She was an equation, faultlessly proven to be somewhere else. Then gravity snatched her out of the air—down into warm, wet darkness.
Mabel Henderson couldn’t tell up from down. Then something else plunged through the water, cutting a shaft of light in its wake, and she scrambled towards what she hoped was the surface.
She burst through a layer of old leaves and dead insects. Before Mabel could even think again, Billy surfaced a couple of feet away, gasping.
They were floating in a filthy, stagnant pond. Slowly evaporating in the heat, it was still deep enough that the children had to swim to keep afloat, even as its crumbling, curved mud walls jutted out above the water.
Mabel remembered that day with the lads. His stupid bloody pool…
“What the hell, Arnold?”
“So where’s this elevator go?” Adams 1 and A1 asked as they followed Elsewhere through the halls.
“Where do ya think? The basement!”
Adam didn’t think he’d ever been in a house with a proper basement. He always thought only yanks and poms went in for them. “What’s so great about the basement?”
“Where Lawrence keeps his souvenirs. Like the Batcave. He used to know loads of supers and heroes and stuff. There’s mad scientist gear, one of the Raven’s guns, the Crimson Comet’s old wings, I think?” Quickly, he added, “What’s left of them, I mean.”
Adam was pretty sure Elsewhere was lying. It wasn’t something he did well. Probably was planning on dumping a bucket of water or glue or something over him. Still, Adam couldn’t help but feel sorry for Elsewhere. He knew the younger boy was close to Myriad and Maelstrom, and some of the rumblings Adam had heard about his family…
Why not go along with it, Adam thought. Let the kid play his dumb joke. He still had his superpowers, what could happen?
Then they turned one last corner, and Adam reconsidered.
“Voila!” Elsewhere said, gesturing grandly at the silver slab set into the wall.
Adam 1 rubbed the metal, warm beneath his hand. Sure enough, there was even what appeared to be a call button next to it. “Huh. Okay. Kinda surprised it’s really here. Why didn’t Lawrence show me this when I got here?”
Elsewhere shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t want us touching his stuff?”
“So we’re probably not allowed down there,” Adam A asked, still standing a little behind the younger child.
“Probably. Still, who’s gonna care right now?”
Adam 1 nodded. “True.”
“So, we gonna take a look-see?”
Adam pushed the button. “Sure.”
The door slid open, and Adam 1 stepped inside. It was bigger than any elevator he’d been inside (not that that was many) with walls like fork-lightning trapped in obsidian. “Why aren’t there any buttons—”
He was cut off by the sound of the door closing.
Adam A tilted his head at Elsewhere, his fist slammed down the “call button”. “Wha—”
The boy disappeared in a puff of burgundy smoke.
The child in question swung around to see Mabel glaring at him. She was soaked to the bone, bits of leaf and dragonfly tangled in her hair.
“Mabel!” Arnold cried. He glanced behind the girl. “Where’s Billy?”
“Having the hottest shower in the world,” she answered flatly, before shouting, “and you wouldn’t need to ask us if you hadn’t dropped us in your stupid, gross pool! Seriously, why?” She looked at the Quiet Room’s door. “You let him out right now!”
Arnold folded his arms. “How do you know anyone’s in there?
Mabel sputtered. “Because—because why else would you be here?”
“Then how do you know it’s a he?”
The girl stomped over to him, right up to his face. “Just let him go!”
Arnold’s eyes flashed lime. “Your powers just came back too, didn’t they? It’s him, Mabel. You know it is.”
“…Where’re all the others?”
“Let him out now, before anyone notices.”
“Because…” Mabel couldn’t put it into words. Only images of crowds in dour clothing gathering to watch strange old ladies and touched children burn. “They’ll be mean to him.”
Arnold brought her in closer, pointing toward the ceiling. “But listen.”
Laughter, young and girlish.
“Allie’s my friend, Mabel. And so’s David. I don’t want them hurting.”
More voices joined the laughter, along with whispers of flame and wind. And splashing. Lots of splashing.
Mabel sighed, looking her friend right in the eye. “Arnold…” She shoved the boy to the ground and slammed the button.
Adam stumbled out of the Quiet Room. His face was pale, and he was breathing slowly and deliberately. “God, that was horrible.”
For a moment, Mabel had hope. She still felt the pressure of her power around her veins. Then Adam looked down at Arnold. “What the hell, Else?”
It was gone. She could hear groans from upstairs, only to be drowned out by a pained, angry scream.
“Allie!” Arnold cried from the floor, scrambling to his feet.
Adam glanced between the younger children. “What’s going on?”
Mabel grabbed Arnold’s hand and ran, hoping Adam would not follow. She pulled her friend into the library and whispered, “Please don’t tell the others. Not like this.”
Arnold tried to wrench his hand out of hers. “Okay, okay, just let me go! Allison’s screaming.”
“Promise not to tell?”
Reluctantly, she let him go, though she did follow the boy as he raced upstairs, past their disappointed, towel-clad schoolmates, up to Basil’s door.
When he opened it, Allison was twisting in Basil’s arms, screaming herself raw while David twitched on the floor.
“Not again!” she was screeching. “Not again!”
“Please, Miri—” Basil grunted, trying desperately to keep the girl’s arms in his grip. “It might be nearly over—”
She exploded out of the man’s arms, punching him in the nose and sending him to the floor in a groaning heap. Blood was seeping from his nostrils.
Allison didn’t notice. “I don’t want to be here!” she yelled as she stalked towards the doorway.
Mabel shut the door hard.
Arnold glared at her. “Mabel!”
“Did she look friendly?”
A pale fist punched through the door. It felt around for the door handle for a few seconds until its owner growled and pushed the whole thing over, wrenching it from its frame with a few metallic clicks.
Mabel and Arnold managed to jump clear of the door a second before it landed on them. Allison was staring straight ahead, the corners of her eyes twitching. Her knuckles were bleeding, but she didn’t seem to care. “You’re not here. Get out of my way.”
They were about to obey as fast as possible when Żywie pushed past the pair. “Stay back, children,” she ordered them calmly.
She scooped up Allison effortlessly, even as the girl thrashed and clawed at the woman. Then, without loosening her grip in the slightest, she put a hand to Allison’s forehead, like she were feeling for a fever. Immediately, the child’s eyelids started to droop. She tried fighting it, but sleep found her as her teacher sung a German lullaby under her breath.
Once Allison was well and truly under, Żywie laid her down softly on the hallway carpet. Mabel thought she looked guilty.
Her attention turned to the two other children. “It’s alright, little ones,” she assured them. “Myriad is just asleep. I think she prefers that right now.”
“How did she do that to the door?” Arnold asked, his voice warbling.
“Adrenaline, dear,” Żywie said, “just adrenaline.” Allison attended to, she moved quickly but steadily over to Basil’s side. The man was still moaning, smoke rising from where his blood had fallen on the tortured wood. The healer took his hand, and he sighed.
“Don’t—she isn’t in her right mind,” Basil gasped.
“I know, Hugo,” Żywie said. “I know.”
As they watched, Arnold turned to look imploringly at Mabel. “We need to tell someone,” he whispered.
Mabel didn’t look back. She was too focused on David, still curled up in the corner.
Lawrence tapped the rim of his desk with one of his fountain pens, examining the two children sat before him. “So, before you tell me why we’re having this talk, might I ask how you two got into the state you’re in?”
Mabel and Arnold shared a look. The former was still damp and covered in detritus from the pool, and the latter hadn’t crossed the river again unscathed. By some silent agreement, Mabel went first. “About that, um, me and Elsewhere need to admit something. We kinda broke a rule today.”
The almost imperceptible hiss of breath escaping between clenched teeth. “How so?”
“Elsewhere and me”—she and Arnold had agreed in advance to leave Billy out of the picture—“we crossed the river today.”
Arnold had been unsure about leading with that little tidbit. Even a child (especially a child) could tell the headmaster was on edge. He had barely left his study since the blackout started, even for mealtimes. Arnold swore more of the red had gone out of his beard. It was the first time he had seen the man without a suit-jacket.
Still, Mabel thought the admission might win them some credibility.
Lawrence swallowed sharply, like he was trying to force down bile. “I will say this, children, it speaks well of you both that you didn’t try to keep this from me. Oftentimes, the cover-up is worse than the sin.”
Here we go, Arnold thought.
“Nevertheless, I can’t emphasize enough how foolhardy that was.”
If there was one thing Arnold Barnes’ short life had taught him, it was that fessing up never spared you the lecture. It just knocked off some of the edges.
“…With how the river’s behaving right now, you’re lucky you didn’t drown.”
He had to say, though, Mabel was handling it like a pro. She nodded at all the right junctures, hit her mark every time with a “Yes” or a “I know”, maintaining a mask of solem repentance throughout it all. Arnold was beginning to wonder why the girl didn’t act in her own shows.
“…I should hope that you wouldn’t use this time of crisis and stress as a license to misbehave.”
Mabel sensed her opening. “We know it was still wrong, but can we tell you why we did it?”
Lawrence nodded. “Context is always important.”
Arnold’s turn. “So Mabel thought that if whatever was making our powers not work wasn’t inside us, it might be something around the Institute.”
“So I’m to take it you were attempting to test that hypothesis?” Lawrence asked. “Very scientific thinking.”
“Yes. Mabel thought if we walked far enough, our powers would come back on. And they did.”
Lawrence dropped his pen. “What?”
“Our powers,” Mabel said. “They came back once we were far away from the school. And they stayed till we came back.”
The hug was like being pulled into a brick wall. “Fantastic!”
Mabel and Arnold could hardly breathe, their faces buried in Lawrence’s sweat-misted undershirt. “Lawrence… too tight,” the girl managed to get out.
“I’m sorry, children,” he said, laughing as he set them down. “I can’t tell how relieved I am, children. And how much of a debt our school owes you.”
“…Ice cream?” Arnold said, his voice small.
Lawrence’s laughter came in shudders, like he was trying to keep back the tears of relief. “Sure, why not!”
Soon he was talking mostly to himself. “I’ll have to ring Valour, have him send teams. Water tests, soil work, dig up the whole bloody school till we find what’s causing this. And if we can’t, we’ll relocate. All the way to the NT if we have to! Might move you children in the meantime anyway. I hate to imagine the effects this continual assault might be having on the unborn—”
“That’s the thing,” Mabel interrupted. She really didn’t want to do this. “We know what’s making the blackout happen.”
Lawrence grabbed her shoulders. “What, girl, what?”
Mabel studied the old man’s face. He had a grin as wide as the world, like when her father first heard her read a sentence aloud. But there was something else there, too. A kind of pleading desperation she hadn’t known grownups could feel. “It’s Adam, Laurie.”
The bottom fell out of her teacher’s smile. “What?”
“When the powers came back for a sec today,” Arnold said, “it was cuz I pushed Adam into the Quiet Room—”
The smack came as hard and fast as the hug. Arnold began crying, soon to be drowned by Lawrence’s shouting.
“You cruel boy! You know what it’s like being without your powers! That room is only for children who do the worst sort of wrong! What did he do to deserve it, hmm?”
Arnold sobbed, “David and Allie were hurting…”
“And now you’re misnaming your brothers and sisters,” he hissed, before his attention fell on Mabel. “And this nonsense about Adam stealing your powers. Phantasmagoria, I never thought you would be so petty.”
Mabel had been leaning over to try and comfort Arnold, but that sent her to her feet like her chair was electrified. “What?”
“Just because our newest friend has proved immune to the blackout, you choose to believe he’s afflicting you. I would expect this from a New England Puritan, not a young posthuman.”
“I don’t think he’s doing it on purpose!” Mabel protested. “I don’t even think he knows he’s doing it!”
“Is it his shade then, working for the devil?” the man asked sourly.
“Lawrence,” the girl half-begged, “I don’t want to be right. Adam’s really nice and his powers are cool. But I think we are right, and we need to do something.”
“Whatever force is responsible for your kind’s existence would not create a child that preys on their fellows.”
Dimly, from the sore, wet place Arnold had retreated to, he was reminded of the way his mother or the sister who taught sunday school reacted to certain questions. Except they never sounded so threatened.
Mabel growled in her throat. She wanted to throw something out the window. To push the chairs over. To tear all the pages out of all of Lawrence’s stupid books and shove them in his face. To dangle him over a dragon’s mouth till he shut up and listened to her. This was what it was like being a natural kid, she thought. All her wants just stuck inside her.
“…Maybe you’re wrong,” she said, quietly but resolutely. “Maybe you’re wrong about all this. Maybe there isn’t anyone in charge of us. Maybe powers are just things that happen to people. Or there is someone who hands them out, and they just don’t care. Maybe we’re evolving. Maybe evolution doesn’t care who it eats.”
The smack was as quick as it was expected. It was, however, far harder than she’d thought it would be. Her nose was bleeding.
Lawrence leant back on his desk, inhaling slowly. “The Physician will be here in two days. I’m sure his insight will be helpful. I think it’s time for you two to leave. Go see Żywie about your nose, Phantasmagoria.” He looked at Arnold, curled up in his chair. “If I hear about either you spreading these vicious rumours, there will be punishment. A stint in the Quiet Room seems appropriate.”
Mabel wanted to laugh at that. What set the Quiet Room apart from anywhere else in the Institute? Her hands shook even as she held them over her nose, and her breath was hammering against her chest. She was going to let it out when Arnold put his hand on her arm.
She met the boy’s grey eyes, streaming like storm clouds. They weren’t going to win this. People like Lawrence didn’t let you win.
“Don’t be petulant, Phantasmagoria.”
As soon as she was out of earshot, Mabel screamed.
1. Adam Alpha was busy helping with the bathtime roundup.↩