There was a woman.
But first, there was pain, and hot, heavy darkness. Or did the woman come before that? Memories are never remembered the same way twice. Details are lost, or exaggerated, or sometimes even completely invented. Sometimes, they lack even a sense of priority. Frederick Barnes couldn’t recall the precise words with which he proposed to his wife, but he could recite verbatim the argument they had that night about the merits of beef over pork sausages. Thermopylae was a blur, but the army rations he had been forced to subsist on as a private were never far from his tongue.
He never remembered the blast, but the dream he had afterwards followed him to his grave.
It was one of those dreams that cross-pollinated with memory, only a faint seam separating waking reality and unmoored imagination.
He was fairly sure he was still awake when he heard the poor bugger moaning two bunks down from him. Corporal Barnes’ first guess was that one of his men was suffering through the aftereffects of a bad ration pack, or something they picked up from a poorly chosen local prostitute. He listened for a moment—until he was sure it wasn’t the kind of moaning that meant said hypothetical woman was in the tent with them—before hissing at whoever was making that noise to take it to the med-tent. Except, he then realized, they were already in the med-tent. And there was a tube in his arm.
It was clean. At least, Fred hoped to God it was clean. You had to hand it to the medics: they knew how to extend their supplies. The needle in his arm had likely already been in at least a dozen men, hopefully with a couple dunks in alcohol in between. Maybe it was an odd thing to fixate on, but it was his vein, goddamnit. And it was better than just laying there doing nothing.
No, wrong problem. He was in the med-tent. Why was he in the med-tent? He needed to check himself over, assess the damage.
He couldn’t find any frostbite, and all his fingers were present and accounted for. He couldn’t feel anything foreign in his body besides the IV. It and some bandages on his arms and legs were the only sign that he even needed to be there.
But then he looked at his legs. They were half as long as they should have been.
Corporal Barnes’ breathing grew fast and heavy. No, that couldn’t be right. He could still feel his feet. He could even wiggle his toes. Then he remembered something a mate from Greece once told him:
“They stay with you, you know,” the former Lieutenant Benson had said, a pint of bitter in his left hand. He had favoured his right hand before Thermopylae. “My knuckles still itch, sometimes.”
Barnes tried to rip away the sheets and see what had been done to him, but he couldn’t even raise his arms. Whatever foul stuff that tube was pumping into him, it felt as though God had His finger pressed down on him. He called out for a doctor, his wife, someone—anyone—whose legs he could get better use out of. No answer.
Then, for the first time since the War—even then still the definitive article1—Frederick Barnes wept. This was a nightmare, like the ones where word got to him of Angela falling ill, or the boys being knocked down by a car. It had to be.
“Nobody will hear you, Corporal.”
The voice came from the foot of Fred’s bed. Its owner was a young woman, or at least Fred guessed as much. She was child-slight, but her eyes, he thought, contained the depth of years. With her coal black hair and round cheeks, along with the maroon hanbok she wore, she looked like she spent most of her time living inside a Nork propaganda poster; the kind that made Barnes grateful he never learned Korean. There was something else strange about her, too. No, with everything behind her. It was as if the tent and the pallets and the wounded who occupied them had all been replaced by a photo or painted backdrop of themselves. The scent of peaches replaced blood and disinfectant.
“Sorry about that,” she said, her voice as clean and pure as a mountain lake. Though she looked like a local (and an out of date one at that), her English would have put the King’s own to shame. “I took us off the spokes so we could speak without interruption.”
A woman, standing in the snow, watching men killing each other like a stranger watching children at play. A moment’s confusion, then a return to the sounds of gunfire and panic. Tackling the woman to the ground, shielding her from the bullets, the world exploding…
Frederick Barnes glanced down. This woman still had her knees. Lucky bitch.
“You shoved me into the dirt,” the lady said, concealing her umbrage poorly. “Why?”
Fred looked at her, wondering if this strange woman was simple as well as inexplicable. “…You were standing in the middle of an active firezone. What else was I supposed to do?”
The lady looked at him for a moment, obviously puzzled, until an understanding seemed to dawn on her. “You thought you were protecting me?” she asked, a strange sort of smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, before breaking out in laughter. “That is adorable, it really is. This probably isn’t what you want to hear right now, but… I am quite certain none of your weapons could do me harm. Nonetheless, I do appreciate the attempt.”
“Are you fucked in the head, woman?” Fred asked, bitterness edging into his words. “I don’t care if you’re a child, a soldier, or some bint who’s never seen a gun in her life, a bullet to the head kills everyone all the same.” The tears were threatening to return. “I lost a part of myself saving you from that, and you had better fucking understand it.”
The woman’s smile faded, she glanced down towards one of her hands, resting a few inches away from one of the bandage wrapped stumps of his legs.
“You people are so fragile,” she murmured. “Why do you toss yourselves at one another like that? What could possibly be worth all that pain?”
For a moment, Fred was stumped. It wasn’t that he couldn’t have formed an answer, more that this clueless bitch had just utterly sidestepped the issue of her own blame for his present state.
“… Bunch of reasons,” he replied eventually. “Sometimes because we want to make the world better. Sometimes because we want more of it. Sometimes to protect people, like I did for you… I’m starting to regret that.”
“I would,” she said. “I would definitely regret trying to save me. You lost something important, and I would have come to no harm either way.”
“Woman, do you know what a rifle—” She interrupted before he could finish.
“A projectile weapon. A compressed kinetic reaction is used to force a metal slug towards a target, usually fatally…. One of those might have caused me harm…. I see…. You really were saving me… Thank you.”
Again, Fred didn’t know how to react to that. After a moment, he groaned, and decided to let whatever this woman was rest for the moment.
“What in the blazes were you even doing there in the first place, hmm? What kind of fool wanders out into the middle of a goddamned firing line?”
“I didn’t,” she answered shortly, almost terse. “Your firing line wandered into me. I was watching you people fight on the doorstep of my home. Can you blame me for taking a look? Or for staying put? I was as threatened by you as I am by the squirrels who rut and fight for dominance in the branches of my trees. Did you really expect me to flee from mere men when I could have ended the fight with a mere thought?”
Fred’s eyes narrowed. “If you could have helped, what didn’t you do something?”
“In whose favour?” the woman asked. “Should I have let you and your people claim victory over mine?”
“We’re fighting for your people, lady—”
“It is a travesty when brothers take up arms against each other.” Her tone became very sour. “Especially when cowards too afraid to fight their own battles set them against one another.”
Fred’s confusion gave way to rage. “You think I wanted to be here?” he shouted. “Or wherever the fuck they’ve put my legs! I sure as hell didn’t ask for another tour!” The tears took hold of him once more. “I haven’t seen my wife in ten years! My boys don’t know me! And now I’m coming home to them half the man I was, and I’m going to be nothing but a burden! I don’t know why we’re here! I don’t know why we were fighting in your meadow, and I sure as shit don’t know why I bothered to try and save a stupid bint like you!”
It went on like that for a while, the corporal cursing out the Crown, the Japanese, the reds, and himself with equal ferocity, the apparition watching him all the while, not uttering a word.
When his despaired ravings subsided to a prolonged, inarticulate moan, the woman asked mildly, “Can I speak again?”
“Do whatever you like, lady. Not like I can walk away.”
She scowled. “You’re fortunate—”
“If you even think of saying that again. I don’t care if you’re a woman, or a super or what, I’ll put your teeth out.”
“…That I don’t flay the skin from your bones.”
Fred let out a dry, quiet chuckle. “That’s better.”
The lady continued. “Today, however, I will grant you a reprieve.” She smiled. Fred wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. “Moreover, since it would seem that I was in some small level of danger when you tried to save me, I believe I shall offer you a boon.”
Fred’s response was as immediate as it was predictable. “Give me back my legs.”
“I’m afraid that is beyond my powers.”
“Fuck off, you’re clearly magic.”
“But not that kind of magic. And over a dozen people have seen you like this. What do you think they’ll think if they come back to find your legs have grown back? They would probably shove you into a silly costume2 and airdrop you in the middle of P’yŏngyang. Also, please, mind your tongue in my presence. You don’t want to go through the rest of your life only able to say ‘gosh’ when you’re upset, do you? Actually, don’t answer that.”
“Then I want my family to be comfortable. Not like I’m going to be of much use to them like this. Give my Ange the winning lotto numbers from now to the year 2000.” Actually, when Fred thought about it, that probably wouldn’t work. Angela abhorred gambling. Made him wonder why she married a soldier sometimes. “Or have her find a heap of gold under the sink, whatever you need to do.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so quick to write yourself off like that, Corporal.” The lady tilted her head, then nodded slowly. “I do think you’re on the right track with that idea, although I think you’re thinking too materially. So many men build up a fortune only to see it squandered by their children. Your wife is raising more prudent sons than that—”
“Is she?” Fred cut in morosely. “I wouldn’t know.”
The woman continued, a touch tersely, “…But then what about your grandchildren, and their children after that?” She grinned. “I’m not going to make the Barnes rich today, Frederick Barnes, I’m going to make you and your kin rich as long as there are Barnes. And if I do this right, that might be as long as there are men.”
Fred found the woman’s tone of voice worrying. There was kindness—or something like it—in there, but also a certain, excitable lilt. He could have sworn he’d heard something like it in the double-bill of Frankenstein and Dracula he had taken Angela to right before he shipped out. “Wh-what do you mean?”
“What did one of you white devils call it?” Fred flinched when the ghost, or super, or witch, or whatever she was snapped her fingers, expecting something to appear, or disappear, or change, but it seemed she really was just trying to jog her memory. “Oh, yes, natural selection.”
She stood up from the bed. She was much taller than Barnes had initially thought, almost titanic in stature. She pulled a black feather quill from… somewhere, already wet. “I am sorry about this, but this will hurt more than what put you here.”
Before Fred could inquire or protest, the lady leaned forward and started writing something on his brow. It felt like being dabbed with flaming kerosene. He screamed with all he was, thrashing and trying to jerk his head out from under the creature’s awful pen, but she had him pinned impossibly fast with her free hand. She wasn’t cutting his skin, so much as gouging something into his very being.
“Oh, hold still, will you?”
After what could’ve been anywhere between half a minute and all the moments the universe had left to its name, the woman lifted her quill and straightened herself, appearing to admire her work. “There, that should do just fine.”
The pain had ceased as quickly as it had started, but the shock and mere memory of it had Corporal Barnes shaking and gasping. “What did you do to me?”
The lady slowly began to walk away from the bed. “I have assured that your descendants will always have what they need at hand, and what might harm them at bay—if they know what’s good for them.”
“Is that a threat?” Fred called after her.
“No, just the plain facts of it. Oh, and I’m afraid my blessing isn’t quite retroactive. If you want immediate results, you’d better… make some descendants when you get home.”
“You really think Angela would still want me like this?”
The woman’s words lingered in the air after she departed. “Oh, Frederick Barnes, surely you picked a better wife than that.”
Frederick Barnes was wearing deep tracks in the threadbare carpet outside the master bedroom. He was also ensuring that his house would not need fumigating for the next thousand years. Inside the bedroom, his wife was screaming over the midwife’s somewhat unnecessary exhortations to push.
The Barnes’ third child had not been expected, to say the least. It had been just about sixteen years since their last pregnancy—and while that had been more a matter of geography than anything else, Angela was inching into her forties. However, they didn’t own a television, and certain kinds of entertainment were far cheaper than replacing the wireless would have been.
“They’re gonna be fine, Dad,” Fred’s youngest son Frank reassured him, as he attempted to keep up with his father’s wheeled pacing. With his elder brother Drew already off at university, it had fallen to him to keep his father supplied with beer and Longbeach cigarettes through the whole ordeal of his mother’s labour. “You heard what the doctor said, they couldn’t find anything wrong on the x-ray.”
“Oh, that makes me feel a lot better,” snapped Fred. “They blasted my wife with radiation, and they think everything’s alright!”
Frank forced a grin. Even after seven years, he still found it difficult at times dealing with his father, especially when he got into one of his moods. “What, you’re worried the baby will come out flying or something?”
“Bloody comics!” Fred roared. “Don’t joke about that!”
Frank threw his hands up like he was warding off an angry spirit. “Sorry, sorry, forget I said anything. But Mum will be fine, Dad.”
Fred grumbled some borderline obscenities. He probably wouldn’t be sure things were going to be fine until the baby had at least graduated high school. The doctor had explained the risks of having a child at Angela’s age. Sure, he had prefaced every warning with repeated assurances that the baby would most likely be fine, but they stuck in Fred’s head much less than the possibility that it might come out a mongoloid. Fucking laugh if it doesn’t have any legs, he thought to himself ruefully, lighting his tenth Longbeach of the afternoon.
Even if their newest child came into the world without issue, what then? Until their boys were nine and eleven, Angela had raised them entirely on her own, a widow in practise if not in name. Fred had missed their tenderest years, and his homecoming had shattered the life and routine their mother had worked so hard to carve out for them. He was a dream that had strayed into the light of day. The tales she had raised them on, of their father fighting for King and Country, his boys never far from his thoughts, had given way to a sad, unwelcome epilogue. Even after seven years, he wasn’t sure they wouldn’t rather have the story back.
But this baby, he was in it for the long haul. No one would be calling Fred Barnes away to fight for freedom and democracy or God knew what else. For the first time in his life, there would be nothing keeping him from his child. He almost wished there was.
And there was also that… woman’s promise to consider. Fred had mostly convinced herself that she was a nothing more dream—certainly the seven years since had shown no sign of supernatural luck—but she had said something about descendants…
It was a quick labour, as those went. Fred and his son heard one last sharp tapered cry of pain and exertion, and then a new, thin voice, making its first shrill cry into the heavy summer air. The attending midwife’s proclamation of the newborn’s sex could be clearly heard through the door.
Fred had missed out on both his prior children’s births. The second he’d been on a whole other continent. But he had seen enough battles to know which direction a high risk operation was taking. As far as he could hear, the atmosphere in the bedroom was one of relieved celebration. The midwife was making jokes about how many digits the child owned, while Angela told her to knock it off and just give her the bloody baby. That was practically sailor-talk coming from her3.
Fred breathed a little easier.
The door opened. “Mr. Barnes, you have a—”
“Yes I heard, a son!” barked Fred. “Just let me by!”
He gestured madly at her, his chair in danger of toppling from the sheer violence of the motion. She backed to the side, and he wasted no time in making his way to his wife’s side, half wheeling, half being pushed by his son. Her hair was plastered to her face with sweat, the child already in her arms. “Looks like you managed three for three.”
Fred chuckled abashedly. “I wouldn’t have minded, you know that.”
Angela looked down into her new son’s face. Like most infants who’d just vented their outrage at their change in circumstances, he was looking up at his mother with complete, uncomprehending curiosity. She allowed herself a small, weary smile. “It’s funny, I can’t help feeling a little ticked off after all that, but I can’t stop looking at him.”
“Was it like that with me and Drew?” asked Frank.
Angela nodded. “Maybe worse. Wasn’t as used to it.” She looked at her husband. “Not that I’ll ever get used to it, even if I have a thousand more of these.”
Fred grinned, a rare and treasured occurrence these days. “Well, there’s steps I can take so you don’t have to.”
“Not in front of the midwife!” Angela rebuked Fred in the tone of voice that only made it funnier for him.
“What? You think she doesn’t know how he got here?” It was then Fred seemed to fully notice his new son for the first time. “…Do ya mind if I hold him?”
Angela handed the baby to him without hesitation, before allowing herself to slip off into hard won sleep.
It was the first time Fred had ever held a baby. The absurdity of it almost made him laugh. He, a forty-four year old father of three, and only now was he able to hold his own son like that.
He jiggled the boy slightly in his arms, and felt a surprising surge of joy at the light coo of sound that followed. Not joy, yet, nothing so complex; but acknowledgement, engagement with him. He felt a shock of something, a force that racked through him like a physical thing, jolting his very bones and leaving him feeling stronger, like iron. He had a purpose again.
“No matter what happens, boy,” he murmured, gazing into the newborn’s eyes. “I will always be there for you. You get that, little soldier? Always. That’s a promise.”
The baby tried to bite Fred’s finger, the gums of his tiny mouth pressing against the tip of the digit as some buried instinct drove him to chew without any of the tools required.
Fred laughed. “You little shit.”
Angela Barnes stood at her kitchen counter, assembling cornbeef sandwiches with almost frenzied efficiency. Out front of the house, her husband was hard at work fixing up the Kombi bus their eldest son and his young wife had driven halfway across the country. It needed to be in top condition by tomorrow morning. They were heading up to see their Arnold, and Hell would freeze over before they frittered away any money on servo station food.
She shot a glance out of the kitchen window to see how the boys were getting along, then shook her head with a barely audible snort. Fred had taken charge, as he always did, and was putting their boy through his paces, a full grown man running from end to end of the vehicle at his father’s shouted commands from beneath the chassis. Of course, Fred’s bellowing rarely had anything to do with anger: it was simply how he chose to relay information to most other males. Well, besides Arnold; he hardly even raised his voice with the boy. She allowed herself a smile. Her husband was almost too sweet with that child.
“So much for radicalism,” Sophia Barnes said from the chipped green enamel dining table. A book lay open in front of her. “Don’t make things easy on the Man… unless the Man is his dad.”
“Damn straight,” replied Angela, neither pausing nor looking up from her task. “How’s the book so far?”
Busy nursing his wife through a bout of rheumatic fever, Frank hadn’t been able to make the journey back to Harvey for the great Barnes expedition to the New Human Institute. However, dutiful son that he was, he had managed to scrounge up a copy of The New Child: a treatise written by the man he was fairly certain was Arnold’s new head teacher.
Sophia Barnes hummed thoughtfully. Angela and Fred had both been surprised, perhaps more than they should have been, when their eldest son went full counterculture after university; hitting the road and tooling around the country with a rotating cast of other dissatisfied young adults. Fred had taken it somewhat personally—and loudly—but Angela figured they had raised Drew well enough that he wasn’t likely to get himself into any great trouble. Aside from marriage, as it turned out. That had taken her by surprise, she would admit. But Drew and the new Mrs Barnes had assured her they were actually, legally married, inside a Catholic church, which Angela figured was all she could really ask for. She’d probably preferred her son got married at a witch’s sabbath than an Anglican church4.
“Well, I know one thing for certain: this Dr. Lawrence bloke really loves new humans.”
“His word for demi—sorry, supers.” She cleared her throat, readying herself to channel the author. “ ‘It is my view, after many years of exploration, research, and my decades spent within their company, that these new humans could, if given the chance, ameliorate the scars left upon our cultures by their more mundane ancestors. Many among our race fear giving them this chance, and that is understandable. They are, by definition, a change, and change can be intimidating; but it must, as is the way of evolution, be embraced, where it can.’ ”
“At least you know he’s treating Arnold well?”
There was a wail from the other end of the house.
Sophie stood up from her chair. “Sounds like Julie’s up,” she declared, with the desperate jauntiness of a new mother yet to figure out which pitches meant her child was hungry, tired, or dying.
“Do you want me to see to her?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Barnes, but I can handle it,” Sophie replied as she hurried down the hall past her mother-in-law.
“…You can call me Angela, you know.”
She went back to her sandwiches. If there was one blessing in Angela’s life, it was that there was always plenty of work to distract her.
God, that poor girl. Was she ever so on edge when her boys were small?
Probably. Almost definitely. But at least Sophia wouldn’t have to go it alone. Whatever Angela thought about the path Drew had taken, she trusted him to take care of his family.
For a moment, she tried wrapping her head around the idea of a grandchild. It was an odd fit in her mind, a nagging sense that she was still a tad young for anyone to be calling her “grandma”, especially when she still had a little boy of her own, somewhere out there.
She was glad Arnold would at least get to see his niece.
Despite the winter cold, and the unfortunate lack of heating in the kitchen, Angela began to feel oppressively hot. Feverish, even. Another hot flash. As was her way, she tried pushing through it, even as the sensation spread from her face to the rest of body. Eventually, though, pragmatism reminded her she would likely get more work done if she just swallowed her pride and had a rest.
Rather than head for the couch or her bed, Angela made her way to the tiny bedroom next to the laundry. Separated from the washer and dryer only by thin drywall, it was often the warmest spot in the whole house; and so, Fred and Angela had given it to Arnold.
Aside from dust, nothing had been removed from the room since Arnold himself. Still the same battered shelves holding his brother’s hand-me-downs, as well as what Angela suspected was pillage gained from his powers. A children’s treasury containing a simplified rendition of The Odyssey Angela had been reading to him lay closed on his bedside table. She had left school to work at fourteen after her father’s stroke, but she had made an effort to at least instill a respect for the written word in her sons.
As she had done an honestly embarrassing number of times that year, she lay on her son’s bed, folding her long legs close to her chest. It had been of more comfort in the summer, when the sunlight pouring through the bedroom window had made the bed almost feel slept in.
She wished she hadn’t made his bed that morning.
Angela had never thought the Change would bother her as much as it was. She had been expecting it for years. When she had gotten in the family way with Arnold, she had initially assumed that was it. She certainly had no desire to provide Julie with a younger uncle or aunt. She had had her season, and she was very content with the harvest—despite what she may have occasionally implied to Drew or Arnold.
There was the problem. If she still had Arnold where she could see him, if her family was still together—if only in spirit rather than geography—menopause wouldn’t even have been a blip on Angela’s radar. As things were, it was as if nature felt the need to hammer it in that her baby was gone.
As Julia’s cries gave way to contented gurgles, the sickly heat within Angela gave way to chill. She really should have let Drew and Sophie put the baby in Arnold’s room, instead of the bloody linen closet. It just felt too much like replacing him…
“You alright, Ange?” asked Fred from the doorway.
“What do you think?”
“Sorry, love. I mean, are you hanging in there?”
Angela rolled over to look at her husband. “We’re gonna see our son again, Fred. I should be feeling better.”
Fred wheeled over to beside the bed. “Nerves? I don’t know. Maybe you’re trying to work though all the leftover bullshit so Arnold doesn’t have to deal with it. Wouldn’t want his mum and dad crying over him in front of his new mates, would he?”
Angela just sighed and turned back to face the window. She didn’t even chastise Fred for his language; never a good sign.
With hard-won ease, he shifted himself onto the bed, wrapping an arm around his wife. With how barrel chested he still was, the only reason there was even enough room for the both of them was that Angela’s genes had yet to realize the Irish Potato Famine was no longer a concern. With his free hand, he reached for the cigar tin resting on top of the treasury.
“I still don’t know what the hell he’s on about in half of these,” he said as he flicked the lid open with his thumb.
The note that had appeared in the butchers had only been the first in a miraculous, one-sided correspondence by the youngest Barnes, written on seemingly anything he had on hand: finch-stamped office stationery, lined pages clearly ripped from a school workbook; even a few strips of papery bark. Despite all of Angela’s efforts, Arnold had turned out to be something of a gossip. In the corners, she had written the dates they had appeared. You certainly couldn’t date them by any improvement in Arnold’s penmanship.
“Look at this one: ‘Maelstrom and Allie back from their trip. Brought home a tiger!’ I mean, is the tiger an actual tiger? Or is it like how he used to call the cat a ‘tiger’?”
“Still want to know where that thing got to,” grumbled Angela, her head resting against Fred’s beard. “And I think the tiger is that Growltiger boy he mentioned.”
“What, you think he’s classmates with a talking tiger?”
She shrugged. “Why not?”
“What do you think is the deal with the names, anyway? Is he writing in code?”
“I think it’s a game, dear.” Angela fished a note out of the tin. “Did I show you this one?”
The Barnes lay there for nearly an hour, going over the out-of-context fragments Arnold had felt like sharing with them of his new life:
So, turns out Mealy has a secret old human name. Everyone tells me everything last…
…Windshear thinks she gets to collect the Billy-tax!
…Some kids got in big trouble for playing Hunt the Hippie…
…Reverb is getting so fat.
…Basil’s a little better. It’s still weird David doesn’t hug him or anything. He’s so nice to everyone else. Maybe he just doesn’t like it? David’s hugs can make you feel weird sometimes…
“He mentions that Mealy-David boy a lot,” commented Fred.
“Long as he has a friend,” Angela said as she clambered over her husband’s form. The little reminder of her son’s present happiness had buoyed her spirits considerably, but with that came the determination to attend to matters she had been putting off. “I’m going to pop over to the Kinseys’ place.”
“Still doing that are ya?” Fred replied, squinting at a exceptionally illegible note, trying to decide if this Tiresias person was one of the old guard of new humans Arnold sometimes mentioned, or an exceptionally large student who kept getting into the liquor cabinet.
“Have to.” Just to niggle her husband, she added, “It’s my Christian duty.”
Drina lay half-curled on her living room’s turquoise sofa, “Waltzing Matilda”5 blaring from the turntable in the corner. She wondered how many more times she could play that record before the needle wore it down to nothing, its substance reduced to pure sound.
When Allison had first been taken from her, Drina had felt like a parent bereaved, burdened further with the horrific certainty that her child was in no better place. Now, everything felt reversed. She was a shade in some gloomy underworld, trying to guess at what her daughter was up to in the sunlit country.
Drina was dimly aware of Angela Barnes bustling around her house, and could neither remember nor bring herself to care whether or not she had invited her in. Some small, unimportant part of herself was telling the other woman where they kept the broom and the coffee grounds.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Barnes,” Drina finally asked as a cup of Moccona dark as interstellar space was placed in front of her, “but why exactly are you here?”
“Because your house is in desperate need of a tidy-up, Mrs Kinsey,” Angela said as she got back to wiping down the other woman’s kitchen counter. She was trying very hard to keep her tone gentle, and so merely came across as brusque. “And there’s something I need to speak with you and your husband about. Any idea when he’ll be home?”
Drina shrugged. “Not really. Jack’s been working late a lot.” Or drowning our daughter at the Harvey Hotel, she silently added, not altogether bitterly. God knows she wished she was allowed inside the pub right then. “What is it you want to say? If it’s worth coming over and doing my dishes, surely it’s worth repeating yourself.”
Angela looked at the newspaper clipping affixed to the Kinsey’s startlingly sleek refrigerator, Allison and the boy called Maelstrom grinning photogenically from the rough, grainy paper. Above their pictures was what Parliament had officially dubbed the Green Palace, and what everyone else was calling the Treehouse6; alien yet familiar all at once. “Drina, did Allison send you a note?”
Before she could answer, two dull thumps echoed in quick succession from the front room.
“They told me I had to go…” Jack Kinsey froze when he saw Angela.
She, for her part, just folded her arms. “Evening, Mr. Kinsey.”
Drina gave her husband an odd look. Meanwhile, Jack started to… tremor. Angela thought he was having some kind of episode, until she realized he was shaking his head.
She blinked. Oh, he thinks I’m here to—
Angela Barnes had not told her husband what Jack Kinsey had done, mostly because she was fairly sure Fred would kill him for it, and she wasn’t certain she would try very hard to stop him. She herself had put off speaking to the Kinseys for very similar reasons.
It had its temptations, just telling Drina, right there and then. Lord knew she must have hungered for someone to blame. Maybe Jack hadn’t reported their daughter, but he had brought the DDHA down on her head all the same. Angela could leave him alone—alone and hated—with just a few words.
But that would leave Drina alone, too. Angela at least had Fred and Drew and Frank; even that baby sleeping in her son’s crib. Who did Drina have, apart from ashes and unmarked graves half a world away? Surely a half man like Kinsey was better than no one?
Barely managing to swallow her hate, Angela looked back down at Drina. “You were saying, Mrs Kinsey?”
“…Yes, we got a note.”
“Oh, why lie, Jack? It’s not like Allie can get reported twice.”
“Could I see it?” This time, Angela did manage to sound gentle.
Drina fetched the note from some hiding place Angela was not privy to, handing it to her like she was trusting the butcher with the relic of a saint.
Dear Mum and Dad. I’m okay. I have powers, but I’m okay. This scientist (I guess) took me and Arnold to live with a lot of other kids like us, and it’s really nice. We’re making a lot of friends and doing a play and there’s songs.
So many songs.
“She used to mention songs a fair whack, when she was small,” Jack said. “Never was sure what she meant. Stopped when she was five, I think.”
“The Flying Man,” Angela said. “Smart girl you have, Kinsey.”
“Why are you here, Mrs Barnes?”
Angela took a deep breath. “We know where the kids are.”
As she expected, she was assaulted by an overlapping barrage of wheres and hows before she could get another word out. “Alright, alright! Let me finish!” she snapped. It was enough to quiet the Kinseys for a moment. “Anyway, our son sent us a note, too. I’d wager he sent your daughter’s note for her, if she couldn’t do it herself.”
“He’s a good boy,” Jack interjected. Once again, Drina looked at him funny.
Angela gritted her teeth. “I know he is, Jack. He was also a little more firm on the geography than your Allison. Said the school—I think that’s the right word for it—was in the hills up near Northam. Frank—you remember Frank?—turned out to have a friend working for the DDHA, God forgive him, and he told us about the fella who runs this school, Doctor Lawrence Herbert. Calls it the ‘New Human Institute’. It’s been there since the War, thereabouts.”
“Which war?” asked Drina.
Angela sighed. Sometimes Korea and World War Two blurred together for her. “Korea, I think. So after the Flying Man went and bungled everything up, Doctor Lawrence managed to get this deal with the DDHA. He kept all the children he had at the Institute, and they let him take in some of the children they sent to those awful asylums: ours included.” She lowered her head. “God bless him for it.”
That out of the way, she proceeded to explain everything she had read or heard regarding Herbert Lawrence, his extremely optimistic view of superhumanity included.
“Thank you for telling us all this, Angela,” Drina said eventually, smiling, faintly, for the first time in weeks. “Just knowing where Allison is makes it easier to get on.”
“Bare minimum of decency, Drina,” the butcher said, cooly. “Also not the only reason I came over. Me and the family are heading up to see Arnold tomorrow, and we think you should come along.” Her inner budgeter compelled her to add, “We’d both save on petrol money.”
Jack and Drina looked at one another, before the former glanced back at Angela and said, “That… might not be wise.”
“…Why not? Is it a work thing? Because if it is: really, Jack? If you need to sort out time off—”
“It’s-it’s not that.”
“Then what is it?” Angela asked dubiously.
“If this Lawrence bloke is right—even about half the stuff you say he says—maybe we’re not… I guess worthy is the only word for it?”
Angela’s eyes narrowed. “Children are supposed to be better than their parents, Jack. That’s how you know you’re doing your job!”
“It’s just… Allison’s was never much of a happy kid. I mean, she smiled and played well enough with other children, but aside from Arnold”—he cringed slightly—“she never seemed to connect with anything. And you know Arnold didn’t have all that many friends, either.” He shook his head slowly. “Maybe this wasn’t the right place for children like them. And even if it was, they’re at that school because the government wants them there. You think they’re just going to let you take Arnold home?”
Angela tilted her head. “When did I say I was going to try taking him out of that school?”
Drina said, “But, you—”
“Look, I know Fred and I might not be able to teach Arnold everything a boy like him needs to know. I never gave much thought to boarding school—always thought it was for people with too much money who didn’t like their children much—but it sounds like both our kids are happy enough there. But if I have to let another person look after my boy, I’m not gonna rest till I’ve looked them in the eye myself!”
Drina looked down at her hands. “…I don’t think I could bare leaving that place without my Allie. Not yet.”
Jack straightened slightly. When he spoke, his tone was less quavering. “Thank you for offering, Mrs. Barnes, but I don’t think either of us are ready for that yet. If you see her, send her our love.”
Angela Barnes usually appeared to be at least slightly irritated with something or other at any given moment. Now, she just seemed sad. Almost like she had been in the butcher’s, that stupid, awful day. “Your daughter’s a good girl, Kinseys,” she said. “Don’t think she hasn’t been in my prayers, too. I just worry what she might think if we turn up one day, and you don’t.” She turned to leave. “I hope you find your way back to her, eventually.”
She heard the weeping start before the door closed behind her.
When the Barnes had arrived in Northam, it had quickly dawned on them that—for all their recently expanded knowledge of the place—they were still fairly vague as to where exactly the New Human Institute was. The New Child hadn’t been very specific—lest it attract gawkers, claimed the author. Drew had suggested simply driving along the dirt roads that led out into the surrounding countryside until they found the school, but that had been shot down for reasons of wanting to see Arnold before he graduated.
Eventually, it was decided that the men and the women would split up into two parties, to better infiltrate their respective spheres of society. Drew and Fred had headed off to interrogate the patrons of Duke’s Inn, while Sophia and Angela—baby in tow—had gotten their hair done.
The latter approach proved much more productive.
“They kept asking me and dad if we were doctors or lawyers or something,” Drew said as the family took lunch in a corner booth at the Camel Stop Diner. “Apparently they’ve been getting some real high-rollers coming through here lately: all heading to the Institute.”
“Scientists, politicians, even a few gold medalists, they say,” Fred continued.
“Maybe they’re going there to teach?” suggested Sophia, wincing a little as Julia tugged on a stray strand of sandy hair.
Drew shook his head. “Don’t think so. They always turn back up at the pub a day or two later. Could be lecturers, I suppose.”
“If they are,” mused Fred, “this Lawrence must have serious amounts of dosh.”
“That he does,” a voice coming from behind Mr. Barnes said, laconically. The grinning face of a thirty-something Asian man in an Akubra hat. “Would I be wrong in thinking you’re heading for the New Human Institute?”
“Yes. Our son’s a student,” Angela said with no trace of hesitation or shame. “Why do you ask?”
The man’s grin dimmed. “You promise not to go wild if I tell you something?”
“Boy, I was an Anzac for twelve years and two shooting wars, and my son has superpowers, nothing you could say will make me ‘go wild’.”
Oh, if only, old fella, the man thought to himself. “Well, in that case, I was actually a student at the Institute. Graduated, I suppose you could say, about nine years back.”
The Barnes looked back and forth at one another, clearly surprised, but little more than that. “What do you do?” asked Sophie.
“If that isn’t like asking a woman her age,” added her husband.
The man shrugged. “I move things with my mind. Nothing special, really. I’d show you, but not with all these straights around.” He stood up from his seat, moving next to the Barnes’ table. “Chen Li,” he said, extending his hand for anyone who wished to take it, which as it turned out meant Angela. “Pleased to meet you all.”
The Barnes quickly introduced themselves, making room on one of the seats for Chen.
“You lot know the way to the Institute?” he asked, jovially.
“Almost,” answered Fred. “One young bloke tried giving us directions, but it was like the words kept falling back down his throat.”
“To be fair,” said Drew, “that kid sounded like he’d smoked a whole forest of… something.”
Chen clapped his hands together. “Tell ya what, I’m itching to visit the old alma mater, but getting a ride to the Institute around here is like hitching a ride to Castle Dracula. If you take me along, I’ll make sure you get to the school in time for tea.”
The Barnes deliberated for a moment. “Seems fair,” Fred declared, nodding his head slightly.
Chen Li beamed. “Thanks a ton mates, real good of you all. Mind swinging by my room when you’ve finished your meal? Ah, good.” He stood back up. “I’m just heading outside for a fag. I prefer to spoil the fresh air while I smoke. Don’t rush your lunch on my account.
In truth, Chen had put things off as long as he could. The Coven had come through with that student list four days ago7—hopefully that was the last thing he’d ever need from that crew—and he had been slowly moving his gold reserves under the Institute’s grounds for weeks. Either he did this now, or he’d sit above Duke’s Inn twiddling his thumbs and agonising over the morality of it forever.
Lighting up a Dunhill, he looked through the diner window at the Barnes. God help those poor bastards, he thought. God help me, too.
1. It made conversation between the more senior troops confusing at times. ↩
2. Said the woman in the medieval hanbok.↩
3. Angela Barnes’ aversion to coarse language was rarely a disadvantage for her. She could make any word four letters when she wanted.↩
4. Elsa Lieronen’s career as a marriage celebrant was short lived.↩
5. Twelve years later, when Australia decided to drop “God Save the Queen” as the national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda” was a popular choice for a replacement. The fact that so many Australians felt a song about a man stealing and eating someone else’s sheep before drowning himself embodied their nation might say some things. ↩
6. Political cartoonists would draw ministers fighting over it for decades to come.↩
7. He paid his weight in gold for it. Literally. They weighed him.↩