“ ‘I think it’s up to us posthumans to police ourselves, especially in light of Northam’s years of kindness and hospitality towards our community. Growing up in Italy during the war, I got very sick of bullies, superpowered or otherwise.’ ” Lawrence laid The Northam Advertiser back on his desk; the shopping party and the mayor of Northam grinning up at him in scratchy monochrome from the front page. “Really, Tiresias?”
“Well, Gertie tidied up my elocution a bit, but that was the basic sentiment.”
Lawrence’s eyes narrowed. “Gertie?”
“The reporter lady who wrote the article. Sweet thing, probably thinks we’re her ticket to a real paper. Might be right, too. We have a date next week.” Alberto smirked at the look on Lawrence’s face. “Hey, every superhero needs his Lois Lane1. Don’t worry, Bertie, I won’t be wasting my precious posthuman seed on a baseline. Not till the third date, at least.” His smile flattened bitterly. “Wouldn’t want you misplacing another of my kids.”
“You planned this,” Lawrence hissed at the psychic, “don’t deny it!”
Alberto shrugged. “Wouldn’t be a very useful psychic if I hadn’t.”
The breath fled Lawrence like he had been punched in the ribs. “The whole point of this blasted exercise was to starve some sense into the children! Now we have to beg them for food!”
“Laurie, Laurie, you’re talking like Stalin. Or Churchill. I don’t know why you’re upset. We haven’t been this popular in the hills since Chen used to fund happy-hour back at Duke’s Inn. Mrs G is practically dancing on air.”
“This… adoration you’re enjoying is shallow, Tiresias, you must know that. And completely dependent on you playing into the narrow roles humanity has deigned your kind.”
“What, protecting people from mean fucks?”
“Brutalising members of your own kind. Allowing your predecessors to set you against each other for their own benefit.”
Alberto grimaced, shaking his head slowly. “How were you and Ralph ever friends? You know what I think this is? You just can’t stand that you’re not mentioned anywhere in that article. That we’re getting love for something that wasn’t your idea.”
Lawrence gritted his teeth. “Baseless accusations aside, how does this help us when the inspector gets here?
“Well, the fact the students look like upstanding allies of law and order won’t hurt.”
“With you as their fearless leader,” Lawrence said flatly.
“If the shoe fits…”
“Still, how will this help bring the children to heel?”
Alberto rested his chin in his hands, smiling beatifically at the headmaster.
It took Lawrence a moment to realize what his student was waiting for. He sighed. “…How will this help me?”
Alberto threw his hands up, his expression mockingly grave. “I don’t know, Lawrence. I’m not sure what could at that this point.”
“But—but you said…”
“I know, Lawrence. And I’ve tried. But at the end of the day, you still got bunch of little girls knocked up. And let’s face it, you’re not the most valuable asset here.” Alberto leaned back in his chair. “I mean, doesn’t it matter more that the kids are alright? Isn’t that why you started all this?”
Lawrence didn’t know why he expected anything more from Tiresias, but what other choice did he have? “Well,” he said, “if you have given up on bringing order to the Institute, I must continue on my own.”
The old man rose from his chair, pulling back his green suit-sleeve to look at his silver rolex2. The second hand was about to join its brothers at eight o’clock. “Any minute now.”
The lights went out, night rushing in to fill the empty air.
“If you and the children are so independent, I’m sure you won’t have any need for the electricity I pay for.”
In the dark, Alberto lit a cigarette, his gaunt features cast in flickering orange shadow by the burning tobacco. “This would be a lot more effective if it was winter, Lawrence. Or if we had a television.”
He walked towards the door, taking his little patch of light with him. “Count yourself lucky I already put all the white wine in the dark dimension.”
Just as Alberto had predicted, the blackout had little effect on the children’s new routine. No surprise, really. How could it compare to the last one? This time, they had Sheilah to keep the food good; gas-bottles or Brian’s flames to cook it with; the river and the Barthes for clean, fresh water; even Linus’ music and Mabel’s hoard of pulpy nonsense for whatever entertainment they couldn’t generate themselves.
As the psychic had also said, it helped that it was summer. Even if the children couldn’t have coped without electric light or replaced it, the sun lasted long enough for most of them. Their days had escaped adult time.
It was late evening, and although the sun had set, it was still hardly darker than noon. The wide, cloudless sky arched over gum trees and dry grass like a soaring pastel dome, slowly deepening. Tom Long and Bella Wilson were building a bonfire. They had no particular occasion for it, save maybe uncertainty regarding the coming of the inspector in just three nights. Still, no reason not to have a bonfire.
The pair had already dug themselves a fire-pit demarcated by a ring of stone like a fairy-ring, and now were assembling a teepee of sticks and grass under the bemused eye of Brian “Snapdragon” Peters.
“You know I could make a fire for everyone just by thinking it, right?” the platinum-blond boy asked, absently tracing lines of flame in front of his face with his fingertip.
“Yeah,” replied Bella, grunting as she shoved a branch as long as herself into position, “and then it’d go away soon as you got bored.”
“You could at least let me light the thing”—Brian pointed at the chalky white cubes lying next to the pit—“instead of mucking around with those firelighter things. Why do we even have those?”
“Getting it lit’s half the fun,” said Tom, still bent over arranging some hay from the barn. “Least that’s what it was like with dad and my uncles.”
Were they uncles, or cousins? Tom could barely remember anymore.
A few feet away, the air blurred. David, Fran, Bran and Tina “Cardea” Vicks stepped out from one of her portals.
“Hey guys,” said Brian. “Back from town?”
“Yep,” answered Tina, stretching like she had spent the night in a suitcase. She pointed at her passengers. “These guys were helping clean up. I had to make ten portals in like ten seconds both trips!”
“Yeah, but you didn’t have to do anything else all day,” retorted Bran. “I had to put all their roads back to rights, and un-smash that house Sadie bunged up. How hard is making a bunch of portals anyways?”
“That many? It’s like stretching a napkin over a king-sized bed, without tearing it, because that would make us tear.”
“Least you weren’t stuck cleaning bird-crap offa’ everything,” muttered David.
So Dave can swear, thought Tom. Learn something new everyday.
Françoise laughed like a clear spring over rocks. “Oh, shush, you had fun. And some of them paid us.”
“Who needs money when we have gold?” asked Bella, a good little libertarian.
David looked around searchingly. “Where’s Brito—Louise I mean?”
“…I don’t know,” said Tom. He supposed he, Bella and Louise were usually a unit. “I think she knew we were doing the bonfire tonight.”
“It’s the full-moon,” said Bella.
Tom went “Ah,” as if that explained all the mysteries of the world.
Curious, David reduced himself to mist, and went to go find the girl.
He hovered over the Institute, the water that had been his body diffused so thinly through the air, he might as well have been invisible. It didn’t matter. David was everywhere there was water.
Louise was sitting on a sloping rock rising from the tall yellow grass like an iceberg floating in the sea at sunset. David wasn’t sure how he knew what that looked like, but he did.
The boy reformed next to the rock.
Louise jerked slightly. With Mrs Gillespie too busy to cut her hair lately, it’d grown past her shoulders, making the blue lowlights much more obvious. “Uh, hi, David. How was town?”
“Kinda boring,” He shrugged. “Just washing stuff. Got all dusty.” He gestured absently at his spotless form. “Took forever, too.”
Louise blushed slightly. “Whatcha doing over here?”
“Seeing if you’re okay… are you?”
The red in her cheeks grew more vivid. David noticed her blood was flowing a little faster. “Oh, I didn’t know you really noticed me.” She looked up. “I was just looking at the Moon.”
It hung up there almost transparent, the little green splotch the Gatekeeper and his people3 called home breaking up the dusty, silver wastes4.
“It’s pretty up there, huh. A lotta people don’t know you can see it before it’s dark, isn’t that wild?” He gave her a smile. “Nice down here, too. People almost seem like they like us.”
Louise sighed. “I guess. About the Moon being pretty, I mean. And the naturals, too.”
He chuckled “Yeah.” Then she felt him bump her with his shoulder. “Other stuff’s pretty too, tho.”
She laughed. “What happened to you when your eyes changed? You pretty much asked Laurie permission to say hello before.”
“Dunno,” he shrugged. “Guess I don’t feel alone so much now, though. It’s easier to not care about him, you know?”
“Kinda,” she replied. “You really don’t remember the blackout at all? The real one I mean.”
“Nope,” he sighed. “Wish I did, but all I remember is this really fuzzy dream. Like being hugged.”
“I like my dreams. They remind me of home, I think.” She pointed at the Moon again. “Where I come from, their moon isn’t just this little grey smudge in the sky. It was like this whole other planet! And you could see volcanoes and rivers of lava!” Her face became wistful. “You remember that bushfire last year? The way the sun was all red through the smoke and ash? That’s what it was like all the time. And the grass was black! And, and…”
She found herself at the end of her recollections.
“Heh,” David chuckled. “I believe it. But I always felt more at home when I can’t really see the moon. Or the sun. Or the sky. When I’m just water and so’s everything else that matters. It’s like being part of the whole world.” For just a moment, his eyes gleamed.
“That does sound nice. Do you actually believe me? About not being from here? Nobody else does. Besides Tom and Eliza and that.”
She felt a hand resting against her own.
“Course I do. It’s true, right?”
She smiled sadly. “Yeah, it is. People think I just got it from a Superman comic. That I wanna look special or something.” She dug a finger into the stone. “I wish I remembered more. All I really know is that I’m not like the other kids. Not human, I mean. Laurie says none of us are, but for me it’s really true. I don’t even think I’m really a super. Just from somewhere people do extra things.”
“… I feel like that too,” David admitted. “Just, I think I really am from here. Maybe more than anyone else.”
“Feels crappy, doesn’t it?”
“Sometimes, yeah,” he shuffled his way across the tiny gap between them, and put an arm around her shoulders. “But it’s okay. The people here are nice.”
“But we’re not like them.”
“…You think humans get to touch the sky?”
“The sky.” He pointed at one of the lonely ridges of cloud hanging high overhead like flaring gills. “Think they ever get to touch it?”
That was all David needed.
“Well. We’re gonna. Come on, space girl. Let’s go hug a cloud.”
“Wait, where’re you—”
Louise felt something cold slide under her, only to start started floating into the air on a diamond-clear ice-disk. She normally had no real fear of falling, but the sudden motion still made her yelp.
“What are you waiting for?” the ice chimed. “Start charging.”
Louise closed her eyes, pulling the heat from the air around her. As the ambient temperature grew positively arctic, her skin glowed brighter and brighter. They rose higher. She glanced down, and regretted it. Northam’s patchy lights hugged the horizon.
“So, what the hell are we doing?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” David laughed, rising beside her from the ice like the Lady of the Lake in wintertime. As always, Louise tried to ignore the out-of-place nudity. “We’re gonna touch the sky.”
“Aren’t we already doing that?”
“…Guess so,” he admitted. “Wanna just watch the moon?”
She gave the water-sprite a steely look. “No.” She pointed at cloud. “I’m gonna touch the sky.”
And with that, she leapt towards it.
Behind her, David cackled. The cloud jumped to the side, just half a foot next to the girl.
Louise felt gravity start pulling her down, building up momentum. “Dickhead!”
A wisp of cloud broke away, solidifying into a glassy platform under her. The rest of it, however, became a smiley face… with its tongue out.
The girl landed on her feet, transforming the impact into power. She laughed. “Still a dick!”
The shape the cloud assumed went unrecorded by history books.
Louise grimaced, before looking around the sky for something (or someone) solid to punch. “When did you get so gross?”
“Always was,” David said from right beside her. “Just stopped apologizing for i—”
She rammed into the little boy, knocking them both off the platform.
David giggled wildly. “You bitch!”
Louise managed to glare at David as they tumbled through the air. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said—” he placed a palm against her chest, before misting out of her grasp, then slamming against her ribs with all the might of an icy missile. Her body rocketed through the sky, scattering one particularly vulgar cloud to the wind in her wake.
Louise landed in the bonfire, emerging from the flames brighter than the Moon itself.
David coalesced in front of her, grinning. “…Bitch.”
Only then did the two children notice half the Institute staring at them, including a very peeved Tom. And an even more peeved Fran.
For the first time in weeks, Louise thought David looked sheepish. The boy rubbed his neck. “Uh, hi Mum.”
1. Especially in the opinion of Fredric Wertham. ↩
2. It used to be gold. ↩
3. And about half of Northam’s pet dogs. ↩
4. “The mote in Selene’s eye” generations of poets have called it. ↩