It can’t be put off any longer. It’s time to talk about the night Adam Sinclair died1.
John Smith2 had laid the facts bare for us. He shouldn’t have needed to. Literal small children had already figured out the cause of the power-loss afflicting the Institute. You must understand, we were hopelessly naive about the source and intent of superpowers. The idea that a super could have powers that opposed all other supers was practically satanic to us.
Not only that, John had issued us an ultimatum: hand over Adam, or be exposed. It was strange. Usually, John seemed so disconnected from us, so willfully ignorant of anything human, but he always knew just enough to bend or destroy us.
You might think he was offering us a way out, if you knew nothing about the Physician. And Lawrence had his own solution:
“You’re asking too much, Lawrence!”
I was weeping. What Lawrence had just suggested to me, I never thought I’d hear it from his lips.
“It’s pure necessity, Żywie.”
“You promised me I’d never have to hurt anyone again!”
Lawrence sighed. He’d been crying, too. “I know, and I am so sorry. But this is nothing like at the camps. The Nazis, they were windmill chasers. They aimed you at enemies that only existed in their imaginations, at problems they created for themselves. But Adam—through no fault of his own—is a threat to your entire race.”
I moaned. “He’s just one boy…”
“Today he might be. But what if the Physician figures out how to replicate…” He hesitated, like Adam’s powers were a demon he hardly dared name. He settled on, “…his affliction. Imagine if every asylum and prison camp in the country—the whole world even—had some device or stunted homunculus to suppress posthuman gifts.”
He moved closer to me, till I could feel the breath behind his words. “There is a reason the cells of McClare and Roberts mostly house children, or those with the gentlest talents. If they could restrain all of you, I have no doubt they would move from containment to extermination.”
“…Nobody’s talking about extermination.”
Lawrence ran his hands down his face, as though he were struggling to explain something to a child who ought to know better. “Żywie, when you were a little girl, did they ever talk about it?”
“Even if you’re right, John isn’t stupid. You think he won’t figure out what happened if Adam…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“I know the Physician, Żywie. He’s not like us. He doesn’t hold grudges. He won’t be happy, but he wouldn’t throw you away for revenge.”
Lawrence wasn’t being logical. If the Institute was shut-down, the children would just go into DDHA custody. If anything, John would have had even easier access to them3. But panic and fear left no space for reason, or what little there was to be found at the Institute.
Lawrence made for the office door. “Come with me.”
“I won’t do it!”
“We’re not going to see Adam, Żywie.”
Instead, we went to Hugo’s room.
“Just got the kids down to sleep,” he told us with a battler’s smile. “Still, a good night kiss won’t do them any harm.”
I tread softly into the dark room, over to the bed. David and Allison were clinging to each other like little castaways in the sea. The boy I delivered and the girl I changed. Even in that dim light, David’s skin had a grey tone.
I briefly brushed my hand over them. They were both swimming in stress hormones. Not even their dreams were an escape.
“It’ll be alright. I promise.”
Lawrence and I bid Hugo goodnight, and left him to tend to his charges.
“You can see it, can’t you?” Lawrence asked me in the hallway. “Children like them, cut off from everything that makes them special, everything that could let them fight back, clutching one another in the dark as they wait for the gas or the bullet. If they are even allowed that comfort.”
“Please, leave me alone, Lawrence,” I said. “I need to prepare.”
Hate can only destroy. But so can love.
I made my way to the Lorikeet Dormitory, late enough that dawn was pushing against the night. I hadn’t believed in God for a long time, but I still felt watched.
When I opened the door, I immediately saw two things. First was that Sheilah Brown was asleep. That was helpful.
Second was that Adam was awake.
The boy looked towards me. “Żywie?”
I am two hundred years old. I have had to forget more than most people ever experience. There are whole years—decades even—I only remember in summary. I can’t recall my mother’s voice, or the faces of my brothers and sisters.
I remember Adam’s, face, though. Every freckle, the muddy green of his eyes. Those eyes were sore red then. He’d been crying. “Is something wrong?”
Is something else wrong, he meant. “Can’t sleep, Adam?”
He shook his head. “It’s—it’s hot.”
“Certainly is. Would you like to come for a walk with me?”
We walked along the river. It was still writhing, frothing white in the moonlight as it tried to crawl out of its bed. I noticed it grew more torrid as we passed. An old god’s rage for his daughter and grandson.
We both mostly kept silent. Sometimes Adam would tell me how this or that child was coping with the blackout, and I would nod or tell him he was a big help, all the while wondering how I could do what I thought needed to be done. I was worried the sun would rise over us and burn away my resolve. God, I wish it had.
But then Adam said something:
“I’m not stupid, you know.”
I stopped. “Of course you’re not stupid, Adam. Why would you say that?”
“I’m the one making everyone’s powers not work, aren’t I?”
Sobs. “I knew it. Everyone’s powers came back on when I was in that room, and—and—” Adam’s tears overwhelmed him. He threw himself into my side, clinging tight. “They’re gonna be so mad…”
This at least was something I knew how to handle. So many homesick, lonely, scared children. “Shhh, shhh, they won’t be. I know you’re not doing it on purpose.”
“I’m trying to make it stop, but it’s… big. Too big to listen to me.”
“It’ll be alright, Adam.”
“I’m going to fix this.”
My fingers found his neck. “I promise.”
I put him to sleep first. Like a boat on a dark shore, I pushed him out onto a deep, black sea.
I carried Adam back to his hammock. I’d carried so many sleeping children to bed before, but this felt different. Adam felt different. No breath. No rush of blood beneath his skin or subtle movement of bones. Dead weight.
I was ten years old again. Half asleep and numb. An old sepulchre full of a dead woman’s bones.
Lawrence was pacing in his office, as I knew he would be.
“Is it done?”
“Yes. He felt no pain.”
He embraced me close. “I’m proud of you, Żywie.”
People have been making excuses for me for centuries. They say my childhood couldn’t have taught me right from wrong. They talk about the sway Lawrence must’ve had over me. They say I did it for my family.
I was a grown woman. I had seen where fanaticism like Lawrence’s led. I could kill and reshape life with a touch. I should have been able to stand up to an old man.
I have to thank Timothy Valour for the exile he found for me and the babies. Better than I deserved, after I told him about what Lawrence and I had done. Gove Peninsula, the Northern Territory. It was probably the wildest place left in all Australia, and so unlike Western Australia. In the NT, the air was so saturated with humidity, you felt like you were drowning in a warm sea. The beaches and waterways were haunted by box-jellyfish and crocodiles, and clouds of mozzies swarmed any exposed flesh that wasn’t soaked in insecticide4. Even the dirt was a different vintage up there, less red than back home. There were only two seasons in the NT: wet and dry; three if you counted the build up. The sun burned too hot for anything more nuanced.
I was technically on attachment with a mission to the Yirrkala people, at least until I got tired of the Anglican busybodies and set up shop myself. It was not a good time for the locals, though little of the last three hundred years has been. In 1963, while the world was panicking about broken bombs, much of their land had been handed over to the Nabalco mining corporation for exploitation. The Yirrkala had sent two petitions framed in painted bark to the government, asserting their ancient claim to the land. It was the first time the Australian Commonwealth even acknowledged an Aboriginal system of law, but it did them no good5. For impoverishment, confiscation of territory and children, and dehumanization in the eyes of the powers that be, there was nothing super to be done. But at least I could help close the health gap just a little.
It was a week or so before Christmas, in the late evening. I was sitting on my porch, nursing a cup of tea and reading We of the Never Never, when I heard Old Bev calling my name.
“Miss Winter, Miss Winter!”
The old woman came running out of the dark, her long floral dress whipping around her heels.
I shot out of my chair. Bev was one of the first locals I had met in Arnhem Land. She was about seventy years old—not even she knew her precise birthdate—had spent much of her youth in mission schools and cleaning up after white folks, and seen three of her grandchildren taken by the government. She did not frighten easily. “What’s the matter, Bev? Is someone hurt? Sick?”
She took me by the arm, pulling me down the front steps. “No.” She shook her head. “Not yet, I mean. There’s a crazy flying white fella down on the beach6.”
“Flying—you mean a super?”
Bev rolled her eyes, her stride quickening. “Yes!”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“He’s your mob! You can tell him to clear off. Or least not make any trouble.”
“…You think I’m a super?”
Bev smirked at me. “You are a very bad fake-doctor.”
To be fair, neither was my only competition in that area. I reminded myself never to assume I was smarter than these people.
Bev led me down to the edge of the beach. I spotted him immediately.
I imagine none of you reading will remember a sky without him. The marshal of powers, the man of steel, the first utopian.
There, on the sands, stood the Flying Man.
Eliza crept slowly towards the Flying Man, leaving Old Bev to watch from the trees. She couldn’t imagine he didn’t already know they were there, but she was hardly going to stroll up to him, was she?
She was a little surprised. She had always assumed on some level that the Flying Man would be gigantic, like Ralph Rivers, but he was simply… tall. Quite tall, but just tall. He wasn’t even bulky. His body was beautifully put together, she could see that, but it was a very Greek kind of beautiful. For a moment, Eliza was unsettlingly reminded of old propaganda about the Aryan ideal. Except… his hair was so curly. Like gold ringlets. And were those white bell-bottoms he was wearing?
“Good evening, ma’am.”
Eliza froze mid-step, like she was a cat-burglar from a bad cartoon caught in the act.
The Flying Man didn’t appear perturbed by the healer’s behaviour. If anything, his attention seemed mostly devoted to the dark waves pawing at the shore, and the distant lights of some ship straddling the horizon.
“Uh, hello? The Flying Man, right?” The nickname sounded like an insult as soon as it left Eliza’s mouth. “I’m sorry—I mean… what do you like to be called?”
The Flying Man smiled, extending a hand. “Joe.”
Despite herself, Eliza found herself smiling. “Joe? Why?”
“It’s just my name. Well, one of them. The other one would make your teeth hurt, sorry.”
He sounded American, but… off7. Eliza took his hand and shook it. She wondered if her power would work on him. It couldn’t be that easy, could it?
“Eliza Winter, pleased to meet you. So, what brings you to Arnhem Land?” She looked about the beach. “There isn’t a supervillain around, is there? Tidal wave heading our way?” She wasn’t sure if she was joking.
The Flying Man (Eliza couldn’t think of him as “Joe”) shook his head. “Far as I know, you’re good. I just got done pulling a submarine out of the ocean,” he said it like it was nothing, “thought it was time for a break. And Australia is very tectonically stable.” He tapped his purple booted foot in the sand. “It’s nice not feeling the earth move so much under your feet, you know?”
Eliza did not in fact, know that.
The Flying Man squinted at her. “You a super?”
Eliza found herself blushing. “How do people keep figuring that out?”
The Flying Man shuffled his feet, fingering the hem of his cape. “Oh, sorry. I can see… a lot.”
Suddenly, Eliza thought he seemed a lot more like a Joe.
It also seemed he couldn’t help himself. “Something to do with biology?”
She nodded. “I heal. Other things, too, but that’s what it boils down to.”
Joe sat down in the sand. “You the doctor around here?”
Eliza joined him. “That I am.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“People around here don’t have very much. A lot of folks with powers like yours would only heal millionaires—people who could pay your worth. It’s good seeing a super use their powers this way.”
“You don’t know me. It’s all fake.”
And so, Eliza explained herself. She explained Danzig, the camps, Mengele, the Institute and stirrupculture. She even explained poor Adam Sinclair.
By the time she was done, Eliza was heaving against the Flying Man’s diamond, his wine-coloured cape around her shoulders. There were tears she hadn’t noticed running down her cheeks.
She looked up into the Flying Man’s moss green eyes. She had been expecting to find anger there, or disgust.
Instead, Joe just looked sad.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because you’ve suffered. Terribly.”
Anger rose in Eliza. She clutched at the white fabric of the Flying Man’s stupid costume, growling, “Weren’t you listening? All those things I’ve done. The people I’ve hurt.”
“Tragic, yes. But it still only made you miserable.”
Eliza stood up, walking away from the man. “But that’s the thing! Ever since I left, since I arrived here… I’ve been happy! I’ve made friends! I like my work! Even looking after five bloody babies! I don’t deserve it.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder.
“I’ve made mistakes, too, Eliza. I’m not going to disrespect you or Adam or any of the others you’ve told me about by saying they’re the same as yours, but I know what it feels like. To want to crawl into some dark hole and never be happy again. But I’ll tell you what, that helps no one. You’re out here, making people’s lives better. That’s a damn sight better than you rotting in a cell somewhere.”
“A few good deeds don’t make up for a life.”
“But one sin—even a thousand of them—doesn’t erase the good.”
Gently, the Flying Man turned Eliza around to face him. “Eliza, you told me you expected to live a long time. Looking at you, I believe it. You know what immortality means? It means a lot of chances to screw up. My advice, Miss Winter: keep doing what you’re doing. Grab onto whatever happiness you can find. You’ll last longer if you do—help more people. And you deserve a bit of that for you’re own sake.”
Eliza looked at that earnest young man’s face. “I’ll try,” she finally said. “If you make me a promise.”
“Go to the Institute. Help those children. I can’t trust the state to do it. Not after what I’ve seen. Timothy Valour is a good man, but he’s up against politics. And Lawrence—I don’t know what he’s capable of anymore. I thought, maybe, if I wasn’t there to clean up for him, he might step back a bit, but I don’t know.” She took his hand. “Those children deserve better Joe.”
“You didn’t have to ask.” He started walking towards the sea. “Keep your kettle filled, Eliza. I expect I’ll be back soon.”
“Joe,” Eliza said. “Before you go, could I ask you one thing?”
He looked back at the woman. “All ears.”
“…What’s that diamond on your chest mean? I’ve been wondering that for years.”
Joe’s eyes darted down at his insignia, then back up at Eliza. He laughed. “Absolutely nothing. I thought it looked neat.”
He took off, the flutter of his cape like the beating of wings.
He was too late.
1. If you have taken any decent course in superhuman history, you will recognize his name. Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard of the park dedicated to Adam’s memory in Nova Australia. I’ve never been. Feels disrespectful.↩
2. That was what the Physician called himself when I was a young woman. I will admit, he left me with an unfair impression of the squishies that sadly went uncorrected till our official first contact in 2008.↩
3. Looking back, I can only assume John spared us out of whimsy. Or boredom.↩
4. The NT was where I first experimented with mosquitos as a vector for inoculation. ↩
5. The bark petitions still hang in the house of the former parliament.↩
6. Ski Beach, to be specific.↩
7. Canadian, as I would later find out.↩