The man in the red tuxedo led the children into the innards of the tent, extolling the precognitive virtues of his mistress as they went. It was very dim within, the only illumination provided by ornate, free standing candelabra. Elsewhere worried that a wrong step would set the whole place alight, but he figured that if this lady was a real fortune teller she’d have known in the first place if that was going to happen. The air was spiced with incense and other rich scents: water lilies, cedar, and fresh riparian mud. They felt thick carpet between their toes. As brisk as it was outside, it was stuffy in the tent. It made the children drowsy, except for Myriad. Warmth and darkness never put her at ease. She could hear two songs coming from the centre of the silk cave, one ancient in length, the other scarcely longer than her own.
The barker was tall and ruddy-faced to the point of looking almost feverish, the tips of his moustache trimmed into swirls. What the circus poster had omitted was the small scar on his left cheek, the kind German fencers coveted. “Madame Elsa is not your typical carnival con-artist, children. They only feed you happy lies, telling you your grandmother loves you and supports all your choices. They never say she hated your slag of a mother and thought you were the one thing keeping her precious boy from leaving and making something of his life.” He chuckled. “That was a good session.”
He sounded Greek. Not the exact breed of Greek Myriad was familiar with, however. As she mouthed some of the new words she’d picked up off him, she thought they sounded… like the whole language was different when they were spoken.
Mabel cringed. “Why would someone pay to hear stuff like that?”
“Because,” the barker replied, “some people care about truth, Miss Henderson. Of course, most of our customers come to us assuming we peddle in nothing but lies to begin with. And the dead do not always feel the need to spit bile across the veil. Most people—believe it or not—are fond of their children and spouses. Your father, for instance, thought the world of you.”
“…How did you know my name?”
The man smiled. “I told you Madame Elsa was expecting you, didn’t I?”
Mabel drew into herself like a frightened hedgehog. Myriad was amazed that she of all people was falling for it.
“It’s all a trick,” she whispered to her. “I know how these people work. They get the other gypsies or whatever to steal your wallet so the ‘psychics’ know your name and face”
“I don’t have a wallet,” Mabel whispered back.
“Then one of them heard you using your name while you were walking around.”
Mabel scowled at her. “I don’t know how it works in Harvey, but I don’t go around calling myself ‘Miss Henderson’, Miss Kinsey. And he was talking about Daddy—”
“That’s just cold-reading, Mabel. He knows you must’ve have a dad at some point—because you’re not a special kind of lizard—and he said it himself: most people like their kids. And if your dad didn’t, he could just say he does and is bad at showing it.”
“I’m not saying he didn’t like you, I’m saying—”
“I meant he did like me. He’s dead.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Hate to butt in, girls, but I do not believe you covered Miss Henderson’s objection regarding her surname, Miss Kinsey. Also, if we were frauds, your conversation would just feed us more material. You are right, though, cold-readers graze on the unwary.” He made a sharp stop, turning around to study the four children. “Hmm, regardless, I don’t expect Madame Elsa will be focusing on mediumship today. Between Miss Henderson and Master Barnes, you wouldn’t be back at the Institute by sunset tomorrow. And none of us want that now, do we?” Another chuckle. “Military families, we always charge extra for seances.” He started walking again. “I don’t know why you should be so blindly skeptical, Miss Kinsey. You live with a man who sees the future!”
For that, Myriad had no comforting rationalization. Maelstrom scurried over to her side. “He knows we’re from the Institute, Miri!” he hissed into her ear, though he was sure the barker could hear him.
“Did you take your contacts off around here? Maybe someone recognised your eyes?”
“No!” He bent his own fingers back, biting his lip. “What if Lawrence pays them to tell him if kids sneak out here?”
“Master Venter, I assure you we’re not in Dr. Lawrence’s employment.” The man sounded offended by the idea. “I doubt he believes any of you capable of this calibre of disobedience.” He twirled his staff. “His life is a continual parade of surprises.”
Myriad agreed, it was a mad idea. Much saner, she thought, that this man and his mistress were informants for AU. It didn’t occur to her that—whatever their scheme was—it depended on four children with a pressing need to be present and accounted for at home being willing to follow a strange man who talked like Lawrence’s great-grandfather into a dark, reeking tent. How big even is this thing, she thought. Feels like we’ve been walking for ages.
As though in answer, the tent opened onto a large central space. In the centre was a round, wooden table, with four hardbacked, cushioned chairs at the ready. A shawled, redhaired woman with very solid cheekbones looked up from a crystal ball and the four straining Atlases supporting it. “Myles,” she said cheerfully in a Finnish accent, “you’ve brought the nelyudi 1 to us!”
The woman came as a surprise. She’d expected an old crone, but this lady appeared no older than her own mother. Younger, even. Her song, though, was still one of the longest she had ever heard. It was rich, too, by baseline standards, with measure upon measure of languages and historical knowledge. Strangely, some of the new historical trivia contradicted other things she knew. Normally, when two pieces of information conflicted, the correct fact replaced the falsehood. Her power curated knowledge, not ignorance. Now, she would have to remind herself that John F. Kennedy was still alive.
Myles bowed with a flourish. Elsewhere was a little impressed his hat stayed on. “Honour to be of service, ma’am.”
Elsa laughed heartily. “Don’t grovel, Myles. It’s a partnership and you know it.” She twisted in her seat to look at a partition behind her, which exuded steam and cooking smells. “Ávrá!” she shouted. “Is the tea ready?”
A nervous looking twelve year old girl, hair as red as Elsa’s, poked her head out from behind the screen. When she spoke, her tone was excessively conciliatory: “It’s almost done, Mother!”
Elsa made a low growling sound in her throat. “I told you we would be entertaining!”
“I’m-I’m sorry, it’ll only be a second—”
“Nevermind! It’s too late now.” She made a shooing gesture. “Leave us, attend to the laundry or something.”
To the children’s relief, Ávrá slipped through the folds of fabric into the daylight.
“Please forgive my daughter,” said Elsa. “Somebody has to. Do any of you children actually like tea?” She looked straight at Maelstrom. “And no, pretending you like it to make your headmaster happy does not count.”
The children shook their heads, except for Maelstrom, who just stood there, stunned.
“Ah, no loss then. But don’t tell Ávrá that.” She chortled. “Sit down, all of you.”
Uncomfortably, they all took a seat around the table. They were all considering backing out, or at least going outside and giving Ávrá a hug2, but something about the way Myles stood in the entrance made that course of action seem unwise. Myriad could see his reflection in a full length mirror in the corner, and there was something off about it that she couldn’t quite name. She found she was continually reminding herself that his and Elsa’s songs were those of human beings.
Elsa raised two fingers. “Let me fetch you some refreshments.”
She spat some syllables in Russian, and four glasses of a chilled, light pink liquid appeared before the children in puffs of brimstone.
The Watercolours and their Orchestra were all superhumans. One of their superhuman natures specifically took the form of dramatically moving things from place to place. This display still sent them into hysterics.
Maelstrom stared wildly at Myriad. “Why didn’t you tell us she was a new human?”
Elsa’s voice rang with quiet, steady authority. “I am nothing of the sort, boy.”
The other three children went silent.
“When Adam and Eve were first fumbling at love in the Garden, the mother of my kind was beguiling angels and spirits alike.”
“…Lawrence says the Garden of Eden probably wasn’t—”
“Did he beat all the poetry out of you children? I’m a witch, is what I’m trying to say!”
“But, your song—”
“And I’m certainly not going to let some petty esper peek under the hood. I’m not ten.”
“…Could you teach someone to be a witch?” asked Mabel.
Elsa made an exasperated noise. “No, you have to be born to it first. I can’t wait till those books come out and people stop asking. Here, this should cover any pertinent questions.”
Four business cards wafted down onto the table from the shadows. Printed on black cardstock, they bore the same white stag as the circus advertisement, as well as the legend:
FULLY INITIATED WITCH OF THE MOURNERS OF VIPUNEN COVEN, FINLAND
WHOLE OWNER OF OWN SOUL, ARNOLD
MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BETTER THAN PENDERGAST
“Pass them around, I do birthdays and bat mitzvahs.”
“What’s a bat mitzvah?” asked Elsewhere.
“My, we are provincial, aren’t we? Have a sip of your drinks before we start. I—well, Ávrá—squeezed that juice from fruit grown in Prester John’s own orchards.”
Myriad couldn’t hide her disbelief. Laying it on a bit thick.
Elsa noticed. “Oh, so that you don’t buy, but you’re willing to entertain that I’m a real house-haunting, broom-riding, cauldron-stirring witch?”
Myriad wiggled one of the business cards. “The Americans have a warlock.”
“And he would most likely turn you into something awful if he heard you call him that,” said Myles.
Elsewhere examined the card. “Leinonen?” he said, mangling the pronunciation, “Is this your circus?”
“Yes. I let Myles act as ringmaster, though. Most people expect a man in the role. You should give the show a look after this, he’s ever so good.”
Elsewhere had only one question. “Do you get much money from it?”
“Child, money is as relevant to me as giant carved courtship rocks are to you. Shall we get started?”
They all nodded. What else were they going to do?
With a snap of the witch’s fingers, all the candles in the tent were snuffed out. The only thing that kept Myriad from flying into a panic at the sudden darkness was the sound of her friends’ breathing.
Before the children’s gasps faded, the crystal ball lit the room with a pale glow, mist swirling inside. Myles had moved to Elsa’s side, though the thick, heady air was undisturbed by his passing. As he stood there grinning, his eyes glinted like a cat’s. Mabel decided it was probably a witch thing, but that was no reassurance.
“I’m sure all your parents told you you were special. I know Lawrence told you that. Let’s take a look and see if they were right. Gaze deep into the Eye of Odin…”
And so they did.
At first, Maelstrom thought the idea was to look for shapes and patterns in the ball, which he regarded as something of an anti-climax. Then again, he wasn’t convinced this woman and her sidekick were really witches to begin with. Lawrence had always maintained that posthumans who claimed mystical or divine origins for their gifts were either delusional, misinformed, or liars. Although, that did imply Madame Elsa possessed the oddly specific power of fooling Myriad into thinking she didn’t have one, but that wouldn’t even have been the naffest power he’d heard of. He still remembered Lawrence telling him about that boy with the porcupine quills3.
As he stared, the fog resolved into a landscape: thick, rainy-green shrubland, beneath blue skies contaminated by only the slightest wisps of clouds. Maelstrom could even see the heat haze. He also thought he saw a person making their way towards a tiny structure on the horizon, hauling something behind him. He leaned forward to get a closer look…
It took him a moment to notice that his perspective had changed from a bird’s-eye view to an eye-level one. As soon as he did, he fell in the dirt, still in a seated position.
For most people, their first thought probably would have been something on the theme of “Where am I?” or “How did I get here?”. Maelstrom’s friends might have thought to curse Elsewhere’s name—either of them. None of those things crossed his mind. He was too horrified by the complete absence of water.
It was impossible. Water was everywhere. There were plants all around him. Even scraggly, desert-born weeds had water in them. Out of his mind with terror, he felt around his eyes. Tears were welling in them; he could feel the moisture on his fingertips. But the sense his mother had passed down to him felt nothing: not even his own blood. It was like waking up one morning to discover the world no longer possessed width or depth.
He changed into ice, but still, nothing. For a terrible moment, he knew what non-existence felt like.
Maelstrom was about to curl up into a ball and cry out for his mother, when suddenly, water made itself known. He felt it within himself and the air and the plants and all the things that crawled through the dirt—like God hastily correcting an omission on His part, hoping no one noticed.
This was a great relief to Maelstrom. Now he was only alone in a strange place, with no idea where his friends were. And, presumably, he was still playing hookey.
He paced frantically in aimless circles, squeezing a rock he found till it drew blood and muttering under his breath, “So stupid, got us all killed, should’ve said no, told…” He imagined his mother looking for him. Wherever this place was, he doubted it was part of the world as he knew it. She’ll never find anything, not even bones. And there was Basilisk to think about, too: he might slip into one of his dark spells and never come out. He wondered what was happening to his friends. He almost hoped they didn’t make it out without him. What’ll Mum think? He remembered Eddie, twitching in the water…
“Try not to recollect so hard, child. It might leak into the visionscape.”
Maelstrom screamed. His gaze darting in all directions, he found Elsa sprawled out on a deckchair in a white beach dress and sunglasses, a tanning mirror in one hand and a tumbler of scotch in the other. “Also, I don’t know if this hurts—no pun intended—or improves your little self-harm ritual, but none of this is real. Why I’m not bothered about the tan lines.” She got up and stretched. The chair, the mirror, and the remnants of her drink all fell away into dust and then the dust became nothing at all. “Sorry for the scare, but most people only have five senses worth mentioning. User incompatibility, you understand?”
He didn’t, but he doubted any further explanation would help. “Where are we?”
“In a tent, at a carnival, in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia. I’m sitting in my lovely, comfy chair, watching you sort of sway about in your seat. You’re still blinking, so I figured I didn’t need to make Ávrá moisten your eyeballs. If you’re asking what you’re looking at, we’re in South Africa, somewhere along the Eastern Cape.” She licked her index finger and held it in the air. “Closer to East London than anywhere else, I think.”
The description stirred a memory in Maelstrom. He looked toward the figure in the distance. “But that’s where—”
Elsa smiled. “Your father’s fatherland, yes.”
Maelstrom suddenly stood very still.
“What’s wrong? Did I forget something else?”
“…If I step on a bug, do I stop existing? Or do the Germans win the war?”
“It’s 1946, sweetie, I think we’re safe on that front. And even if it wasn’t, I already told you: this is just a vision. You can’t change anything. Take a look at where you were cutting a trench in the dirt. Notice anything?”
“Exactly, no footprints! Think of this like reviewing the Book of Days, except you can’t even draw dirty pictures in the margins. Only I can do that.” She drew something in the sky Maelstrom would certainly not have been allowed to lay his eyes on at the Institute. “Come along, boy, there is much for us to see.”
Seeing no other choice, Maelstrom followed the witch, pointedly not looking up. Every time he blinked, it felt like the world around him ceased to be. He suspected that behind him lay nothingness, or maybe just the tent.
Maelstrom immediately recognised the young teenager huddled under the heap of corrugated iron as Basilisk. He’d seen enough pictures of him at that age. Although, in those photos, he’d always been dressed in sturdy leather clothes, not ragged tatters held together by scraps of animal fur. He hadn’t been so gaunt, either. He was clumsily attempting to cut his hair with a pair of rusted scissors, his progress painfully uneven. Tools and utensils in varying states of corrosion were strewn around him. After a while, the scissors fell apart in his hand.
The shadow that crossed his face was not disappointment. Disappointment required some betrayal of hope, or unexpected hardship. Basilisk just looked numbed with despair.
“Do you know why your father shaves his head? It’s not for aesthetics, it’s so his hair doesn’t retain so much oil and sweat.”
“Why is he so far away?” Maelstrom whispered.
Elsa shouted, making him jump. “Why are you whispering? I keep telling you, this isn’t real! You could blow a euphonium in his ear and he wouldn’t notice.”
“I think I’ll pass,” replied Maelstrom. “But still, where’s his village? Basil always said he stayed close by.”
“Oh, I’m sure it can’t be more than an hour’s walk from here. He probably scavenges on the edges, maybe is allowed to cart away the refuse and the scraps. I’d wager that’s what’s in that sack lying next to him.”
The sun was setting, prompting Elsa to dispel her sunglasses. They watched Basil attempt to start a fire. He worked with some skill, but nothing came easy to him. Sticks snapped, leaves and kindling melted. When he finally got a flame going, it released a noxious, metallic stench from the scarred wood he’d collected.
There was an awful mechanicalness to his movements, like living had become more a matter of stubborn instinct than any real want. He cooked a couple of chicken heads, eating them with great speed, to the point where Maelstrom almost worried he would choke. This habit was not unfamiliar to Maelstrom. Basilisk tended to try and swallow his food as fast as possible, lest the acids in his saliva spoil the taste.
“…He never made it sound this bad.”
“Of course he didn’t. What man wants their son looking at them and seeing that?” She shook her head, tutting. “I have no idea how destroying everything you touch counts as a power. Or is diabetes ‘insulin negation’?”
“Basilisk’s power is really useful!” Maelstrom said, sounding defensive. “There’s clearing up debris… you couldn’t handcuff him, could you?” He stopped trying to convince himself, and just stood watching his father struggle alone.
“I think the powers thing was just your auntie’s excuse to get Lawrence to bring him along. Why he needed an excuse to rescue a boy from this, you might have to bring him to me to find out. I doubt he believed it in his heart of hearts, though. But that’s the tricky thing about lies. You tell yourself one enough, you start believing it. Would explain a lot…”
Maelstrom looked up at the witch, smiling weakly. “But things still got better, didn’t they? Lawrence took him to England, then Australia, and now he’s somewhere he could do what he loves, with people he loves.”
Except when he’s so sad you wonder if he was ever happy at all…
“Maybe,” said Elsa. “Let’s see how that turned out.”
A great wind swept across the land, taking the world with it. When the dust and sand settled—and Maelstrom finished sputtering and rubbing his eyes—the two were standing in Żywie’s bedroom, minus almost a decade’s worth of the detritus of life. The boy had spent a lot of time in that room. Sometimes, when he felt upset or unloved, he found the healer easier to approach than his parents. Especially when they were fighting.
She was laying on top of her bed with a copy of The Lancet, laughing and occasionally frowning at what passed for medical science at the time.
Maelstrom giggled at the sight. “She sends them letters sometimes; never gets any answers. They probably think she’s a crank.”
The door flew open, Basilisk barging in, his features twisted with anger. “Damn Lawrence, damn Chen, and damn me!”
Maelstrom and the memory of Żywie both yelped. “Jesus Christ, Hugo, what’s the matter?”
Maelstrom was confused. “Why is she calling him Hugo?”
“Because that’s how it happened.” was Elsa’s only response.
Basilisk was practically shaking, like it was taking everything he had not to rip a picture from the wall and throw it. “Françoise is late.”
Sometimes, English idioms escaped Żywie. “…Late?”
“Her monthlies, Eliza. She’s pregnant.”
Żywie looked conflicted. “Oh, of course… isn’t that what we wanted?”
“What Lawrence wanted. What I hope to God Fran wanted. Not me.”
“…Then why’d you go through with it?” asked Żywie, a subtle but unmissable note of anger in her voice.
“Because I thought I was sterile!”
“I told you to your face you weren’t!”
“And I didn’t believe you,” Basil said, hanging his head. “A man who burns holes in the bed-sheets shouldn’t be able to have children. Not in any sane world.”
“Stop it!” shouted Maelstrom. This wasn’t the story either of his parents had told him. It didn’t even agree with Tiresias’ account4.
Basil, Żywie, and every insect and mite of dust in the room became still, like the moment had been preserved in glass.
Elsa looked down at the boy. “What’s wrong? Did I forget the water again? God, you’re like a little kid who’ll only see movies if they’re in 3D.” She touched Maelstrom’s nose, materialising red and cyan anaglyph glasses over his eyes.
He tore them off. “You’re lying! It didn’t happen like this! Basil wanted me!”
Elsa rolled her eyes. “Yes, Maelstrom. This is all a lie. I deliberately prepared this elaborate illusion just to fool a random superpowered little boy into believing his dad thought he was a mistake. Actually, that does sound like fun. Must try it some time.” She knelt till her head was level with Maelstrom’s, pointing at the frozen scene and grinning like a schoolgirl. “Oh, this is where it gets good.”
The afterimages were allowed to proceed with their play. Żywie smiled, a little sadly, and embraced Basilisk. “Oh, Hugo, the world has never been sane. You’ll be a brilliant father, don’t you doubt that.”
At the time, that gesture—that unreserved contact—meant everything to Basilisk. Still, he pulled away. “You know this isn’t about fatherhood. This is about genes. And I don’t know how Lawrence could’ve picked a worse set. A random yobo from Northam would’ve made a better stud…”
Maelstrom and Żywie were both left without words.
“…Why’d she say Lawrence picked—”
Elsa put a finger to his mouth, shushing him. “You’re drowning out the dialogue.”
“I’m sorry you see it that way,” said Żywie. “If I could have children, I think I’d like them to be yours.”
“I’m diseased, Eliza.”
“Don’t say that! If you’re diseased, then so are me and Fran—”
“You and Fran give goddesses a run for their money. I have a skin condition. I’m not so small you need to pretend otherwise.” He sat down on her bed, rubbing his hands over his face. “Why did Chen have to bugger off! He’d at least be a father worth having…”
The world stopped again.
“I-I was meant to be AU’s son?”
Elsa looked at him sympathetically. “I’m sorry Maelstrom…” She beamed at him. “Sorry you missed out on great bonus powers! I can see it now: Goldwater!”
Maelstrom burst into tears.
“…I thought it was a pretty good name.”
She waited till Maelstrom’s wailing tapered off into quiet sobbing before ending the intermission.
Żywie sat down beside Basilisk. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“Françoise said she’d come up in the morning to have you check on the—” The word caught in his throat. “—the baby.”
The healer looked indignant. “She should have ran to me as soon as she suspected she was expecting! At least she doesn’t drink much—”
“Don’t judge her too hard, Z. I think she just wants it to be hers for a night; no one else’s. Probably only told me because it was polite. Lawrence doesn’t even know yet.” For the first time in over a week, Maelstrom saw his father smile—even if only in memory. “I’ll say one thing for this kid: he’ll have an excess of mothers.”
They both laughed. It was the saddest sound Maelstrom ever heard.
Basilisk quickly sacrificed what happiness they had reclaimed. “When you’re looking over through that child-to-be’s genes, I want you to keep a look out for what went wrong with me, and cut it out.”
“Hugo, I told you,” she said with patient sadness. “Trying to alter your whole physiology like that would kill you.”
Maelstrom couldn’t even process the idea that Basil had wanted his power removed.
“I am a grown man, that child is still a clump of cells. It doesn’t have a ‘physiology’ yet. If you can change anything, you can change it now.”
“Damn it, Hugo, people aren’t shopping lists of traits! They’re like… cakes! If I take one ingredient out, without adjusting the entire recipe as well, the whole thing comes undone! Your son or daughter could be born without skin! Without eyes! Or just be this mass that does nothing but scream and choke on puss and-and—” She began to weep. “I couldn’t do that to you. I couldn’t do that to Fran.”
Basil held her close. He hated himself for what he was about to say to his friend. “Eliza, do you remember what you told me about genetic drift? What if this child’s… secretions are a hundred times stronger than mine? What if they affect living flesh and blood the same as everything else? What if he isn’t immune to it? Fran could have this baby, and then have to watch as its insides slowly rot away. That, I couldn’t do to Fran.” He began to tear up as well. “Is it so wrong? You said I’d make a decent father—”
“A brilliant father.”
“—and what father doesn’t try and give their kids a better life than they had?”
“And what if I end up killing your kid?” Eliza asked through sobs.
Basilisk let her go, standing up and making for the door. “Eliza, sometimes, a better life is not having one. Good night.”
He closed the door behind him, leaving Eliza to weep into her pillow. His tears renewed, Maelstrom wept along with her.
“Brava!” Elsa cried, applauding. “Magnifique!” She watched her companion attempt vainly to either comfort or seek comfort from Żywie. “Alright, you’ve probably had enough entertainment for the evening.” She pried the boy away from the long-ago woman. “Time for you to wake up.”
Sniffling, Maelstrom asked, “Why’d you show me this?”
Elsa smiled. “So you, Maelstrom, second-choice grandson of the boundless sea, kin to the Cosmic River herself, will always know that you were Lawrence’s child. Hugo, Françoise: they were just the delivery mechanisms.”
Maelstrom’s image began to fade away. “…I knew that already.”
“I thought you might.”
Before Maelstrom was gone completely, Elsa hissed in his ear, “Your father’s deformity? It only made itself known at puberty—teenagers and sweat and all that—You have five years till you find out if Eliza listened…”
“Where are we?” asked Myriad.
If there was one nice thing you could say about Madame Elsa, it was that she did not correct the child by saying, “I think the question is when are we?” She would have slit the throat of anyone who tried being that smart with her. Instead, she said, “Paraguay, July 9th, 2022”
Myriad exhaled in wonder. “You mean this is the future?” They were standing in a dense patch of jungle, waiting for the rain to stop. Moisture and threads of cloud-greyed sunlight leaked through the canopy above. It was cooler than many summer days she’d lived through in Harvey, at least if you asked a thermometer, but the air was wetter than she was used to. It put her in mind of a warm bath, or maybe the inside of a kettle.
Dressed in warm shadow, the witch answered, “Yes, child, this is the future. And just beyond these trees is one of the only places on Earth that looks the part.”
“What do you mean?”
Elsa winked. “Follow me, and you’ll see.”
They made their way across the forest floor, Elsa wildly swiping ahead of them with a machete suddenly in her hand. Sometimes she did this even when there were no vines or other foliage blocking their path. Her dreamself had traded in her fortune teller gown and veil for a safari suit and a pith helmet. “The-problem-with-the future,” she said between grunts of exertion, “is that the past doesn’t clean up after itself. Those pictures in the magazines with the rough paper ink that rubs off as soon as you glance at them? The ones where all the buildings have been replaced by art-deco monstrosities? Madness. No one is going to tear down a city every time some new architectural fad emerges. If you want to build the city of tomorrow, you need a lot of land no one cares about.”
Myriad was only half-listening. She’d never been outside Australia before today, and she supposed she still hadn’t, but still, it was an experience. Leaves slick with water droplets glistened in the gloom. Insects chittered and chirruped all around her—their sounds both familiar and indefinably foreign. Even the soil smelt different. It was like the heat was more alive than at home.
Most importantly, she could hear songs in the distance. New human songs. Scores of them. Hundreds, maybe.
As they neared the edge of the trees, Elsa said, “Behold, the city-state of Nova Australia!”
They emerged onto a vast plain of neatly cut grass, bordered by yet more trees. Over them loomed tall, airy buildings. At least, Myriad thought they were buildings. They looked like they were grown rather than built, from titanic seeds of metal and silica, with immense blossoms of solar sail petals. She couldn’t help but imagine them swaying with the wind.
All around them, new humans went about their day. Myriad couldn’t reproduce their songs—separated as they were by a gulf of over sixty years—but still made clear what they were. They threw frisbees, played chess, and walked dogs and cats and things Myriad would’ve imagined the Physician owning as a boy.
For the first time in her short life, Myriad could hear no human songs. “…Is this a park?”
“Yes, Adam Sinclair Memorial Park, if memory serves.”
“A park for new humans?”
Elsa shrugged. “I doubt there’s a sign or anything telling the old model to stay out, but yes, most if not all the people you see are—what’s that word Lawrence likes? Ah, yes, posthuman.”
“Find us a place to sit and I’ll tell you.”
Myriad wasn’t sure why the witch didn’t just conjure up a lounge chair or a throne, but they found themselves a bench by a duckpond5. A raven-haired little girl chased a blond Asian boy dressed in what looked like a Flying Man costume through the air, while what could have been her twin chased ducks below them. Though her words were a bit muffled, Myriad thought she was berating them for not being seals.
The Flying Man costume surprised her. Children of course played pretend as the Flying Man all the time; it was like playing Superman, but thrillingly skirting the edge of taboo. Myriad herself could remember being the Flying Girl, with Elsewhere press-ganged into being Rudolf Anderson, but never where grownups might hear.
“Tell me, girl, do you know anything about the New Australian Movement?”
For once in Myriad’s life, the answer was no. “Some people call my mum a new Australian?”
Elsa chuckled. “No, not that kind of new Australian.”
“You see, in the 1890s, Australia was in a bit of a recession. Lots of dissatisfied shearmen wandering around looking for work and not finding any. If Federation hadn’t happened in 1901, Australia might’ve gone red, which would have pleased a man named William Lane to no end. He and two hundred or so other Aussies decided to set sail for Paraguay in 1893. Paraguay had lost nine out of ten of its fellas to war with Brazil and Uruguay twenty years before, so they were pretty keen on importing new, white faces. I would have suggested moving to an industrial milking model, but instead they gave the Australians 185,000 acres to build their perfect, socialist society.” Her voice took on a mockingly pompous tone. “One founded on white, English speaking brotherhood, the pursuit of life marriage, teetotalism, the preservation of the colour-line…” She glanced up at the flying boy as he skimmed over the water, trying to throw his pursuer off. “Should have introduced your drippy little friend to them.” She cackled, as is traditional. “Half of them thought they were recreating an old science fiction book. Looking Backward, it was called.”
Myriad looked incredulous. “Really?”
“Oh, that sort of thing happens all the time. You ever see that Star Trek program? I know of two communes that tried to live life the Vulcan way. Neither of them lasted seven years.”
Myriad made a face.
“It’s so nice having precocious company for once. Ávrá’s just one blank stare after another. Anyway, those guys still did better than New Australia. Two years of infighting and schisms and the Paraguayans dissolved the place as a cooperative. New Australia became another quiet backwater.”
They watched the super-children at play for a while. While Elsa talked, they had been joined by a child with golden skin, her hair tinged with copper. Myriad thought she was a machine at first, but her movements were too natural, and she had a song. She didn’t fly, but instead teleported through the air, appearing and disappearing before gravity could ensnare her.
“Backwater, huh?” Myriad said.
“Don’t get smart with me!” snapped Elsa. “I haven’t finished my story. Eventually most of the New Australians moved into the big cities or back home. One of them only died a couple years ago, actually. Mary Gilmore, I think she was. They’ll put her on your ten dollar note eventually.”
“Amazingly, in the 1980s, nearly thirty years after a living god broke the arsenals of mankind over his knee, people will still care about reds under the bed. Especially a man called Alfredo Stroessner. He’ll be very worried about communists. And being kicked out of office by his own soldiers. So when a group of superhumans offer to make sure the commies stay out of Paraguay, in exchange for a bit of living space, he’ll be happy to give them a dusty old social experiment to play with.” She gestured at the buildings towering over the park. “They make the most of it, as you can see. The first posthuman city6. Also, they renamed it Nova Australia, because, why wouldn’t you?”
Myriad giggled. “Elsewhere would’ve called it ‘Superior Australia’.”
“Well, the food is certainly superior.”
They sat on the bench for some time, not speaking. Elsa entertained herself by reading a thick children’s book with a red steam engine on the cover, billowing steam from a chimney like a dragon’s head. “If they make him cook their breakfast, why doesn’t he just poison them?”
Myriad didn’t pay attention to her commentary. She was too busy people-watching. The four children had wandered away from the pond and into the trees. Myriad thought it an awfully wild place for a city-park, but they were new humans. What could they possibly find in there more terrible than themselves?
They were replaced a picnicking family; a young couple and two toddlers. They ate, they laughed, they played, all with no fear. It was only by their songs that Myriad could tell they were like her.
“Thank you for showing me this.”
The witch was startled from her reading by the child’s gratitude. “You’re welcome… why?”
“It’s nice knowing that this isn’t forever.”
Myriad rocked a bit, looking up at the sky. “The DDHA, the centres, even the Institute. I mean, it’s great there, but it’s good knowing we won’t have to live on a farm forever. That there’ll be somewhere else for kids like us.”
Elsa nodded. “Glad to hear it. Hope for the future is so important.” She grinned, then raised her hand.
With a click of her fingers, everything cracked—the buildings, the grass, the people, all of them shattered and fell away like a broken pane of glass.
What was left was desolation. Broken towers of mirrored glass bled smoke and ash into the sky, staining it brown and grey. The street around them was cracked and warped, like the asphalt and pavement were a sea snap-frozen in the middle of a storm.
Worse was what loomed over the city. A tree, towering over even the skyscrapers, too vast to possibly support its own weight by any natural means. An armoured colossus, forty meters tall, was caught in its roots, an outstretched arm reaching for help and finding none. Its eyes glowed balefully, flickering in the shadow of the tree.
“Where-where are we?”
“The future’s future, my darling. Perth, 2032.”
Myriad whispered, “What happened here?”
Elsa shot up from the bench, the one thing from Nova Australia that remained intact, her arms outstretched. “A pale horse rode through!” the witch shouted exultantly. “And Hell rode behind it!” She turned to face Myriad, beckoning her forward as she walked backwards. “Come and see, come and see.”
She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to go anywhere with Madame Elsa. She wanted her friends. She wanted the park in Nova Australia back. She wanted her mother. But she also didn’t want to be left alone in this place.
Elsa led her through ruined streets, past homes and businesses with the fronts torn off them, like dollhouses. Broken glass was everywhere. It did not cut her bare feet, but she felt the suggestion of sharpness against her skin. Totalled cars were strewn along the roads, or jutting from the sides of buildings, like they’d been blown about by a cyclone. Or thrown. Children’s toys lay abandoned in strange, lonely places.
They encountered the dead, of course, some so charred as to be barely recognizable as once being people. One or two bodies were dressed in unfamiliar, scarlet uniforms. Myriad tried not to look at them.
She heard a groan behind her. She should not have turned around.
The man looked like he’d been struck by lightning. Half his body looked like melted wax, his clothing fused with his flesh. He stumbled right through Myriad, like she were a trick of the light, making her scream and cling tightly to Elsa.
“Help him, help him, help him!”
“Yes, we must…” Elsa said breathlessly, her face full of concern. She could only hold the expression for a moment before breaking down laughing. “In about seventy years!” She pulled Myriad along. “Don’t linger, pet, we still have a show to catch by the river.”
Myriad had been to Perth twice in her life. Once on her way to the Institute, and before that with her parents on the way to Monkey Meyer. During the long drive, her father had pointed out the Swan Brewery on the foreshore along Mounts Bay Road. The houses and markets that once resided along the road were gone, as was the parking complex, but the brewery was almost perversely intact. In its shadow stood a white haired old man and two redhaired teenagers, talking to a woman in scarlet. Myriad thought she was laughing through tears.
“Who are they?” she asked.
“You tell me,” Elsa answered.
Myriad tried to focus on the woman… no, it was a man… or a child or… Tiresias? She rubbed her eyes. “That lady’s blurry.” She had never heard her song before, nevertheless it’s structure sounded… familiar.
The witch looked puzzled. “Huh. Must have missed a syllable or something in the spell. Sorry about that.”
Myriad was beginning to tear up. “Why did you show me this?”
Elsa cupped the girl’s chin in her hand. “So you know this isn’t as bad as it gets.” The world started to burn, like film caught in a fire. “So stop feeling sorry for yourself. It’s very rough justice all around.”
From the corner of her eye, Myriad saw movement. Something was descending into the midst of the four by the river.
His costume had changed, but she had seen him up close in the barn. The Flying Man had come.
“…What did he do?”
She let go of her face and laughed.
“Elsa, what did he do?”
“Knock it off!” shouted Mabel.
Charlton Heston stopped beating the sand before the Statue of Liberty, and Elsa ceased fawning over him for a moment, looking over disdainfully at the girl. “Oh, what is it now, child?”
“You’ve shown me nothing but bollocks since I looked into your stupid ‘Eye of Owen’.”
“It’s the Eye of Odin7! And I’ve shown you edifying glimpses of things to come!”
“Yes, like how the future is going to be ruled by monkeys, or how we’re all going to wear leather and chase each other around the desert in stupid looking cars. Is everyone in the future queer or something?”
“Those were haunting allegories for problems we face in the here and now.”
Żywie was a good English teacher. “Allegories? I thought they were the future!”
Elsa titled her hand. “They’re the future somewhere.”
Mabel sighed. “Look, it was fun at first, watching that commie super lady throwing singers into mountains, or that world where geckos replaced us, but I want to see something that involves me.”
“Do you now?”
“Yes,” she repeated.
Elsa nodded with her eyes closed. “Alright.”
Walls burst from the sand around them, joining together to form a house, a roof falling on top of it from the sky. When Mabel recovered from the shock, she recognised the place immediately.
To call the building a house was being generous. To call it a cottage was being polite. To call it a shack… well, not to the owners’ faces. It was also Mabel’s home for the first five years of her life.
A stolid, bearded man in work trousers and a white singlet smoked anxiously next to his bedroom door. Cries of pain and exertion carried through the thin walls, making him cringe with every every bout. Mabel knew the sounds well. There was a woman in labour behind that door.
She walked up to the man, looking up into his dark, sombre eyes. “Daddy?”
Elsa looked at her watch. Like many high-end timepieces, it had a moon-phase display, though the moon in question orbited a gas giant. “He will be in about fifty seconds.”
Mabel ignored her. She was reacquainting herself with her father’s face. The broad, flat nose, the faded smallpox scars, the wrinkles around his eyes. Mr. Henderson had not been an old man by any means when he died, but hard work and worry had lefts its lines and scars, even before his wife fell pregnant.
Please see me, she thought. Smile at me, or yell, just please look at me.
A young nurse emerged from the room, her face brimming with sympathy and well-worn regret. “Mr Henderson, your wife has given birth to healthy baby girl.”
Mr. Henderson drew deeply from his cigarette. “That’s not all you came out to tell me, is it, miss?” he said, holding onto his composure for dear life.
“…No, I’m afraid not. There’ve been some complications—”
“Let me see her.”
“I’m afraid that wouldn’t be advisable, Mrs Henderson is in a very delicate condition.”
Mr. Henderson knew what that meant. That he was the one in a delicate condition. That he couldn’t be allowed to see the state his wife was in. He didn’t let himself get angry. He did however force his way past the nurse and into the bedroom.
Mabel and Elsa followed, not even bothering to go around the nurse’s memory.
There was honestly no harm Mr Henderson could have done barging in. By that point, all the midwives and the doctor on call could do was tend to the newborn and make sure Mrs Henderson was as comfortable as possible. Blood had soaked the towels between her legs. More blood, Mabel knew, than what’s right. Sweat plastered her hair to her bone-white brow.
He was at her side immediately, clutching her hand and murmuring love and comforting lies into his wife’s ear.
Mildred Henderson bought none of it. She was a nurse and a midwife herself. More than once, she’d been the one to deliver the bad news to the husband in the next room. “The baby.”
Nobody in the room needed any further explanation. Mr Henderson looked wide-eyed at the nurse rocking the squalling bundle of blankets and life, who laid it in Mrs Henderson’s arms.
From where they were standing, Mabel and Elsa should not have heard Mildred’s last words. They were scarcely a whisper; she hadn’t the strength for anything more. But they were magnified in the retelling:
“Don’t name her after me, you daft bastard.”
Mr Henderson nodded, and she was gone8.
Madame Elsa puts her hands on Mabel’s shoulders. “It was nobody’s fault, of course, excepting maybe evolution or Eve. But I don’t have to tell you that, do I? You’re too smart a girl to blame yourself, and your father was too good a man to let you.”
Mabel nodded slowly, gripped by a grief too great for mere tears.
Elsa leant down and whispered, “But I know what you do blame on yourself.”
Before Mabel could react, her mother, father, and the doctor and midwives all faded away. The blood and the towels were gone, too. Just them and an unmade bed.
Elsa straightened up. “Your father did better than anyone expected. Lot of folk around Circle’s End thought he would palm you off to a cousin, or marry the first young, dumb thing he laid his eyes on to get you a mother. We didn’t put much stock in the ability of men to carry on without a wife. Still don’t, really.”
Mabel could smell smoke.
“But everyone makes mistakes. His was leaving you home unsupervised while he was at work. To be fair, the neighbours knew you well, and you were a pragmatic child.”
The temperature was rising, and with it, Mabel’s panic. “I know this story, you don’t have to—”
Elsa’s face cracked into a grin. “But the problem with pragmatic children is that, sometimes, they figure out things too soon for their own good. Like how to operate a stove!”
The bedroom door opened of its own accord. Flames burned beyond. Mabel frantically scrambled away from them, whimpering.
“You were braver when you were five and the fire could actually burn you.” She laughed. “Tried putting it out with glasses of water from the sink, didn’t you? God, I love it.”
Mabel was huddling in the corner, unresponsive. Elsa strode over and yanked the girl to her feet. “Come on Mabel, up you get.” She pulled her towards the door, despite the child’s inarticulate begging. “We aren’t afraid of a memory, are we?”
They walked through the inferno. Segments of roof were already falling in. “Shoddy construction. I would have sued.”
Mabel had her face buried in the witch’s dress. She could feel the heat of the flames and smell the smoke, even as she remembered them.
“It wasn’t your fault, you know. Well, the fire was. That was just boneheaded. You could have just gone next door for porridge.”
I thought he’d be proud.
“And hiding under the couch where nobody could see you.” She tutted. “Idiotic. But what happened next—” She shook her head. “You mustn’t blame yourself for that.” Her expression became cheerful. “That was your father’s mistake.”
They passed through the cottage’s front door. A crowd had assembled, four large men barely holding back Mabel’s father.
“It’s too hot, Andrew!”
“Get off me, ya fucking cunts! Mabel’s in there!”
“You know,” said Elsa. “I’d wager some of them were seriously considering letting him burn with you.”
“Why would they want that?” Her words were choked.
“Oh, you misunderstand, child. They didn’t consider it out of malice, but out of love. Those men knew your father. What is Drew Henderson even for without his daughter?”
Mr. Henderson still struggled, but his anger was crumbling into despair. “For Christ’s sake, she’s all I have—” He went limp in his mates’ arms, looking up at something only he saw. “Jesus.”
Despite standing on the porch of her burning home, Mabel suddenly felt very cold. “What’re you doing?”
“I’m not doing anything,” said Elsa. “The world is just remembering. Here, let me peel back a layer for you.”
There was a man. He towered over Mr. Henderson, cloaked in terror and majesty. The sun had fled the sky, as though it could not bear to shine down upon the man, leaving only unfamiliar stars. His eyes and mouth were also stars, burning bright in the wayward night.
“Recognise him? Of course you do. So do most of the kids you know. Hell, ask all the superhumans in the world how they became the what they are, and fully half the ones who weren’t born that way will tell you one thing: ‘there was a man’. Superpowers are the vulgar, stunted cousin of magic, but they can be quite fascinating.”
The man knelt on one knee. Mr. Henderson met his gaze. With perfect calmness and conviction, he said, “No. Help her.”
Mabel screamed, “No, don’t—”
They were back inside the house. Mabel’s younger self was seizuring on the floor.
“See,” said Elsa. “Your father, faced with the God-Maker itself, palmed the burden off to his kid!”
“You don’t understand,” moaned Mabel, clutching the sides of her head.
“Don’t understand what?
“For one second, I could do everything, I knew everything. I think I was everything.” She sobbed. “It was too much. It didn’t fit. I thought if I just spread it around…”
A town’s worth of screams drowned out the hiss of the flames.
“…It was an accident.”
When the screaming died off, a literal knight in shining armour appeared over the smaller Mabel, taking her into his arms and making his way out of the house. His armour should’ve been scalding, but it was cool against her skin. It was of somewhere else, and it carried part of that place with it.
Everyone outside was dead. Judging by their faces, they did not pass easy. Still coughing and sputtering from the smoke she inhaled, Mabel the younger was set on her feet by the knight. She stumbled towards her father, and tried to rouse him. “Daddy.”
“I thought he was asleep…”
Elsa’s mind was on other matters. “Sounds like you needed to whittle the power down to something you could comprehend. Were you the kid who always made sure your dad showed you the pictures in bedtime stories?”
Mabel—both of her—was crying in earnest by that point. “If I had a drawing of Daddy, do you think I could bring him back?”
“Pray you never find out,” said Elsa. She started walking down the corpse laden street. “I have to get all of you ready to wake up, I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest of this vision alone, alright?”
Mabel looked away from her past. “Wait, Elsa, don’t leave me—”
“Oh, don’t moan. You’ll only have to live through this one more time.”
“Oh, I meant to mention it while we were watching the penguins dance. Someone’s coming to the Institute. He’ll pretty much be the beginning of the end. Still, it’ll be months before the—”
Mabel was alone with herself. She watched her for two days; unnoticed, though hours seemed to pass in moments when she wasn’t paying attention. Soon she was joined by other unreal figures. The people of Circle’s End were not a bookish lot, but there were enough pictures within the town for Mabel’s power to surround her with an army—recruited from children’s books, magazines, illustrated Bibles, packets of matches, even a drawing in the sand made by a boy Mabel once played with. If they were aware of their future mistress, they gave no sign of it. She was a ghost even amongst phantoms.
Though she didn’t speak, the summoned creatures carried out Mabel’s will. They ensured their nearly catatonic creator was marginally fed and hydrated, her instinct for survival mostly diverted into them, and gathered the bodies together.
She buried her father first.
Eventually, a ute pulled into the street. A thin man holding an ice-packet to his head got off the backseat, followed by a red bearded man in a deeply out of place suit, and finally a woman in an orange travelling cloak. As they passed through the prophets, knights, mascots, and models, their numbers thinned. By the time they reached the little girl curled up in the centre, the only shade left was Mabel.
And then she was gone, too.
The children woke with a start, like someone had held smelling salts under their noses. Tears streaked all their faces.
“That was horrible,” said Elsewhere. He looked around the tent. Neither Madame Elsa nor Myles (nor Ávrá) were anywhere to be found. “Uh, do any of you guys know where the witch and the Myles guy have gotten to? Wouldn’t they want paying?”
“Yeah,” said Maelstrom. As much as he had grown to dislike the pair, he wasn’t comfortable with the fact that they were somewhere he couldn’t see them. “Myriad?”
“They’re gone,” she said. “Or they’ve done some witchy thing so I can’t hear their songs.”
The Eye of Odin was also gone, a note left in its place. Written in Finnish, Myriad read it out:
“Had to step sideways, hope you had fun, payment has been extracted in full. Have a good life.” She frowned, crumpling the piece of paper. “Let’s get out of here.”
None of them had any desire to linger. They hurried out of the tent, minus a hair from each of their heads.
1. Myriad knew what the word meant, and wasn’t sure if she should be offended.↩
2. Ávrá would later leave her mother’s company, find a nice man, and even have a couple of children by him. But that is another story.↩
3. “And the worst thing was, he thought he could intimidate AU.” ↩
4. “…and so it rained for forty days and forty nights…”↩
5. The water fowl who made their home there were actually horned screamers, but let’s not quibble. ↩
6. With the arguable exception of some members of the Unseen UN.↩
7. It was in fact the eye of an altogether more obscure god with many more eyes to spare.↩
8. He named her after her grandmother. It seemed like a fair compromise.↩
9 thoughts on “Chapter Eleven: The Singular Elsa”
Now that’s a wicked witch!
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And yet, there’s this weird feeling that she’s pulling a long con on reality with this.
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I just realized Pendergast, given the time period could be related to the Pendergast Organization, a political machine, is he related to Tom Pendergast? Is he Truman’s war buddy Jim Pendergast ?
Regardless that’s my head canon now.
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Uh, sure, that was a deliberate reference.
(In all seriousness, if you’ll recall a footnote in chapter eight, we actually do know Pendergast’s first name is Howard. That doesn’t however rule out some possible connection, and even if there isn’t, I feel like I learned something)
Did the kids walk into the Midnight Circus from White Wolf? Did a Woman of Thessaly divine their secrets from them? Did an actual deity come down and talk to the kids?
It’s all very simple. A magical witch showed their pasts and futures.
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Oh course; makes perfect sense in a superhero web serial, that didn’t show any mysticism beforehand.
What, you thought Linus was lying? For shame.
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How very… Touch-ing. :V