“So,” said Bryant Cormey, “how do you think we should handle the kids?”
Tiresias sat at the head of the dining table, nursing a flute of white wine. “Glad you asked, Bryant.”
It was strange, Cormey thought, having to treat the esper like an authority—or at least an equal. He’d always had mixed feelings about Tiresias. On the one hand, he dearly believed espers would be the true germ of the coming race—an effortlessly cooperative and empathetic society. On the other hand, Tiresias.
He then remembered who he was thinking about, and desperately tried to un-think that entire last paragraph.
Cunt, Alberto thought, just loud enough for Cormey to hear him. He looked at Mrs Gillespie. “Mrs G, how’s the grocery situation?”
Mary’s expression was grave. “Not good, I’m afraid. Between poor Panoply and Basil, Eliza and the babies, and everything else going on, we haven’t exactly found time to go food shopping. Plus, we still need to replace the truck.”
Alberto shook his head, taking a sip from his flute. “Wrong on both counts.”
“…We’re not running out of food?”
“No—I mean—this can work to our advantage. We all remember Gandhi, right? His big hunger strikes?”
The teachers nodded.
“Well, his big mistake there was not making everyone else hungry.”
Therese raised her hand like she were one of her students. “Um, didn’t Gandhi win out in the end?”
“Well, he would’ve won faster if he did it my way.”
“What exactly are you suggesting, Tiresias?” Lawrence asked.
“These are little kids we’re talking about. They’ll fold as soon as the hunger pangs start.”
Bryant nodded. “Good point. It’s a shame this didn’t happen in the winter, really. The kids would all be huddled around the fireplace by now.”
“I reckon we take what’s left in the fridges and cupboards, bag it all up, and dump it in the quiet juice puddle. We ought to gather up Windshear’s snack caches, too.”
“Are we sure this is… humane?” Miss Fletcher asked. “I mean, these are growing boys and girls. And there’s also the”—for whatever reason, she whispered—“mothers to consider.”
“Again, little kids and teenagers. I doubt they’ve got the willpower of holy-men and suffragettes, you get me?” Tiresias countered.
“I guess so…”
Mary sighed. “I still think we should just talk to them.”
Tiresias took her hand. “I do too, Mrs G. This will just make it happen faster.”
“He has a point,” said Lawrence. “Maybe it’s natural that the children are straining our authority. I certainly did as a boy.”
“Isn’t that more of a teen thing?” asked Cormey.
Lawrence shrugged. “Posthuman abilities magnify many things, adolescent rebellion included, perhaps. Besides which, this was started by Metonymy and Artume. Teenagers.”
Cormey was drumming the tabletop. “One question: how do we feed ourselves?”
“I would hope adults in their prime could outlast children, Bryant.” Tiresias gulped the rest of his wine. “Besides, booze has plenty of calories”.
As the teachers dispersed into the hallway, Lawrence caught up with his former student. “What are the odds of this working out?” he muttered. “Can you tell me that?
“Hmm, seventy, eighty percent? I don’t know, I’m eyeballing it.”
Alberto smiled to himself.
Odds of the Fearsome Three coming to the Avon Valley, dead cert.
Bella “Windshear” Wilson flung the cupboards open, glaring angrily at the dust and emptiness she found within. “There was a packet of tim-tams here!”
Louise “Britomart” Michelson meanwhile was busy interrogating one of the kitchen’s red, frighteningly angular refrigerators. “All the leftover chicken’s gone, too!” She stamped her foot, cracking the dark wood. “Has someone been having midnight feasts?”
“You mean aside from everyone?” Tom “Haunt” Long asked mildly from the island bench.
“I bet it was the ‘Queen’,” Bella muttered. “Bet she scoffed our stashes, too.”
“Don’t be crappy, Bell. Mabel beat you fair and square.”
“And you only got to be queen because Allie wandered off,” Louise pointed out.
“You guys are bad friends sometimes, you know that?”
“We know,” said Tom.
Bella folded her arms, her tongue curled at the corner of her lip. “Maybe someone’s hidden all the food. So they can boss us.” She looked at Tom. “Could ya take a you-look?”
The boy’s eyes went white as he scanned around the Big House. He saw wireframe sketches of Miss Fletcher and Mr. Cormey pashing in the spare bedroom. He wasn’t sure whose taste to question. Mrs Gillespie was writing in her room. The old woman kept copious diaries of life at the Institute. As tempted as he’d been at times, Tom had never peeked.
He tried very hard not to look at Basilisk’s room1.
Alberto was (honest to God) dancing in his room. Tom reminded himself to never forget that. Lawrence meanwhile was lounging in the library, idly flicking through an old hardback2. It was odd seeing him so unguarded.
Finally, he saw it:
“What the hell?”
The three children stood before the entrance of the ruined Quiet Room. Chunks of the marble walls were now dust and rubble, revealing sparking wires twined through shredded muscle. The whole chamber was wheezing and squeaking.
The back wall had the largest gap. A misshapen heart the size of a well-grown child pumped sweet-smelling, fluorescent blue blood onto the still warm floor. All over the sacks of food that lay there.
Louise regarded them the way most humans do open flame. “Someone gonna pick them up?”
“Tom should,” said Bella. “You’re the biggest.”
Tom shook his head vigorously. “No way, man. I bet that stuff gives you cancer or something.”
“You were the one who found them!”
“Because you asked!”
“You shouldn’t worry, children. John Smith tells me null-fluid is completely non-toxic to earthly life.”
The trio turned to see Lawrence leaning by the Quiet Room, turning the bottle around his neck over and over in his hands.
Tom pinched the bridge of his nose. “Laurie, what are ya doing, mate?”
Lawrence straightened himself. “With the growing food shortage, and our present lack of transportation, I and the rest of the staff decided to store all the supplies somewhere safe.”
“…Covered in quiet juice,” said Louise.
Lawrence smiled benignly. “You can’t deny there are some children who’d try to take advantage of the situation.”
Bella scowled. “You guys stole our snacks!”
“I think you’ll find that those were all paid for by me, Windshear. I figured with your newfound independence, you children would rather feed yourselves.”
The little girl growled. A cold wind began to pick up in the hallway.
With a flick of his wrist, Lawrence splashed his quiet juice on Bella.
The atmosphere coughed. The wind died. Its mistress wailed.
“Get it off, get it off meeee!”
Louise and Tom fell upon their little friend, trying to comfort her without hesitation, despite the poison she was soaked in.
“It’s alright, baby,” Louise cooed. “It washes off I promise.”
Tom glared at Lawrence. “You’re a real dickhead, Bertie.”
Tom shouted, “Blokes who make kids screw don’t get to tell me off for ‘language’!”
Lawrence was walking away by then. He’d always hated the idea of stripping the children of their powers, even on a temporary, punitive basis. And yet, part of him felt good.
The famine that fell over the Institute wasn’t a complete one. The adults may have successfully emptied the larders and Windshear’s caches, but they couldn’t touch the snacks and fizzy drinks squirreled away in Sheilah Brown’s darkness. And with Bran around, those stocks could be endlessly replenished.
Problem was, even small children can only stand so much chocolate.
As the day’s last light withered, a bright orange ribbon stretched across grey-blue, most of the children gathered around a new fire.
“Anyone want another Kit-Kat?” asked Sheilah.
Billy growled from where he was splayed on the grass, chocolate residue clinging to the fur around his lips. “No more…”
“I’m sick of lollies,” Arnold said, clutching a Barthe provided ice-pack to his head. He was also a bit sick of funny juice. “Especially the same lollies.”
The was one issue with the Sheila-Bran recycling scheme. Whenever Bran recreated a piece of candy, it was precisely identical. The exact same honeycomb, the exact same lumps and imperfections in the chocolate coating, everything. The sort of things you’d start notice if you ate it dozens of times. Which many of the children had.
Sheilah huffed. “It wouldn’t be so bad if you guys would stop finishing them.”
“Fucking Lawrence,” said Lana.
I don’t know, said Mavis. Just gives us more ammunition for when the inspector comes. Laurie’s not just a pervert, he’s a pervert who starves kids.
“Easier for you to say,” Lana replied. “You’re not eating for two anymore.” She realized what she had just said. Remembered Chant, Chorus, and that missing, nameless daughter. “I didn’t mean… sorry.”
I get ya.
“Maybe we could eat Bessie,” Rob Carroll (formerly Gwydion) said, trying to smile.
Everyone looked at the young teen.
“We’re not eating Bessie,” Linus said from the log he was sitting on.
“I was joking!” Rob cried. “Okay, what about the veggie garden?”
“No,” said David, very firmly. “It’s all we have left of Żywie.”
Rob rolled his eyes. David hardly seemed affected by the hunger or the monotonous diet. He wasn’t even sure if the Barthes needed to eat.
“Also,” said Mabel, “would we even be able to beat the pumpkins?”
“Whatever,” said Rob. “We still need some better nosh. I feel like my teeth are gonna rot in my head.”
“It’ll be alright,” David said. “The inspector will be here in five days. And mum’s in the river right now getting us fish.”
“But I don’t like fish,” Dawn Brown whined.
Her older sister sighed. “I’m sorry sweetie, but if you want something different, that’s what we have.”
“Maybe we could go grocery shopping,” Bran joked.
Nobody spoke. The only noise was the fire’s popping, crackling commentary.
“…Wait, could we?”
Murmurs rippled through the children. Linus was nodding. “I can’t see an issue. We’ve all been into town before, we’re sanctioned. Bit of a walk, but you know, supers.”
“I could make us a ride!” offered Mabel. Her voice was rattling with excitement.
“What would we pay with?” asked Arnold.
“Pay?” Troy Willes said. He was in his mechanical form. It felt hunger less. “Why should we pay them?” He got his feet, his eyes glowing bright. “People like them are the reason we’re stuck here! They pretty much gave us to Mad Laurie. We should just take the food.”
David folded his arms, glaring at Troy with sea-fog eyes. “I don’t think that means we should turn into super-Vikings. Especially with the inspector coming”
Troy remembered the calcio fiorentino game in the rain. He reverted to humanity, glancing down at his feet. “I guess.”
“Lawrence and the teachers all have cash stashed around the place,” said Tom. “We could take that.”
“No,” Sadie said.
Mavis looked at the flyer. Why not? They have it coming.
“It’s not that,” Sadie answered. “It’s just… this whole food business. It’s Laurie trying to show us we need him. That we can’t cope without him. Without his money.”
“Fair enough,” said Lana. “We still need something to pay with if we aren’t just knocking the town over.”
Allison looked up from the dandelion she had been toying with. “Ooh!”
She stretched the patch of grass she was sitting in till it touched the barn, before stepping through. Searching, she pulled a velvet pouch out from a pile of a hay.
With a crack, she returned to the gathering. “Linus, Linus, look at this!”
She opened the bag under the older boy’s nose. It was filled with pound notes and coins, all transmuted into solid gold.
Linus whispered, “Did Chen give you this?”
Allison flinched. She almost expected Lawrence to appear and smack her out again. “Uh huh.”
“Well, it’s definitely a start.”
Allison tilted her head. “What do you mean ‘a start’?” She threw her arms wide, like she was trying to draw in the whole school. “There’s gold everywhere.”
Linus plucked the girl up, hugging her and laughing. “God, Allie, you’re brilliant sometimes.” He looked around at all the gathered children. “Get some sleep everyone! We’re going mining tomorrow!”
Gold glinted in the sun. Four-armed, olive-skinned tharks stacked it in piles like Mayan pyramids. Children ran back and forth with their shirts full of bright metal. Occasionally, huge nodules of gold would explode from the earth like boulders from an erupting volcano, or emerge transparent like ghostly icebergs from the sea. Strains of “The Old Palmer Song3” in Linus’ perfect voice echoed across the landscape
All this, Lawrence watched from the end of his brass telescope, peering out from his bedroom window. “What on Earth are they up to?”
“It’s an offering,” Cormey said. “They’re going to give this gold to AU when he comes back.”
Mary scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Bryant. Chen doesn’t need small children to dig up gold for him.”
“Well, what are they doing then?”
Mary shook her head. She felt like part of a pack of school kids spying on another gang’s tree-fort. “I don’t know. Killing time, maybe? Children do strange things when they’re bored; these children especially.”
“Pass me the telescope?” Therese asked.
Lawrence did. The young science teacher scanned the landscape.
Stratogale, Britomart, and Talos sat together pulling apart lumps of gold like it was taffy. Once it was in enough pieces, they chucked it into Growltiger’s mirrored mist, which rained fine gold dust down into a bucket.
On the other side of the field, Myriad gnawed at a caramello bar while white bells of liquid gold hung in the air. Blazing salamanders crouched below them, stoking the gold with their hot, shimmering breath. Miss Fletcher could no more look directly at the scene than she could the naked sun.
As she lowered the telescope, she saw the bells move over to a set of large ceramic trays resting on the ground, pouring their contents—their entire substance, it seemed—into slots cut into the substance.
Therese grinned. “They’re refining the gold! Processing it with their powers!”
“It is certainly a triumph of posthuman ability,” admitted Lawrence. “Still, I would be more comfortable knowing what the point of all this is.”
“Well, it’s still impressive.” She handed the telescope to Cormey. “Take a look, Bryant.”
By the time the civics teacher had the telescope to his eye, Maelstrom was standing by the trays, a personal storm cloud lurking above them both.
“I wouldn’t be standing so close to molten metal without my trousers on,” Cormey muttered.
As he watched, the water-sprite’s eyes went white, and the cloud became a wave, before billowing back into the air as steam. Cormey couldn’t hear the hiss at that distance, but imagination more than made up for it.
“My turn,” said Mary.
Maelstrom and Myriad were admiring their latest batch of gold bars when Elsewhere stalked up to them. He said… something to the other two, pointing wildly at a pile of raw gold Talos was hefting—before a sheet of green lightning snatched most of it from his arms.
A dozen perfect bars and ingots fell at Maelstrom and Myriad’s feet, Elsewhere just shaking his head.
Mary chuckled. “Too clever by half sometimes.”
Lawrence slipped out of the room. He couldn’t stand it, his colleagues treating all this like a sideshow. And yet, and yet… Pride was biting as his fears, too. His children were recreating a whole industry with just their imagination and force of will.
But imagination needed to be tempered.
He found Tiresias in his room. “What are they doing out there?”
The psychic looked up from one of Reverb’s old Woman’s Weeklys. “What? Oh, the gold thing? Yeah, they’re going shopping.”
Tiresias spoke very slowly, like he was explaining things to a very slow child. “The kids are going to take the gold and go food shopping in Northam. Also, I’m going with them.”
Lawrence sputtered. “You—I—that defeats the whole point of this!”
Alberto raised an eyebrow. “Does it? I figured you wouldn’t want them leaving the Institute without someone you trust—or whatever it is we have—keeping an eye on them?”
“Especially someone who might let it slip that the kids are trying to pay with cursed AU gold…”
“Country rubes, Bertie. The way I see it, this little excursion is a great chance to remind the kids how hateful and shitty normal folks are.”
Lawrence nodded. “Ah, I see your point.”
Tiresias went on. “After that, there’s a decent chance they’ll decide a bucolic paradise and sex with eugenically perfected superwomen isn’t such a bad deal.”
Lawrence winced. He hated the way the esper talked. He made everything sound so base.
“Might be willing to play nice when the inspector comes. Have Mabel whip up some decoys for Stratie and Ex, and you won’t see the inside of your very own Quiet Room.”
Lawrence sighed. “Alright, Tiresias, I’ll allow this.”
“—But for the love of God, be careful out there.”
“My hand to God.”
Alberto went back to his magazine as soon as the door shut behind Lawrence.
Belinda Waites looked at Eddie Taylor over their shared milkshake, their pink and green crazy straws pointed at them like microphones. “My, Mr. Taylor, you’re dressed to the nines. What’s the occasion?”
He really was. The electrician’s apprentice practically slept and showered in his work overalls, but today he was wearing the indigo suit he saved for christenings and Anzac Day. He even had pomade in his hair. Had he grown it out especially? Just for lunch at the Camel Stop Diner?
Eddie tugged at his lapels. “Can’t a bloke dress flash for a change?”
Belinda smiled slyly. “Not this bloke.”
“Slander! Slander I say! You’re not exactly looking casual over there, either.”
Belinda looked down at her orange sundress. She hoped her rouge wasn’t too obvious. “I always dress this way.” Her hand found his, her thumb massaging his wrist. “Come on, you’re planning something. Tell me.”
Eddie grinned. “Maybe I am.”
The diner door jangled open, Bazza striding through in all his tye-dye glory. He spotted his friend. “Ed! Belinda!” He marched over to their table and plonked himself down in a spare chair. “Either of your pets been acting odd today?”
Eddie shook his head. “What are you on about, Bazza?”
“Actually,” said Belinda, “my Guinea-pig was launching himself at the side of his cage this morning. We had to sticky-tape a little pillow to the bars.”
Bazza nodded. “My cat’s been yowling and scratching at everything all day. I thought it might just be heat, but is that the right time of year for that? Is there a time of year for that?”
Eddie groaned. “I swear to God, Bazz, one day I’m hanging you on my wall.”
Belinda laughed. “Aww, don’t be like that, we love Bazza.” She stood up. “Back in a sec, have to powder my nose. She leaned down and kissed Eddie on the cheek. “You keep thinking about whatever you’re planning.”
As soon as Belinda was out of earshot, Bazza asked eagerly, “You gonna pop the question?”
“I was until you started yammering on about your horny cat.”
“What’s that about Bazz’s cat?” Aleister Johnson asked as he sat down between his mates.
Eddie’s smile returned. “Hey Al. You on break?”
Al removed his white cap. “Am now.”
“Eddie’s about to propose.”
Aleister looked back and forth between the two. “Well, I hope you’re happy together.”
Eddie punched him in the arm, laughing. “Piss off!”
“Wait, seriously? You got the ring?”
“Yep! I’ll pay you back, man, swear to God.”
Aleister smiled. “We’re mates, if ya pay me back ya pay me back.” He also tried not to think about who that money had come from…
People in the diner were getting up from their seats, streaming out the door or pressing against the windows.
“What’s going on out there?” Al asked, even as his friends were heading outside.
There was an eight-wheeler truck parked in the middle of the road. In front of its backdoor stood two figures. One was a tall, gaunt, fair-haired man in a leopard-print longcoat and a stained purple undershirt. A similarly patterned domino mask hid his true identity from both total strangers4 and the very stupid. The other was what looked like a seven foot tall, concrete statue of a woman dressed in a torn bathing costume, face carved with a solemn, almost sad expression and garishly painted like a zebra-crossing. Her hair was a mane of crystals, like the inside of a geode.
They weren’t alone. A widely built man with a biker’s paunch wrapped in leather and blue-jeans hovered over them, bobbing in the air like a balloon straining to escape a child’s hand, a thick beard billowing forth from a silver luchador mask.
Belinda emerged to join the lads. “Eddie, why’d you—oh.”
An army of cats and dogs surrounding the truck like a sea of fur. Most looked like wild, feral things, but among them…
“There’s the Colonel!” Eddie shouted, pointing to a black scotch terrier near the front of the animals. “They got my bloody dog!”
Bazza however was already walking over to the strange trio, a smile splashed across his face. “Woah, man, are you lot proper superheroes? Haven’t seen any of you since the Comet.” He offered the man in the longcoat a hand. “I’m Bazza. Bazza Finch”
The concrete woman sighed. It sounded like wind passing through a cave.
“Menagerie,” the man said, shaking. “Pleased to meet ya, Bazza.”
Menagerie it seemed was missing a few teeth. The perils of the superheroic life, Bazza supposed. He swore he had heard the name before somewhere…“So, any supervillains in the area?”
“You could say that.” He nodded up at the man in the luchador mask. “Fo-Fum?”
What felt like gigantic, sweaty fingers lifted Bazza into the air, knocking the breath out of his lungs. “Heavy, man,” he wheezed.
Menagerie cleared his throat, “People of Northam, your money or your life!”
1. They still needed to fix the hole in the floor. ↩
2. Specifically, Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon. ↩
3. Traditional Australian song originating during the gold rush. ↩
4. Which, to be fair, is most people. ↩