“Shit, shit, shit…”
Menagerie was pacing in front of the truck like he was trying to cut a trench in the road.
Fo-Fum was shouting at him, “What do you mean Hettie’s gone?”
“I mean she’s gone. I can’t find her anywhere! And my birds… I think they got her!”
Menagerie’s forces howled and shrieked, trying to cow the increasingly restless naturals:
“Oi, trouble in paradise?” a man in the crowd jeered.
“Are the freak-finders on their way?”
“I hear they cut your—”
The last heckler was set upon by a flurry of kookaburras.
“Shut up!” Fo-Fum thundered. “We’re still in charge here!”
Music drifted down the mainstreet. Gentle singing, weaved with guitar notes sweeter than angel harps. Soft, and yet louder than the crowd and the animals. Not that it needed to be. All went silent as it washed over them
The music drew closer. Townsfolk parted like the Red Sea to reveal a golden haired young man, striding forward with a guitar in hand, his eyes closed in the rapture of song. A little boy with a tail and tiger-fur skipped along beside him, singing along:
“In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…”
Dogs and cats started swaying on their feet, their eyes drooping shut. Birds buried their heads in their own feathers, falling asleep where they perched.
Sleep pressed against Menagerie, too, pouring into the supervillain through his animals. He let go of all their reins, lest it overtake him completely.
For the first time since he could remember, Peter Frum was a man alone. In a leopard-print coat, with a domino mask, standing next to a half finished Mexican wrestler.
It got worse. Fo-Fum pointed up. “Look, up in the sky!”
There were birds. Hundreds of them. They ribboned through the air, twisting and curving like one shattered organism. A young woman floated ahead of the flock like their grand-marshal, three small children and a man riding astride a broomstick next to her.
Up in the sky, Mabel Henderson let out a long, witchly cackle.
She felt Arnold’s arms tighten around her waist. “Don’t move so much!”
Mabel rolled her eyes. “Please. You ever see witches fall off these in pictures?”
“Ready to fight?” Alberto called out to Sadie from the middle of the stick.
She shouted back, “Not until the bridge!”
On the ground, Linus was still singing:
“Near the village, the peaceful village, the lion sleeps tonight…”
The crowd started dispersing. Families wandered off or strolled into stores and restaurants like it was just another Saturday.
Fo-Fum didn’t know what was going on. A girl who could’ve been the Flying Man’s daughter was floating inside a storm of stolen birds, backed up by what looked like a tiny witch, all while a crazy kid with a guitar sung like God himself, and none of the townspeople seemed perturbed in the slightest.
Worst of all, most of them hadn’t paid up yet.
“Hey!” Fo-Fum shouted. “Get back here!
The Northamites ignored him. The young man flashed the supervillain the kind of smile he gave Lawrence when he said his father was just a posthuman.
“Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling, the lion sleeps tonight…”
Fo-Fum was about to go over and throttle the boy, but Menagerie held him back.
“Fuck it,” he said. “I’m cutting our losses.”
“But they got Hettie!”
“I know but—arggggh!”
The birds were upon them. Galahs, magpies, and even a few monstrous black swans pecked and clawed at the two villains, ignoring Linus, Billy, and the few remaining stragglers like an unfair Hitchcock film1.
Menagerie pulled his coat over his head, shouting, “I gotta get the truck started. Cover me!”
Fo-Fum was desperately trying to bat away birds. Some got flung backwards like they had flown into gale force winds. “Why do I got to?”
Menagerie glared out from his leopard-print cave. “Because someone has to lift the fucking truck over the barrier.” He started running for the truck cabin.
Alberto watched him from above. From that height, he looked like an ant glowing violet with fear. The psychic tapped Arnold on the shoulder.
“Hey, kid, can ya zap me into the driver’s seat?”
“Easy peasy. Sure you’ll be alright?”
Alberto grinned. “Trust me, it’ll be great.”
Fo-Fum clambered into the truck bed. Behind him, birds flattened against thin air as if they had hit a glass window.
Sadie flinched at her new friends’ pain. “Fuckin’ cunts.”
She dived towards the truck to avenge them, but was slammed against the side of an antiques store. The girl grunted, trying to push off from the redbrick, but she was pinned by something moist and salty.
Sadie gagged and quickly gave up trying to force her way through, instead shooting up out from under whatever was holding her.
Menagerie fought his way through the blizzard of beaks and talons, eventually closing his scratched, bleeding hands around the driver-door handle.
It flung outward, sending him to the ground.
Alberto smirked from behind the wheel. “Where to, buddy?”
Menagerie screamed, grabbing the psychic by the legs and pulling him out of the cabin, punching him hard in the nose as soon as they were level.
The man looked the villain right in the eye, a trickle of blood flowing from his nose onto smiling lips. “Thank you very much, Frum.”
Sadie was not having a good time. Something she couldn’t see kept slamming or crushing or flicking her and her birds whenever they got too close to the truck. It almost hurt, too.
What the hell is this bloke’s power? she asked herself as she zigged and zagged wildly through the air, trying to avoid whatever it was she was fighting.
Sadie tried to remember all of Françoise’s power development classes. It didn’t feel like wind control—
One of her cockatoos got sideswiped. She felt its wings break.
—And it didn’t feel like she or the birds were being interfered with themselves. Forcefields? Or had they actually found one of Lawrence’s beloved general telekinetics? But what about that liquid—
Sadie was shoved face first into the road. She felt the tarmac or whatever it was crack against her cheek. And there was that moisture again…
A giant’s voice growled. “Now why don’t you stay there, you little slut? Spare your sprog the stress?”
She didn’t struggle. Instead, she took in the sensation. Her body felt… squished. Like there were two solid bars to either side of her, layered in some thick, heavy kind of padding. Something ground against her shoulder; solid, yet indented. Was that a knuckle?
With what little mobility she had, she looked around the street. It was dotted with shallow oblong craters, longer than they were wide, and one always a yard or two ahead of another.
What had the lads called this freak?
All her birds received the same order: flock. The first dozen or so settled over Sadie, their feet finding purchase on the empty space above her.
In the truck bed, Fo-Fum felt the prick of talons on his right hand. “Oh, shit.”
More and more birds joined in. Soon, in the middle of the street, there crouched a giant made of wings.
The giant reflexively raised his closed fist—the size of a volkswagen—and Sadie broke free, beelining for his featureless, feathered face.
The birds exploded out of the way of their mistresses’ mighty blows. Phantom flesh and cartilage broke against her fists. Cries of pain echoed like the groans of icebergs.
“I’m not the one who should be stressed, cocksucker.”
Close by a frantic Menagerie had no idea of what was happening. He was fighting the skinny bloke with the hip flask—trying to, anyway—but his moves weren’t his own. He dodged the other man’s blows, but not fast enough to actually avoid them. When he was allowed to get a hit in, something made him pull his punches.
Alberto grabbed Menagerie around the waist, throwing him to the ground.
Come on, an amused little voice in his head he didn’t recognize said. Don’t you want to put on a good show?
Menagerie just wanted to to scream. Instead, he spat, “Fuck you, arsehole!”
Alberto pinned him under his knees, taking his hip flask from his belt and twisting the lid off with his thumb. “Alright, enough of this.” He forced the flask between Menagerie’s lips. “Drink up!”
Peter Frum’s mouth filled with a chalk, sickly-sweet liquid. Blue dribbled out the corner of his mouth. Suddenly, he didn’t just feel alone. He felt numb.
Sadie was still whaling on the giant, even as he tried to shake off the birds. Her fists kept coming away wet with invisible blood, but the giant wouldn’t let up.
“Should’ve quit while you were ahead.”
She flew backwards, flipping around so her feet faced forwards, and shot like a javelin at the giant’s knee.
With a sound like a falling redwood, the giant’s leg was wrenched in the wrong direction. Sadie felt what might have been bone scrape against her skin.
The giant screamed, “I surrender, for fuck sakes I surrender!”
He disappeared, his avian skin squawking at being so robbed of their roost.
Linus stopped singing, his fingers going still.
Billy looked out from behind the older boy’s legs. He’d taken refuge there about when Sadie had unleashed her birds of war. “Is it over?”
“Yeah, Billy,” Sadie said as she landed. “It’s over.”
Alberto dragged over Menagerie. “Definitely is for Frum here.”
“Ugh,” the dazed supervillain muttered weakly, “what did ya do to me?”
“Quit moaning, you’ll piss it out eventually.”
People were slowly emerging from the shops and the alleys separating them—cautiously, the calm of Linus’ song quickly dissipating.
A thickly mustachioed police constable in an awfully militaristic navy blue uniform marched up to the new humans. He looked like Lord Kitchener. Or Big Brother.
He cleared his throat. “Good afternoon, I’m Constable Preston. You folks are?”
They gave their names in turn, Alberto explaining they came from the Institute, as though there was a chance they came from the other superhuman care home in the valley.
More folks were spilling out onto the road.
“Ah, Old Laurie’s place,” said the policeman. “I haven’t heard from you in years. Hope that means everything is going smoothly.”
Sadie clawed at her shorts. Her fingers were throbbing.
Preston glanced at Menagerie. “I’m guessing you’re not with him?”
“Oh, of course,” said Sadie. “We bond as a team by beating each other to a pulp.”
To her surprise, the constable chuckled. “Silly questions get silly answers.”
Alberto handed Preston his hip flask. “Give him a sip of this every few hours till he’s out of your hair,” he said, shaking his captive lightly.
The esper glanced at the Fearsome Three’s truck. Fo-Fum had dragged his beaten form into the light, his eyes almost completely hidden by livid, swollen bruises.
“I don’t think you need to worry too much about that one, or their lady-friend.”
Constable Preston humphed. “Well, I’m glad you were here to put a stop to them.”
Billy smiled his fanged grin. “Glad we could help!”
Someone in the reconvened crowd started to clap. So did his neighbour. Applause and cheering spread through the people as an ecstatic virus. The noise of it was deafening. Men and women clapped the new humans on the backs. Mabel and Arnold descended on their broomstick, waving at the naturals below them to even more cheering.
Alberto Moretti closed his eyes, enjoying the lightshow of Northam’s adoration. For the first time he could remember, he and his companions were being loved for exactly what they were.
Laurie was going to be so pissed.
Herbert Lawrence sat alone in his shadowed bedroom, his old cushioned reading chair parked in front of the great circular window that opened out onto the Institute grounds. When he, Mary, and the children had first arrived on the property, he had chosen the room especially for that window, so he could look out over the haven he had built for what mankind was becoming.
Now, as the sun slowly set, he brooded and watched his rebellious students. A dethroned king, forgotten by his subjects.
Most of them were still camped out by the river like the Achaeans at Troy’s walls. Or maybe the Trojans themselves, about to fall on Greek swords without even the excuse of a wooden horse.
Or had that been Panoply?
He heard Mary’s voice from the door. Probably here to call him down to whatever meagre supper she had prepared. Normally, he admired that can-do spirit of hers, that spirit that had preserved her through the destruction of her city and family. That evening, he just wanted to be left alone.
“They haven’t come home.”
Mary Gillespie walked over to his side, putting a hand on her colleague’s shoulder. “Oh, I wouldn’t be too worried.”
“The shops would have closed hours ago.”
“Young people dawdle, we both know that…”
The old woman trailed off. She could see headlights worming through the trees. At least five sets of them. What looked like the shadows of trucks and automobiles.
Lawrence stood up from his chair treading even closer to the window. “What on Earth?”
Had Timothy Valour’s men arrived to take his children away early? Or had the torch and pitchfork-toting mob he had always feared finally come?
The girl—Sadie they both knew—dipped down to unlatch the gate, letting the visitors drive through. As they parked, Lawrence managed to spot a police car among them.
He swallowed. What had Stratogale told the Northamites?
People started climbing out of their cars—men, women, and children—following Sadie down to the river.
Soon, her arch, amused voice was heard all throughout the Institute:
Good teachers of the New Human Institute, our food problem is solved! In exchange for cleaning up a pesky supervillain infestation, the good folk of Northam have agreed to supply us with free groceries for the next twelve months. In celebration, we’re having a barbecue. Feel free to join us, Laurie.
Lawrence shook his head in confusion. “What are these children playing at?”
No answer. Mary was already out the door. By the second flight of stairs, she was running.
She passed Therese Fletcher on the first floor landing.
“Mrs Gillespie, what’s—”
Mary almost shoved past the young teacher. She shot through the front door, hurrying down to the riverside.
Artume was already loading perishables into her dark dimension. Linus was setting up the girl, know-it-all men with beers in their hands bellowing conflicting advice and laughing.
She stopped when she saw Melusine with a broad-shouldered lad in a torn up suit. The Taylors’ eldest.
She remembered the last time she saw the boy. “Oh, God.”
But Eddie Taylor was shaking the nereid’s hand. “I’m sorry I called your son a boong. And for trying to peek at you.”
“You didn’t deserve what I did to you.”
Eddie looked her steadily in the eye. “No. I didn’t. I’m still sorry.”
Mrs Gillespie spotted a group of strange children splashing in the shallows, Maelstrom holding court like the prince of the sea, creating waterspouts and geysers to the laughter of the baselines.
Human children, playing with her students without fear.
David spotted the old woman, waving exuberantly and grinning. “Hi Mrs Gillespie!” He gestured around at the other children. “They’re from town!”
Mary felt tears run down her face.
For the first and last time in the Avon Valley, men and supermen broke bread. And it was good.
1. Some people have suggested that The Birds was a metaphor for baseline extinction anxiety. None of them were Hitchcock. ↩
2. It was in fact she who lifted them over the stretches of road destroyed by Hettie Shaw. ↩
3. Enid Blyton’s wishing chair, specifically. Billy had begged. ↩