The Physician did not arrive at the New Human Institute in his usual dirty green Holden, but in an eight wheeler truck. From its trailer spilled out three identical men—Mr. Groove, Mr. Vibe, and Mr. Jam, their name-tags said—silent and sculpted like stone made flesh. For some ghastly reason, they were dressed like clowns. They erected a canvas tent for their master to work in, along with tables laden with snacks and cool drinks. Snacks and cool drinks that were edible to human beings no less. Although Lawrence wouldn’t have put it past the Physician to disguise his concoctions with brand name labels.
“In my country,” the Physician had explained to Lawrence, “we like to respond to public health crises with a festive spirit. Helps cheer the afflicted up, you know?”
Lawrence often wondered if the Physician was pulling his leg whenever he talked about his home. This time, though, he didn’t have the energy to question the doctor. So, he dressed the children up as nice as possible, and declared it a festival.
The students milled around the Physician’s tent, morosely picking at the sweets and sausage-rolls as they sweated in their sunday best, waiting for Żywie and the doctor to call them inside.
The alien was presently trying to stick what looked like clockwork Christmas beetles1 onto Ophelia’s temples, the toddler squirming and squealing in protest under the Physician’s writhing, worm-like fingers. For once, the discomfort appeared to be mutual.
Żywie looked up from her clipboard, frowning. “Do you want me to handle her?” she asked flatly.
“It’s fine, Miss Winter,” the Physician replied as he cautiously tried weaving his hand behind the girl’s head. She slapped it away, making the doctor visibly vibrate. Żywie gathered that was something like a flinch.
“What is with you and babies?”
“I had a bad experience with—”
Time popped. Sound and colour ran together, and for moment, the conscious and the subconscious swapped places. Every bird within a mile developed a migraine.
Żywie didn’t budge an inch. She took the grumpy baby into her arms. “Well, we know Ophelia has her father’s resistance. Didn’t even need to clap—” The healer cringed when she saw her colleague heaped on the ground.
The Physician’s bones didn’t sit right under his skin. Even under his periwinkle suit, they stuck out at odd angles. He looked less like a prone man and more like a mound of gravel and sticks poured into an empty human pelt. She caught a glimpse of something dark brown and formless trembling in the recesses of his suit, where another human’s eyes wouldn’t have had the clarity to see.
The Physician got back to his feet, his skeleton seeming to assemble itself as he did. “You know, I really do not appreciate your racism, Eliza.” There was an audible crunch as his ribs pulled themselves back into place. He straightened his jacket.
“It’s not that you’re different, John, it’s the fact you bother with this awful impression of a human being. It’s like a minstrel show for the entire human race. Trust me, we’d get along a lot better if you would just be a bug-eyed monster or whatever your lot look like at home.”
The Physician’s face split into a grin. “I sincerely doubt that, little doctor.”
Żywie’s mouth was a straight-line. “Mr. Jam.”
One of the Physician’s assistants poked his head inside the tent, his expression stolid beneath slathers of white face-paint and a red foam nose. “Yes, Miss Winter,” he said in the best Lurch impression the Physician could manage.
“Would you please take Ophelia back to her mother. Tell Stratogale she has a clean bill of health.” She plucked the child’s cheek, cooing, “Yes she does, yes she does!”
“Yes, Miss Winter.” The clown took the baby from the woman. Ophelia regarded him for a moment, before squeezing his nose and giggling.
Mr. Jam made no reaction. Unlike most clowns, he medically lacked anything resembling a sense of humour, which surprisingly was an advantage over the rest of them.
Żywie watched him traipse off in search of their flying girl, her expression downcast.
“I wouldn’t worry about Mr. Jam,” the Physician said. “Half his brothers are babysitting your future lords and masters over in Canberra.”
“I still think it’s cruel what you put those poor creatures through.”
“Put them through what?”
“How old is that one?”
The Physician thought about it. “Oh, that. Eleven months.” A click that might have been a shrug. “They’ve never complained.”
Once they had recovered sufficiently from the Ovation, Basilisk gently led Myriad into the tent. Or as gently as he could, with how hard the little girl was digging her heels into the dirt.
Basilisk grunted, trying to pull her a few more steps inside. “Come on, Miri. Żywie and the Physician just want to fix everything. You might be just what they need.”
“This is stupid! Take me back to David!”
“David’s napping, dear. I’ll be bringing him down soon, don’t worry.”
Angry tears. “I don’t wanna be here.”
Żywie stepped between Basil and Myriad. “I think we can take it from here,” she said, taking the child’s hands. The girl wilted like a flower at the healer’s touch.
“You sure?” Basilisk asked, eying his assistant with concern.
“Quite sure,” the Physician said, his tone clipped as always. “Go on, I’m sure one of her schoolmates is about to stick their finger in an electric outlet.”
“Back soon, Miri.”
“I don’t care!”
Basil sighed as he left. “I know you don’t mean these things, Allison.”
The girl glared at the Physician. With the blackout, there was nothing to distinguish him from anyone else, musically speaking. Not that it helped much. Getting to know the Physician was like grieving for a loved one. Necessary, sometimes even helpful, but never welcome.
The Physician clapped. “So, are you going to examine the patient, Eliza?”
“Sure, sure,” she said, resting a finger on the nape of Myriad’s neck.
“What are you—” Fast asleep.
“What was that for?”
Crouching, Eliza rested Myriad against the wall of the tent. “Because it’s less likely she’ll break our faces this way. And there’s something I want to discuss with you.”
“Myriad has adopted my… structural alterations.”
“Ah. Good for her. Nice to see a child be so proactive about self improvement.”
Żywie groaned. “You don’t understand, John. I spent my whole life figuring all these out. And then this little girl just… alters herself, on a whim, without even telling a grown up.”
“I still don’t see the issue. You’re thirty-five. Nothing inside you has blown up yet, has it?”
“No,” the healer admitted. “But there’ve been some close calls. Adjustments made. I once went into cardiac arrest for a full day. Had to to force the blood through my veins manually while I adjusted for the mistake. Miri doesn’t have that luxury.” She brushed a stray lock from Myriad’s face. “What if she needs to adjust something, and I’m not there?”
“Have you found anything concerning?”
“No, she’s stable, far as I can tell.” Żywie sighed, then smiled slightly, rubbing the girl’s head. “I’ll say this about our Myriad, she doesn’t half-do anything.” She looked up at the other doctor. “I’ve been suppressing the changes, though. She isn’t well enough to be trusted with them. I would appreciate a second opinion.”
The Physician put a hand over where his heart would’ve been. “Eliza, I’d be honoured.”
The speed and ease with which he examined the child would have amazed any medic but Eliza. A pass over with a silver mirror infested with lights and wires, a few drops of blood slurped up by what looked like a tongue in a box, and a couple of things Eliza was glad Myriad was asleep for. Then he was done.
“I think she might have improved on your work, my dear.” His grin crept closer to his ears. “I like to think I had a hand in that. Still, all clear. I’m sure Allison will go on to lead a perfectly normal, healthy life. As many of those as she wants, in fact.”
“And you weren’t joking about her being thorough. She got right down to the germ-line. That would’ve taken some effort.” The grin was almost up to his earlobes by now. “I’m sure Lawrence would be thrilled.”
Żywie hadn’t even considered that. “You’re not going to tell him, are you?” she asked hurriedly. “You promised me, John.”
The Physician raised a hand. “We have patient confidentiality back home too, Eliza. Still don’t get why you’re so secretive about these things, though. It’s just like those lies about infertility again. If you don’t want to have a baby, just tell Lawrence. If he presses the issue, give him cancer until he stops.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Eliza muttered.
“No, my dear, I don’t think I would.” The Physician stuck his Christmas beetles onto Myriad’s temples. “Would you wake her up please?”
Myriad sprung to life like Żywie had found her on button. “What happened?” she snapped.
“Don’t call me that.”
“…You just nodded off, alright.”
“I’m not a baby.”
“No one is saying you are, Allison,” the Physician said. He was fiddling with the knob of what used to be a portable TV set, its screen lit with swirls of colour that hopefully made sense to him. “Now, would you do me the favour of trying to use your powers?”
The girl folded her arms. “I don’t have my powers.”
“I am aware of that, but seeing how your brain reacts to the attempt might yield useful data.”
“There’s nothing to hear!”
“Would you just—”
Myriad tore off the diodes. “No!”
She ran out of the tent.
The Physician made a sound like an exploding accordion. “This is just the most productive day, isn’t it?”
It at least went smoother after that. A child would come in, Żywie would sift through their cells looking for something she already knew wasn’t there, and the Physician made them playact their powers.
“Can I stop now?” Haunt asked as he walked in place against the tent wall.
Żywie looked at her partner. “I think so. What about you?”
“Yes, you can go now, Thomas. Hand the diodes back to Eliza on her way out.”
Then it was Maelstrom’s turn. Lawrence carried him down from the Big House like a babe in arms, setting him on his feet in the middle of the tent.
He stood there, swaying, his eyes darting around the tent like a panicked animal. “Z—Żywie? Dr. Smith?”
“Don’t blub, Maelstrom,” the boy’s teacher said. “You don’t see your brothers and sisters letting themselves fall apart like this2.”
Maelstrom suddenly stood very straight. “Yes, Lawrence,” he answered gravely. For just a moment, Żywie recognized him.
“I trust you’ll listen to what our fine doctors tell you?”
Lawrence nodded. “Good.” He turned to leave, but not before telling Żywie, “And don’t you baby him like Basilk’s been doing. We’ve brought Maelstrom up better than that.”
Żywie was going to say something, very loudly, but Lawrence was already gone, and there were more important things to attend to.
She bent down to look into the child’s dull, jeweled eyes. “Are you alright, honey?”
Maelstrom nodded hard, but the healer knew it meant nothing. Just him trying to please her. That was all that was left of him right now. With his headmaster out of sight, he was starting to shake as if he were stuck in a blizzard. Not to mention the grey tint to his skin…
“It must be awful, to only have a quarter of yourself at hand.”
Żywie stared back at the Physician. “What are you saying?”
He waved her off. “Nothing you could understand without a degree in practical metaphysics. Now, let’s not take up too much of our young man’s time.”
Maelstrom placidly let Żywie attach the beetles, not even squirming as they sunk their legs into his skin. A tap on his cheek, and Żywie learned nothing. Again.
With a squelch, the Physician pulled a canteen from behind his back. “Alright, David,” he said, unscrewing the lid, “I would like you to pull the water over to yourself.”
The boy squinted. “There’s water in there?”
The Physician glanced at the canteen. “Well, yes, of course.”
“…I can’t feel anything.”
Żywie squeezed his shoulder. “David, I know it’s hard, but this would really help us. And the other children.”
David stood a little straighter. Żywie needed him to be good.
He stared at the canteen. It was like trying to clasp air. No, vacuum. The boy tried to remember what water felt like, but not even his own tears could remind him.
“That—that’s enough, David.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Żywie hugged him. “No, don’t be. You tried your best.”
“It’s never good enough.”
Her grip tightened. “Do you want Mr. Jives to take you to Miri?”
A nod against her blouse.
The Physician didn’t see his henchman escort the child to his friend. He was occupied with the television screen. “It’s fascinating, neurologically speaking. It’s as if they aren’t even trying to…”
He trailed off as he noticed the healer’s weeping.
“I’m so useless…”
The Physician wasn’t terribly literate when it came to human emotional expression, but enough people had burst into tears in his presence that he knew what it meant. “Oh now, what’s the matter Eliza?”
“You wouldn’t understand. I delivered that boy, John. I was the first face he ever saw.”
“…You assume I don’t have children, Miss Winter?”
The sobs subsided slightly. “Do you?”
“Oh, hundreds of them. And nieces and nephews, I suppose. Have I ever told you how odd it is English doesn’t have a gender-neutral term for that?”
“What are they like?”
“Children, Eliza, they’re just like children.”
“I can cure cancer. I’ve put babies with Downs and Tay-sachs right inside their mothers. I’ve woken the dead! I should be able to do something for these children…”
The Physician considered the woman for a second. “You would be a living saint on my world, you know that? The fact you haven’t cracked this only speaks well of the problem.”
She sniffed. “Thank you, John.”
The Physician’s grin returned. One thing he would never get about humans was how much they liked to dwell on moments like these. “Well, shall we call in Adam?”
It was the first up-close look the boy had gotten at their visitor. The closest comparison Adam could make was to the Sinclairs’ GP back in Kalgoorlie… if he had lost a lot of weight and kept the spare skin pulled back with laundry-pegs. He tried to resist the urge to scratch at the Christmas beetles. Żywie had assured him the resemblance was purely aesthetic, but sometimes he felt them rub their legs together…
“So, you want me to use my powers?”
“Exactly right, young man. One at a time, if you could,” the Physician said. He tried to snap his fingers, but the result was a wet scrape. “Actually wait just a moment.” He reached over his tool-table, tapping his speaker-starfish on its central ruby.
Roy Brown started belting out “Butcher Pete”.
“Hey everybody, did the news get around,
About a guy named Butcher Pete,
Oh, Pete just flew into this town,
And he’s choppin’ up all the women’s meat!”
The Physician’s smile was practically a crescent moon. “Begin.”
First, Adam lifted the tool-table over his head with a single finger. That should’ve impossible, according to Lawrence, although he hadn’t gotten around to explaining why. Then, he juggled suns like he was the great black hole at the centre of the galaxy, only for them to wink out as he exhaled Heaven. He winced as Eliza coughed up something black and the Physician rippled.
After about ten powers, Adam became self-conscious. Even out of the other children’s sight, he felt as though he were rubbing it in somehow; like dancing in a polio-ward.
“Żywie…” three Adams said.
“It’s alright, Adam.” She shot a glance at the Physician… moving rhythmically in the corner, juddering and shuddering.
“Ever since Peter flew into town
He’s been havin’ a ball,
Just cuttin’ and choppin’ for miles around!”
“I’m sure Dr. Smith is almost done.”
Eventually, the Physician turned the music off. “Very well, Adam, you can stop now.”
Adam was busy pouring cordial through his hand, watching it spill out the other side as warm ice. He didn’t even know what the point of that one was. “You sure? I still have a few powers left.”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. We’re done now. You should go play now.”
Adam headed towards the fresh air. He hesitated on the threshold, fingering the hem of the tent flap, then stepped out and disappeared into the sunlight.
Żywie sighed. “Who should we check next.”
The Physician’s only answer was to put on the Beatles. He slouched and slithered towards the door, his arms rolling and twisting to the sound of “Ticket to Ride”
The healer scowled. “And what do you think you’re doing?”
“I told you, we’re done. Now, I’m going out to enjoy the party I’m throwing, and I suggest you join me.”
Żywie watched him “dance” out into the dry grass.
Lawrence sat behind his desk, waiting for either his old student or their visitor to tell him something. Żywie was half-slumped in her chair, like she were sixteen again and hoping against hope he didn’t know she had snuck off to Duke’s Inn for a few pints. The Physician, for his part, was sitting stock still, grinning. Lawrence was vaguely expecting dust to form on his teeth.
The old man raised a finger. “I—”
“It’s Adam,” the Physician reported cheerily. Żywie put her face in her hands, groaning softly.
Lawrence froze, then slumped in his chair. “Are you… are you sure?”
“Certain. Fairly obvious in retrospect, I must say. Surprised nobody figured it out before I got there.”
Lawrence’s gaze drifted slightly, avoiding the Physician’s eyes.
The Physician noticed. “Oh, Lawrence, I hope you didn’t bite their head off.” He lightly elbowed Żywie. “Even Eliza here might have a hard time fixing that.”
Both Lawrence and the healer gawked at him for a moment. The Physician reminded himself to work on his timing. “Still, yes. Adam is the one suppressing everyone’s powers.”
“And you’ve ruled out a fault with the Quiet Room?”
“Yes, Lawrence, the null-chamber is secure, I checked it first thing. And I resent creatures who haven’t even figured out how to sneak around the light barrier questioning my handiwork.” He looked at Eliza as though they were sharing some private joke. “I swear, a barbwire fence is more troubling.”
Lawrence closed his eyes. “Tell me then, how is he doing this?”
“Lawrence,” Żywie said, “how would you describe Myriad’s power?”
“She looks at other new human abilities, and her power recreates them as best it can.”
The Physician nodded, “I think it was Picasso who said ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’3. Well, that’s nonsense. I would look into that Picasso if I were you, he sounds dodgy. Anyway, Adam’s power—his root ability—I think is similar to little Allison’s. But he doesn’t copy supers. I think his power looks at others, and uses them as points of inspiration for new ones. A bit like collage, I suppose.” He looked proud of himself. “Remind me, Lawrence, how many students do you have? Not counting Adam. And how many powers has he displayed?”
Lawrence latched onto that like it was a lifebuoy. “Thirty-two!” he gasped, as if it mattered. “Adam has forty-one powers! How do you explain that, hmm?”
The Physician was about to suggest it didn’t have to be a strict one to one correlation, but Eliza beat him to it: “We’re not the first posthumans Adam’s encountered, Lawrence. The Coven, AU raided his town, that poor boy they lynched afterwards…”
“That still leaves three powers unaccounted for!”
A thought struck the Physician. “The children inside your oldest girls.”
Lawrence shuddered. “Even if you’re right—”
“…How does it follow that Adam would be… sabotaging other new humans?”
“It’s a perfect defense mechanism.”
“Why would he need a defense mechanism against his own kind?”
The Physician looked puzzled by the question. “Why do you humans make guns and tanks? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, I reckon. Adam gets upset—homesickness, loneliness, the breeding program, whatever—and his power tries to keep him safe. Everyone else being power-neutered stresses him out, so it keeps trying to do that.” He got up out of his chair and made for the door. “Still, you won’t have to worry about it for long.”
Żywie twisted to keep track of him. “What do you mean?”
The Physician stopped. “Oh, I’ll be taking Adam off your hands.”
Lawrence sputtered. “You can’t—why?”
“Lawrence, this boy of yours can suppress all three Socii presentations, a demigod—don’t give me that look—sorcerers, and two elementals. At once.” The Physician’s voice grew shrill, like a kettle. “Then, he dices up their powers and makes new ones! Can you imagine the experimental opportunities?”
“But he’s my student!”
The Physician tilted his head. It looked like his neck had snapped. “Is he, though? He doesn’t strike me as an asylum find.” Lawrence could almost hear the crack of the alien’s grin as he cheerily wagged a long, spindly finger. “You know Timothy Valour doesn’t like you poaching.”
Żywie ran to the Physician’s side, putting her hand on his. “Please, John, think of the boy’s wellbeing.”
“Nonsense! He’ll be fine at my place. I’ll teach him to play checkers. And think of the powers my stock could teach him. He’ll be like the Flying Man come again!”
He started walking again, but Lawrence physically blocked the door. “I’m sorry, Dr. Smith, but I can’t let you do this. Adam needs to be among his own.”
The Physician’s eyes widened. “I just told you, he’ll be with his own kind regardless!”
“Not—not like that.”
The Physician lashed out like a viper, lifting the old Oxfordian a clear inch off the ground and setting him aside like he was made of paper. “Herbert, I’ve been very accommodating of you over the years. Face it, I’ve taught you a lot more about these children than you have me. I’ve let you keep a fair few experimentally interesting subjects. Myriad, all the ones you’ve bred.” He pointed back at Żywie. “Why, I let you keep her. And that hurt, trust me.” He pulled Lawrence in close, until the man could smell his cool, metallic breath. “But there is a limit.”
He let go of Lawrence’s shirt, shoving the headmaster back. “I’ll be arranging a transfer of custody with Timothy, Lawrence. I trust you know what I shall be telling him if you don’t cooperate.”
The old man fell to his knees. “No, John. I’d rather you tell him about the girls than Adam! Think of what the DDHA would do with him!”
The Physician glanced down at him. “Yes,” he remarked casually. “I suppose that could get unpleasant.”
He stepped out of the room.
Lawrence wept. What else could he do? He wondered if this is was what it was like for Tiresias, when a future became impossible. Adam Sinclair was supposed to be the truest expression of what his people could be, vast and flexible. He’d already imagined his potential mingling one day with Myriad’s. To have all that snatched away from him, to not even get to Name the boy…
He was dimly aware of Żywie’s hands around his shoulders. He looked up at the woman.
“Oh, Żywie, what are we to do?”
It was the cheering that woke Mabel the next morning. Lorikeet dorm was filled with the sound of relieved celebration. And what sounded like an indoor cyclone.
“What’s going on?” she shouted over the howl, her hair whipping in the wind.
Where the door should’ve been, there was a black cloud, darker than space, lit only by flashes of green escaping from its mass. Elsewhere burst out of it, almost too bright to look at, the air swirling around him as it was struck by his power. He saw Mabel, sitting up bewildered in her hammock. “Mabes! The blackout’s over!”
Just for emphasis, he proceeded to banish the hammock out from under her.
Managing to catch herself, the girl instinctively manifested the lady astronaut’s sidearm. She was about to find out if the stun setting worked when she realized what she had done. She turned the laser over in her hand. “Oh, my God.”
She wanted to laugh. And cry. She’d been wrong, after all. And she couldn’t be happier about it. “Adam!”
She looked around the dorm for him, her eyes moving from fireworks to light-shows to rents in the world. To her surprise, Adam was still in his hammock.
Sleeping must be one of his powers.
She ran over to him, dodging Jumpcut’s repeated apparitions and Haunt rising from the floor, trying to look cool.
Mabel shook the boy. “Adam! Adam, wake up!”
No response. He felt still under her hands.
She rolled him over. Cold sweat clung to his face. No breath rose from his mouth and nose.
1. Genus of beetle commonly found in Australia and South Africa, no known association with the North Pole. Notable for their golden shells and abundance around Christmas.↩
2. Myriad was at least making other things fall apart.↩
3. It was actually W. H. Davenport Adams, and he didn’t say that either.↩