“It’s not that different, is it?”
Elsewhere and Myriad lay in the loose hay that carpeted the barn loft, the missing planks in the ceiling striping their faces in light and shadow. They had spent much of their time alone together since their final initiation into the mysteries of the Institute.
Well, final thus far.
“My mum was only seventeen when she married Dad,” Elsewhere continued. “Wasn’t that long before Drew was born.”
Myriad was surprised Elsewhere had brought up his parents. Since joining the ranks of the abandoned, he had been steadfastly pretending that he was an orphan. “But they were married,” she said. “And nearly the same age.”
“Linus and the big girls are the same age,” her friend pointed out.
“He’s what, fourteen? That’s nearly grown up.”
“Well, Lawrence said it was.”
“It’s Metonymy and Artume’s married day this weekend,” Myriad said. “Lawrence is going to announce it Friday.”
“Married day” was an emerging euphemism at the New Human Institute. It’s what they called the times the older children were paired off to produce offspring.
“I do wish it hadn’t caught on like it has,” Lawrence had confided to her. “Marriage is an artifact of my kind, Myriad. I should hope your race works out more sensible ways of giving order to love.”
“How do you know that?” asked Elsewhere.
Myriad shrugged. “He told me.”
“…Do you think you and me are going to have a married day?” Elsewhere asked. “You know, when we’re big?”
Myriad felt queasy. She didn’t know why. It wasn’t as though they were related. And Elsewhere was her friend. Would she rather it be with a boy she didn’t like as much?
Of course, chances were that was in her future, too. “Yeah. Probably.”
For a little while, the barn made more noise than either child.
“I’m sorry,” said Elsewhere.
“…I don’t know.”
She rolled over closer to the boy, squeezing his hand. “We’re still little. We won’t have to think about that for years if we don’t want.”
Myriad got to her feet, making her way to the edge of the loft. “I’m going outside. You coming?”
For reasons not even Myriad could understand, Elsewhere’s answer came as a relief. With a few notes of Britomart’s song, she leapt to the ground and ventured out into the new New Human Institute.
In the days since AU’s attack, Lawrence had tried to marshal the students into restoring the Institute’s pastoral character. Their cooperation had been half-hearted at best. Many of the children, as it turned out, preferred the Post-Golden Age1 landscape—with its all new scars and curiosities. Down by the water gold nuggets were now as common as riverstone; trenches dug by ice and fire were already seeing service as forts and battlements; and of course, AU’s battle dead still held a silent watch. The students had taken to naming them like hedges: Ol’ Scatterclaws, G-Rex, and a whole host of others2.
She wandered through a game of tag, Abalone shouting a greeting as he ran past after Ēōs.
The destruction had given the children an unspoken licence to make their own alterations, too. Veltha had cut tunnels beneath the school, so that her fellow students could play in her dark underworld. Britomart and Talos had uprooted enough trees to construct a palisade, from which Windshear ruled as a bloody queen. In an unprecedented spate of cooperation, Ex-Nihilo and Growltiger had erected castles of limestone and emerald all throughout the grounds. As the girl watched, Tiresias plummeted from one of their roundels, and had to be carried to the sick-bay, over his woozy protests that he could just walk it off. Everywhere Myriad looked, the world was changing with its children.
Unlike a lot of young girls, Myriad had never fantasized much about motherhood. Involved too much babies for her taste. However, she had assumed she would one day be a mother. It was just how things went for girls, unless you wanted to be someone’s sad auntie.
She wondered what having a baby would feel like. Would she be able to hear its song from within her? Once it was born, would she be able to copy it, or the other way around? Would it even have her powers, or one of the many she had dipped her toes in?
Would it have her eyes, or David’s?
Not now. Not yet.
As she walked, she played Żywie’s song, pushing through the unwelcome memories that came with the ghostly piano chords. She had tried to assume the healer’s powers a few times again since the Quiet Room. Not so much for any actual healing—she had Maelstrom and Talos’ songs for that— but rather to puzzle out the unease the woman’s abilities inspired in her. It couldn’t just be the piano, could it? Or that note? Surely she wasn’t that big of a wimp? The experiments hadn’t gone well. In truth, she hadn’t managed to hold onto her teacher’s tune for more than a few seconds before losing her nerve. This time, though, she was surprised to find the revulsion wasn’t there.
Well, if she had the song, why not dance to it?
Żywie had been busy. The woman had come up with a plethora of biological refinements, and she had used herself as a testbed for all them. And now, Myriad decided, it was time for her to share.
Charles Darwin never uttered or put to paper the words “survival of the fittest”3, for the simple reason they aren’t true. Despite what generations of pulp writers might have told people, natural selection does not strive towards any higher plane; it only blindly prunes the inadequate. This is why human beings start to fall apart after less than a hundred years, while somewhere in the ocean drifts a brainless jellyfish older than that entire species.
If you want a truly exceptional creature, that takes craftsmanship.
Myriad smiled to herself. The changes she set in motion would take time, unless she wanted to starve to death on her feet. She would have to keep Żywie’s song playing for days—even in her sleep—but after all was said and done, she would be a little less baseline.
She ate like a horse that evening.
Alberto Moretti sung his way softly through Kookaburra Dormitory4, making the rounds. His ten phantom limbs lay asleep on either side of him, waiting for the psychic to renew his mark on them. As he passed each hammock, he laid a hand on its occupants, his fingerprint seeping into the children’s minds. Their dreams played in his head: wild collages of fear and fantasy, both hazier and more real than the waking world.
“Fran, mum and dad, Fran, forgot to put on pants to breakfast, known Kadath… Eliza?” The esper looked back up the row at Haunt. “Really?” Alberto continued his recitation. “Flying Man, spider-house—” He stopped, index finger resting on Britomart’s forehead. He looked down at the girl and grinned. “Maelstrom! You kept that well hidden, kid.”
It was an easy evening for the rounds; it was the one night of the week when Artume actually slept. It was a nightmare having to sneak around her all the time, and God knew that this would be a bad week to let things slip. Well, bad for Lawrence at least.
Long term behavioral modification was a funny old game. When Bertie had first decided he wasn’t above it after all, he had had the psychic take a rather heavy handed approach to things— some of the kids he’d practically turned into little robots. But the thing about the human mind is that if you meddle with too many parts too often, you start to see knock-on effects. Try to make Windshear wash her hands consistently, and you wake up one morning to find the girl crying as she scrubs her skin off.
He paused again when he reached Maelstrom, snuggled up with Tigger and Mabel.
Hmm… not tonight.
Allison was sleeping alone that night. Good idea, Alberto thought. Might as well enjoy it while she could. He pinched a toe.
He couldn’t get any traction on her. It was like her skin was made of teflon. He focused on the little girl. There was nothing. No dreams, no lights sparking inside her head; nothing. If it weren’t for the steady rise and fall of her chest and the REM twitching of her eyes beneath their lids, the psychic would have thought she was dead. He had never seen such an impenetrable mind since—
That spill he took on Castle Greystone. That kraut bitch.
Alberto started hyperventilating. The girl had taken on Eliza’s song again. Why? What possible interest could flesh witchery have for an eight year old girl? Did she remember that morning after Chen came home? Or anything else? If she did, who had she told?
If Eliza knew, he was done for. If Fran knew, he would wish he was.
He felt the child’s forehead, hoping he was wrong, hoping he would find even a little purchase on Allison’s mind. Still, he found nothing. If anything, the girl felt feverish, though she seemed quite content.
It suddenly occurred to Alberto that he couldn’t remember Eliza ever coming down with so much as a cold.
He ran out of the dormitory, praying to a God he wished he didn’t believe in, a God he knew would never listen to him of all people. He remembered Allison remembering that evil Finnish gypsy’s note. The lines he knew she hadn’t read out for her cohort:
PS: Beware the one who holds the wires taut.
For months, Alberto had assumed that was him. Desperate for reassurance, he plunged into the storm of futures, and was relieved by what he saw. The Institute would be finished by Christmas, but he’d seen that coming since New Year’s. More importantly, in all but the most improbable tommorows—now that the Institute had weathered Chen—he persisted. The school might die, but the road stretched out long before him.
Alberto’s pace slowed to a walk as he forced himself to take a few long, grateful breaths. He started heading back towards the farmhouse. He had missed a few kids in his panic, but that didn’t worry him too greatly. Where he slacked off, he had full faith the bullshit Bertie had filled the children’s heads with would make up the difference.
He would be glad to be rid of this place.
Myriad woke up happy that Thursday morning. She’d never been a very loud smiler, but today she was. She actually sung in the showers, which got her a few loofahs lobbed into her stall. As she had done for the last three days, she dug into breakfast like a bear cub on the first day of Spring.
“You gearing up for a growth spurt?” Mrs Gillespie asked. Her tone was bemused, but she was a little concerned. Myriad wouldn’t have have been first of her girls to develop an unhealthy relationship with food after having things explained to her, although the usual tact was to starve themselves.
Myriad swallowed her mouthful of egg and bacon in one painful looking gulp. She beamed at the teacher, “Nah, that’s not till next year.”
Myriad was not joking. She managed to pocket a knife as everyone got up to head to class, shooting Maelstrom a knowing look that only got confusion in return.
Tiresias locked himself in his room. Nobody noticed.
The school day passed for Myriad in a blur of impatience and anticipation as she was passed from teacher to teacher, gophering stationery and textbooks and cups of tea from one end of the house to the other.
Once, when she was fetching the Institute’s copy of The Mystery of the Cathedrals5 from the library, she dropped Żywie’s song for Melusine’s. She went icy—just for a moment, like a photonegative flash—before picking up the healer’s tune again.
After what felt like a whole school week, Myriad was released from her duties. She ran out into the afternoon sun, following Maelstrom’s song down to the river. A set of green and blue shorts and T-shirt lay neatly folded on the bank. David’s song radiated from the river’s depths like the last orchestra in Atlantis, all glass harmonica and whalebone whistles.
Myriad took hold of it, then evaporated out of her clothes, her kit falling to the ground with an uncharacteristically weighty thud. She recondensed some ways out above the river, twisted in the air, and dropped into the water with a joyous splash.
She simply floated at first, unbothered by the chill river currents. Then she kicked downwards, air escaping out of the sides of her mouth in a plume of bubbles as she plunged, mermaid-like, past the point where bright, glassy green gave way to murky marine blue. She could have liquified, become one with the river itself. She had done it before with David, and it was always uniquely freeing, but right now, Myriad wanted to feel the cool, muted gravity of the water; to churn it with her feet and hear its quiet roar in her ears.
She flew over planes of river weeds, rippling sideways like grass in the wind, punctuated by broken bottles, lost shoes, and drowned toys. A pirate ship in miniature lay half-buried in the silt, its exposed prow long ago given up to moss and rot; fossilisation in reverse. David had shown it to Myriad the first time she had ventured underwater. When Linus and the oldest girls had been small, he told her, they had built the thing over a summer for the sole purpose of sinking it, just so they could say that the river had a sunken ship in it.
The boy was sitting in the middle of the riverbed. It was deep enough there to drown a careless child, but not so deep you couldn’t see the sun scattering across the surface.
Myriad gave her friend a small wave as she approached, nervous. They hadn’t really had a chance to talk alone since AU’s attack. It felt different now. David smiled as he caught sight of her, and she settled down next to him, sending up a small, silent explosion of dust and sand. He laced his fingers in hers, and they let the light rain down on them, shattered into yellows and greens, dappling their skin like they were sitting beneath a stained glass ceiling.
They sat together in companionable silence—not that they had much of a choice in the matter. Little silvered fish flitted in and out of sight.
Myriad suddenly found herself hesitating. She didn’t know why. It was good news she had for him. Still, she didn’t want to surface quite yet, to have to crack and scrape her thoughts trying to shove them into words.
And then there was the all other stuff.
No. No thinking about weird, confusing things right now. Now was fun time. That was what time with David was meant for.
Then the idea struck, and she grinned. Why did the best ideas take so long to turn up?
She gave the boy’s hand a squeeze before letting go, kicking off from the riverbed. David had just enough time to look up questioningly at her, when he saw the pirate ship wrench itself from its unkempt grave, its struggles echoing and burbling through the water. It rose to meet Myriad’s bare feet just as the last of her ice-spun piratical accoutrements crystallized around her. She raised her newly made, translucent sword, and barked silent orders to an imaginary crew.
David giggled, before melting away like a dream.
A few fathoms from Myriad’s revenant vessel, a phantasmal clipper manifested, its many sails fanning out like fins and dragonfly wings in the water. The body of the craft was long and thin, almost serpentine in its dimensions, with a suspiciously familiar looking young mermaid as its figurehead.
Myriad suddenly wished David’s powers came with a tail. She frowned at her own figurehead, the begrudging compromise between a unicorn and a dragon. A growling, boyish tiger grew over it.
The ghost of a proud Royal Navy captain appeared on the clipper’s deck, resplendent in the memory of his dress uniform. Unlike the pirate queen, this seaman had the loyalty of a full crew of spectral sailors.
The clipper’s cannons bombarded the diminutive galleon, a dozen tailless comets slamming into its hull, sending wood splinters sinking to the bottom of the river like pine needles.
Myriad lowered her sword sharply, imagining her grizzled sea-dogs returning fire. Which they did.
The cannonballs struck their target true, shattering David’s ship like a glass model. Myriad was cheering to herself when she saw the boat mend itself, like time flowing backwards.
A cannonball struck Myriad’s mast, sending it and her rotting, tattered sail floating off into the green.
Purely out of habit, she huffed. It was her own fault, she knew. Using a wooden boat for this was like picking black in chess. Down here, David was Jumpcut, Growltiger, Mabel and Elsewhere all in one.
But then, so was Myriad.
A pillar of ice grew from her ship’s wound, sprouting a sail that slipped in and out of visibility as the boat cut through the water, ramming into HMAS Triton.
And so it went. Every blow David inflicted on the NAS6 Anne Bonny, Myriad patched with ice: the ship of Theseus in real time. The old boat died in inches, surrendering to its own ghost.
And as the ships fought on, they forgot their shape, mutating as they regenerated. They became leviathans and giants, mountains and swords. For one brief, glorious moment, they were a whale and a squid, but neither child took note.
Eventually, Myriad bored of this distance combat, and swung across to David’s sea-turtle on a glittering rope7.
Whatever changes his vessel had undergone, David’s own playing piece still looked the same. The officer and gentleman lunged at the little girl, and a frantic bout of sword-clashing ensued, the two fighters clinging tight to the turtle’s shell as Myriad’s box jellyfish ensnared her in its tentacles.
Myriad could barely keep apace, small as she was, with the captain’s flurry strikes and parries. She soon gave up on that, letting the blue fade from her eyes and the ice float off her skin, instead reaching for the songs drifting down from the world above. David watched, at first confused, then with an enraptured giggle, as a deep crimson phoenix rocketed from the girl’s hand. Blue tipped wings cast dancing, glimmering shadows all across their submarine battlefield and tinted the gloom with the bright, vibrant orange of fresh flame. The bird let out a soundless screech and streaked over the turtle, a shower of discarded feathers melting through its shell like Greek fire.
As he picked his way through the remains of the older students’ boat below, David grinned at the sheer novelty of underwater fire. It reminded him of his mother’s stories from the war. He focused his efforts on healing his turtle, deciding to just hold things together until Myriad ran out of air and called upon his power again. Four minutes later, the turtle was gone, and his friend still hadn’t swapped back.
Myriad saved the captain for last, waiting until the turtle had subsided back into the flow of the river before turning her firebird’s fury on its passenger. David was only half focused, too busy trying to figure out how Myriad was staying under so long without a breath to put up much of a fight, and thus the final battle between bird and swordsman was short lived. The phoenix smote its foe, the beating of its wings blowing the patch of silt where it stood into glass.
David was applauding when the two of them surfaced. “That was brilliant!” he shouted. “You, and the boats, and… and…” He hugged his friend. “Such a good idea.”
Myriad relaxed. She didn’t know what she had been worried about. David was going to love this.
The boy let go of her. “You held your breath a long time down there… right? That was a long time for people who aren’t me or Mum?”
She laughed. “Yeah, it was. Hey, got something to show you.”
“What is it?”
Myriad grinned as the blue returned to her eyes, and a rogue wave swept them both back towards the shore. Myriad waded excitedly out the water, David and a thin sliver of ice trailing behind her.
She ran up to her fallen clothes, fishing a piece of scrap paper from one of her short pockets. From where David stood, it appeared to be covered on either side with small, many-coloured shapes, with little notations he couldn’t discern next to each of them. The girl held the paper out like a matador’s muleta, whistled, and the ice-dart zoomed past David’s head, piercing the page and pinning it to a tree.
David golf clapped. Myriad’s eyes went hazel again. “That wasn’t what I was going to show you.” She pulled the knife from her other pocket.
David threw up his hands, stepping backwards. “Okay, okay! Sorry!”
Myriad realised how she looked, and lowered the knife. “Not for you,” she said, still smiling. “Well, sorta.” She handed David the knife, before backing away a few paces and putting her hands behind her back. “Throw it at me.”
David dropped the knife. “No!”
“Aww, come on, pretty please?” She darted over to her friend, plucking the knife of the ground and forcing it back into his hand in one fluid movement. David barely registered the motion. “You’ll probably miss anyway!”
David’s tone was offended as much it was pained. “And what if I don’t?”
Myriad shrugged. “Then I’ll go icey, or bronze.”
“You might bleed to death before you change!”
She giggled again. “Since when were you so good at throwing knives? And people only die from getting stabbed right away in stories, ‘less it’s in the brain.”
David fretted with the breakfast knife, scrapping it across his forearms.
“…You’re not going to hit me in the brain, David.” She dug her feet deeper into the dirt, closing her eyes. “I’m gonna stand here till you throw that knife at me.”
They stood in silence for a while, the quiet hiss of the river occasionally drowned out by the shrill cries of birds and children. David shuffled his feet, hoping the world would end right there and then, or that Ophelia would choose that moment to clap. Neither came to pass, not that he would have been able to tell them apart. Every once in a while, Myriad furtively opened an eye to check if her friend was any closer to throwing the bloody knife.
David screamed, hurling the knife gracelessly at the girl.
Myriad’s hand whipped in front of her face. She heard David let out a small gasp. She opened her eyes, confirming what the feel of smooth wood against her fingers already told her. She held the knife handle less than an inch from her nose, the blade pointed at her reluctant attacker. She laughed. “It worked!”
“Where’d you learn how to do that?” David asked, impressed. “The circus?”
“Nope!” She jumped backwards, springing off the tree where she had nailed her scrap of paper and landing on her feet behind David. “Didn’t get that from the circus, either.”
David whistled. “Who then? Was that Brit? Why weren’t you glowing?”
In lieu of an answer, Myriad led the boy by the hand over to the tree, tearing the paper roughly from its spike and handing it eagerly to her friend.
Much to David’s surprise, being able to read the diversely scribed lines of text next to the shapes only made their meaning less clear. Next to a blue triangle: “pain numbing”. A red shield: “heart rate”. A diamond split halfway between violet and sky-blue: “hysterical strength”
There were dozens upon dozens of others: “sleepy-time,” “stay-awake…”
“…Ovulation?” David asked, frowning.
“Girl-bleeding,” Myriad explained, unnecessarily. “That’s for later.”
“What is this for, Miri? Are you making up a board game or something?”
The girl bit her lip conspiratorially. “They’re ‘biofeedback triggers. They’re like…” If Myriad had been born maybe a decade or two later, the comparison to cheat codes would have been obvious. “It’s like I’ve laid down telephone lines inside me. The pictures, they’re like buttons, but imaginary—but real, too. They’re like shortcuts. All the stuff your body does without you thinking about it? You’re heart beating, breathing… other stuff? If I think about the right buttons hard enough, I can control those things. You ever hear those stories about mummies lifting cars off their kids? Not supers or anything, just normal people like Lawrence. They can do stuff like that because they’re too scared to care that it’ll break them.” She clenched her free hand into a fist and slammed it into the tree, leaving a shallow, splintery indentation in its wood. She quickly went clear and back before David realised how many bones she had broken with that stunt. “I can do stuff like that whenever I want now! And it doesn’t matter because now I heal so much better. Watch!”
Myriad calmly and unhesitatingly cut a gash along her palm. The knife was hardly more than a slightly serrated butter-spreader, so she had to dig a little into her flesh, but she had nothing if not conviction.
She found herself in David’s arms, the knife pressed uncomfortably between their chests. “Don’t,” he said, his voice choked with revulsion and what Myriad could have sworn was shame. Anger, too, but not at her. “I know it sounds scary, but it’s a long time away… we’ll be good, alright?” David hoped they were still wet enough that the tears weren’t obvious.
Myriad wrapped her arms around him, her blood staining his shoulder blade like okra. “It’s not that, David.” She backed out of the hug, the knife falling onto the dry mud, and held out her opened, slashed palm. “Look,” she said, “really look.”
David did look. The bleeding had stopped, and although it wasn’t a minute old, the wound was already scabbing over.
“It’ll be all better in ten minutes—no scar. I mean, I don’t really have scars since I met you, but still.” She hugged herself, grinning. “I feel so good, David. It’s—it’s like I was covered in mud before and I’ve just gotten out of the bath. Everything’s so clear now, my eyes, my ears, everything. I feel like I could run and run and run for hours and not get tired.”
“Better.” She wiggled her toes. “I could grow a tail, you know. Like a real mermaid. Scales are easy.
She giggled. “Yep. Gills, too. Not that I need them with you around.” She stepped in close to David, squeezing his hand. “We could walk back into the river, right now. Just swim until we get to the sea,” she whispered. “How have you not been in the ocean?”
That last remark had come in to her mind as a joke, in honesty, but by the time it had reached her mouth, she meant it.
“We could go find whales. I want to hear their songs. We wouldn’t have to worry about people, or being alone, or married days. It could just be us and the whales.”
For just a moment, David thought he was going to turn around and run into the water. The River Avon would carry him and Allison to Swan River, and then out to sea. He would know saltwater for the first time, and forget the taste of air. Maybe they would find his grandfather, and he would know what it was like to love someone else without it hurting.
Instead, he asked “How? How did you do all this? Whose power?”
“Żywie,” Myriad answered conspiratorially, a glint in her eyes like she was letting slip a friend’s secret crush. “She can do herself!”
“…What?” David said, his tone and expression flat.
“Żywie’s powers work on herself. No clue why she doesn’t tell people. Maybe she doesn’t want everyone bugging her for extra powers, I don’t—where are you going?” Myriad said as the boy stormed (or maybe gusted) off.
“All really neat, Miri,” David said as he marched back towards the Institute, his voice a little too controlled, even as his song ran discordant. “See you at dinner?”
“…Yeah, sure… I think it’s potato salad tonight.”
Myriad knew better than to follow. She sat down against the trunk her long-suffering test tree, and wondered what exactly she had told her friend.
1. Almost everyone agreed that the period after the Golden Age was in many ways preferable to the Golden Age itself, thus making it unique in the accounting of time.↩
2. A Whole Host of Others was very popular. ↩
3. That dubious honour goes to philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer. People who use the aphorism in all sincerity are likely unaware of his fondness for trade unions and self-identification as a radical feminist.↩
4. Sister of the Wallaby and Lorikeet dormitories. ↩
5. A well regarded textbook on modern architecture.↩
6. Nova Australian Ship. As much as Myriad tried to forget what the witch had show her, that could-be city park still found its way into her dreams.↩
7. It was connected to the same anchor point as Tarzan’s vines.↩