi-Human Containment Centre could never satisfactorily explain how her house came to be buried in West Australian topsoil.↩
5. The length of time it takes light to travel one Planck length.↩
6. Sometimes, Mabel Henderson almost regretted Żywie fixing her farsightedness. Eyeglasses added such character to her face.↩
7. The inexplicable appearance of an ice sculpture in front of the Rose Hotel in Bunbury would later inspire a fountain on Wellington and Victoria Street in 1992.↩
9. To be fair, water has much reason to oppose mankind.↩