Elsa Lieroinen. Lawrence could swear he had heard the name before. But where?
A man stepped out from behind the woman. His thin, pale body was wrapped tight in a red tuxedo, and a black, swirled moustache rested like an octopus on top of his bloodless lips. He glanced curiously at the old Oxfordian. “Is this him?” he asked Elsa. Lawrence thought the man sounded Greek.
“He looks like Henry the VIII. Better beard, though.”
The pair nodded at each other, their noses wrinkled in mutual amusement. Lawrence got the impression of close friends whose subtle gestures had contaminated one another.
He tried shaking off the shock. “Excuse me, but what have you done to Pierce?”
Elsa and the pale man both ignored Lawrence, the latter striding over to where Pie-Man still stood ready to kick. “This one important?”
Elsa shook her head, before letting a hazel wand slip out from her billowing sleeve. She raised it over head like a conductor’s baton. “Help yourself.”
Pie-Man suddenly took a sharp, gasping breath, stumbling as he lost his balance.“What the—” He caught sight of the man in the red tux. “Who the hell are you?”
The man threw his head back, mouth open to reveal pointed canines, and then—
The world hissed and buzzed with static like an out of tune television set. When it resolved, Lawrence found himself sitting on a counter-stool downstairs in the bar, Elsa and her companion flanking him on either side. The man was dabbing at his chin with a paper napkin.
Lawrence screamed at the sudden relocation. The deep, hyperventilating breaths he took as he scanned his surroundings didn’t help. The bar was wrong. It wasn’t just that the bar was dead empty on a Thursday night. Colour was bright and queasy, like his eyes had been replaced with shoddy colour cameras. His breath rasped in his lungs as though the air had been carved sharp, while the warm pub lights weighed heavy on his skin. All that could be seen through the windows was a wall of green fog.
He stared at the woman, eyes widening in panic. “How are you doing this?”
Elsa inserted a cigarette into a long, elegant holder. It lit of its own accord, her answer riding a gust of smoke. “If I just said ‘my powers,’ you’d believe me. Oh, sure, you might have follow-up questions—in fact, I know you would—but you would accept the premise. If I told you that I’m a witch and this is an ingenious skein of spells, you would roll your eyes and set your psychiatrist brain to diagnose me with something or other.” She put a hand under her chin and smiled. “Why is that, Dr. Lawrence?”
Lawrence didn’t answer her question. “Where’s Pierce? What have you done with him?”
“You do remember he was about to kick the shit out of you, right?” asked Elsa.
“Besides,” said the man, “here he comes now.”
Pie-Man slid in front of the three as if on wheels. His features were slack and fungal white—less expressive than a corpse. Atonally, he asked, “Can I get you all a drink?”
“Pierce!” Lawrence cried. “What’s wrong with you?”
The man in the tuxedo waved his hand. His face was feverishly flushed now, revealing a jagged scar running down his cheek like dragon’s teeth. “Don’t bother the poor bloke, he’s mostly leaves now. It’s Myles, by the way.”
Elsa raised two fingers. “Pints of bitter all around, barkeep.” She looked back at Lawrence while Pie-Man poured their draughts. “I’ve programmed him with all the drink names and some shitty jokes. Should tide people over till he starts to rot.”
Lawrence hands slammed onto the edge of the counter as he tried to push off from his seat.
A voice like breaking ice. “Don’t run.”
His legs went numb. “What do you want with me?”
“Simple,” said Elsa. “We want to talk about the New Human Institute.”
“We worry you’re giving up too hastily,” Myles continued.
Lawrence’s shoulders shrunk defensively. “What do you know about the Institute? About me?”
Elsa shrugged. “Only what we’ve read in your book, and the ones people write about you.”
Are they precogs, or just stupidly cryptic?
Elsa titled her hand. “A little from column A, a little from column B. Also, the House of Ghosts ripped you off.”
Lawrence desperately tried to void his thoughts. It didn’t work.
“Tut tut,” said Myles. “Doing an awfully shabby job at this headmaster thing, aren’t you?”
Fear and confusion should have left no room in Lawrence for outrage, but still it found him. “You don’t know what I’ve been through! The things I’ve had to do, what I’ve lost! What those children put me through! I gave them paradise, and they treated me like dung on their shoes!” He slumped miserably, his suit crumpling around him like a collapsing circus tent. “I’m lucky to be alive.”
Elsa and Myles looked past the old man at each other, before breaking out in laughter.
“Oh, God.” Myles wiped at his eyes, shoulders still rolling with mirth. “How do you live in that head of yours?”
“It gets better!” Elsa waved her wand, pulling Lawrence’s diary out from nowhere.
Lawrence tried to snatch back the little leather volume. “Give me that—”
A shadow solid as obsidian caught his arm, sprouting from behind Myles as he went to read over his mistress’s shoulder.
Elsa recited from the book in an odd hybrid of Liverpudlian and BBC English. “ ‘Oh, my sweet Maelstrom, how could I let that ash-pale nymph corrupt you so?’ ” Laughter overtook the witch again. “It’s like if William Blake was a perv.”
Myles hummed thoughtfully. “I get more of a Ralph Chubb impression.”
“Who’s Ralph Chubb?”
“One of those Uranian poets you only search for incognito1.”
Lawrence struggled futilely against Myles’ shade. “Is this all I’m here for? Did you two ghouls drag me down here and”—he glanced at poor, empty Pie-Man mechanically sliding beers across the counter—“…bewitch Pierce just so you could throw my sorrows back at me? Tears began cutting all too familiar paths down Lawrence’s face. “Because trust me, there is nothing you can do that would bring me any lower.”
Myles grinned at the old man. His teeth were stained red. “Oh, Laurie, never say that.”
Lawrence felt the shadow start to prickle against his skin, but at the same moment, Elsa put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Now, now, Myles, Dr. Lawrence is right. We’re letting pleasure get in the way of business. Pull yourself together, will you?”
Myles made a disappointed grunt, and his shadow melted back into the floor.
Elsa pulled her stool in closer to Lawrence, tapping the side of his pint glass. “I suggest you drink, Doctor.”
Lawrence stared at her in disbelief. “You think I’d drink anything you’d give me?”
A kindly smirk. “Laurie, Laurie,” she gestured around grandly at the transfigured public bar, “do you think I need drugs?”
Resignedly, Lawrence drank deep, slamming the glass back down.
“Tell me, Doctor, what started this enthusiasm of yours for superhumans?”
A warm, drowsy sensation swilled about inside Lawrence. What was this beer’s proof? “Didn’t need drugs” his rump. Still, better than cold, hard sobriety.
“Do I need a reason?”
Elsa shrugged. “I’ve always thought of supers as being rather like very stupid witches who only know one spell.”
Lawrence didn’t know whether he wanted to laugh or smack the woman in the face. Probably both. He did chuckle, though. “You do know some posthumans have more than one ability, don’t you? The Flying Man springs immediately to mind.”
“That hardly dilutes my lady’s point.”
“I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t be fascinated with posthumanity. Even forgetting what… what they mean for us, for the future, their powers are a glimpse at true physics. At the way the universe really works.”
That raised another laugh from the strangers.
Lawrence took another gulp of his beer. “Go ahead and laugh. It’s a change from the sneers and bitterness. And at least you never loved me…”
Elsa tossed her wand in her hand. “See, that to me justifies an interest. Avid study, even. But this pure, endless devotion? Pouring your life and fortune into a kennel for stray gods? Breeding them?”
“Now you listen here young—”
Elsa put a finger to the old man’s lips. It might as well have been a needle and thread. He felt his cheeks swell out as he let out the air for the final word, his lips refusing to let it leave his mouth.
“It has to be more than scientific curiosity, Lawrence. Whatever your training, we both know you’re a man of passion, not science.” Her hand drifted down to one of Lawrence’s hands. At her touch, his glove evaporated, revealing the old burns beneath. “Tell us, how did you get these scars?”
Lawrence sighed. Why not the truth? All lies had done was bring him here. “I was always interested in new humans, I really was. Since Oxford, at least. Posthumans didn’t just pop into the world in 1939, you know. I wanted to be a psychiatrist, and they were the fringe of a fringe. Madmen who happened to be right. But yes, that’s all it was, back then. An interest. Like bird-watching. But there was this girl…”
Sweet, wordless singing, drifting like mist down the inn’s stairs.
“She lived in Jericho, on the Oxford canal. She had always lived by the canal, if you asked her neighbours. She never lit a fire, but her house was always warm as high summer, and her garden stayed in bloom all through the winter.”
“Cheap tricks,” muttered Elsa.
Out the corner of his eye, Lawrence saw something shift out the windows. The witch watched smugly as the old man went to investigate.
The green fog that pressed so thick against the glass had receded, but so had Northam. Instead, Lawrence saw brightly painted narrowboats cutting through Oxford canal. In the strip of garden between him and the water, a young woman with silver-dark hair fussed over a rose bush, her bare fingers fearing no thorns.
Lawrence put his bare hand against the window. “Maren…”
Rose-vines crept up and over the windowpane, its blossoms rushing through childhood until the glass was opaque with red, pink, and white petals.
“Maren Reoch of Jericho,” Elsa recited. “As names go, it’s no Soulmother of Küssnacht, but is anything? The people of Oxford called her a seer.”
Lawrence didn’t even bother to dispute the wording. “She was. She predicted Bloody Sunday over tea with me. People in Jericho said she had known the Archduke of Austria had been shot before the papers, and that she’d talked about the Czar like he was a deadman since 1910.” A sad smile. “The poor thing thought she was a witch.”
Elsa and Myles both kept their peace on that.
“I’ll tell you this, she slipped me more than a few exam questions. Once, she practically dictated me a whole essay. But they were my words. They just hadn’t been written yet…”
“I assume you keep in touch?” Myles asked jovially.
Lawrence blinked back more tears. He hated telling this story. It made him feel like a male Miss Havisham. Like his entire life’s work was just trying to make up for it. “There was this doctor. Old gent. One of those ‘pillars of the community.’ But his roots in Oxford were shallow. His family didn’t remember Maren calling the Civil War for the Roundheads, or even the Glorious Revolution. They thought she was mad. Tried to have her committed.”
Shouting leaked down through the upstairs floorboards, muffled but still audible.
“You’ll remember me when your blood’s mixing with the rain!”
Lawrence slumped down beneath the window. “The stupid bastard slipped on the pavement the next morning. Cracked his head open. His wife got their friends together…”
Elsa nodded. “That’d do it.”
Crackling, a dull roar. The gnawing of wood by flame. Lawrence sniffed. Smoke. He stared up at Elsa. “You wouldn’t…”
A man burst into the bar. A boy, really, but so broad and stocky you could hardly tell, especially not with his face half-masked by a bright red beard.
The sight of his long ago self stung Lawrence like an old war-wound. How could these people be so cruel?
“Maren!” the young man shouted, his accent rougher than what it would become. He scanned wildly around the bar, seeing somewhere altogether different. An ancient house, the man he became remembered, populated by centuries of dust and keepsakes. He called Maren’s name again and charged up the stairs, towards the baleful orange glow at their summit.
Elsa tried pulling Lawrence to his feet. “Get up.”
The man’s voice was quiet, trembling like a child with a broken bone that needed setting. “I don’t want to.”
An electric current coursed through him, spasmodically forcing him upright. “You need to see this.”
On the second floor of Maren’s home, young Lawrence was trying to force his way through a sturdy wooden door. Without thinking, he grabbed for the doorknob, only to shriek as the red hot metal sizzled into the skin of his palm. He tore his hand away, now missing a wide patch of flesh. Still undeterred, he threw his great frame against the door, knocking it down.
“A town tried burning me once,” said Elsa, mildly, “didn’t take, but it hurt like a bitch.”
The former Lawrence stumbled back out onto the landing, Maren cradled in his arms. Flame was turning her silver-dark hair charred and golden. Her whole body was smouldering. Lawrence’s face was twisted with a despair he wouldn’t know again till Panoply, a muted howl on his lips.
“You know, Lawrence. You almost used to be impressive.”
“She was already dead when I got to her,” he said forty-five years later. “Smoke inhalation. A mercy, really.”
Lawrence closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he and the laughing, smiling fiends were back down in the pub. He did not question the transition. “A witch burning. An honest to God witch burning in 1920!”
“More likely than you think,” commented Elsa. “Still happens all the time in bits of Africa and New Guinea. They’re basically where Christians go to hurt people when it becomes unfashionable.”
Myles chuckled. “Just wait till they outlaw sodomy over here.”
Lawrence growled, “But in the middle of Oxford. And they didn’t just destroy some mumbling old beggar-woman—”
“Nice,” said Elsa, deadpan.
“—They killed a wonder. And that’s what humans do. Our ugly, stupid fear spoils everything. Every time.”
Elsa sipped her beer genteely. “You know, I have eighteen sons and daughters, and not one of them has failed to disappoint me. They’re still mine. Do you have any children, Lawrence?”
Lawrence clenched his burnt fist. “Yes. Nearly forty of them. And I will not let my kind use their bones to kill each other.” A groaning sigh. “But what can I do?”
Elsa and Myles looked at each other. A quick, almost invisible nod. The witch turned to look at the headmaster. “What would you give, Doctor, if it would save your students?”
“Anything.” Lawrence had read enough versions of Faust to recognize Mephistopheles when he saw her, but he didn’t care. “Take my life, my soul, whatever it takes.”
Elsa laughed. “Oh Laurie, nothing so dramatic. I just want what’s in your left breast pocket.”
Lawrence’s bones turned to wood. His teeth clenched. What was this woman? Some archivist of shame?
“Laurie, are you telling me that you’d offer up your soul more readily than a lock of hair?”
Lawrence forced himself to remove what he had kept next to his heart for days and nights. A lock of orange-red hair bound by a silver aglet.
Elsa walked over to Lawrence and took the lock from him the way she would pluck a purse off a mannequin’s arm. She turned the hair over in her hands, smiling knowingly. “And who did this come from?”
“It always bothered me, how history goes on and on about great deeds and just forgets about the cost. The hair’s from a student of mine. He was called Pan—Adam. He was called Adam.”
“And why isn’t this attached to his scalp?”
“Was Adam under your guardianship when he died?”
“…Yes. That lock is so I never forget how I failed him.”
Elsa’s hand snapped shut. “Then we have a bargain.”
A metal suitcase appeared on the bar-counter. On its lid were stenciled the words:
Lawrence approached the suitcase warily. “What’s in here?”
“Exactly what it says on the tin,” Myles answered. “Look, friend, do we seem like we’re going to tell you more?”
“I suppose not.”
Lawrence grasped the suitcase’s handle. The cold of the metal rushed up his arm and through his veins like winter seawater. “Please,” he asked quietly, “just send me home.”
“Your students will build nations because of you, Herbert Lawrence.” Elsa said, swirling her wand over her head. “They’ll build worlds. Just remember…”
The bar (and its occupants) dissolved, the grounds of the New Human Institute folding out around Lawrence. All that was left of the witch was her voice:
“…There’ll always be reprisal.”
Lawrence spun on his feet wildly. It was as though all the alcohol or drugs or whatever else that horrible woman had dosed him with had been sucked right out of his system.
He was awake. He was alert. He was back.
The idea terrified Lawrence for a moment. Not what his children might do if they spotted him, or even what Mary might think, but just being at the Institute again. Lawrence felt like he was there to steal a fruit from the Tree of Life. The one thought that kept Lawrence together was that it wasn’t life for himself he sought, but for the children. Always the children.
Lawrence started taking stock. He’d been deposited (he supposed) at the edge of the campus proper, before a thick wall of trees that lay between the Institute and the endless farm-fields and the highway. The sun was nearly set, rose-gilt clouds and the low, burning mountain beneath them giving way to dark wastelands pitted by adventurous early stars. Then he looked down at the suitcase still in his hand—the Solution™, as it proclaimed itself. The only material evidence of his encounter with the “witch” and her lackey, and Lawrence didn’t even know what was inside it.
That had to be corrected. Laying it on top of the long, wanton grass, Lawrence undid the catches and flung the suitcase open.
Lawrence could only describe what he found inside as The Forbidden Planet’s take on hand-grenades. Thirteen small, roughly egg-shaped silver things with raised ridges ringing their outer-surfaces. In the middle of the case was what looked like an expensive graphics calculator with a note sticky-taped to them:
What you are looking at are thirteen powerful, miniature explosives, along with their programmable detonator. They’re infinitely superior to anything you’ll find on the Vantablack market, but mostly for reasons that don’t matter unless you’re digging mine-shafts in the asteroid belt. Point is, you set a time (or times, I guess) and they explode very hard.
Sincerely yours, Myles.
Lawrence tore the note apart in frustration. Bombs? What on Earth was he supposed to do with bombs? Blow the children to smithereens and spare them whatever Timothy had planned for them?
The worst part was, that didn’t seem like the worst plan in the world right then.
Lawrence was about to start weeping again when he saw green flashes in the distance, low rumbles following just behind them.
The tears came anyway. Snapping the suitcase shut again, Lawrence started making his way towards the teleporter. He prayed the boy never realised his part in what was to come.
Galahs and cockatoos screamed and fled on the night-air as Arnold Barnes flung chains of lightning over their perches. The boy wasn’t trying to hurt them. He just liked imagining Aussie birds flitting through South American jungles. Honest.
Things had been alright lately. Yeah, Bryant Cormey was wandering around the place raving about the gospel of Lawrence, but he could be ignored. He was even funny, sometimes. Sure, the older kids seemed to have decided it was time to restore some order for whatever reason, to the point of even letting Mrs Gillespie hold lessons again, but an hour of her trying to educate them wasn’t unbearable.
And yes, Mabel had mostly retreated into a bush court of impossible creatures after admitting she killed a couple hundred people and helped usher in the reign of the asylums, but she’d be fine.
Arnold blasted a low-flying rosella to Paraguay.
She had to be.
Arnold swung around to face the new voice. Oh, how he wished it was new.
“Good evening, Elsewhere.”
The bedraggled sight of Lawrence standing there with his weird metal suitcase made Arnold burn bright. His voice crackled and shrieked with electricity. “What are you doing here? Mrs Gillespie made you go away!”
“I know, and having thought about it, perhaps she was right to.”
Hearing that from Lawrence was like if his mum actually said, “Yes Arnold, you’re right. We should have ice-cream for dinner, forever,” except far less fun. About as likely to end in a heart attack, though.
“I may have done well to listen a touch more. Ask after your feelings about… certain matters.”
“Yeah,” Arnold said flatly, “like how you wanted me and Allie to make babies for you.”
Lawrence had never specifically considered pairing Myriad and Elsewhere, but he imagined they would’ve gotten around to it eventually. “Yes, that particularly.”
Arnold’s glow dimmed somewhat, enough that Lawrence could make out the veins under the boy’s skin. “What do you want, Bertie?”
Lawrence threw his hands up. “Who says I want anything?”
“You always want something.”
God, was that what the children thought? “Well, if you must ask, there is something I could use your assistance with.”
Arnold narrowed his eyes. “You don’t want to be in charge again, do you?”
Lawrence shook his head. “No, nothing like that. I don’t deserve it.” He set the suitcase down on the ground in front of him, opening it for Arnold to inspect. “I need to send these little presents out for me.”
Arnold crouched to get a better look at Lawrence’s gifts. “What are these for? A robot Easter-egg hunt?”
Lawrence let out a slight chuckle. “Do you know what Fabergé eggs are, Elsewhere?”
Arnold straightened. “You promise these aren’t bad?”
“My hand to God.”
“And if I help you, you promise to leave me and Allie and David and all that alone?”
Lawrence sighed. “If that is what you and your friends wish, I will respect it.”
And so they set about their task. Lawrence would call out an address, and Arnold would zap an egg there.
“Try to put them somewhere out of the way if you can,” Lawrence suggested. “I want it to be a surprise.
Some of the addresses felt vaguely familiar to Arnold. Some of them even sounded important to his young ears.
“18 King George Terrace.”
They had about done nine eggs when the questions overwhelmed Arnold. What possible occasion did Lawrence have for sending presents? Why eggs? How were the recipients supposed to know they had even gotten anything? Who were the recipients? And did Northam not have a post-office?
“5 Adelaide Avenue.”
“Come on, boy!” Lawrence almost barked, “We need to get this done!”
“What do you mean why?”
“Why is sending people presents so important?”
“I bet you don’t ask that at Christmastime.”
“I’m serious, why? It’s weird.”
“…You wouldn’t understand.”
Arnold folded his arms. “Then I won’t help you no more.”
Lawrence twitched. He knew what he was about to do was cruel, but if Elsa Lieroinen had taught him anything, sometimes necessity trumped kindness. “Elsewhere, do you remember your young niece?”
“…You think I’d forget her?” Being an uncle still sounded unreal to Arnold. Like someone had bunged up the timestream.
“Well, for reasons of conscience, I did not report her to the DDHA. I could have… and I still could.” Lawrence steeled himself. It was a risky ploy.
To his relief, the little boy went pale, the light inside him dying. “…You wouldn’t.”
Lawrence looked at Arnold sternly. “Much as I detest the asylums, Elsewhere, it still isn’t in the best interest for an infant with your kind of power to be left unsupervised.”
Arnold protested loudly, trying to convince himself as much as the headmaster, “They won’t listen to you! They know you’re a freak now!”
Lawrence closed his eyes sagely. “Whatever the DDHA thinks of me, they’re obligated to investigate reports of ‘demi-human’ activity. And us being on the outs with each other doesn’t mean they’ll let your brother keep little Julia…”
Arnold’s first thought was to just zap the old git into the sun. But then he thought about what Mabel had said around the bonfire. About Circle’s End:
“They were just lying in the dirt. Like they were there but… weren’t.”
Could Arnold make a person… go away like that? Forever? Even someone like Lawrence? He had thought he could, when AU had stolen his mum, but even she didn’t want him to hurt the bloke.
His other thought was to just send Lawrence far away. But anywhere Arnold could think of that Lawrence stood a chance of survival was somewhere he could maybe find a phone…
Lawrence clapped his hands together. “So, shall we finish up here?”
The old man started reciting addresses again. Arnold didn’t pay much attention.
When the eggs were all gone, Lawrence put a hand on his little assistant’s shoulder. “Thank you, Elsewhere. You do not know what good you’ve done for your kind.”
Arnold didn’t answer him, instead fleeing from his touch.
He found David and Allison sitting around the ruins of a fire, chatting and consuming bags of raw marshmallows.
“…So then Snow White’s mum makes herself really ugly—”
The water-sprite was cut off by Arnold flinging himself at him and Allison, wrapping them in a tight, clinging hug.
“Arnold!” Allison cried. “What the hell!”
It dawned on the pair that Arnold was shaking. This wasn’t a happy hug.
“Arnold?” Allison asked again. “What’s the matter?”
“…I think I did something bad.”
In the bed that Therese Fletcher had occupied until recently, Mary Gillespie awoke to a knock on the cottage door, which was surprising enough. The children had become so self-sufficient lately. Still, it was what she was there for.
“Coming,” she called out, trying to keep the blurriness from her voice.
Whoever was waiting for her knocked loud and hard again before Mary had even reached the door. She had to stop for a second and count to five before she opened it.
“Did you have a nightmare, love—oh, Lawrence.”
Her old friend stood in the doorway, like a stray dog that didn’t know it wasn’t welcome. “Mary…”
Mary sighed. “Look, Laurie, I told you, we can’t—”
He threw his arms around the woman, tears dripping onto her neck. “I’m so sorry. So sorry…”
A wretched, silent nod.
Mary found herself stroking Lawrence’s hair. So he got it. He finally got it. She couldn’t really complain about the timing. She’d barely realized what they were before him.
“Well, at least we will all go together…”
Most people assumed Mr. Thumps2 wasn’t very bright. But that was far from the truth. Thanks to the Physician’s strict tank-training and gene tailoring, Mr. Thumps could speak over fifty languages, was skilled in the cuisines of over a hundred countries, was qualified to perform both first-aid along with basic surgical procedures, and couldn’t count how many ways he knew to kill a man.
That is to say, Mr. Thumps knew a bomb when he saw one.
He spotted it while putting away the Valours’ laundry, tucked away in the corner of the linen closet. It sat there in the dark, the ridge around its midsection flashing faster and faster.
Mr. and Mrs Valour were brunching when Thumps strode down the stairs.
Mrs Valour glanced up from her french toast. “Ah, Mr. Thumps, is the laundry done?” She gestured at one of the dining table’s empty chairs. “Why don’t you join us?”
Mr. Thumps liked Valerie Valour. She was one of the few true-humans he knew who didn’t treat him or his brothers and cousins like living furniture. Which is why he proceeded to hoist her over his shoulder like a pulp gorilla.
Valerie screamed. “Thumps! What are you doing?
Her husband shot out of his chair. “The hell are you—”
Mr. Thumps threw Timothy over his back, too. “There is no time to explain.”
The two Valours kicked and clawed at their strange servant as he made his way towards the front door and out to Timothy’s black sedan, throwing them in the back seats. “We are going now.”
Before Tim and Val could do anything, Mr. Thumps was already in the driver’s seat and pulling out of the driveway.
Timothy managed to pull himself upright, leaning in close to shout in Mr. Thumps’ ear. “I don’t know what’s got into your head, Thumps, but this—”
Behind the car, there was a boom like an entire forest falling at once. Valerie had her face pressed against the rear-window.
Their house was on fire, the second floor gone entirely, while flames gushed out of broken windows like tears from dead eyes.
Valerie turned to look at the back of Thumps’ head. “Did you know this was going to happen?”
“It was a good guess,” Thumps said colourlessly as always.
Before either her or Tim could say anything else, more explosions sounded in the distance. Towers of smoke rose around Canberra like petrified world-trees.
Not four seconds later, the Flying Man descended upon the city.
Valerie grabbed her husband’s arm.
“Timothy? What’s happening?”
The New Human Crisis had begun.
1. An obscure also-ran poet and artist of questionable peccadillos, Ralph Chubb is mostly remembered for his bizarre prophecy that the island of Albion would one day be redeemed by the boy-god Ra-el-phaos: “…a Young Boy of thirteen years old, naked perfect and unblemished.” Despite several false-starts, this has yet to occur. ↩
2. Drone #627 with family. ↩