Nobody at the Duke’s Inn knew what to say when Mad Laurie walked in from the night. For thirteen years, the headmaster had avoided Northam and her neighbouring towns—usually sending Mary Gillespie or one of his other minions for whatever he couldn’t have delivered directly to his school. Even his students were a more common sight in town. The man was like John the Baptist, if he had traded camel hair for a suit that looked like it had been ironed with him in it.
The few lucky pub-goers who had seen Herbert Lawrence up close almost didn’t recognize him. They remembered a polished Oxfordian fresh off the boat, not this haggard, storm-tossed old man with shredded trouser hems and red-stained derbys.
Mad Laurie darted his eyes around the crowded bar like a beaten dog. A tide of murmurs and shouting rose from the Northamites:
“Oi, Laurie, where you been?”
“I thought he was dead…”
“Is Mary with ya?”
Lawrence ignored them, making his way towards the counter. A few old men at the pool table set down their cues as he passed.
“Christ alive, Laurie, haven’t seen you since ‘58. Why didn’t you come out and say hello at the barbecue?”
The idea of these people traipsing about his Institute almost made Lawrence wince. Cainites pillaging the Garden. “I was… under the weather.”
A bald, gnomish fellow with sunburnt ears had turned away from his game of darts. “Me missus went up to your school just this morning with some pies for ya kids. Said your lights got turned off…”
The man still had his dart raised behind his head. Duke’s Inn still kept the tips good and keen, Lawrence couldn’t help but notice. “Mix up with the utility company,” he answered. “It’ll be sorted post-haste.”
The man with the burnt ears shrugged and made his throw, poorly. “Bloody idiots.”
As the cheers and greetings lowered, Lawrence detected an undertow of whispers. Gossip. Pure slander… out of context. He was glad when he made it to the bar.
A handsome-boned woman with red, cape-like braids sat nursing a glass of something green and bitter smelling. She smiled up at the headmaster. “Fancy a drink, Doctor Lawrence?”
Hungarian? Lawrence thought to himself. Has Northam become cosmopolitan while I wasn’t looking? “No thank you, ma’am.”
The woman waved him off. “Later, then.”
The landlord of Duke’s Inn was one of those men who aged terribly until their forties, at which point they entered a kind of homeostasis till the day they died. He shook Lawrence’s hand like he wanted a new beer-tap. “Laurie!”
Lawrence let his arm be jerked around like he were a ragdoll. “Good evening, Pierce.”
“Aww, come on now, Lawrence, it’s Pie-man.”
Lawrence hoped he wouldn’t have to learn the origins of that nickname again1. “Quite.”
Pie-Man smiled. In private, Lawrence had said it made the landlord look like a gargoyle. Mary had laughed.
“Well, they repel evil, don’t they?”
He looked at the suitcases in Lawrence’s hands. “Need a room?”
Lawrence nodded. “Yes, if you could oblige.”
A chuckle. “Just like old times, innit?”
Lawrence forced a smile. When he, Mary, and their students returned to Australia to set up the Institute, they’d lodged in Duke’s Inn for nearly half a year. Even after that, they sometimes had to house children there while the dorms were being built. The old man supposed that had been kind of Pie-Man. “That it is.”
“Tell ya what, how about I have Jen carry your bags up while we have a pint.”
Lawrence glanced behind himself. More and more people were glaring at him, their eyes a constellation of black holes. “Ah, no thank you… Pie-Man.” He gestured down at his travel-tortured suit. “As you can see, I could rather use a shower.”
Pie-Man nodded slightly. He looked disappointed. “Fair enough, mate.”
His red-faced wife led Lawrence to “the nice room”—meaning it had an en-suite bathroom that had been cleaned sometime in the last calendar year, along with a desk designed for a primary-schooler with gigantism. Aside from a few hundred guests worth of hair and skin flakes nestled in the corners, the room’s only egregious blemish was a patch of scarred, bubbled plaster next to the door.
“I think your Hugo leaned against the wall there,” Mrs Pie-Man said wistfully. She rested a liver spotted hand on Lawrence’s shoulder. “We’re all sorry for your loss.”
Thankfully, she left Lawrence to make himself at home. He locked the door behind her.
Hot water, for the first time in days. The shower washed away what felt like the dust and sweat of a decade, and Lawrence felt able to relax his shoulders for a moment. Donning the complimentary, threadbare bathrobe, he went and inspected the contents of his twin samsonites.
Mary had been thorough. Three changes of clothes, toiletries, and nearly two hundred pounds in cash. For all Lawrence knew, that money might now be all his assets in the world. Did Valour have his accounts frozen? Did he dare check?
What Lawrence was surprised to find was a black leather book, half filled with his neat, crisp handwriting. The latest volume of his diaries. Lawrence had been keeping it since the end of the war, free at last from the danger of Nazi bullets. Now over twenty volumes, it constituted a meticulous account of life at the New Human Institute; from beginning to end, so it seemed. Lawrence had even left instructions in his will for them to be published after his death, when the world was hopefully open-minded enough to view them in context.
He imagined this unfinished epilogue would wind up the only surviving fragment. The children no doubt were using its older brothers for kindling. Or lavatory paper2
. Sighing softly, he opened the diary to the last entry:
November 16th, 1965
Żywie did what she could for Adam Sinclair. May he forgive us.
Lawrence turned the page immediately, fleeing to a safe wasteland of yellow writing paper. He wouldn’t let this be history’s last glimpse of his efforts. Of his new humans. Fishing the velvet case holding his fine silver graduation pens out of his suitcase, he sat down and started writing:
In in the sunset of my life’s work, I find myself harbouring doubt. I should consider this a sign my mind is still sound—true certainty is the domain of fanatics and madmen—but it is a cold comfort indeed. I had always considered posthuman abilities an unalloyed good: the kind of wonder seldom seen outside of dreams. My students’ mere presence at my school transformed it into a chimera of the wondrous and the everyday.
But then again, was not the chimera a monster?
Myriad keeps returning to my thoughts. That brilliant, uncanny girl, to whom my years of education and training were as simple as birdsong. She was a wonder. The very future of thought itself.
Or so I thought.
I think back to my school days. Did the labour of mastering words, numbers, and the human mind not help make me the man I am today? As I think about Myriad’s almost feral degeneration, I wonder if her powers robbed her of the ability to grow up?
But then, all races have their deviants and cripples. Perhaps Myriad is one such unfortunate. Then there’s Maelstrom. Poor, sweet Maelstrom. I always knew his mother was something of a lost cause. Melusine would always bear the scars of her wild childhood. But Maelstrom, Maelstrom was perfect. My prize orchard. The Adam Deucalion of the race to come.
Until a strange child woke up in his body. I can’t help but ask myself how close that new boy was to the surface? I tried telling myself it was Myriad’s doing. That she was his Lilith, or Pandora. But then it spread to the other children. Children I had saved from deprivation, imprisonment, and worse! Now they drive me from the home I gave them!
Mankind is a clumsy, blunt-toothed monkey. It was fragility that forced us to master fire and forge tools from a harsh world. To come together and make communities out of strangers. The children know nothing of fragility. Of raw, painful need. Was my stirpiculture breeding what was left of it out of them?
I can picture their descendants, a thousand years hence. Naked and mute, creating Eden as wordless want stirs within them, the way crows build nests and ants dig hives. Golden and godlike, freer than the freest man, but never thinking to look up and consider the sun and stars, enjoying only the ecstasy of beasts.
Part of me revolts at the image. Another, almost desires it.
No. I am thinking like the people downstairs. The people who would call the DDHA if their neighbour beat them at cards. The people who fear change. No revolution is easy to live through, and evolution is always gradual. I must keep heart. I must not abandon the children, no matter how much they wish I would.
If I was sensible, I would be far away. Timothy and his jackboots will come for me eventually. Who knows when some drunk Northamite will see fit to whip up a mob to drive out the ‘mad scientist’? But I am a man of reason, or have tried to be, at least. When they drag me before a judge or throw me into the darkness, I will explain myself. And damn whatever they think of me.
Lawrence set his pen down. A levy had burst within him, weariness drowning his bones once more. Without bothering to turn off the light, he fell backwards on top of his room’s starched, neatly made bed.
As his waking mind flickered out, countless thoughts stirred blearily. How long he had as a free man. How Mary would cope by herself. Would Timothy shackle her, too?
…Wait, what was a lady doing in the pub?
Lawrence spent as little of his days at Duke’s Inn as he could. Staying in one place too long made him nervous, while Pie-Man and his wife kept trying to rope him into dinner or pub trivia. He mostly haunted Northam’s cafes and restaurants, trickling away his money on endless cups of coffee while working on his diary, trying to reconstruct his world in its pages.
Then he started seeing his students.
It was quick glimpses at first. Windshear and Growltiger playing in the park, or Linus out busking. Lawrence didn’t dare approach them.
Not content with banishing me, now they invade my exile. Still I worry. Do they realize how quickly human hearts turn?
As the week passed, these encounters became terrifying close. Haunt would rise from the concrete just a few paces ahead of Lawrence. Once, he fled from the doorstep of his favoured coffee lair when he spotted Reverb and Stratogale fawning over some local teen’s engagement ring in the window.
Far too young.
Then, one morning, he saw Maelstrom.
The boy was with his mother, fidgeting in shorts and a t-shirt like he was decked out in his Sunday best. Britomart was walking alongside him, holding his hand.
Lawrence couldn’t resist. He followed them at a distance, hiding among clusters of other pedestrians as much as possible, sometimes even ducking into stores or alleys just to avoid being spotted.
Eventually, the three and their shadow arrived at Capitol Theatres. As the new humans strolled inside, Lawrence pulled out his wallet. He was going to the pictures.
David and Louise Michelson sat together in the darkened theatre, shovelling popcorn into their mouths till their lips chapped, watching Snow White duet with her own echo3
Louise was transfixed. She’d never seen anything like it. It was as if Mabel had managed to pull a whole world through.
Her thoughts far away from her body, Louise’s aura pulsed softly, raising the ire of the family sitting in the row behind them.
“Put out the bleedin’ light!”
Louise scowled, the white glow dimming and dying.
“Damn demis come in and think they own the place.”
She muttered under her breath, “Gits.”
David found himself squeezing the girl’s hand. “Ignore them,” he whispered, “they’re just jealous.”
“The nice things…”
Louise smiled back at him. For some reason, it was taking her effort to keep her aura quiet. “You think so?”
“The nice things…”
David shrugged. “They should be.”
Louise pecked him playfully on the cheek. “Suck-up.”
The boy rubbed the kiss like it was a bruise. David hadn’t felt this queasy since his eyes changed. He almost wondered if they had gone blue again.
Oh, God, he thought. Linus was right.
David hadn’t thought much about inviting Louise to the movies. He thought it might cheer her up after she’d dredged up all those memories around the bonfire. He had asked Mabel, too, but she declined. Since that night, she seemed to prefer the company of fiction to flesh and blood. Or ice.
Then David had to go and mention it to Linus…
The older boy had grinned rakishly. “Ah, so it’s a date.”
“It’s not a date!” David protested. “I’m just going to the movies.”
“With a girl.”
“A girl’s who’s my friend.”
“Is your mum watchin’ it with ya?”
“…No,” he mumbled, “she’s going to the hairdressers4.”
“Then it’s a date.” He wrapped an arm around the water-sprite. “Here, I’ll give you some tips.”
It probably should have occurred to David how little experience Linus had with dating outside of bizarre forced mating schemes, but the young man’s sheer bigness eclipsed all that.
Snow White was now running through the woods, speeded on by the huntsman’s desperate warning, while malevolent, gnarled trees snatched at her dress.
“Okay, at some point you yawn and put your arm around her shoulder. Works really well if you pick a scary part. Makes you look all brave and protective all at once.”
Out the corner of his eye, David studied Louise’s face. She didn’t look particularly frightened, but a girl their age down the row was pressing her face into her mother’s sleeve, so he guessed it counted. He forced a yawn and flopped his arm down behind Louise’s neck, craning his head to try and gauge her reaction.
She snorted, laughing. “Dork.”
David found himself laughing, too.
Far in the back row, an old man was watching the children’s shadows, writing in his diary by the dancing, inconstant light of the projector. He was still sore about the cheek he’d gotten at the box office:
“One ticket for Snow White, please.”
The pothole faced concession boy regarded Lawrence like he was a leper. “Don’t have any grandkids, mate?”
Lawrence frowned. “One can appreciate art at any age, young man.”
I don’t see why Maelstrom took such issue with our stirpiculture. Even at this young age, I see him court and seduce. I am surprised he did not bring Myriad or Phantasmagoria. I can’t say part of me isn’t pleased, however. Phantasmagoria’s power is glorious, but I always worried about the influence she had on Maelstrom, and Myriad has turned out to be more Lilith than Eve.
The children are flicking popcorn at the screen now, the shadows arcing through the projector beam like dark comets. I thought I’d brought them up better. God, it’s a ghastly film. Say what you want about Sleeping Beauty, at least Walt Disney’s men learned how to draw humans by 19505. And why does Snow White look so young? A paradox of the modern age. Pregnancy—something impermanent by its very nature—we treat as some shuddering horror until a person’s life is a quarter done. Unless they’re married, of course. Just look at the girl in the cafe.
Peculiarly, the subject of breeding leads my thoughts back to superheroes. I always considered them and the supervillains the result of the pressures rootstock humanity puts on posthumans, but perhaps that was arrogant of me. The public clashes and test of strength, the bravado, the costumes as gaudy as a peacock’s tail. What if all that wasn’t a role society forced upon them, or a release valve? What if it was a mating display?
All creatures seek strong young. Man and superman are no exception. Perhaps I fretted too much about stirpiculture. Perhaps, even now, the seeds I have sown will rise and reach for the sun. Perhaps, perhaps…
Eventually, the wicked queen—beauty lost—tumbled off the cliff. Her poisoned stepdaughter was woken by her prince, and all was good in the world. The theatre lights slowly woke back up.
Lawrence watched his students rise from their seats, an hour and twenty minutes worth of pent up energy twitching in their limbs. Louise ran out immediately, giggling like she expected to be chased.
Maelstrom however, lingered, looking right up at the back row. His eyes found Lawrence’s, turned milky-white.
Lawrence screwed his eyes shut, digging his fingernails into the armrests. Oh, God.
Something warm and wet splattered against his forehead. When Lawrence opened his eyes again, a globule of spit was dripping down his nose, a boy’s laughter fleeing at speed.
An ugly, angry scrawl, the only alternative to a scream.
Ungrateful little brat!
The end started that very night. Lawrence was holed up in his rented room, writing. Regrettably, he also had more than a few drinks in him, very deliberately not imbibed at the Duke’s Inn.
He scratched and slashed at the page like he was carving meat from a beast, sometimes forgetting spaces between words, his free hand shaking at his side.
Never expect recognition. Never expect appreciation, or even kindness. Schoolmasters are hated decades after their deaths for having the gall to drag their students inside and teach them how to get along in the world. They will resent you forever for not letting them drink lye or play on the edge of cliffs.
Blast them all! Let them waste their talents on this pimple of a town. Let them dance among wolves and dragons! Timothy can have them! I’m not—
There was a loud, insistent knock on the door. Growling, Lawrence slammed down his pen and stalked over to silence it.
Pie-Man was waiting on the other side. His knobbled, perpetually middle-aged features were set uncharacteristically grim. “Hello, Lawrence.”
Lawrence was in too deep a sulk to pick up on the landlord’s tone. “What do you want, Pierce? I told you I’m not interested in binge-drinking with you.”
“We need to talk.”
“Do we? I recall paying you for the week.”
Lawrence tried closing the door, but Pie-Man stopped it with a hand. “It’s not about your money.”
Through the alcoholic haze, Lawrence finally saw the look in Pierce’s eyes. Hard, but with a glimmer that could have been the beginning of tears.
Lawrence smiled a tispy, joyless grin. “Good God, you must be the last man in Northam to hear about it.” He brought his face in close to Pie-Man’s. “Who told you about my stirpiculture?”
Pierce shook his head in confusion. “The hell are you on about?”
A laugh like wind through a broken flue. “The babies, of course! Who finally had the guts to let you in on the big secret?”
Pierce stepped fully into the room, slamming the door shut behind him. “The boys who helped your kids see off the supervillains.” He turned and glared at Lawrence. “Goddamnit, Laurie, what are you, a Nazi?”
Another weak laugh. “The ungrateful little bastards. Should’ve had Żywie put the Taylor lad’s blood back where she found it. Tell me, ‘Pie-Man’,” he jeered the nickname, “did Żywie pass through your fine establishment with my children?”
Pierce grabbed the headmaster by the collar, shoving him against a wall. “How can you stand here and laugh? You were… those poor girls, I don’t even know the word for what you were doing!”
“Eugenics, I believe your sort would call it.”
“Shut the fuck up! You think you’re so much better than us—so bloody wise and educated—and you were breeding little girls like cattle! And we just let you do it! All those years, and we never bothered to check in, or visit, or—we didn’t care.” Pie-Man started to weep. “And people know now. People know, and they’re still letting you walk around and selling you food.” He growled. “I should’ve turned you out. People like you, they should go live in bloody caves. Just clear off and top themselves!”
“Because of me,” Lawrence said quietly, “there are children in this world who can show you the face of God. What’s your legacy, Pierce? Three bakers and some housewife in Port Jackson?”
Pierce punched the old man square in the jaw, sending him to the dirty carpet.
Lawrence looked up at the landlord, blood trickling from his nose. “So what happens now, big man?”
“We’re going to the police station.”
“If the good Constable Preston wishes to speak to me, he can come and get me. I mean, he was the one slacking on the job, wasn’t he?”
Pie-Man reared his foot back for kick, and… it stayed there. Pierce held the pose as if he had just then turned to stone. He didn’t even blink.
What is this fool doing? Lawrence asked himself. Building suspense?
A minute passed. Pie-Man didn’t move. Lawrence got to his feet, slowly circling his aggressor. The man remained still. It became quickly apparent to Lawrence that he wasn’t even breathing.
He tried touching Pie-Man’s cheek, but recoiled instantly from his skin. It was like he’d struck a moving fan, or a live wire. The jolt also caused Lawrence to glance out the window:
A bird, wings caught mid-beat, hovering impossibly in the night air.
It was a new human. It had to be. But none of his students could play with time—
The door opened again. A woman in a green dress and long thick braids walked in like she owned the world. The woman at the bar.
“Hello, Dr. Lawrence,” she said, smiling like it was the driest thing ever said. “Elsa Lieroinen. We have a lot to talk about.”
1. An eating contest victory over Ralph Rivers himself. He was visiting the Finch family at the time. ↩
2. In fact, Lawrence’s diaries mostly lay ignored by his students, much to the delight of the cult and cape researchers the New Human Institute inspired. ↩
3. The showing was technically illegal, but the Walt Disney Corporation had yet to place agents in every small town. ↩
4. Most of Mrs Taylor’s work would of course be undone the next time Françoise changed states, but it was a ritual of womanhood. ↩
5. In his heart of hearts, Lawrence did have to admit the Evil Queen looked quite good. Very Joan Crawford. ↩