It was a rare night when children’s screams did not break the silence of the NHI dormitories. For so many young posthumans, nightmares were the price they paid for working dreams. Some cried out for their mothers—even if they knew in their bones that they didn’t want them. In their sleep, they clung to their memories, holding tight to pillows, stuffed animals, and even each other in hope of comfort. At any other school, such unhidden need would likely have been a cause for teasing or outright bullying, but every child at the Institute knew that longing. And so, when a student woke to find another clinging to them, common courtesy was to simply hug them back, and never speak of it when morning came. Some nights, especially in deep winter, when you could feel the chill pressing against the windows and seeping in beneath the door, half the hammocks in the dorms went unoccupied.
Myriad in particular found company helpful in warding off her night terrors. Elsewhere usually didn’t mind cuddling, but sometimes his self consciousness would rear up from the depths like the Devil Whale, and suddenly they were both too old for it. Growltiger was always amenable, and had the advantage of basically being living, humanoid plush—but that also meant that half the time someone had already called him for the night. Windshear and Elsewhere were both trying to convince him to charge for it.
Fortunately for Myriad, she always had Maelstrom. Apart, perhaps, from Elsewhere, she had never been so effortlessly comfortable with another child. Maybe it was because they both knew what it was like to be water: shapeless and mercurial, lacking any permanence or definition beyond the wordless, intuitive collaboration they shared as they passed particles and concepts between themselves, shaping the world both inside and around them, masters of one narrow yet vast element of creation. Twin minds sharing one utterly singular experience.
It also might have been because Maelstrom was nice.
The night held foes for him, too; poisonous fish circling the boy in the dark, waiting for blood. And tonight, they got it. He wept and shook, caught somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. Myriad tried to comfort him, much as his terror threatened to overwhelm her in turn:
“It-it’s okay, David. I’m here.”
He looked right past her—his eyes wild and gleaming—at a man with a cold, pale smile. He was always there, watching and listening. There was no escaping him, for David. He was inside him, threaded through his entire being. He let out a long, ragged scream. A few glasses of water fell and shattered.
Even by the generous standards of the Institute, this was getting a bit much. Each dorm was left to one of the older teenagers to police, who, in compensation for having to share a room with around a dozen small children, wielded almost dictatorial power within. That evening, the den-mother of David and Myriad’s dorm was Reverb, who had the advantage of not even needing to get out of bed to complain to someone.
A few minutes later, Żywie slipped into the dorm, a blanket wrapped protectively around her like her much missed cloak1, along with a hard lash of wind that struck the children nearest to the door right in the face. Britomart and Reverb both irritably pointed towards Myriad’s hammock.
Standing over the two children in her purple brocade nightgown and cap, Myriad thought the healer looked even more sorcerous than usual. She placed her hands gently on Maelstrom’s shoulders. “Shh, shh, everything is alright, David.”
It was the first time Myriad had ever heard an adult use her friend’s human name, and whether by its own power or with the help of some biological witchery from Żywie (a sudden surge of cortisol, perhaps?), it seemed to rouse the boy from his haze.
“Ah-yeah-ahh,” he whimpered.
With surprising ease, Żywie lifted David out of the hammock and set him lightly on his feet, wrapping her blanket around him and pulling him close. Giving up your blanket to a Barthe is a pointless gesture to be sure, but that wouldn’t stop her from feeling like a monster if she didn’t. She smiled, wearily but kindly. “There’s a good boy. How about we go see your mother, hmm?”
She felt him nod against her side.
Before leaving, Żywie looked back down at Myriad. “You are very good to him.” She reached a hand down towards the girl’s face. For a terrible moment, she thought the woman was going to force sleep onto her, but all she did was brush her hair aside. “Very good.”
The moment teacher and student shut the door behind them as they ventured out into the cold night and howling wind, some of the still-awake students started grumbling.
Beneath the contempt, there was a clear note of envy. Myriad mused that perhaps that was the real reason Lawrence insisted David call his mother by name. If she were the only child in the world with a mother to comfort her, she doubted she would be very popular with her peers either.
The thought brought with it uninvited memories of every little kindness her mother ever did for her. All the small, unremarked on gestures of love that Allison hardly even noticed at the time, repeating over and over in her head. And with them came everything else she had lost. Clutching Miss Fluffers2, her Institute provided teddy bear, she cried herself to sleep.
“You know I don’t approve of this sort of coddling.”
“He was upsetting the other children. I cannot see the harm in letting her see him.”
“A boy his age shouldn’t need his mother to coddle him asleep.”
A sigh. “He is eight years old, Laurie.”
It was never a good idea to argue too hard with Żywie when she was in one of her crusading moods. “Fine,” he said, waving her off. “But this stops come New Year’s.”
Françoise sat in bed reading Heroes of the Outback—the mildly disappointing result of one journalist’s dogged but unfruitful survey of Australia’s superheroic community3—when she heard the knock at her door. Frowning to herself at the interruption, she got up and opened the door to find Eliza standing on the other side, her son clinging to the other woman like a limpet, his face vacant.
“He was having trouble sleeping, and I thought you might, if it wasn’t any trouble—”
“No, no, of course not.” Françoise managed to swallow the instinctual swell of spite and resentment that always rose within her when she saw someone else comforting her child. She knew it was an ugly and useless emotion, and that David’s life would have been poorer without the healer. She opened her arms. “Come here, darling.”
The boy detached from Eliza, burying his face in his mother’s stomach. So hidden, his tears flowed anew.
“It’s the least I can do.” She bent down. “Good night, David.”
The boy gave no response save his continued weeping, not that Eliza needed one anyway. She left the mother to console her son.
Françoise had always been of two minds about the healer. She had a certain high-minded busybodyness about her. She was the spiritual descendant of the sort of Victorian moralist who preached the beginnings of women’s lib while warning the young about the evils of billiards and yellow-back novels. Françoise suspected the undeniable humanitarian potential of Eliza’s gift had deeply ingrained a sense of righteous burden in the woman, which she hid poorly.
Still, it made her kind.
Françoise drew David deeper into her room. When she first moved in, still very much a child herself, she had decorated her personal space with contrarian stubbornness. Françoise had tolerated no trace of the nautical in her room: painting the walls in deep forest greens and browns, trying to play to her tan rather than her oceanic aesthetic. Back then, she had kept a corner of the room perpetually covered in a laminate liner, for when she and Hugo would play board games. This had ceased to be an issue in her teen years, her control over her element maturing to the point that she had been able to simply scoop up her friend’s secretions as they were formed. It had never been relevant in adulthood. By then they had realized how irreconcilable their differences really were.
In her calmer moments with her son, Mel enjoyed the way he blended with the earthy color scheme of the room. While to her, it was an affectation, some way of distancing herself from the gravity her power held in the minds of others, David, for his part, actually seemed to fit the forest. If she was the ocean, then perhaps David was a brook, or a babbling forest stream. Her musings were cut short when the boy pulled himself tighter against her chest, the wet trails of his tears leaving slight imprints on her nightgown.
She fell backwards onto her bed, still holding her son. “Oh, David, sweetheart,” she sighed, switching to Occitan. “What’s the matter? You can tell me” she pleaded.
David looked up at her like a rabbit poking its head out of the warren, before weakly shaking his head. “I-I don’t remember. I-it feels like it’s there, but every time I look for it, it moves away again.” He said in broken, strangely accented Meridional French. He screwed his eyes shut. “It hurts. My eyes. Every time, my eyes.”
Françoise stroked his hair resignedly. This was the most information than she had ever gotten out of her son during these fits. She was sure he was covering for those little bastards Lawrence made him call his brothers and sisters. He was too good for that pack of monsters. Some day, so help her God, she’d make them cry every tear they had wrung out of her David, pour them down their throats and—
No, that wouldn’t help. It never helped. But it was so easy to ride that rage. It was an unbroken stallion, so confident and ceaseless in its charge that you could almost pretend you were the one driving it forward. It was, she thought, her father’s other legacy to her.
Mourning her own helplessness, the nereid’s eyes fell on Heroes of the Outback, left open on top of the duvet like a resting moth. Embossed on its sherbert orange cover was the silhouette of a powerfully built, winged man, standing arms akimbo. It was a figure every Australian, even one terminally disinterested in the affairs of superheroes, would recognise.
The Americans may have Superman, Françoise thought. But at least the Aussies’ fella is real.
“Have I ever told you about the Crimson Comet, David?”
“Yes.” The question was pure ritual, as was David’s answer. Françoise had told her son about that faded hero so many times, the story had paved a garden path in his mind; a safe and well trodden journey through an imagined past, in some ways more vivid and real than his present.
“Well, no harm telling you again. It must have been 44’, during the Liberation. And those wings he always had strapped to his back?” She smiled. “He wasn’t quite sure where one of them had gotten to when we met.”
The Crimson Comet stumbled through the bushes, his one functioning hand clenched against the wound in his side. Flecks of shrapnel were scattered throughout his shredded flesh and shattered ribs. He had a sinking feeling that if he saw just how badly he was injured, the sight would undo him. So he kept his eyes levelled at the ground in front of him, away from the hot, wet mess of pain that was his chest. He took a step, and felt something detach from his torso, only to smack into his knee. Shrapnel? A shard of rib?
“Don’t look. Don’t look.”
The Comet’s lurid red bodysuit had mostly been burned away above the waist, revealing the sturdy leather harness that held in place his intricately wrought, burnished gold pair of wings. The right one had been blown nearly completely off, its broken skeleton of wires and circuitry sparking uselessly next to its twin. Now and then, the relatively intact wing would glow as though freshly lifted from the forge, and the Comet would lurch forward wildly with all the speed and force of his namesake, only for his newfound momentum to die as quickly as it came, the wing’s light flickering and dying, sending him sprawling into the dirt more often than not.
His vision greyed and blurred with every breath, like he was wandering in and out of a film reel. Ralph Rivers wasn’t used to pain by any means. The last time he truly experienced it, he’d been just shy of ten years old, weedy and asthmatic—cowering before a cohort of bigger, meaner boys while wondering how they weren’t noticing the giant with stars in its eyes looming over them. That had been such a long time ago. Before the war, before the Crimson Comet, before even his first boyfriend (if that was even the right word for the two of them). Now, suddenly and viciously reminded of the human condition, he had no idea how the rest of them coped.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Rivers was meant to help the Yanks clear the Germans out of Ayoutre: an obscure Provencal village, if not just an extended family distributed amongst a few thatched medieval farmhouses, which Alexander Patch4 had explained was logistically priceless for reasons he did not and would never understand.
The job was straightforward enough. Inspire hope in the people of Provence, strike the fear of God into some Nazis, draw fire away from the less puncture-proof members of the U.S infantry unit he was attached to; all that Jack Churchill stuff, if with sadly less longbows and bagpipes.
And at first, that was how things played out. The Crimson Comet had led the charge into the village, letting the Krauts empty a lead mine’s worth of ammo into his chest. The Axis, as he had discovered, were not too dissimilar in their habits to bank robbers, racketeers, and fifth columnists: they all never seemed to get it through their heads that, if their first, fifth, or seventy-third shots failed to accomplish anything, their seventy-fourth wasn’t likely to do much better. It was almost depressing, though at least nobody had tried throwing their empty sidearms at him. He had been beating back a mob of soldiers with one of their own comrades, when someone landed a glancing shot. With a tank.
Without effective anchoring, the force of the high explosive had blown Ralph Rivers something like five miles out of the village. Some layer of his mind—deeper than the sunlit regions where his thoughts took the form of words, but still broadly rational—suspected the shock of the impact had triggered his flight reflex. Well, he called it flight. Without the aid of his ruined wing harness, it was more like exploding in a particular direction. It was what had made him pick the name “Comet” to begin with. He had appended “Crimson” to it after someone had told him about an American with disintegrator eyes who went by the Comet, too. Rivers always privately hoped that someday he’d share a pint with his namesake, but never more so than now.
He was getting slower and slower with every step. He wasn’t sure where he was trying to get to anymore. Dazed, he had mostly forgotten about the village, and even the war altogether. For a moment, he had no past, or future, only the settled agony in his chest and the wet blood on his palm urging him forward. He hardly noticed when he fell down the hill. What he did notice was something being pushed up into his stomach.
He came to rest facing up at the night sky. This far from any light pollution, the Milky Way shone boldy, spread out above him like sand blown across a tar road. The waning moon had drifted behind some clouds, somehow darker for the white haze that hemmed them.
Ralph took in every detail of the sky he could, being fairly sure that it would be the last thing he ever saw. Given the circumstances, he could have done far worse. He prayed silently, though he only truly believed in God every other week. Back home, he’d gone to confession regularly, even telling his priest about the blunders he made as the Crimson Comet. He hadn’t, however, mentioned anything about his love life. As he lay there, he wondered if his… inversion really did qualify as a sin. It didn’t seem to hurt anyone. Certainly didn’t hurt Albert. Or Finch.
Oh, God, Finch.
He didn’t want to die in the middle of a war. Maybe that went without saying, but it just wasn’t the proper place for a superhero. He should have gone over the falls with one of his arch-nemeses, like Holmes. No, that didn’t quite fit, either. He should have gone out helping someone. That was what men like him were built for. Anything else was a waste.
There was a movement in the corner of his eye, accompanied by a muffled splash. Turning his head weakly, Ralph glanced in its direction. There was a pond with designs towards lake-hood a few yards from him. A little girl was walking out of it, dripping water as she went. She was five or six years old near as Ralph could tell, and mother-naked, yet to all appearances unphased by the chill of the night air. Rivers shivered for her, or maybe just from blood loss. She looked like an illustration from the The Water-Babies.
As the child grew closer, what stood out to the Comet were her eyes. They were like nothing else he’d ever seen: two splinters of ice reflecting the moonlight. Wait, no, that glow was coming from within.
The girl was soon standing over Ralph, her eyes fading to a royal blue.
Was she Death? In some pictures angels took on the form of small children, which Ralph supposed had some advantages on the skull-and-scythe approach when it came to ensuring client cooperation. The girl regarded him with blank curiosity.
Faced with this apparition, the Crimson Comet only had one question. “…Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
“How did he keep going when he was hurting so bad?”
Françoise cocked her head to the side slightly, surprised at the question from her son. He usually remained silent during her stories, allowing her words to lull him into a state of calm. This time, however, he was gazing up at her from his position on her knee, eyes shining with intent.
“How did he keep putting one foot in front of the other like that? How did he ignore the pain?”
“I…” Fran hesitated. With very few exceptions, physical pain was something she and her son could escape with a thought. “I never asked, really. Why? Do you think he should have stopped?”
“I think I would have,” David muttered, shifting on her knee until his cheek was pressed against her shoulder. “I think most people would have frozen up, you know? How do you deal with something so big like that?”
“I… I think you try and focus on other things,” she replied, a little concerned. “You try and remember why you risked being hurt in the first place, and remind yourself that being hurt is worth it as long as you can do what you wanted to. Don’t you think so, David?”
It sounded hollow and she knew it.
“Is this because of your eyes? Have you tried going icy?”
He shook his head. “Makes it worse.”
Part of Françoise wasn’t surprised. Whatever assailed her son, she doubted it was anything so physical. Picking up the story again, she tried to remember where she was up to.
“So the Comet was just lying there—I tried slowing down the bleeding, but I don’t think he noticed—babbling something about either sleep or death. It’s hard to remember specifics, didn’t speak any English back then.”
“And then what did you do?”
David knew the answer, of course. It wasn’t a nice one, but it was all a part of the Story.
“I took him to see my father.”
Ralph Rivers could only ever recall fragments of the next few hours. Grainy stills and disconnected scenes from a film whose negatives nobody had bothered to archive. He remembered something being slid under his back. At the time, he assumed it was a metal stretcher, so cold it felt to touch.
Then, motion, the moon above him drifting to the edge of his vision, like a child running to keep up with a train. After that, the girl had pushed him out onto the pond. It reminded the Comet of stories he had heard about Eskimos sending their sick and enfeebled adrift on the ice flows. If that was the little girl’s intention, he was rather offended. Surely she could tell he wasn’t going to be a burden for long?
Something was waiting for him in the middle of the water. To his regret, it was the one part of the whole ordeal that Ralph could always readily grasp in his memory.
The man was handsome, or at least he would have been, if hadn’t looked like he’d sat at the bottom of a lake for a week. His skin was marble-pale, the unhealthy, pallid tone accentuated by patches of what looked like algae spider webbing out across his flesh. There was seaweed strewn through his hair, tangling the long, sleek strands in bundles and knots of dank, solid rot. His cold, waxen lips were set in a smile. He was quite naked and, unlike the girl, it was not a wholesome thing. What they did have in common was the gleam of their eyes; but while hers glowed a pure, powerful blue, his were of a more sickly kind. They didn’t shine their light so much as seep it, the milky, ocean green of their glow roiling out from his face like moonlight caught in a nighttime mist.
He smelled of salt and decay, even at a distance. Had Ralph had the energy, he might have gagged.
“Have you brought me a present, child?” The man’s voice was the soft swoosh of waves washing rock, and while he understood him clearly, Ralph wasn’t sure he was speaking English, or even if he was speaking at all.
The girl said something back that Ralph didn’t understand, but he at least was certain were words. Provence was in some ways the Wales of France: a country within a country, complete with its own particular dialect. He was surprised to see that she was standing beside him, her feet seemingly on top of the water. Was he floating on a puddle?
“Really?” the man said with feigned concern. “He won’t like it.”
The girl pouted, folding her arms. If not for the circumstances, Ralph might have found it cute. Now that he could see the man and the child together, he thought he might have been her father, or at least his corpse.
The man sighed. A whirlpool formed nearby. “Very well, he’s your catch.” He kneeled down, examining Ralph as though he were a fish with its innards spread out on the dock, before turning his head up at the girl. “You really should learn to do this yourself.”
The girl beamed, giggling like Ralph’s own niece whenever she managed to con a piggyback ride out of him.
Then he was plunged beneath the water. The cold burned, knocking the air from his lungs. As he choked and sputtered, he saw that the man and his child had joined him below. The girl floated on her belly, watching him, her feet churning the water behind her. There was nothing in her face to indicate she was holding her breath.
The pseudo-corpse raised a hand, and Ralph felt the water press against his body, the cold stinging sharply against the wounds in his chest, arm, and legs. He opened his mouth to scream, and found not only that the lack of air made it impossible, but that the water took advantage of the move, a liquid tendril forcing his jaw further apart. When the tank shell had struck him, the blast had forced his lower jaw hard up into his skull, striking his teeth together in a violent hammer blow that had made him occasionally stop in his staggering to spit out blood and chunks of his own teeth. The water surged now around the shattered remnants of his mouth, pressing violently against raw, exposed nerve endings. It would be charitable to say that this only redoubled the pain.
For the first time in his life, Ralph Rivers wanted to die. The pain was too great, the damage too severe, and he found that, even forced into consciousness as he was, he was unable to muster his power enough to defend his shattered body against the constant, continual rush of water. He squeezed his eyes shut, reached into the depths of his agonized mind for something of comfort—his sister, Albert’s embrace, his old border collie—and took a deep, full lungful of the water.
Nothing happened. Ralph Rivers was still conscious, still in pain. The water man was laughing. Not a hearty laugh, just a slight, wispy chuckle, almost casual.
“Ah, see? The man hates it so much he tried to die. I told you he might not like it, little one.”
The girl scowled, turning her head away from the man and back towards their captive, resting her chin on her arms and puffing out her cheeks in irritation, sending a plume of tiny bubbles rising to the surface. In another frame of mind, he might have laughed.
Was this Hell? If it was, then he had been greatly misinformed about the climate. Burning would have been a pleasure, compared to this. His priest always said that he who lays with men would see their repentance, but Ralph had been hopeful, or perhaps childish enough to believe that his God was a less wrathful soul than that. If he was wrong, then God had a sick sense of irony. His mouth forced apart, tortured by things moving inside him. Ha ha. Very funny.
Ralph wasn’t sure if he had cried by the end of it. He was quite certain that he had screamed, or at least, made the best attempt his drowned lungs would allow, before the pain, ever so slowly, began to recede. It faded from his mouth first, the shattered stumps of his teeth going slowly quiet. It wasn’t numbness. He knew that much, because he could still feel the water pushing and prodding and forcing his jaw painfully wide. He felt around with his tongue, tentatively touched one of the splintered teeth, only to find a smooth, solid surface, near exactly the shape he remembered it being in just the day before. Even a tooth Ralph had knocked out when was eight had been restored. It was slimy, the surface covered in a film somewhere between mucus and mold. The taste was foul, and he retched, but somewhere in his mind, he understood. Whatever this creature was doing, it was healing him, in some broken manner. He stopped fighting, let his body hang limp where he could, and, finally, the blackness took him.
David’s usual passivity during storytime was well and truly absent that night. Sitting up, he asked his mother “Did you ever learn how to fix people like that?”
Françoise wasn’t expecting that. Half the time, David made her skip the part with her father altogether. “No,” she admitted. “Didn’t see the need once I met your aunt. And to be honest, I was never all that interested to begin with.”
Fran’s father had a lot of tricks she never picked up herself. Separating salt from seawater, peering out from pools half a world away, blasphemously changing water into wine; yet it was easy to rest on your laurels when you were a goddess among mortals. Sometimes, she regretted not being able to pass down those secrets to her son.
“Oh. That’s okay.”
Françoise thought David sounded put out. Maybe he wanted to be more like his aunt.
“What was it like?”
“What was what like?”
“Being able to do what you wanted. No one making you be better. Being able to love your dad.”
Françoise was quiet for some time. “Oh, oh, droplet. Basil loves you.”
David fell back onto the bed. “I know he does!” he moaned. “But I don’t think I do! I mean, I like him, and he’s nice, but he’s not my dad.” He broke down into sobs once more. “Bad, bad bad.”
Françoise sighed, the boy letting out a small yelp as his body rose from the bed, reorienting in the air, before being deposited on her knee. She could have used her power to wipe the tears from his eyes as well, but chose to do it with her finger, using the other arm to pull the boy close, holding him about the shoulders.
“You’re not bad, little drop.” She murmured, trying desperately to keep herself from joining her son in tears. “You’re sad, and you’re lonely. But you’re loved. You know that right? I love you with everything I have, and so does your father. It’s okay if you don’t love him back. Kids aren’t supposed to love their parents as much as they love them. We’re meant to care more. It’s our job. You know, I think, if you really did care more about your dad than you do, I think that’d hurt him, in a way. I don’t think your dad likes himself very much, and knowing you loved him might make that hurt a little more, you know? He’d be asking himself why you cared so much, when he knows he’s worth so little. I think not loving him is kind of you, droplet, I really do.”
David looked up at her, his wet eyes filled with complete and total bafflement.
She had done it again, hadn’t she? Her son had always been better at being a person than her. She brought a hand to her eyes, frustrated.
“What was it like, being with Grandfather?”
Françoise glanced down at her son. He was staring at her with an odd look in his eyes, eager, shining, but at the same time, it almost struck her as angry. “…Like moving from dream to dream,” she answered. “All of them were beautiful, but… It just didn’t feel real. Like… remember when you told me about Cinderella?”
The boy nodded. He had been taken to see it as a reward, following his and Myriad’s performances at the parliament, the tickets provided at the Valour residence by a surprisingly affable Robert Menzies. By David’s own account, he had been mesmerized by it. It was as though the humans had managed to imprint whatever magic Mabel commanded onto reels of film.
“Well,” she continued. “It was like watching Cinderella, in a way. Like, everything was perfect, but none of it felt real after a while.”
David considered this, then shook his head, scowling at her.
“I’m not a baby, Mummy,” he muttered. “I don’t just want you to tell me something that sounds pretty. I want to know what it was really like.”
Fran considered the boy thoughtfully, then sighed.
“You have to promise me you’ll never tell your friends or Lawrence I said any of this. My childhood was… not for children.”
For just a moment, the boy hesitated, loyalty to Lawrence warring with loyalty to his mother and curiosity to know more. Eventually, he nodded.
“Well,” she said. “Where to begin? My first memory is of a ship burning overhead while my father and I watched. It was a strange ship, not like anything we’d seen before, all grey tones and hard lines. We’d been playing tag in the water behind it, trying to see who could move about better in its wake without stilling the water. The first explosion was a shock. I screamed, forgetting all about the race. It was scary, but Father was there. In an instant, he was around me, keeping me safe. We went deep and watched this new ship, a smaller ship, approaching the first one from underneath the water. The Germans called them U-boats. The sailors on the bigger one didn’t stand a chance. The thing sank, and that was the first time I saw what humans could do. For all the miracles my father had ever shown me, this was the first time I had ever seen fire touching water. He’d told me that was impossible.”
She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts, making an effort to exclude the more upsetting details of it all. David was staring up at her, eyes wide, mouth slightly open. She leaned down, and gave him a small peck on the forehead, before she continued.
“My father didn’t care for this new human miracle. He thought it was some chemical trick, which, to be fair, it was. These humans, though, they entranced me. I started trying to seek them out, watching the lights and feeling the sounds echo through the waters. My father let me watch, long as I always stayed close to the water so that he could keep an eye on me. My second outing, I watched the men, and, strangely enough, they were all men, sinking beneath the water. Some looked scared, some, pained. I tried approaching one. He wasn’t at his best. The ship’s propeller had taken half his leg on the way down, and he was struggling. He didn’t seem to mind the pain. Too busy being terrified, I suppose. I wanted a closer look, so I made myself real in front of him. I can only imagine how it must have looked. This tiny little girl emerging out of the darkness in front of him. Maybe he thought I was an angel. He died not long after, but what I do know is that seeing me made him smile. He reached out to touch my hand and, curious, I let him. Then, he closed his eyes, smiled, and died. It was the first time a human being ever made me feel something.”
It had been an odd sensation. In retrospect, she knew it was best summed up as ‘melancholy,’ but at the time, she had had no such word for it. In truth, she had yet to find words for anything back then. It was only after watching the humans, particularly those engaged in a long, hard fought campaign along the outskirts of a city, that she would begin trying to understand their words. She would later come to identify the language they spoke as Occitan.
The men, and again, they had almost all been men, who had seen her while fighting on land, had been far less calmed by her presence. Their responses were raw, untamed, fueled by adrenaline and fear. Some had tried to chase her away, some had tried to shield her, guide her somewhere safe. One man—which side he had fought for she didn’t know—had taken her behind the wall of a house, and began to touch her. It had made her uncomfortable, but she did not stop him immediately. It was only when his hands reached too far, and she smelled his hot, desperate breath against her cheek that she had ended it. It was the first man she had killed for anything other than amusement, and unlike the other victims of her youth, she had felt the urge to hide this one, a pit of what she had later come to call shame forming in her gut at the thought of him. She had buried him in pieces, his head in a bomb crater, some distance from his legs. She wasn’t sure how much her father had seen, and if he had, why he hadn’t chosen to intervene. Perhaps he had intended that human to be a lesson. She still wasn’t sure.
It had been some months later that she finally came back to watch the men of war again. In the meantime, she pursued the company of other children, swimming and playing off of beaches half a world away from the flashes and the noise. Sometimes, she didn’t even seem out of place among them. Eventually, however, curiosity had once more gotten the best of her, and she had returned. She watched from a distance this time, more cautious, almost afraid.
The iron ships had given way to metal carts now. Perhaps they had always been there, perhaps not, but this was the first she saw of them. The metal carts with their long, pointed horns that swiveled and pelted the land with fire and rock. She didn’t like those carts. They scared her.
Then, one night, she had come across two men. She wouldn’t have payed them even the barest of thoughts, but their actions, they were familiar. At first, she had mistaken it for grappling, a fight to the death of some kind. But both of these men wore the colors of the same side. She recognized the look in their eyes, the heavy panting of their breath. Watching had not been a pleasant thing for her, but, oddly, she found it gave her closure. There was less shame, she thought, to killing the desperate man if that had been what he intended to do to her. These men were discovered, not by friends, but opponents, and had been virtually drowned in a deluge of fire. The girl had expected that to be the end of it. But one man stood, covered in the blood of his companion, and, without a single tear, had laid waste to the opponents at his back, tearing them to pieces with his bare hands. The girl was in awe. Was this a man she watched? The same frail and feeble things that she had seen drowning by the dozens?
She watched as the man collected the remnants of his foes into a pile, and then set them all ablaze with a stick and some alien fluid she couldn’t touch. She watched as he gently, almost fearfully picked up his companion’s cadaver, and carried it away from the scene. Watching that made her feel something unsettling. It reminded her a little too closely of how her father held her. She did not see it, but she could feel the tears begin to flow gently from his eyes. He didn’t have to dig the man a grave alone. She helped him from the dark, parting damp soil and snow for him to ease his efforts. Looking back, perhaps that had been unkind. Perhaps the extra effort would have been a solace to him.
In the weeks that followed, she had watched the man from afar, as long and often as she could. By day, he wore a different uniform to those around him, all color and lights and power. Much later, she had realized that he had only worn the more common uniform so he could be with a man he called Finch. She watched this man day and night, desperate to learn more about what made him special, like her father. No matter how often she watched, however, she had never seen him hold another man as gently as he had Finch. Never seen that desperation, either.
She continued to aid the man, when she felt like it. None of the great, metal dragons that infested her father’s kingdom could touch any ship which carried her pet. On the rare occasions that his foes fielded their own godling against him, the girl tilted the odds in his favour. Not that the man really needed it. Even among the semi-divine, he appeared to be exceptional.
The only things the man seemed to truly fear were the metal carts and discovery. Once, one of the little men who hid behind her titan in battle spied him lying with another man, and had marched off in clear disgust. The child didn’t know much about human beings, but she had observed them enough to tell when someone was planning something, so she burst a blood vessel in his brain, and that was the end of that.
Eventually, the man found his way to the part of the world where her memories began, and where her father still haunted. It didn’t matter much—her father was omnipresent wherever there was water, his currents cradling her in her sleep and bringing her fish when she was hungry—but there was a joy to watching her favourite exercise his might in such familiar surroundings.
But then a metal cart had managed to break her man. Broke him bad enough that she needed her father to fix him.
The Crimson Comet did not regain consciousness so much as find himself forcibly pulled back into it. His first action was to gag violently. His mouth felt slimy, the sharp taste of rot and long dead fish still lingering. Then, he became aware of a pressure on top of his chest, something cold and wet and slimy. Opening his eyes, he almost yelped as his gaze met two cobalt specks less than half a foot from his face. It was the little girl, legs to one side like the Little Mermaid in miniature, leaning forwards on her slender arms to stare at him. Well, that explained the pressure against his ribs. Ralph took a moment to find his composure, before carefully lifting his hands to the girl’s shoulders. She flinched ever so slightly at his touch, leaning back from him.
“I-it’s alright, kid,” he said, as gently as he could. “I just need you to hop off me for a second so I can stand up, there’s a good girl.”
The child cocked her head, uncomprehending. Ah, yes, French. Or Provencal. Or something else he didn’t want to know. Well, at least the softness of his intonation seemed to have helped. Otherwise, Ralph could only hope that pantomime was their lingua franca. Slowly, he pushed himself up from the ground, coming about a third of the way to a sitting position when the girl lost her balance with a squeak. He steadied her with an arm about the shoulders, and allowed himself a small laugh, trying not to sound cruel. Surprisingly, she laughed as well, and awkwardly clambered off of him, sitting herself on the dirt floor a few feet away. He pushed himself upright, and took a quick stock of the situation.
Dawn had broken through the night, leaving a pleasant spring morning in its wake. It annoyed Ralph a touch that those were still allowed to happen in wartime. Mother Nature, Father Time, or whoever was in charge of setting up days ought to be indicted for harming troop morale by means of inappropriate backdrops.
Looking down at himself, Rivers saw that his chest was streaked with mottled grey algae, roughly corresponding to where he had been so traumatically healed the night before. He winced at the memory, before tentatively feeling his ribs with his fingers. He worried for a second that his ruined flesh had been replaced by bilge and silt, but he was able to wipe it away, revealing normal, if a sight paler skin underneath. He picked up a rock from the ground, and struck it against the flesh. No pain. He tried again, harder, this time shattering the stone into powder. No pain. Good. He didn’t know what he would have done if his new skin was merely human.
He really couldn’t abide the taste in his mouth. Looking towards the pond (it seemed so much smaller in the daylight) his chest tightened as he remembered what he’d found there the night before. Blessedly, it appeared vacant. He glanced at the girl, who was watching him intently with her legs bent against her chest. “Just going to wash my mouth out, honey. Won’t be a second.”
He was about to lower his cupped hands into the water, when it exploded upwards at him, sending him—a man who had once jumped onto a grenade with only a deep bruise to show for it—sprawling backwards, completely drenched. Behind him, the little girl was on her back with laughter.
Ralph Rivers was no fool, and he’d been in the superhero business long enough to put two-and-two (and three-and-four) together. He stood back up, shaking some of the excess from his comic-book black hair. “Very funny,” he said flatly. He decided to try and extract some benefit from the situation. He scraped some of the foul mould from his teeth and showed it to the child. “Mind playing dentist?” he asked, miming a path from his mouth to the girl.
She seemed to mull the request over a little, before Ralph suddenly felt the slime being pulled from his mouth with a sensation like putting his lips over the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. Of the many, many possible reactions, Ralph Rivers chose to sneeze, spraying the ground in front of him with a porridge of snot, and dark, subaquatic sludge. If the girl had been laughing before, she was positively choking on it now, a few tears running down her cheeks as she clutched at her sides. He stuck out his tongue at her, and she replied in kind. Scowling, he dipped his hand once more into the water, before swiping his arm forward to splash her. The child let out an outraged little shriek, glaring up at him, but Ralph was too busy assesing the condition of his teeth to notice. Everything seemed just as it should be, the teeth still sat in the neat little row his government appointed dentist had put them in to make him nice and pretty for his photo ops, and if he wasn’t wrong—yup, the fillings were gone, too. He’d had a few crowns and coverings placed over chips in the past, but now they were gone. His teeth were anatomical model perfect. That sort of explained why his tongue still felt odd in his head. The map no longer matched the territory. “Thanks, ki-”
Another wave of water knocked him off his feet.
“…Pushing your luck.”
He sat down next to the child, looking her over. She looked healthy enough. Surprisingly so, in fact, lacking any signs of the trademark malnourishment that afflicted so many this close to the frontlines. In contrast to the thing in the pond, she was tan, her flaxen hair tangled and riddled with bits of water-plants. Somehow, they almost made her look regal, like a wreath. She turned her head slightly to look at him, smiling.
“You speak any French?” Ralph asked in said language. A dear lady friend of his who had kindly helped deflect suspicion from him all during high school had painstakingly tutored him to the point that he could pass for a French half-wit in casual conversation. If his father only knew the number of times he had allowed said friend up to his son’s room with a knowing wink for “French lessons,” only for her to actually be teaching the boy French. The idea made him smile.
In answer, the girl only giggled.
Scratch that, then.
“Ralph.” He pointed at himself as he spoke, then at her… Nope, no response. He tried again. “I AM RALPH.” He said, enunciating each syllable loudly and clearly in the full understanding that this would indeed assist the dialogue. In a sense, it did. The girl grinned, gestured grandly at her breast, and positively bellowed:
“I AM RALPH!!”
He put his head in his hands with a groan, which the girl copied.
His lamentation was interrupted by a distant, yet all too familiar pop. The girl yowled in horror as her kneecap exploded, falling from her perch beside him and instinctively huddling her arms around the wound. Ralph wasted no time, and knelt around the girl, covering her as best he could with the breadth of his shoulders. As a boy, his size had been something of a knock to his self confidence, having always been a small, wiry sort as a young child. As the Comet, as a soldier, he was eternally glad of his newfound bulk, for now he could be a larger shield. More bullets pinged off his shoulder blades.
“It’s okay, girl,” he cooed, trying to reassure her as best he could. “You just need to trust me, okay?”
No answer. The girl was too busy sobbing, her left leg crumpled beneath her, hanging by a few strands of skin and muscle ligaments. Running on some mad instinct, he picked her up, still shielding her with his frame, and, lacking anywhere better to hide her, he tossed her into the pond. “Go down low!” he shouted, before turning towards the source of the shots.
Invulnerability opens the door to certain tricks. Some of these are obvious, others less so. Most soldiers, for example, never get the chance to use muzzle flares to track the placement of their enemies, because by the time they’ve registered the shot, they’re usually already dead. For the Crimson Comet, on the other hand, it was like tracking the whine of a blood fattened mosquito after a bite.
Five German soldiers stood on the crest of the hill, the forest green of their uniforms making them stand out against the luminous aqua of the sky behind them. They had probably been out looking for him all night, Ralph guessed. If the tank hadn’t finished them off, no doubt they were meant to deliver the coup de grâce. Probably planning on stripping the flesh from his skull and putting it on display in Berlin as phrenological evidence of race-mixing among Allied supers or something. Four of them had rifles trained on the Comet, while one tried and failed to surreptitiously ready a panzerschreck.
Cocky cunts should have led with the rocket. Ralph Rivers let out a scream as he ran towards the infantryman trying to prepare his ordinance, the air around around him blurring and becoming singed. Half a second later, the soldier exploded against Ralph’s shoulder, painting his skin red. The Crimson Comet, it would seem, was back.
None of his comrades had time to react. It was more of a scourge than an engagement, really. The Comet ripped the gun—along with both arms—from one of the soldiers, before slamming the butt of it into another’s face, sending fragments of skull and nasal bridge into his brain. The fourth man, he lifted up by the chin, before bringing him down on top of the barrel, running him through.
The Comet advanced on the last soldier. In all the commotion, he had fallen onto the grass, and was now scrambling backwards in fear of the herculean figure. As he did, Rivers stepped over the soldier whose arms he had torn off, seizing and sputtering from the shock. There was a crunch, and that was the end of that.
The remaining soldier was in hysterics now, frantically repeating something under his breath, leaving no spaces between the words5. Was he begging for his life? Praying? Reaffirming his loyalty to something or other in the face of death? Ralph couldn’t bring himself to care.
Some part of him, the superheroic part, perhaps, was begging Rivers to stop. This man could do him no harm, and if he wasn’t technically surrendering, he might as well have been. But, whenever he tried giving that notion quarter, he remembered his own wounds, and Finch (oh, God, Finch) and that little girl screaming and screaming at the ruins of her blasted leg. He raised his fist to strike, when the man convulsed, a spot of blood blooming on his chest like a rose. Then another. And another, again and again. It was like a drawn out execution by a phantom firing squad. Before the Crimson Comet could make any move to end it, the man was dead.
There was a smug “hmph” from behind him.
The little girl was standing there, her features set in a triumphant grin, on two perfectly intact legs. She was completely soaked, her hair now slick and free of detritus. The colour had gone from her skin. Most tellingly, her finger and thumb were extended, her hand pointing toward the corpse like a pistol.
Being a career superhero, miraculous healing was well within Ralph’s realm of experience. What was new to him was the utter lack of concern, either for herself or the suffering she inflicted. He understood the little girl lashing out so viciously, he really could. Except there was no hint of trauma on the girl’s face. She had had her leg nearly blown off, killed a man for it, and if anything, she had chosen to make a game out of it. She toed the ruined face of the soldier Ralph had felled with the rifle, before looking back at him with a smile. She looked impressed.
Ralph shuddered. The Crimson Comet hadn’t been a killer, before the war. A brawler, sure, and maybe he hadn’t been all too concerned about the long term effects of the concussions he handed out like pennycandy, but he never went into a fight looking to kill anyone. But since the war… since Finch, it had gotten so easy. And the worst thing was, it barely even bothered him much of the time. Even then, his thoughts kept drifting to more pragmatic concerns. How far he was from his unit, how long it would take him to reach them on foot, the girl…
Oh, yes, the girl.
She would slow him down, that was certain. Even ignoring that she was a child, he could barely communicate even the simplest of concepts to her. Far as he could tell, she was totally feral, a waterborne Mowgli. Shamefully, he considered the possibility of simply leaving her by the pond. She had some power behind her, that he knew for sure, and the monster that had so tortuously spared him appeared to be fond of her. Maybe he would come back for the child, eventually.
The mere fact that was the best case settled it for Ralph. He gestured to her repaired leg, arching his eyebrow in exaggerated curiosity, and she glanced down at it, kicking the ground once or twice, before looking up at him with a grin. Nothing, no memory of pain.
Best not to look that particular gift horse too hard in the mouth. He shrugged and looked around at his fallen foes. The armless man’s jacket was, for obvious reasons, a little the worse for wear. It wouldn’t do to cover him, same for the impaled one. The man the girl had riddled with invisible bullets, on the other hand, his jacket was largely intact, apart from a few holes. And stains. Ralph stripped the article from the corpse, and pulled it on, pausing to tear away the insignia and empty out the pockets. He scavenged the panzerschreck (a very adolescent part of him hoped none of the heroes he knew found out that he had started using firearms), then returned his attention to the armless man. The jacket wouldn’t serve him, but the lack of sleeves might suit the girl’s shorter arms. He pried it free of the corpse, and tossed it to the girl. It landed at her feet, and she glanced down at it, confused, prodding the fabric with a toe, before turning her face to him, an eyebrow raised, seemingly in imitation of Ralph’s earlier expression.
“Put it on,” he grunted, waving a hand in an “on you go” sort of gesture. Again, she prodded at it, before returning her attention to him. Ralph sighed, then, very slowly, very deliberately, put both hands in front of his eyes for a few moments, before pulling them away, and gesturing for her to do the same. Still utterly mystified, the child raised her hands to her eyes, covering them. Ralph strode forward, businesslike, picked the makeshift dress up off the ground, spread the waistline of it between his hands, and pulled it down over the girl’s head. She squeaked in surprise, pulling her hands from her eyes and giving him a reproachful sort of look, her bottom lip sticking out slightly, before realizing what he’d done. She gazed down at her first garment in wonder, slipping her arms out through the holes in either side, and running her palms along the fabric. She looked up at him, grinned, and spoke.
“Ralph,” she said, pointing at her chest.
He snorted, shaking his head. At least the girl was trying.
“…And that was the start of my little human experiment.” Françoise smiled. “And you already know my eye for fashion remains as clear as it ever was.”
It was a tried and true punchline, and normally David would have giggled, but this time he just stared up at his mother. “So Grandfather just let you go away and live with land people?”
Françoise shrugged. “I wouldn’t have called it ‘going away’. My father is everywhere there’s water. He might be watching us right now.” She only realized how that sounded once she said it out loud.
“But it’s so long! You were a little girl, and now you’re grown up!”
“You’re thinking about your grandfather like he’s a person. Something that only lives a few years, so every year feels like this great big chunk of time. But he’s not a person, David. My father was old when the first fish hatched. Probably hardly anything older than him, besides maybe rocks. Twenty-one years for him is like the time it takes you to take a breath.”
“But Lawrence said Grandfather is just—”
“Lawrence doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” Françoise snapped. She never took to the old man’s attempts to fit her father into his little boxes.
“I-I’m sorry.” His mother let her apology hang in the air for a moment, before adding, “He used to visit me, sometimes. Even after we came to Australia. So did Ralph. He saw you once, you know.” David was about to question this, but Fran stopped him. “You wouldn’t remember, droplet—you were very small.”
David pondered this. “…Why doesn’t Ralph visit anymore?” He hesitated, before asking, “Why haven’t I ever seen Grandfather?”
Françoise spent a full minute trying to give him an answer, even making to speak once or twice, the words dying on her lips, before she gave up. “Not tonight, David. Please?”
Her son nodded.
“…Mummy, are we bad people?”
“Bad people? No, I don’t think we are. Bad at being people? Sometimes, I think so.” She ruffled her son’s hair. “You’re much better at it than me, though.”
The conversation wound down after that. David sometimes mentioned something about the other children, or the Watercolours, or The Tempest. He brought up Myriad at lot, which Fran didn’t know how to feel about. Eventually, sleep managed to find him.
Françoise lay there for a while, feeling the rise and fall of her son’s chest against her side, content for a moment. One arm still around David, she picked her book back up, flicking past the section covering the Raven to the account of the Crimson Comet’s last known case.
Apart from it being the last one, there wasn’t much to distinguish that caper from any of the Comet’s post-war adventures—those last few bursts of glory before the winter of Australia’s superheroes. Some teenage mad scientist with the disappointingly mundane name of Maude Simmons had threatened to transmute the world’s supply of silver into calcium. What possible benefit this could have held for the young woman the book didn’t explain. The first page of the chapter was topped by a black and white news photo of the Crimson Comet gently but sternly escorting a grim faced nineteen year old in a lead apron down the steps of a police station. She looked like she was running out the clock till she could be a crotchety old crone. With a name like “Maude”, what else could you do?
Françoise smiled to herself as her eyes passed over the Comet’s wings. What the author of the book couldn’t know was that they were foam mock ups of the originals. Ralph had never been able to find functional replacements, and so had simply spent the rest of his career without the ability to change direction in flight.
There was no real reason Maude Simmons had been Rivers’ last case, except for the fact that he wasn’t seen in costume again after that. No hostages died, he hadn’t been forced to betray some deep seated moral principle in order to save the day, and he hadn’t been injured as far as anyone could tell. He had bowed out of the game with grace, the author speculated.
She wished he was right.
There was a knock at the door, answered with a “shhhh” loud enough to wake the dead.
Lawrence opened the door. “Ah, I see Maelstrom’s asleep. I’ll just pop him back down to the dormitory.”
“Please, Laurie,” said Françoise. “Can’t we just leave him in here tonight? What harm will it do?”
The headmaster shook his head. “We can’t be seen showing favoritism, Melusine. It would only upset the other children.” He grinned with ill-timed humour. “Unless you want them all in here for the night.”
Fran set her book down again, gently sliding her arm off her son. “Fine,” she hissed. “But don’t wake him up!”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” replied Lawrence, moving over to beside the boy. He caught a glance at the cover of Heroes of the Outback and smiled knowingly. “You tell him one of your Rivers stories again?” he said as he hoisted up Maelstrom. The child looked even younger in his arms. “Impressive fellow in his time, he really was. Shame about his… predilections. Awful the way people hounded him about it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hardly a productive lifestyle, is it?”
Françoise’s long nails dug into the doona cover. “Good night, Lawrence.”
Alone once more, Fran somehow felt even more like a counterfeit woman than she usually did. Everything about her was a pretense. The French cooking, the Occitan, the affected Provencal patriotism, all of it. She didn’t even know if her poor, poor mother had been from France at all. Her father might have snatched her from the watermen’s steps along the Thames, for all she knew. Even her original name was a fiction. Françoise Barthe, bah! She had only called herself that so Lawrence and Mary would stop badgering her about it. Not that it mattered, anyway, they wasted no time in making her discard it. Her father had never needed a name for her, apart from maybe the sound of sea-foam drying on the shore.
She didn’t know why she stayed, sometimes. Being human was a game that had dragged on long past the point of being any fun, at least in this venue. But there was David to think about…
Except, she didn’t even know why that was an issue. She knew her son wasn’t happy—and he’d even just told her he didn’t love his father. What was there for him at the Institute? A prescribed, regimented life, held to the impossible standard of the flawless prototype; the perfect first draft of a new human race designed by someone who read too much Stapledon. A life of being the odd one out even among nature’s misfits. Well, whether old or new, neither she, nor her son were human.
She could take him away from all that. Nobody could stop her. She doubted even the Flying Man himself would last long up against her. She closed her eyes, imagining it. Her son’s hand in hers, as they crossed the sea, on foot if need be. Great jade mountains rising and falling around them, the dark shapes of whales beneath their feet. Oh, how she had dreamed of showing the boy whales.
They could go to France—or anywhere, really, but it would be nice to salvage some truth out of the lie. She’d find a village, invent a story about a drowned husband, and her David would know how she felt on those American beaches long ago: commonplace.
Or maybe they would dive deep beneath the waves, past the point where even light gave up, all the way to the bottom of the world. And then, perhaps, David would know his grandfather.
She rose from her bed, her fingers clenched, a smile forming on her lips. The kind of smile she hadn’t worn since she was a little girl. She was going to do it. She and David were going far away from this place. She would take him somewhere he could be happy, and if one could not be found, then she would carve a place out for him. A sliver of her conscience hoped Basil would—
She sat back down on her bed. She was being stupid and selfish. David wouldn’t want this. It would be taking him away from everything he knew: from Mabel, from Myriad and (much as she struggled to admit that she was a concern) from Eliza, and who knows what else she had missed. As for showing him to her father, she had her doubts about that. While her father loved her unconditionally, he had not always necessarily cared for others just because she did; Ralph was a case in point. He might even find the boy offensive. David might not have been human, but whatever he was, it was a kinder creature than either of them.
She reached over to her bedside and shut off her lamp. Then she went to sleep, and dreamed of watching whales crashing down into the sea, a small boy’s hand clutched tight in her own.
1. Her favourite orange cloak had needed to be thrown out after Basilisk bodily prevented Ophelia from carrying her into the sky. She of course still had her red cloak, but it just wasn’t the same. ↩
2. Gendered according to some inscrutable child-logic.↩
3. Aside from the general secrecy and intrigue surrounding superhumans, the author’s attention became divided when he himself developed superpowers and took up a crime fighting career.↩
4. General Alexander McCarrell “Sandy” Patch was grateful he was being shot at somewhere without malaria.↩
5. “Mutter, schwester, ich liebe dich. Mutter, schwester, ich liebe dich…”/“Mother, sister, I love you. Mother, sister, I love you…” ↩