After David had apologised to all womankind, and Brian repaired the bonfire with his flameproof hands, the evening went on. Children roasted marshmallows and tossed eminently burnable things into the fire. Fran and Alberto—after far too much rosé—danced to Linus’ rendition of “Great Balls of Fire.”
At the chorus’ crescendo, the pair flung apart, their faces tilted upwards towards the emerging stars. Alberto lost his grip on his partner’s hand, their momentum sending him stumbling into a row of kids, toppling them over like bowling pins. The hot night-air was spiced with laughter and curses.
“We should do Tiresias’ Midnight Theatre!” Ēōs eagerly suggested as she tried to hoist the psychic’s head off of her.
“Sure, why not?” replied Alberto from the girl’s lap.
“What’s ‘Tiresias’ Midnight Theatre’?” Allison tried to ask through a gag of melted confectionary.
Fran blinked. “Wow, it has been a while.”
“So, you kids know I can do psycho… psychomet…” Alberto tried stealing the word back from the booze. “…You know when I touch things and they tell me stuff?”
“I thought you just made it up,” said Arnold.
The esper held up a finger. “Only sometimes! And you know I can make people see what I want them to, right?”
“…I guess—ahhh!” Arnold screamed as his clothes were replaced by cobras.
Alberto continued as the boy ran off into the night, firing off lightning bolts at the serpents in his mind. “So yeah, think of me as your living movie-projector of the evening. You kids tell your ghost stories, and I provide the visuals. Like those piano-players that played at silent movies, but in reverse.”
Arnold stomped back into the bonfire’s shadow, pulling his shirt back over his head. “That was stupid, Bertie.”
“Sure, but I can do it again if you keep calling me that. So, who wants to go first?”
Louise raised her hand. “I do.”
Nobody contested her. Alberto sat down beside the girl, taking her hand. “So, what have you got for us tonight?”
Louise took a deep breath. “I’m going to tell you how I came here. The whole story.”
David nodded approvingly. The other children exchanged looks ranging from intriguement to eye-rolling disbelief.
“Sounds a bit heavy, but hey, your story.”
Alberto looked at the plume of grey smoke spewing from the bonfire. His eyes shone like car-headlights, beams of light striking the cloud. Images swirled to the surface.
Gnarled, ghostly trees with indigo leaves, almost lost among plains of tall black grass swaying in the wind. There wasn’t much of a sky overhead. Half of the horizon was taken up by an enormous, swollen red sun, glowing sullenly like the last ember in the hearth. It hung so low, it looked like someone standing in the dark field could reach up and spin the star like a top.
Sharing the sky was a void of stars. The only thing that distinguished it from a hole in space were bright, glowing cuts and scratches: rivers of molten rock.
The children oohed and ahhed. Whatever they thought about Louise’s spacy origins, they liked a good show. The girl herself was transfixed. It was like her dreams had slipped out of her head.
“Menvra and it’s dark twin: Eita,” Alberto said, almost surprised by his own words. “A double-planet—two worlds tied together by orbit and atmosphere. Probably the best and only argument for creationism in the galaxy.1”
Everyone looked at Jeremy. The sandy-haired little boy wilted under the sudden attention, his pearly liquid force field reflexively closing over him.
“I mean,” he said, voice muffled by the shiny dome, “Louise, how old were you when you ‘came to Earth’?”
“I don’t know,” she muttered. “Two I guess, maybe three?”
“Then how can you remember all that?
“I don’t.” She glared at Alberto. “You aren’t making stuff up, are you?”
“I’m not reading your mind, kid. I’m reading your past. Trust me, it’s a lot easier than predicting the future. There’s only one of the former, for one thing.” He smiled to himself. “The past is the knife that cuts us off from infinity, Laurie once said.”
The visions in the smoke shifted. Buildings like stalks of wheat stood tall in the shadow of the giants in the sky, perforated by hundreds of open windows. Tiny, glowing men and women leapt in and out of them like they were just a step from the ground below.
“You were right, Louise,” Alberto said. “You’re not a super, or at least you weren’t, once.”
Louise almost flinched away from the psychic. Was this just his excuse to air her private thoughts in front of all her friends?”
“Yeah, the kinetic energy manipulators killed off the baselines and the other supers ages back. Fun fact, there was no Menvran words for ‘penthouse’.”
Oh. So that was the kind of place she came from.
Alberto rolled his eyes. “Don’t sook, girl. It happens on most planets. Hell, happens here all the time. Isn’t that right, Tom?”
A rude gesture was the only reply.
“Still, ancient history, not what we’re here for, right?”
The world in the smoke shook. The buildings were falling, their stems snapping as the screams of thousands mingled with the mocking hiss of the bonfire.
Louise tried not to look. “Can we skip this? I remember—I remember this. People, my family I guess, talking about it. I can’t remember the words, but there was something wrong with the sky…”
“Menvra and Eita’s orbit started breaking down,” Alberto said. “The sisters were quarreling, I think was how the doomsday prophets put it.”
Riots in the streets. Mass superhuman violence. Scientists and statesmen and kings hanging from what might have been streetlights, intercut with towns being swallowed by the earth and mountainous black waves washing away whole cities.
Some of the children were tearing up, not the least Louise.
Françoise looked hard at her friend. “Alberto, this is getting cruel.”
Alberto knew from experience to listen when Fran got that look. He glanced down at Louise, still holding her hand. “You wanna stop?”
Her grip tightened. “Just get to the point.”
The carnage fast-forwarded. Now they were looking into a hallway. It had no windows or obvious lights, but it was illuminated nonetheless. The walls were covered with jeweled palm leaves, the floor a glass pane over a flowing stream, riddled with cracks.
People making their way downstream, their faces grave and afraid. A man and a woman in tunics weaved from twitching yellow moths, trailed by a child with shoulder length, baby-blue hair. The woman was carrying a toddler.
“Is that you?” David whispered to Louise.
A hard cut to a paddock. A green, earthly paddock, the kind you saw off the side of any country road, bathed in mist and pale dawn light. Three figures appeared: shimmering, phantasmic things.
“Your parents were brilliant, you know,” said Alberto. “Or they worked with a lot of brilliant people, I’m not sure. Brave, too. Everyone told them the teleporter wasn’t reliable over such distances.”
A tiny girl cleaved from one of the shades, falling backward onto the grass. The ghosts started to flicker.
“It’s a shame they were right…”
The flickering grew faster. The ghost that shed the child reached out for her. She tried reaching back, but her hands found only air.
The ghosts vanished. Soon, the toddler was weeping desperate, confused tears; alone under a strange, yellow sun.
Five years later, the girl wept again.
“I think that’s enough for tonight,” Alberto said as he let go of Louise’s hand. He patted her on the back. “Look on the bright side, kiddo, your folks would be happy with how far you’ve gotten. Not so sure about where you’ve gotten, but at least you’re alive. Doing better lately, too.”
Louise nodded weakly.
For Billy, childish curiosity won out over tact. “So, did Lawrence and the other grownups find you there?”
“No,” she answered softly. “The Institute was way later.”
“So what happened before that? Where’d you go? You didn’t live in the woods like Mowgli, did you?”
“A car came past. The couple in it saw me, took me home, and just… sorta kept me.”
Billy’s eyes lit up. “Like Ma and Pa Kent?”
Louise didn’t look at him. “…No. Not like them.”
Tom coughed into his fist, drawing the Institute’s eyes.
Fran asked, “Would you like a go, Tom?” She looked at Alberto. “If Al is still up for it, I mean.”
“Al” shrugged. Better than “Bertie”, at least. Definitely better than “Uncle Albert”.
Tom nodded. “I would, ma’m. If Louise doesn’t mind, I’d like to tell everyone what happened after.”
In the smoke, a middle aged fella with the kind of plump build that could only be summed up as “jolly” read his morning paper at a scratched kitchen table. His grey moustache twitched against dark lips, while the sun pouring through the window behind him glinted off his bald head. A cohort of brown skinned children ringed the rest of the table, the eldest maybe fourteen, the youngest in a highchair.
One of them was clearly Tom.
“I don’t think my parents were that different from any of yours. Dad went to work, came home, did bugger all but watch tellie till bedtime, and played cricket on sundays. Mum…”
A woman bustled into view, carrying a bowl of scrambled eggs. Maybe ten years younger than the man, she looked rather thin—not exactly pretty, but pleasant. Her hair was a bush of blonde curls, and she had a well-worn smile.
“…Mum did mum stuff.”
Tom went silent for a moment, taking in the details of his family. The odd, discoloured band of pigmentation across the bridge of his mother’s nose, his most subtle inheritance from the woman. The way his younger brother kicked the air under the table. His dad’s complete inability to keep his opinions from reaching his face when he read the paper. As he watched the scene soundlessly play out—his mother slapping his father with a tea-towel in mock outrage at some forgotten joke—Tom wondered why folks made such a big deal about Alberto seeing future. The future would find them its own time. The past, though, that was gone forever. But Alberto could burn away the fog of time and memory…
“Ah, Tom,” said the man himself. “You stuck?”
Tom shook himself like Billy after a swim. “Nah, just remembering. Dad was a widower, you know. His first missus died having my sister Marilyn.” Despite what he just said, Tom smiled. “My big brother Ned said Dad was hopeless without a wife. Just not the sort of bloke built for being single. Thank Christ he met Mum.
“People didn’t think much of them. I mean, a whitefella gets a Noonga girl pregnant, that’s just being careless. If he marries her”—he scoffed—“what the hell is he thinking? But if a white-girl marries a blackfella… well, put it this way, I don’t remember half my grandparents.”
The smoke shifted again. A less smile-lined Mrs Long was sitting across from an old man clutching a glass of some amber liquid with very white fingers.
“When he blows all his pay on grog and the rent’s due, I’m not bailing you out.”
Tom grunted. “Figured. My folks never shot back when people gave them shit. They just went about being married like they were both Scot-Irish or something. I don’t know if that was badass or wet of them.” He sighed. “Didn’t do us any good in the end.”
Tom and his brothers and sisters, school bags slung over their shoulders, trudging down a long country road, lined by paddocks very much like the one Louise had found herself in. Some of the students leaned forward expectedly.
Behind the children, a white van rose from the slope of the road like a U-boat, soon pulling up in front of the siblings.
A policeman stepped out from the driver door, all smiles. “Are any of you children Tom and Gary Long?”
The Tom of long ago grabbed his little brother’s hand, while their older brother and sisters exchanged confused, dread-filled looks. “Yes, sir. Me and him here.”
Louise was shocked. He couldn’t remember Tom calling anyone “sir” outside a game of knights and dragons2, and even then under heavy protest.
The copper nodded, still smiling. “Right. You two boys left some workbooks back home. Your parents wanted us to give you a lift so you could pick them up.”
“…Okay,” Tom said slowly.
In the present, he smacked his own forehead. He started berating himself: “I was a fucking idiot. Even back then it sounded dodgy. But they were cops…”
“Why didn’t you run?” asked Troy, in his metallic form so he didn’t have to pretend he had something in his eye. “Didn’t you say this happened to a lot to half-caste kids? You said people hid their kids when white people rolled through.”
“That’s the thing: Mum and Dad never thought it’d happen to us. Dad had a good job, and he and Mum were properly married. Hell, aside from some lingo and thinking he could use a spear when he was drunk, Dad could’ve been the world’s tannest whitefella.” He spat. “He was an idiot, sometimes.”
Meanwhile, in the smoke, the van was driving away, leaving the remaining Longs’ tears to mix with the red dust it kicked up.
Linus frowned. “Why’d they just leave your brother and sisters there?”
“Come on, mate, you’re older than me. They left them because their mother was black. Not worth “saving”. Me and Gary, though, we had good, Anglo blood in us. We could be brought up right.” Tom pointed at the shadow of the big house. “Remind you of anyone we know?”
Flashes. Belts stretched taught. Chains around ankles. Girls whimpering in the dark…
“Me and Gary got sent different places. Maybe because his skin was lighter, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. Family wasn’t really allowed at Wandering, or anything like a past really. Not that much else was allowed, though.”
In the cloud, Tom was kicking and thrashing in the arms of a black shirted, Roman collared Christian Brother, one of his fellows stalking towards him with a cane.
“I don’t remember what I’d done to ‘earn’ it.” He glanced at Alberto. “And I’d rather not, thanks.”
Alberto quirked a shoulder.
“I felt like nothing. Wandering would’ve liked that, I think. Nothing isn’t black. Nothing can be whatever you want it to be. And the thing was, I would’ve rather been nothing. I didn’t care about ever seeing my family again, or even being happy again. All I wanted was to not hurt anymore. I was about to just go limp and take the beating when…” Tom didn’t know how else to put it. “There was a man.”
The fire roared like dragon’s breath. Impossible amounts of smoke spewed up into the air, Fran worrying for a moment that the naturals of the valley might think it was a bushfire, before remembering the nature of the spectacle. “Show off,” she muttered at Alberto.
The smoke gathered together, flattening into a rectangle the size of a movie-screen. On it, a giant cloaked in darkness and stars for eyes towered over young Tom and his captor, beneath a lost winter sky.
“I thought he was God. I’m still not sure he wasn’t. It was so cold. Like a cyclone or something had torn off the roof. That’s what I thought was going on at first, but the Christian Brothers didn’t seem to care. I was screaming and screaming about this giant fella, but it was like they couldn’t even hear me.”
The children were all looking up at the man. For many of them, it was like finding a photo of a long-dead, half forgotten parent.
Sheilah tilted her head. “You know, I never noticed how fat his nose was.”
“Nice jaw, though,” commented Françoise.
Sadie shrugged. “So so.”
Allison studied the figure. She never thought she’d get to see the man herself. It was like finally being let in on some opaque running joke. She thought living with the memory of him would’ve been easier than the things in the dark.
David was looking at him, too. Until recently, the star-giant—like many other aspects of the shared posthuman experience—had seemed foreign to the water-sprite. But now, he could swear he remembered another man…
“We stared at each other,” Tom continued. “He didn’t speak. Not much for small talk, that fella. But he was telling me things. So many things. I couldn’t take it all in. I don’t think anything that keeps its brain in its head could. What I did take from him was that walls and floors and dickhead priests aren’t much more solid than air.”
Tom slipped from the Brother’s arms like light through clear glass. Or his outline did, anyway.
His future-self looked at Allison. “You know what’s funny, Allie? This lot,” he gestured around at all the other children, “they probably think that when we go see-through, we feel like nothing. Do ya?”
Allison smiled and shook her head. “Nope.”
Tom smiled back. “Me neither.”
The star-giant pointed grandly at the back wall of the head brother’s office.
“In fact, I feel like steel.”
And with that, the wall became a door.
The smoke shifted rapidly, showing Tom trekking across dark hallways and thick brush, still colourless and insubstantial. At one point, he appeared to swim through a black ocean.
Reverb asked, Where was that?
“Oh, that. That was a few meters under Perth I think. I walked for weeks. Maybe months. I don’t have to eat or sleep or anything while I’m see-through. I could’ve kept going till the end of the world…”
The smoke settled on Tom walking through a flooded field, attracting the curious, brown gaze of wading cows.
“One day, I wondered if I could change back…”
In the smoke, the colour returned to Tom’s skin.
“…And I did. I decided to look for somewhere to hang my swag up after that.”
A farmhouse rose to the surface of the vaporous ash. Not a wannabe manor-house like the Institute, but a little plaster-walled family home floating on a lake of green grass and rows of cabbages. What it did in fact have in common with the Institute was a study looking wooden barn.
“See, thick white outlines only count as invisible in cartoons, but when you can swim beneath the ground and don’t need to use doors, it’s good enough. So, I took up in the barn and went to the house for night-time tucka.”
“What about the people who lived there?” asked Jeremy.
The smoke shattered and resolved again into a hard-jawed old lady with her hair done up in tight, grey bun standing beside a portly, jowled farmer.
“Just some old couple.”
The smoke somehow panned down, revealing a kindergartner with dark, blue-tinted hair.
That caught people’s attention.
Allison examined her peer’s younger self. She was pale, with grey patches under red eyes, and a nose that looked liked it had been rubbed raw. It reminded Allison of herself, right after McClare. She turned towards Alberto. “Why’d you make Louise look so sick?”
“Because I was always sick back then.”
“Menrva had different germs and stuff than here. I guess I couldn’t get used to it. I had to use my power all the time just to do stuff.”
“How’d you get better?”
A hook-nosed woman, clad in a cloak as orange as the flames beneath her, standing tall like a proud sorceress.
“How do ya think?” said Tom. “But we’ll get to that.”
A cascade of nested images. Tom watching Louise going about her little life through the walls of the barn and house. Building cities with blocks, eating dinner with her parents, blowing up trees with her tiny, frail fists. Normal stuff.
“I was jealous of her at first,” Tom admitted. “This little white girl with a better house than I had, all that space to play in, better toys…”
Little Louise threw a rock into the clouds.
Louise managed a smile. “Shush, your powers are great. All I can do is punch stuff super-hard.”
“Well, I’d rather punch stuff, sue me. Still, I thought you had this perfect life…”
The smoke stuttered, looping a few seconds of tree-punching, as if it were hesitating.
“…Am I allowed to talk about this, Louise? They were your family…”
Louise sat up very straight, before walking over to Alberto and taking his other hand.
“My Earth parents weren’t great.”
Shattering glass and ceramic, cracking wood. Snatches of shouting.
“Jesus Christ, Louise!”
Louise’s foster-father shoved her off a couch with a freshly broken armrest, splinters spilling from her hand.
The man picked the girl up and shook her by the shoulders. “If you can’t stop breaking the fucking furniture, you sit on the bloody floor!”
Mr. Michelson dropped his daughter. His wife watched impassively as Louise picked herself off the ground. As she started towards the stairs, the woman started to shake, frustration seemingly erupting as she slapped the girl hard across the face, leaving a glowing handmark on her cheek.
“Did that even hurt?” asked Arnold, remembering the odd smack from his mother.
“No. But I knew it was supposed to. The smacks gave me more KE, too, and that just made it worse…” She sighed. “Mum and Dad never had kids of their own. They weren’t mean all the time. Sometimes they called me their blessing. But I think they never really wanted kids that much? They just kinda thought they ought to have one.”
The smoke’s Louise sneezed, blowing out a table’s legs from under it.
“And I wasn’t an easy kid.”
“So, yeah,” said Tom. “I stopped being jealous of Louise pretty quick.”
Louise, waking up to find a toy ute at the foot of her bed.
“Tom here started bringing me presents.” She grinned. “Turns out he’s a massive softie.”
“Aww, come on, what else was I gonna do? You looked so sad…”
“Freaked me out a bit till I found a note from him.”
A close up of a piece of scrap paper
Don’t mind me, just your house’s friendly ghost.
Tom groaned as some of the children started singing the theme to “Casper”.
“Oh, God, you don’t think this is where Lawrence got my name, do ya?”
“Definitely,” said Louise. “Things were kinda nice for a while.”
“I had somewhere dry to sleep and an icebox to raid.”
“And I sorta had a friend.”
“But one night…”
Tom was in the house’s kitchen, fishing a bottle of Coke from the fridge in the dark. The Michelsons’ voices were drifting in from the other room.
“She’s ill all the time, Gerald.”
“Imagine, all that pain…”
“Maybe she just doesn’t belong in this world. Maybe she deserves somewhere better.”
“I gave her some pills. If we do it now, she won’t feel a thing.
“Holy shit,” said Lana. “Why haven’t you told us this before?”
“Because I didn’t want you seeing this when you looked at me.”
Mr. Michelson pressed a pillow against his daughter’s face while her mother stroked her hand.
Tom floated up from the floor. “The hell are you doing?”
Mrs Michelson shrieked, her husband shouting, “Who the fuck are you, kid?”
“Were you trying to smother her?”
Louise’s father stalked towards the boy. “Listen, boong, I don’t know how you got in here, but this is our home, and you need to get out before I call the cops.”
“You’re about to kill Louise!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“I’m not leaving her.”
The man tried to wrap his hands around Tom’s neck, but he turned intangible. Mr. Michelson growled, blindly trying to ram the boy.
Tom closed his eyes. “Some of you might want to look away now.”
In the smoke, Tom reflexively threw his hands up as Mr. Michelson barrelled through him, only to fall to the ground behind him. There was something wet, red, and beating in the boy’s hands.
Around the fire, there were gasps and screams, matched by Tom’s in the smoke. The boy was kneeling on the floor, retching.
“It—it was an accident.” His hands were shaking. “I’d never done anything like that before.”
“Oh, oh Tom,” said Fran. “It wasn’t your fault. Some of us have done much worse.”
David was frowning, his arms crossed. “If this was so terrible for you, why did you stick your hand in Eddie Taylor? Or pretend to try and scramble Laurie’s brains?”
Louise glared at him. “I thought you didn’t care about Laurie.”
“I don’t,” David replied flatly. “It just feels strange.”
“Lay off him.”
Tom shook his head. “Nah, Lou, he’s right. It is weird.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You want to feel in control,” said Alberto. “First time you turned a guy inside out, it was by accident. You keep putting yourself back in that position, but not going through with it. You get to feel strong and shit, and like you’re taking the high-road.”
Tom blinked at the psychic.
“Can we get back to the story?”
Mrs Michelson was gone from the smoke, replaced by the fading groan of a fleeing ute. Tom was trying to shake Louise awake.
The girl half-opened her eyes. “…Hi. Are you the ghost?”
“I think I’m glad they drugged me,” her future-self remarked.
Tom was smiling feverishly. “Yeah, yeah… you wanna go on an adventure?”
Mabel arched an eyebrow. “You just went with the weird kid you thought was a ghost?”
Louise shrugged. “Tom was nice to me. And I did say I was drugged.”
“We lasted a month together, on the run,” said Tom. “We started robbing houses. For money, or food, or painkillers…”
“We got good at figuring out when rich folks were on holidays.” Tom asked Fran, “Can I corrupt my peers, Ma’am?”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Usually it was the houses with the lights on at four in the morning.” He let himself laugh. “They think it makes it look they’re still there! Guess rich people don’t sleep.”
A four-story house looking out over the Swan River. “That one looked real promising,” said Louise. “…Went a bit wrong.”
Darkness, fretted by the children phasing through a kitchen wall.
“Alright, I’ll go for the medicine cabinet, you—”
A light-switch flicked. A teenage boy with no shirt and a rust-stained leather vest leant scowling against the refrigerator. “Shit, now I owe Jonna fifty pounds.”
Immediately, Tom pushed Louise back through the wall, screaming “Run!” behind her. He was about to turn ghostly and follow when he began wobbling on his feet. He fainted hard, falling against the linoleum.
“That was Redcap,” Tom said, mildly. “Must’ve drained the blood from my head. Probably should count myself lucky he didn’t pull it out through my eyes or somethin’.”
Mabel started at Tom. “You got caught by the Coven? How are you not dead?”
“I’m not dead because they were looking for stock.” Tom’s voice started to shake. “They had me do… things for them first. To give me a reputation before selling me off, I gues.”
The smoke started to shift, but Tom squeezed the esper’s fingers hard enough to hurt. “No. I don’t want to see this.”
“Alright kid, jeez.”
Instead, the smoke settled on a dingy warehouse, the windows yellow with decades of industrial grime. A thin crowd in folding chairs sat before a hastily erected stage. Tom stood barefoot next to the fully assembled Coven. Aside from Redcap, the Fox, Fey of Femurs, and an inexplicable full length mirror facing out towards the crowd, there was also a young woman in a shiny green jacket covered in what looked like Christmas lights. Her face was covered in elaborate, interlocking blue runes, like human ley-lines. Her ears, nose, and lips were all pierced, and her head was completely shaven, bar a purple and green spiked strip running down the middle of her crown.
“Shouldn’t you be in chains or something?” Arnold asked.
“They didn’t need ‘em,” Tom explained. “The Fox has this way of getting inside you. He’d get you alone in a room with him, just start talking at ya, and after a while, you couldn’t help but do whatever his lot said…”
With perfect auctioneer patter, the Fox called out, “The bidding opens at five thousand pounds.”
A fat man with grey stubble shouted, “The Honoured Society3 bids seven thou.”
“Mr. Saffron4 bids eight thousand pounds for the asset,” a man in a suit the same shade as his employer cried, seemingly trying to beat the mafia-man in terms of decibel as well as currency.
“That place was like Wandering’s big brother,” said Tom. “I finally felt like nothing.”
Feeling no need to shout, an elegantly coffered woman in a pink suit-dress said, “The House of Ghosts5 offers twelve thousand US dollars for the boy.”
“I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life doing shitty, evil things for evil, shitty people. Less than a slave. A tool.”
The Fox pointed at the woman. “Offer sits at twelve thousand US dollars. Going once—”
“Fifty thousand pounds6.”
The crowd all turned to look at the latest bidder, all except for the woman in the suit-dress. She just smiled. “The House of Ghosts withdraws its offer.”
“And who might I ask is bidding?” the Fox inquired.
The red-bearded man in the green checkered suit stood up from his chair, smiling genially around the room. “Dr. Herbert Lawrence, from the New Human Institute.” He gestured at the men and women sitting either side of him. “These are some of my fellow teachers.”
It was a rare sight indeed, the original generation of Lawrence’s students (with the eternal exception of Chen) out in the wild.
Lawrence looked right at the stage. “They have a lot in common with you fine Covenators, but I’m sure Miss Lieroinen could have told you that…”
The Witch of Claremont’s face went white. Then she scowled, and her tattoos glowed an almost white blue. They died down again when she saw Françoise’s eyes do the same. The nereid in the smoke’s smile matched the one of the nereid sitting before the fire.
“Gonna say,” said Arnold. “I never imagined Lawrence standing up to the Coven.”
“I’d say he was a badass back then, but I think he was already making me have Ophelia by that point,” said Sadie.
David was staring at his mother. “Wait, when you went to get Tom, you met the Coven?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Fran shrugged. “Didn’t want to worry you, sweetie.”
David’s eyes went milky with glee. “Are you kidding? It’s great!”
“It really was,” said Tom.
Mr. Saffron’s representative looked like he was about to say something, but Alberto stood up to join his mentor. “And I can give you a precognitive forecast of the Australian stock-market for the next eighteen months.” He smiled. “Jonna should be able to confirm that.”
The Witch of Claremont looked like a demon was playing the drums with her teeth. “…He’s telling the truth.”
Linus looked at the esper. “You gave the Coven money advice?”
Alberto sighed. “Christ, you save one kid from a lifetime of slavery, and you never live it down.”
“Did they take the bid?” Mabel asked.
“I hope so,” replied Tom. “Or else this is a real long daydream.”
The Fox was handing Lawrence a manilla folder, Tom hiding behind the old man’s legs. “These are all his code-words and trigger phrases. Remember to refresh the conditioning with the couplet on the front every fortnight, or it’ll fade or get deranged. Don’t come back crying to us if you screw him up.”
Lawrence grinned broadly and shook the supervillain’s hand. It had not been offered. “I can’t see that being a problem. Live well, my friend.”
“As soon as we were out of there, Laurie made us stop at some cafe. Had Alberto strip out all the Fox’s bullshit.” Tom looked the esper in the eye. “I don’t think I ever told you thanks for that.”
Alberto squirmed at the gratitude. “Don’t mention it.”
In the smoke, the Institute’s stolen truck made its way down the familiar dirt path, Tom sitting sandwiched between Françoise and Alberto in the tray.
The was a girl waiting for them at the fence. Louise (not yet even Britomart) healthy and hale, her body now fit for her strength.
At the sight of her, Tom leapt from the truck, his intangible form sinking up to his ankles in the earth. The boy ran right through the fence, resolidying to embrace his friend, tears in their eyes.
Tom let go of Alberto’s hand. So did Louise. The new humans were allowed to see the smoke as it really was again.
“Alberto found Louise for Old Laurie,” explained Tom. “She told him about me.”
“Said I’d tear the whole place down if he didn’t find Tom.”
Tom took Louise’s hand. “Lou, I know you’ve never liked the Superman jokes but… you deserve them.”
“What I mean is, you’re as good as Superman in my book. You saved my life, kid.” With no reservation, he pulled her into a hug. “I love ya, girl.”
“Love ya too.” She turned her head to look at the other children. “Thanks for listening, guys. It helps a lot.”
Bella rubbed her thumbs against the log she was sitting on. “…I had a twin brother. He didn’t get powers. Louise and Tom helped me get over it.”
“I got powers when they came for Dawn,” Sheilah said. “When Laurie found me, he sprung her for me.”
“Old git was good for something, I guess,” said Bran. “I doubled and tripled pots and stuff for my dad back in Wales. We came over here when bloody Woolies made it to Dolgellau and my sister turned out bronchial. They nicked me at the migrant camp.”
“I blew up my school,” Lana said simply.
Mabel took a deep breath. “My dad was a miner in Circle’s End…”
And so, long into the night, the new humans of the Avon Valley retrod old paths and reweaved their histories, together.
1. Relatively early in their history, the peoples of Menvra began using primitive interplanetary craft to ride the gravity corridor between their homeworld and Eita, which became the source of most of their civilization’s mineral and energy resources. ↩
2. With real dragons, courtesy of Mabel. ↩
3. The Australian branch of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate. ↩
4. Abe Saffron, an Australian nightclub owner and hotelier, as well as a influential racketeer in the latter half of the 20th century. ↩</sup
5. The House of Ghosts: An international conspiracy of mystics, assassins, and policy influencers believed to have originated in the 16th century. Known for their heavy interest in the world superhuman community, the House of Ghosts is thought to have been closely involved with the Perthite super-team known as the Superhuman Crew, a team more renowned for their appreciation of Bob Dylan than their creative nomenclature. ↩
6. Worth roughly $1,500,000 in 2019. ↩</sup