The Physician came for Adam’s body in the afternoon. Lawrence insisted all students and staff alike be there for the handoff.
“It’s only right we see him on his way,” he had told them.
The New Human Institute bore no coffin or bier as they marched down the long dirt driveway. The Physician was waiting for them, his truck parked at the edge where school gave way to bush, henchmen—makeup thankfully washed off—flanking him on both sides. To Lawrence’s relief, he wasn’t smiling. In fact, he didn’t seem to have much of any facial expression.
Lawrence and Żywie moved ahead of the pack, trying to gesture for everyone else to stay back. Luckily, nobody needed much encouragement to keep their distance from the Physician.
The doctor had his arms folded, his long fingers furling and unfurling along his sleeves. “I trust you have kept the body cool?” he asked tonelessly.
Lawrence nodded. “We’ve tried our best, John.” He turned to look back at his students. “Artume?”
Mary Gillespie took the young girl by the hand and led her over. “You’re being very brave, love.”
The Physician’s face came to life when he recognized her, the muscles tightening like clockwork. “Sheilah Brown!” He grinned at Lawrence. “Whose idea was this?”
Żywie sighed. “Mine.”
The Physician clicked his tongue. “Not surprised!” Addressing Artume, he said, “Congratulations on the conception by the way, I’m sure the results will be very interesting.”
The girl stared at her feet. “Thank you.”
“Would you mind dislodging the carcass for us, Miss Brown?”
A gash opened in the world, bleeding black.
Artume tried not to look at the wound. “I don’t have to… get him out, do I?”
“Oh, of course not,” Mrs Gillespie assured her. “You’re doing more than your share as it is.” She turned to Żywie. “Would you assist me?”
The two women reached into Artume’s void. Without her darkvision, it was a hard search, but neither Mary nor Żywie would consider calling her over.
The Physician watched with interest. “Lawrence,” he asked. “Is handling the dead a traditionally feminine task in your culture?”
Lawrence raised a hand. “Żywie—”
“No, Lawrence. I need to do this,” she said.
They pulled out chocolates, Coke bottles, old issues of Womens Weekly—
“Ah,” Mary Gillespie closed her eyes. “I think we’ve got a hold of him.”
Tenderly, one arm each, the pair pulled Adam into the light of reality. Neither rigor-mortis nor the smell of death had set in yet. The boy could have been asleep, if he weren’t so cold.
At first, when the screaming hadn’t even died down, there had been some hope that Żywie could bring Adam back to life. She had done it before—still hearts coaxed into beating again under her hand. But Adam had lain dead for at least an hour, entropy scrambling the pattern that had been him. Even for Żywie, it would’ve been like putting a dust-cloud back together from memory, without mislaying a single speck or mote. What she woke might have breathed, but it wouldn’t have been Adam.
The henchmen took Adam from the women, presenting him to their master. The Physician leaned in for a sniff. “It’s not ideal, but I might work something out,” he said, straightening himself. “It’s such a shame. I was looking forward to our chats.” He pointed from Vibe and Jam to the truck. “Prepare it for transport.”
Lawrence, half out of respect, half out of curiosity, followed the pair as they carried Adam to the back of the truck bed.
They swung the doors open. Inside—amongst a disassembled tent and the Physician’s other tools—was what Lawrence could only describe as an enormous, mottled black and yellow pupa, lying in the middle of the floor. As the two men approached it, the thing opened.
Lawrence gagged at the stench of it, sickly and brackish. The chamber was filled with a blue, fluorescent fluid, thinner than ink. Jam and Vibe dropped the dead boy inside, and then he was gone, the pupa resealing once the ripples subsided.
“We’re lucky I always bring a specimen jar when I travel.”
The old man jerked at the Physician’s voice. He hadn’t heard the doctor creep up behind him. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose it is… you’re being very understanding about this, Doctor.”
The Physician shut the truck doors with Mr. Jam and Mr. Vibe still inside. Just more cargo. “Oh, Herbert, what’s the point of anger when all is said and done?” He made for the cabin. “Have a good Christmas. Tell me when the babies start coming, I’d like to have their DNA on file.”
Lawrence didn’t bother answering. He doubted the Physician would care either way. He watched the truck drive away until it turned around the first bend in the road.
As the Institute dispersed back into the campus, Lawrence felt a tug on his sleeve. He looked down. “Yes, Phantasmagoria?” he asked, tiredly.
“Why does the Physician get Adam?”
“Autopsy. He wants to make sure what caused his aneurysm won’t affect any of you.”
“But his mum and dad? They’ll get him after, right?”
Lawrence nodded slowly. “Yes, it’s only right.”
Mabel stopped walking. Her teacher left her behind without a glance.
As the little girl watched him trudge up towards the big house, she wished she could believe him.
The memorial was only a couple days later. Everyone gathered in the spot along the river where they usually put on the Namings. Lawrence stood beside something hidden under a white tablecloth.
“Adam Sinclair was only with us a short while, but I will always remember him as the boy who—when he found himself the powerful amongst us—did not use his gifts to bully or lord over his fellows, but to help maintain their spirits and standards. For a fortnight, he might as well have been the only posthuman in the world, and he behaved above and beyond what I’d hope from one.”
Next to Mabel, Maelstrom whispered, “Was it really two weeks?”
“Oh yeah,” Myriad replied. “You really don’t remember?”
Mabel wanted to shout at the pair of them, muttering during a funeral (or whatever this was) but how could she blame them? Most of the time Adam had been there, they’d been off in their own little worlds. Everyone had been, really. Nobody but her had cried—apart from Growltiger, but he was just like that—and it made her feel stupid. She barely knew Adam. What did they do together besides a few drawing lessons?
It worried her David didn’t cry, though.
“Nope. Last thing before we woke up was Linus’ singing.”
“Lucky, I guess,” Myriad said.
Lawrence kept going. “Adam’s powers were amazing. I doubt the world has seen anything like him, and won’t for a long time. But the true tragedy is all the times he could have had with us. All those experiences. Today, however, I wish to grant Adam at least one of them.”
He pulled off the bed sheet, revealing a grey marble plinth. A cenotaph, as Allison would later call it. A grave for the absent and lost. A Galapagos finch was inlaid on its face in gold, above a name in silver:
“I’d like to thank our Growltiger and Ex-Nihilo for their work on this memorial.”
Billy didn’t know whether he was supposed to acknowledge the credit or not. He settled for staring at his feet.
“I never got to Name Adam Sinclair, but I will always remember Panoply.” The old man had to take pause. The words were catching in his throat. “I hope—I hope you children can look at this stone and remember Panoply too.”
The children started clapping softly. Nobody was sure if it was the done thing, but what else could they do. Nobody knew Adam well enough to give him a eulogy.
Mabel was very glad she wasn’t standing at the front, because she couldn’t keep the anger off her face. That plinth was a lie. Nobody who had ever loved Adam had ever called him “Panopoly”. Nobody who had even liked him had called him that. It was a story; the version of Adam Lawrence had wanted. And that stupid bird. It turned it from a gravestone into an advertisement.
There’ll be a real grave somewhere, she tried telling herself. A real grave, with his real name, that his mum and dad can go visit.
It was an odd thing to hope for, but Mabel knew not everyone got as much.
Lucius Owens sat in the big house’s library, alone but for the characters of The King Must Die. Not the cheerist title, but the way those Athenian hostages bonded over bull-vaulting of all things comforted him.
He didn’t look up when the door opened, but he did when he heard Phantasmagoria’s voice: “Linus?”
Linus rested the book on his knee. “You alright, Phan?” That was the default greeting at the Institute lately.
“…I don’t know.”
Well, time to be the communal big-brother. He scooted sideways to make space on the leather couch. “Get over here.”
Phantasma sat down next to the the older boy, lolling against his side. “What’re you reading?”
He glanced at the book’s cover: two fresco-figures with their arms entwined by serpents. “The King Must Die.”
“What’s it about?”
That caught Mabel’s interest. “So, the Minotaur?”
Linus shrugged. “Sort of. But he’s just the prince in a big bull mask. It’s one of those books that tries to show how the story could have happened without my folks getting involved.” He winked. “Pure blasphemy, I say.”
The girl looked up at him, tilting her head. “So, they made it more boring?”
Linus laughed. “I guess they did.”
“Your folks basically made the world, right?”
Linus thought he knew where this was going, but he decided to let the girl get there herself. It was just nice that some of the littlies believed him. “I suppose you could say that. I think it’s more that they painted over a lot of it.” The young man’s eyes briefly darted upwards. He hoped his family didn’t take this the wrong way. “And some of them are the world. It’s complicated.”
“…Do you know what happens to people when they die?”
“Oh.” It wasn’t the first time one of the younger kids had asked Linus that. Hell, it wasn’t even the first time Phantasmagoria had asked him. She could still remember her then—that sad, sun-dried thing Lawrence had found in the desert, lost and afraid even of her own powers. Time had almost washed that girl away like a bad chalk-drawing in the rain, but Linus thought he could see her stirring behind Phantasma’s eyes.
She probably doesn’t even remember, he realized. Linus had forgotten how long three years felt when you were small. “Most of what I know you could probably get from books. Dad never really sat down and explained it all.”
“I still want to know.”
“Alright. You know the Grim Reaper?”
“Well, that’s basically my uncle, Hermes.”
“I thought he was the thief god?”
A smile. “He’s god of a lot of things. I think even he loses track sometimes. But like I was saying, one of Hermes’ jobs is guiding dead people down to the Underworld, where his uncle looks after them.”
Mabel was quiet for some time. “…Why?”
“Why do dead people have to go anywhere? Why can’t they just stay up here with us? Dying could be like… puberty or something.”
Linus frowned. “That’s called being a ghost, Phan. Nobody wants to be one of those.”
The boy raised an eyebrow. “Would you now?”
“Yeah! Floating around, walking through walls, being all see through. Haunt likes it.”
“Haunt can turn it off, Phan. The world’s just not built for naked souls, I think. The sun burns too bright and sounds are too sharp. The Underworld’s where they belong.”
“But that’s dumb!” Phantasmagoria cried. “Who made it so everyone has to go away forever just because they hurt too much or lived too long!” She pulled away from Linus, scrunching in on herself and scowling. “Your family’s a bunch of meanies.”
Mabel expected some kind of protest from Linus, or maybe an insult. The fact none came worried her enough to make her glance back at him.
The young man was looking contemplatively at his book. “Yeah, they can be sometimes. But my family didn’t invent death. It’s not like that Garden of Eden stuff in the Bible. Death’s always been here. Only way it could work. If nothing ever died, we’d be smothered by flies. Hell, we’d smother the flies. And it’s even littler things, too. Cancer is immortal: did you know that?” He sighed. “Maybe some angry cousin of mine invented all the other stuff. Made dying so scary. Made it so we missed people. Made it so it’s always kinda shocking, even though everyone does it.”
Mabel drew in close to him again. “Do you think they’re alright? Adam. My mum and dad. Everyone?”
“Is your uncle kind?”
His father’s voice, like music at dawn. “No. But he is fair.”
“Yeah,” Linus said. “I’m sure they are.”
They didn’t speak for some time. Linus hummed a little, and it put birdsong to shame. He wasn’t trying to use his song, but keeping magic out of his voice was like trying to keep water out of the sea.
“Do you ever think about leaving?” the little girl asked.
“Leaving the school. You’re eighteen right? Sanctioned? Couldn’t you go?”
“Why would I want to?”
Linus felt Mabel shrug. “Dunno. See the world. Go to university?” She tried to giggle. “Fight crime?”
Linus laughed. “I don’t know about that last one. You even heard of a singing superhero?”
Mabel thought about it. “There’s this old Superman story where he teams up with Pat Boone1.”
“Pat Boone is not a superhero. I’m not even sure he’s a singer. As for university—our teachers are great, but I don’t know if I have a high school certificate or anything. And I couldn’t leave the babies.”
“But Chant, Chorus, and Spitfire are yours. You could take them with you.”
“They belong to their mums, too. And all of us, really. I wouldn’t want to leave Ophelia and the kids that are going to be born, either. And… I guess I don’t really know what my life would be like. I haven’t left the valley in six years, I think.”
“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”
Mabel lay there for a while, letting Linus sing softly or read the odd passage from The King Must Die out loud.
She wasn’t paying attention, though. Her gaze was focused on the shelf where the Institute kept all its medical books.
Elsewhere found himself with very little to do after lessons were over. Myriad was mooning over Maelstrom even more than usual, and Elsewhere couldn’t look at him right now without wanting to punch his lights out. Or wanting to—no, just the first thing.
There were all the other children of the Institute, of course, but Elsewhere felt awkward trying to play with them. They didn’t know what he knew. What he had done to Adam. The weird, broken feelings stupid Maelstrom and his stupid magic eyes stirred up in him. He felt like a leper in a swimming pool.
So, Elsewhere went in search of Mabel. She wasn’t in the barn, or any of her usual drawing practice hideaways. Eventually, Linus pointed the boy to the library.
He found the girl at the library’s grand honey-oak reading table, almost obscured from view by siege-towers of books and magazines. A fairy-tale princess and a bespectacled giraffe were working through the piles beside her.
Elsewhere was surprised. It wasn’t that Mabel was an illiterate child by any means. It was just she tended to value books more in terms of how they could be put to work.
He pulled up a chair. “What are you reading?”
The princess put a finger to her mouth. “Shush!”
“Sorry,” Elsewhere whispered. “What are you reading?”
Mabel answered without looking up, “Żywie’s doctor books.”
Calling the books “Żywie’s” was perhaps misleading. While the healer did make a point of buying up medical publications, they were less for her to use than for her amusement. She would go through them page by page—crossing out lines and adding her commentary:
Iodine actually destroys cells, dears.
Trust me, babies feel pain.
Inducing vomiting will not relieve postoperative vomiting. I’m surprised I need to tell you people this.
“Oh,” said Elsewhere. “Why?”
Mabel looked up at him. “Wait, you don’t actually believe the grown ups?”
“Believe them about what?”
Very slowly, Mabel said, “That Adam had an ann-your-lism.”
“You don’t think it was the Quiet Room?”
“No. That’s stupid. Why would it have only given him the ann-your-lism and not any of us?”
He bit his lip. “So—you don’t think me putting him in there… made it happen?”
Mabel reached over and took the boy’s hand. “No. That’s stupid.”
“So what does that mean?”
The giraffe snorted, nudging the page it was on with its nose.
Mabel leaned over to look, nodded, and dispelled the giraffe and princess both. “It means we need to find Żywie.”
The Institute’s healer was at work in the veggie-garden. It was still bright out, but the blues and whites of the sky dulled like dried paint. Shadows crept up the trunks of the surrounding trees, towards leaves still lit with gold, as though the sun was pulling the light out of them as it slowly set.
Żywie grunted as she bent over one of her walking pumpkins, trying to get a brush into the spines of its mouth.
The home-bred jack o’ lantern struggled under her grip, its root-tendrils whipping and thrashing, before it finally broke free and scurried off into the bush, troubling the Institute’s cow on its way.
“Fine!” Żywie shouted after it from the dirt. “Let your teeth rot! See if I care!” She thought about running after her creation, but she couldn’t work up the energy. Some family in Northam would be in pumpkin-pie for months.
She was about to check on the cow when she heard her.
“Why are you lying about Adam?”
Phantasmagoria and Elsewhere were standing at the allotment’s gate, their faces grim. The girl was holding a book at her side.
Żywie got to her feet. “…What?”
Elsewhere said, “Phantasma’s been reading about brain ann-your-lisms.”
Żywie sighed, English teacher again for a moment. “Aneurysms, you mean.”
“Doesn’t matter,” insisted Phantasmagoria. “What matters is they don’t just happen overnight.”
“Phantasma, aneurysms can go undetected for weeks.”
“You checked us all with the Physician the day before Adam died. How could you have missed it?”
“I—I make mistakes, too.”
“No,” said Elsewhere. “You don’t”.
“We told Lawrence Adam was taking away our powers,” Mabel said. “And don’t say we were wrong. We know we weren’t.” Her voice started to grow ragged. “Then the Physician comes, and the next morning, Adam’s dead.”
“Seems pretty lucky to me,” Elsewhere muttered.
Żywie would have smacked the boy if she were close enough. “Don’t you dare say that!”
“Stop lying to us!” Mabel shouted back. “Why do grownups always lie?”
Żywie wanted to scream. Wanted to weep. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Reverb’s standard morose teenaged voice rang out across the school:
Żywie walked out of the allotment, past Mabel and Elsewhere. “You should stop talking about things you don’t understand. Both of you. Be glad you have your powers back. Be glad you were given the ones you have.”
Mabel watched the woman go. “Eliza Winter!”
She stopped in place, not looking back.
Mabel inhaled. “Did you kill Adam?”
Her answer was calm. Almost matter-a-fact. As though she were admitting it more to herself than the children. By the time either of them had recovered enough to say anything, the healer was gone.
Arnold looked wide-eyed at his friend. “I—what—”
“I don’t know,” said Mabel. “I really don’t know”.
The pair made their way back to the big house. Silently. Numbly. They kept their distance from any other child they passed. Once they were inside, they followed the overlapping chatter and clinking of cutlery to the dining room.
Most of the student body had already sat down. David was swirling and fretting the glass of lemon cordial in front of him, much to the amusement of Brit and Allison, while Lawrence pointedly ignored him from the head of the table.
He looked up at his friends with those new eyes of his, frowning slightly. “You two alright?”
The room had gone quiet. Mabel wondered what she and Arnold looked like right then. She could barely feel her own face, and reading the expressions of others was now beyond her. Like a maths trick she had never used outside of class.
He loves her, Mabel thought. Everyone did. She did, too. Żywie, the one who made the hurt go away.
Then she found Eliza, sitting beside the headmaster. She caught her eye. Eliza looked resolute, but resigned. Like a woman expecting a blow. A witch who wanted to be burned.
She was going to tell them, Mabel decided. She would tell everyone what Eliza had done. And then… she didn’t know what would happen then. But it was the right thing to do.
“Żywie—” The rest of the words got lost. “Żywie…”
“Yes, child?” she said. “Is something the matter?”
Arnold tried to pick up for her. “Eliza…” Now why couldn’t he say anything? “Eliza!”
Lawrence stood from his chair. “Are you two playing a game?”
Żywie put a hand on the old man’s arm. “It’s alright, Lawrence.”
“No it isn’t!” Mabel blurted. “Eliza…” The more she tried, the harder it got. It was like a bricklayer was building a wall between her mouth and her brain. “Eliza—”
She burst into tears. Arnold soon joined her.
“Oh, God,” Abalone said. “They’ve gone mad, haven’t they?”
“Now don’t go saying rubbish,” Tiresias said as he got up and approached the crying children. He pulled them both in close, feeling them grow placid at his touch. “They’ve been through an awful shock. We all have.”
The esper looked up and down the table. The children seemed to be buying it. But then his eyes landed on Eliza. That corpse-woman. The one with the mirrored mind. She was staring right at him, and those eyes made him feel transparent.
Alberto clutched the children tighter, hard against his chest.
1. Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane Volume 1 #9. Superman actually spent much of the story sabotaging and generally tormenting Pat Boone for the flimsiest of reasons, but this was also how the character generally treated his friends and loved ones at the time. You could also argue that it was Pat Boone, and thus perfectly justified. ↩
Previous Chapter Next Chapter