Chapter Forty-One: The Sleeper Awakes

It didn’t happen all at once, waking up. First there were twilight half-dreams, where either he almost broke the surface, or the waking world snuck across the border of sleep. Washed out, overlit snapshots of his bedroom, or the old lady watching over him like a fretful gargoyle. Bright, technicolour repeats of childhood were contaminated by the feel of cold water at his lips, or pressure on his bladder.

Worst of all was when he managed to wake up completely… except for his body. He would lie there, his waking mind a panicked pearl of awareness wrapped in a living statue, while an orange clad witch crouched atop his chest, smothering his screams with long, sharp fingers.

But eventually, Alberto Moretti escaped his dreams.

He was woken by the sounds of his door slamming shut and fading giggling. The salt sting of stale sweat and piss clawed at his nostrils. Fresh, afternoon sunshine was pouring in through his bedroom window, revealing the beginnings of dust forming over every surface.

Alberto felt like his blood had turned to syrup. He tried to stretch, and winced at the protest of stiff bones and screaming skin. He felt under his singlet.

Fucking bedsores? How long—  

He couldn’t remember going to bed. That itself wasn’t so odd. If anything it was the norm. Except when that happened, he usually came to in his chair, or more occasionally on the roof, or even sometimes next to Françoise.

It was then Alberto noticed the hard lump of warm metal wedged between his thighs. He peeked under the duvet.

A bedpan. A goddamn bedpan. Why did they even own a bedpan?

Alberto managed to clamber out of bed, groaning as his ulcerated skin stretched over his ribcage. He thought for a moment that he’d have to suck it up and go see Eliza about it, but some muffled, insistent instinct told him that was a very bad idea.

He also realized how thirsty he was. And not even for wine. For the first time in years, he was parched for water. Quickly pulling on some pyjama bottoms, he stepped out into the hallway.

As Alberto made his way down through the Big House, the Institute’s psychic landscape opened back up in his head. It took a few tries to get a clear view—his third-eye was full of sand.

It was strange. On the grey sea of unconscious matter, a tiny convoy of aging ships floated in the shadow of a bright, young lighthouse. The adults were holed up together in a corner of the house, with the lone exception of Fran’s sky-blue signal. She was lost in the children’s constellation, girding the river like Orion’s belt. He could also swear the baseline lights were flickering, but trying to focus on any of it made Alberto’s head throb.

Water. He needed water.

The Institute’s mental topography wasn’t the only thing out of order. Alberto kept passing graffiti on the walls, drawn in crayon and texta or paint:

AU WAS RIGHT!

TALOS WAS HERE!

Someone had tried to clean them off. Except for one message:

BASIL LIVES!

Woozily, Alberto said, “Well that’s just a lie.”

The kitchens were a mess. Melted ice-cream stained the countertops; cupboards and pantries were flung open, their pots and pans scattered across the traffic-scratched wood floor, along with a newsagent’s worth of sweet wrappers. Alberto didn’t care, though. All that was on his mind was the sink.

Alberto stuck his head under the running tap, slurping from it greedily. He felt like he had been waterboarded by the time he had had his fill, but his headache was already fading. But that left space for a realization.   

His connections were gone. The strings connecting him to almost everyone at the Institute had rotted in his sleep. He wasn’t the boss of anyone anymore.

Alberto was rooted to the spot. His fight or flight response was having a seizure. His skeleton felt like it was trying to escape.

After a few seconds of that, though, he managed to get a hold of himself long enough to take stock. Judging by those bastard bedsores, he had to have been out for a few days, at least. And unless he was mistaken, he hadn’t been beaten to death in his sleep. So either everyone felt really forgiving regarding the years of mind control and Alberto’s night-time hobbies, or they didn’t know yet.

He could still salvage this. All he needed to do was give a lot of kids high-fives.

Alberto caught his reflection in the sink. Grimacing, he scratched at his cheeks. He had a beard. Not only that, but some little shit had drawn a monocle around his eye. He looked like his dad.

There was a point of light strobing through every colour of the rainbow (and more besides) in one of the bathrooms.

There she is.

Alberto sidled up to the bathroom door. The girl was definitely in there, and he could hear water running. His telepathy had recovered enough he could make out some of her surface thoughts:

Meanie Cormey… quiet juice….  

Alberto opened the door to find Allison Kinsey shaking her hands dry. She was bare chested, her face and torso covered in elaborate if childish mock-tribal paint. To the esper’s eyes, they clashed badly with the markings of her Socii. Maybe it was her attempt to replicate a tan. Whatever she had washed off herself had stained the water and soap-suds baby-blue.

“What the—”

Before Alberto could get another word out, Allison had him backed against the wall, a sharp stick poking against his Adam’s apple.

“The giant has awoken!”

Alberto gulped. The lights behind the girl’s eyes looked green and playful, but Alberto could never be sure with Allison. So many of her thoughts began in other people’s heads. Her mind was like those ransom notes assembled out of magazine clippings: far from impossible to read, but sometimes Alberto had to squint. He decided to play it safe, wait for an opportunity to touch her.

“Uh, sure.” The spearpoint lowered, a good sign. “How long was I out?”

Allison bit her lip. “Mmm, ‘bout a week?”

“Christ.” He pointed to his marker made monocle. “You do this?” he asked, trying and failing to keep the annoyance from leaking into his voice.

Allison nodded. “Yup.”

“You saw a fella in a week long coma, so you drew on his face… why?”

Allison shrugged. “Dunno. Wasn’t hurting anything.”

Sure

“So,” he scratched his face. “Can I shave this off?”

Allison drew her spear to her side, closing her eyes and nodding magnanimously. “You may. Then I have to present you to the Queen.”

Well, why not?

Allison mushed Alberto out of the house and through the grass; technically at spearpoint, but that ended up being her pointing it forward while walking five feet behind him. Not that Alberto thought she couldn’t mess him up badly from that distance. She had also insisted he preserve the monocle as much as possible.

As they walked, Allison absently explained goings on at Institute in that frustrating, jabbering way children do—talking as though you already knew everything they did:

“…So David was all ‘Rauugh, no more hitting!’ and that was when Haunt put him in the dirt…”

Alberto had a hard time believing Mealy of all people doing any of that, even after getting his eyes limed, but the snatches of memory Allison was throwing off bore it out.

“Wild.”

They passed a rose-quartz statue of a terrified, bearded man buried in the ground up to his shoulders.

“Who did that?” Alberto asked.

“Me and Lana. We started after the real thing dug himself out.”

“Is it just a bust, or did you do the whole Lawrence?”

“The whole Lawrence,” Allison answered proudly. “I know nobody but Haun—Tom can see the legs and stuff, but I’d feel weird knowing they weren’t there.”

Alberto found himself smiling. “Bet the old bastard didn’t think his statue would turn out like that.”

Allison giggled.

Alberto had half-expected the other children to have all devolved into painted savages like his “captor”. But most of the children playing by the river seemed as civilized as they ever were, if a bit grimy. After all, nobody was making them bathe. Linus perched on a raised chair like the one he had commandeered during the blackout, strumming his guitar and singing.

“In the summertime, when the weather is dry, you can stretch right up, and touch the sky1—hey Ti’s back!!”

Alberto was surprised by how happy Lucius looked to see him. It wasn’t even just him. A lot of the kids waved as the esper walked by. A few even ran up to say say hello, like Windshear:

“Hi, Ti!” The little girl staggered, only saved from falling on her face by a well timed gust of wind. She laughed. “I thought you were deaaaaaad!”

“He was asleep, Windy.”

Windy hiccuped. “Same thing but with breaks!” She sucked on her bottom lip, before toppling over onto the grass. Curling up, she decided to stay there. “I am the windy-queen…!”

Snores.

“…Is she drunk?”

“Yup,” said Allison. “She and Arn got into Laurie’s liquor cabinet while he was in the ground. They mixed it with cordial, called it ‘funny juice’ and started selling it.” She poked Windshear with a toe. “…And drinking it.”

Alberto spotted Arnold Barnes walking with Talos. The other boy was in his machine form, painted to the gills with flames, dragons and other monsters. He looked like a race-car with legs.

“Listen,” Arnold was slurring. “Captain Marvel could deafen… could definil… look, he could so beat up Marvelman.”

Talos’ synthesized voiced stuttered and buzzed like a broken record-player, elongating syllables and constantly alternating pitch2. “You’re ly-ly-lying ARNOLD. Captain Mar-Vell all fake magic, but Marvelman’s got ATOmic powers. That means he’s moreee real, so he would win!” The boy-robot’s yellow glass eyes were flickering like broken bug zappers.

Arnold frowned, swinging his arms wildly. “Okay, that’s it, you’re toa—”

There was a green flash, and there was suddenly a pit where the teleporter had been standing.

“I’m okay!”

For the first time, Alberto felt true kinship with his people. Plus, they weren’t pilfering his booze this time.

The queen as it turned out was Mabel. She reclined on a storybook throne, waited on by nymphs and centaurs while doves held a laurel crown above her head.

“I kinda thought you were never going to wake up.”

“Well, here I am. So, you’re the queen. How’d that happen?”

“I said I was the new queen and beat up anyone who said I wasn’t. Yesterday it was Windy. Before that, Allie I think.”

Alberto raised an eyebrow. “Windshear managed to beat Myriad?”

Mabel waved her hand. “Not really, she just kinda got bored and stopped saying she was queen. Not really a person kinda person.”

“Any reason she’s the only one done up with paint and all that?”

“I don’t know, Allie’s weird. I think she’s trying to be like David or something.”

“No arguing here… hey, speaking of Mealy—”

David.”   

“—David. You seen his mum anywhere?

William “Growltiger” St. George kicked and thrashed in the water, trying to keep his head above the river’s grasp.      

“Come on, Billy, you’re doing great!” David said, sitting cross-legged on top of the water.

Billy never should have told the other boy he couldn’t swim.

Françoise surfaced behind him. “You need a break, sweetie?”

Billy tried to nod without slipping under. A second later, a slab of ice floated up from under him. Instinctively, the boy shook the excess water out of his fur. “What am I doing wrong?”

“Dunno,” said David as he slipped under the river’s skin. “You move your arms and legs a lot.”

Billy supposed his friend was right. David and Fran’s stroke was very heavy on full-body undulations. Dolphin-like, in a way. Effortless. The mother and son insisted it was learnable by rootstock humans. A less charitable boy than Billy might’ve asked what business either of them thought they had teaching anyone how to swim.

“I guess. Least you and your mum don’t have fur being all draggy.”

Fran pulled herself onto the ice-platform beside Billy. “Oh, don’t be like that. You know what else have fur? Seals. They’re fantastic swimmers.” She smiled wistfully. “I used to race them when I was little.”

She spotted a man on the shore. Tiresias. Alberto. “Say, David. Why don’t you show Billy the old pirate ship the big kids sunk?”

“Sure!”

“But I want be able to breath.”

“David can make an air-bubble for you. Bit like Moses.”

Billy’s eyes went wide. “Wow.” As primly as possible, he then proceeded to divebomb back into the water. David dipped after him.

Fran smiled to herself. It wouldn’t help Billy learn to swim much, but hopefully it would remind him why he had wanted to.

She swam back to the riverbank. As she grew close, Alberto turned around.

“Are you going to explode me if I look at ya?”

Fran chuckled, which did little to assuage the psychic’s nerves. “Eh, nothing you haven’t seen before.” Despite that, when she stepped out of the water, ice-crystals hung off of her like a gown. “I mean, remember your swimming lessons?” A wry grin. “To start with, I mean.”

Christ, they’d been so young…

Françoise hugged him. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

Alberto was almost too taken aback to slip his hooks in. “Thanks. Glad you cared… please let go, this is hell on my bedsores.”

“Oh, sorry.”

Once free, Alberto sat down. “Things went a bit nuts while I was out, didn’t they?”

Françoise nodded, joining him on the ground. “Yeah. I think we were due for it.”

“Can’t say it isn’t satisfying to see. Bet the old man’s freaking out.”

Fran laughed. “He definitely is. I don’t think he’s left the house since the birthday party.”

“…Ophelia’s gone, isn’t she? Eliza took her.”

“…Yeah.”

It wasn’t really news to Alberto. Allison had mentioned what Eliza did like it was a footnote in the saga of David and Lawrence. Like his kid didn’t matter. Or he wouldn’t care. Even if Allison hadn’t had explained, Ophelia’s light was gone. A candle extinguished.

Fran put a hand on his shoulder. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for you and Sadie. For any of you.”

Of course she couldn’t, Alberto thought. Eliza hadn’t stolen her kid. Why hadn’t she? She’d taken all of Lawrence’s other pet projects. Was it some kind of favouritism? Eliza showing her contempt for him? He wouldn’t put it past her.

“I hope you see her again.”

“Me too.”

He really did: not only his daughter, but also that thieving, Nazi witch, tied to a burning stake.

Alberto groaned, his sores flaring up again.

“Want me to fix those?”

David was standing on the dried mud, Billy drying himself off with a towel behind him.

Alberto blinked. “You can do that?”

“If you like.”

Alberto folded his arms. “Alright, I’m game.”

“Okay. Take your shirt off.”

Alberto really hoped this wasn’t some weird revenge on David’s part.

The boy’s eyes went milky. Long fingers of water rose from the river, reaching towards Alberto. He resisted the urge to flinch as they lapped at his sides, only to grunt when they tore themselves away like a plaster made of thorns.

The pain left as soon as it came. It took the sores with it, leaving perfect, unblemished skin in their place.

Billy oohed.

“Jesus,” Alberto said. “How’d you even do that?”

David shrugged. “I turn water into people all the time. How’d you think I fix myself?”

Françoise looked in awe. “When did you figure that out?”

“While I was home.”

“Could you teach me?”

“Sure.”

“Hi David!” Allison called from a hill, skipping down. “Whatcha doing?”

“Teaching Billy how to swim.”

“You’re probably doing it wrong,” Allison said matter-a-factly. “Want me to try?”

Billy nodded slowly.

As David went to join the other children in the water, he looked back at Alberto. “I’m sorry, about Ophelia. I was kinda looking forward to being a big brother. I’ll miss her.”

“I know the feeling… still, thanks.”

Fran and Alberto sat together for some time, watching as the boys were subjected to Allison’s collected knowledge of both water and pedagogy.

“You know,” Fran said. “David could’ve been our son.”

“Didn’t you say that to Chen?”

“Well, he could’ve been Chen’s, too.” She smiled to herself. “God, what kinda kid would we have had?”

Alberto thought about it. “…Namor, the Sub-Mariner!”

They both laughed. In the distance, Linus started another song.

“Want to go get some funny juice?”

“I’d like that,” the psychic answered.

Alberto had one of the best times of his life that night. It scared the shit out of him.

“This is getting ridiculous,” Bryant Cormey said.

None of the other teachers sitting around the library table could disagree. Especially with the glowing blue bottles dangling around their necks.

“What the hell is the inspector going to think when he arrives?”

Herbert Lawrence was trying very hard not to think about that.

“I don’t think it’s that dire,’ Miss Fletcher said with the shaky optimism that betrays the truly terrified. “Sometimes kids get a bit feisty. We’re teachers, we’ve all seen this before.”

Bryant scowled. “Feisty? Therese, it’s like Lord of the Flies out there! Except instead of starting fires with a fat kid’s glasses, they set us on fire with their eyes!” He fingered his bottle-amulet. Unlike everyone else’s, it was only half full. “Myriad was harassing me today. Had to chuck some quiet-juice on her.”

Lawrence rubbed his temples. “Is that really what we’re calling it?”

“No more pouncey sounding than ‘null-fluid’, Laurie.”

Mrs Gillespie folded her hands diplomatically. “I feel like that was excessive.”

“She was baring her teeth at me!”

“She’s a nine year old girl, Bryant, not a dog.”

Bryant sniffed. “I think the difference gets a bit academic when the kid has nearly thirty superpowers. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in these children’s potential as much as anyone here. But they need to be tamed before they can be great.”

Therese rubbed her fingers. “Oh, I mean—isn’t that a bit… cynical?”

“Maybe, but so is history. Do you think our ancestors preferred toiling on farms to wandering through the forests? Breaking their bodies to grow food for kings and clerks? Of course they didn’t. But if those kings and clerks hadn’t reined them in, made them work against their impulses, we’d still be huddling in caves.”

Mary wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sure that’s the most—”

“I agree with Bryant,” Lawrence declared.

Everyone looked at the old man. Except Bryant. He just looked pleased with himself.

“It’s our job to mold the children into the future. To make them what we ought to  have been. If we give into this tantrum, or in any way let ourselves appear weak—”

Mary ran her hands through her hair. “Oh, Doctor, the children know we’re weak. They’ve seen through the curtain! They know there’s nothing we can do to them. We can’t smack them, and we can’t force them to do anything they don’t want. Even the blasted Quiet Room is out of the picture now!”

“Well,” interjected Therese, trying to be helpful. “We still have its… fuel?”

“If we have to walk around with bottles of tranquilizers around our necks,” Mary explained as patiently as possible, “I think we should reconsider our vocation.” She tugged at her bottle’s twine. “I wish you wouldn’t insist on us wearing these, Lawrence. It’s humiliating.”

“For everyone’s safety—”    

“The children won’t hurt me. I’d bet my life. And I don’t think this is a tantrum. It’s deeper than just moaning about eating their greens or going to bed when the sun’s still up. The kids are unhappy. And they’re only going to listen to us if they feel listened to as well.”

“Bloody ungrateful…” muttered Cormey. “After everything Lawrence has done for these kids, they go wild because we ask them to go along with a perfectly natural process. Would they rather be back in the asylums?”

Mary treated the young man to a proper schoolmarm glare. “Problems, Mr. Cormey, don’t stop being problems just because someone has it worse.”

The old lady’s words sparked in Cormey’s mind. “Actually, there’s an idea. We could always tell the children we have the asylums on dial. Hell, maybe that is the place for some of them. I mean, are all the children really that indispensable to the project?”

The room suddenly became a lot stuffier. Everyone keenly felt the sweat under their shirts.

“Absolutely not,” Lawrence rumbled. “Every one of those children is ‘the project’ in its entirety! There are no tiers. We do not grade members of our family. How could we even look them in the eye after making such a beastly threat?”

Besides, the DDHA wasn’t taking their calls anymore.

Cormey shrank like a flower in the shadow of a great oak. “Y—yes, Lawrence. I’m shouldn’t have even suggested it.”

Mary nodded. “Glad you realise that, Bryant.” She got up from her chair, not looking very hard at Cormey. “I’m going to fetch us some more tea.”

As Mary made her way to the kitchen (she really needed to tidy up in there, she reminded herself) she heard the front door clatter open and shut. A slurring, Italianate voice was singing:

“I am, you… we… you are Australiaaan…”

“Tiresias!”

Alberto found himself crushed against the old woman’s chest. “Oh, my boy, we were so worried. Are you alright? Did you speak to the children at all?”

Alberto tried not to breathe, lest his lungs impale themselves on his ribs. Mary hadn’t hugged him like that since he was twelve. He still reckoned the bruises had only just started fading.  

Lawrence and the other teachers were drawn out by the commotion. Soon Alberto was bombarded with questions: “Why didn’t you tell us you were awake?” “Did Eliza say anything to you?” “What are they plotting out there?”

“Ease up, ease up, I tell ya, but first…” The psychic shook Cormey’s hand. “Good to see ya, Bryant.”

Cormey was surprised. Usually he assumed Tiresias didn’t know he existed.

Alberto proceeded to kiss Miss Fletcher’s hand. “Incantato as always, Therese.”

The young woman blushed.

“Anyway, yes, I’m fine. The kids are fine, too. There’s daily political violence, Linus has written a bunch of protest songs3 (all bangers by the way), Maelstrom seems to have given up on clothes all together and taken up therapeutically drowning Growly, and half the children are drunk. Still, good day, really.”

Mary couldn’t quite process all that at once, so she went back to fussing over her ward. “How are those bedsores, love? I am so sorry, we should’ve turned you more, but with everything that was going on…”

The poor woman sounded so contrite. Alberto raised a hand, “It’s fine, Mrs. G. Mealy fixed me up anyway.”

Mary and Lawrence looked at each other, their eyes alight with scientific curiosity.

“Melusine talked about her father doing something similar,” Mary said, “but I’ve never seen it done.”

“Did her and Melusine display any other new powers?”

“All I know is they’re both good at mixing cocktails,” answered Alberto. “It’s been a long day. Lawrence, do you mind if we talk in private?”

“Of course,” Mary said. “It’s high time we retired for the night anyway.”

Alberto and Lawrence started up the stairs to his study. As soon as they were out of earshot, the young esper whispered, “The fuck have you gotten us into?”

“So, this is what made the Quiet Room work?”

Lawrence’s bottle sat on his desk next to the fruit-bowl, the blue fluid within still glowing even under his office’s bright yellow lights. Looking at it bugged Alberto. Somehow, it had less thought and wit than the average glass of water. It stirred up memories of his own stints in the Quiet Room: buried alive, crying in the dark…

“Yes,” said Lawrence. “Did John Smith ever tell you where he got this?”

“Nope. Or I wasn’t listening, take your pick.” Alberto generally tried not to notice the Physician as much as possible. The creature thought with every cell of his body, it was very disorientating.

Lawrence slipped into his lecturer mode. “Enlil, Tiresias. The world of your forebears. Every higher life form is psionically active4. The humans who were settled there had to become so just to keep up. A whole biosphere of creatures attempting to psychically subvert each other.

“There is one exception, though. An apex-predator, whose blood negates almost all of what we call powers. The Quiet Room has a heart that pumps the stuff. Myriad and Elsewhere didn’t manage to vandalise that at least. The effect is much weaker without the intact chamber, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Fascinating,” Alberto said flatly.

“While you were… frolicking outside, did you manage to touch any of the students? Melusine?”

The esper shrugged. “A fair few.”

“I’m sure you already know how… urgent our situation is.” A nervous, nigh-hysteric smile. “I can’t imagine it’s not clear from my thoughts. They’re coming for us, Tiresias. Coming to break our family apart. Help us.”

Alberto sat there, pondering. “Lawrence, get your gun.”

“…What?”

“I said, get your gun.”

Lawrence didn’t feel any force acting upon him. It wasn’t like there was anyone holding onto his arms. As steadily and smoothly as he would have poured himself a drink or picked up a pen, he pulled his desk-key from his pocket, unlocked the second drawer, and removed the Smith & Wesson Victory Model he kept there.

“What are you—”

“Load it. One bullet.”

Lawrence obeyed.

“Now put it against your temples.”

He did, with no hesitation.

“You know what it’s like, Lawrence? Being nine years old, being used as long as you can remember, for reasons you don’t understand. And then, you’re taken from your home, your family, from everything you’ve ever known. And then you realise, the bloke who did it, he doesn’t even like you.”

Lawrence couldn’t scream. The best he could manage was an even, “Tiresias, you can’t possibly think—”

Alberto growled. “Don’t lie to me! I can see your heart, Laurie! How can you possibly think I didn’t know? Pull the trigger.”

Lawrence did. An empty, stomach-churning click.

“You never liked my powers. Which is a shame seeing as that’s pretty much all you see in us.” Alberto launched into his best pantomime of Lawrence, “Telepathy is only good for subverting and controlling others. It has no place in a mature posthuman society.”

“I never said that!” protested Lawrence. Without being told, he pulled the trigger again. Another click.

“You never said it out loud, but I lost count how many times you thought it.” He laughed. It sounded like weeping. “I was basically the prototype for Adam Sinclair, wasn’t I? But you had a use for me, didn’t you? When your perfect ones weren’t behaving like good little posthumans should, I brought them into line!”

“You helped them see past their biases. Their doubts.”

Alberto cackled. “Oh, my God. You actually believe yourself when you spew that bullshit! I should write to Psychology Today or something. They’d do a whole series on you. Pull the trigger.”

Lawrence’s fingers felt like they were breaking. Click.

“I’m still not sure how Ophelia happened. Not sure how that’s possible, but I don’t. Maybe you thought my powers would be more acceptable watered down with something pretty like talking to birds or flying. I’m glad she did happen, though. That girl, she’s something else.” A smile, warmer than usual, breaking into rage. “And you let the kraut take her away from me! Pull the trigger.”

The click brought Lawrence no relief. It just meant the bullet was rolling closer.

“That girl was the one part of me I liked, and she slipped right through your fingers. Christ, Laurie, three days without me, and you let everything fall apart.” He looked at the gun. “You know what, we should play fair. Point it at me.”

Lawrence aimed the pistol at Alberto’s heart.

“God, so many warring impulses. If you shoot me, you’re fucked, but at least you’re fucked with honesty. No more lies, no more doublethink. Simple, complete doom.”

“Tiresias, we don’t have to—”

“My name is not ‘Tiresias’, Laurie. Pull the trigger.”

Lawrence tried to close his eyes. He couldn’t. He squeezed.

Empty.

“Well, shit, I don’t know whose luck is worse here. Put the gun back.”

Lawrence knew what his student meant. He jabbed the barrel back against the side of his head.

“You know, I’ve never felt a mind die. The blackshirts always took the poor bastards out of my sight when they topped them. Frankly, I’ve never kept an ear out for it. Should be interesting.”

Tears were blurring Lawrence’s vision. Apparently mind control couldn’t stop those. “Alberto, please…”

“Pull the trigger.”

Lawrence smushed the banana against his hair.

“Wha-what…”

“You know what the sad thing is?” Alberto asked. “You know I can do this to you—for real—basically whenever I like. But I bet you’re still going to ask for my help. Beg for it even. Just for the slightest chance I can see us through this.”

Lawrence’s breath was like a storm forced through a wind tunnel. “…Could you? Could you save us?”

“Maybe. I can see the path forward. It’s not an easy one, Lawrence. It’ll cut at your ankles and lead you through dark forests.” He leaned forward. “But first, Lawrence, you’ll have to say please.”

Lawrence dropped the banana. “Please, Alberto. Please show me the way.”

Alberto stood up. “Fine.” As he headed for the door, he said, “Just so you know, that whole nightmare you just lived through? That’s basically what you’re asking me to do to all your ‘children’.”

Lawrence didn’t answer him.

Alberto headed for the spare bedroom. He didn’t want to have to deal with the bedpan or the sick scent permeating his room that night.

He’d lied, of course. In the storm of futures, the ones where the Institute outlived the year were so outlandish, they were in danger of being trampled by unicorns. But there were futures where he contained the situation—where he impressed the DDHA enough that they decided he was an asset. Realpolitik could forgive a lot. It had forgiven Eliza, after all.

Alberto honestly didn’t like the idea of screwing with the others. Not anymore at least. He liked them more than they probably knew. More than he had known till today. Definitely more than he did bloody Laurie.

But he liked his daughter more.


1. Over the years, the students and staff at the New Human Institute noticed that Linus’ “impromptu compositions” had a tendency to turn up years later on the radio.

2. When Troy Willes reverted to human form later that evening, he found his memory full of transcription errors.

3. Including such standards as “The Man on the Hill” and “I Don’t Know You From Adam.”

4. As well as some of the viruses. On Enlil, they say both sexual magnetism and bad luck are catching.

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