The army convoy slowly crept down the moonlit Great Eastern Highway, as though wary of attracting the gaze of the stars above. An American-donated humvee led a coterie of armoured troop-carriers down the pitch black road: a bee marshalling a parade of wasps. In their wake, four trucks dragged spired chambers carved from what looked like rough volcanic rock. “Quiet Vans,” their inventor called them. The road was so narrow, the entire procession could only drive in single file.
Someone had wanted to bring a tank, but the powers that be decided that would fall in the odd overlap between far-too-much and not-nearly-enough.
Alberto was pretty sure it had been an American.
The psychic rode in one of the cramped transports, reeking of sweat and sandwiched shoulder-to-shoulder between two soldiers on a hard metal bench, their gun-barrels crossed in front of his chest. The cabin was filled with more shadow than light, yet glaringly bright to Alberto’s eyes. Swirls of hot yellow fear, nebulas of blue curiosity, even a shameful cloud of excitement. Alberto wasn’t surprised to find that some of the boys were looking forward to testing their mettle against real supers. At least some of them were rightly scared shitless. And then there were the smart ones. The ones who knew that—whatever happened at the New Human Institute—none of them would be getting into Heaven that night.
“Feels weird, fighting kids,” one of the soldiers mused. He was an American (a very southern American, by the sound of him) whose broad features stood out in the gloom like Mount Rushmore at night. DOPO had insisted on there being an American presence on the raid. They had lost people too, the US consulate insisted, and they would have their pound of flesh.
Alright, the last part was mostly inference on Alberto’s part. Even so, he supposed the DDHA was in no position to turn down the help. After the bombings, the Australian government mostly consisted of Timothy Valour and Harold Holt1. For now, they were about as independent as the average banana republic.
“You aren’t fighting kids yet,” Alberto reminded him. With surprising vehemence, he added, “And if you have any sense, better hope you keep not fighting them.”
One of the Australian soldiers replied, “Can you really even call them kids? When they’re that strong…”
“Even gods have childhoods, Private Warren.”
Every other head in the transport snapped to look at the one woman among them. Alberto had been issued an ADF uniform for the mission, but Strikepoint looked like she had wandered in from the movie playing in the next theatre. She wore a black domino mask, with a charcoal grey body-glove broken up by cobwebs of glow-paint lightning. Her chest bore a pair of scales weighing a white feather. A swan’s, she had mentioned to Alberto back in Exmouth. Her hands meanwhile had been left bare, by specific request, apparently.
Alberto was almost certain she had been sourced from the asylums. She had the same buzz cut Allison had when he first met her.
Damn it, why did he let himself think about Allison? About any of them?
“Know that for a fact, do you?” Private Warren asked, a forced smile to his voice.
Strikepoint simply answered, “I did.”
The cabin went quiet again.
Fuck, Alberto thought to himself. Since when did superheroes have such big egos?
But was it ego? Alberto’s powers offered no answers. Trying to read Strikepoint’s mind was like attempting to parse constellations at the centre of the galaxy. It was as if her whole body was made of latticed thought.
Is she some sort of projection?
Alberto winced as he turned towards the American. “Yes, Wilkins?”
“Psi-Man” was his code name for the operation. It was almost as bad as “Tiresias” but at least nobody expected him to use it on his own time. He’d put his foot down at the costume, though. The DDHA had wanted him to do this in a high-collared cape and the turban. Apparently, he and Strikepoint were meant to represent “a new, more socially responsible tradition of superheroism.”
“Sergeant says you can see the future? That true?”
“Some of them.”
“Trillions. At least.”
Wilkins thought he was making the word up.
“He’s right,” Strikepoint interjected. “Some dooms are fixed, but the rest of it…” She waved her hand. Her fingernails cut faint trails in the black. “People—societies—they always want something outside themselves to blame.”
One of the Australians whispered, “Blimey.”
On that note, the carrier came to a halt. Alberto half-expected the darkness to slosh about like water inside an aquarium. Instead the doors opened, diluting the shadow.
Alberto stood up as straight as he could without scraping the roof. “Well, time to pick our doom.”
Soldiers bustled about the road, setting up road blockades or assembling before their commanding officers. Some, Alberto knew, were armed with Physician-made tranquillisers, along with high-impact and explosive rounds.
Others just had plain old bullets.
It didn’t take long for the major to find the two superhumans. He was a short, stockily built older man, with brown hair graying at the temples like wood ash and a pencil mustache. Something about his air reminded Alberto of Arnold Barnes’ father. Only taller.
He shook Strikepoint’s hand. “Good to see you, Miss… Strikepoint. I’m Major Yellick. Valour’s put me in charge of this show.”
Strikepoint nodded. “He told me about you. Said you served together in the war.”
Major Yellick allowed himself a small smile. “Yes. If the camera had been aimed a little differently, I might be the one on all the comic covers.”
Alberto raised an eyebrow. “Think a lot of yourself, do we?”
Major Yellick almost slapped the weedy looking wog around the ear for insubordination, but then he spotted the red “SS” badge on his breast2. “You’re Psi-Man, I take it?” He did not offer Alberto his hand. Tim had been very clear on that.
“If you must.”
Tim had also told him to expect lip. If anything, he should be worried if none was forthcoming. He returned it in-kind. “Yes, Psi-Man. I must.”
“Can we just get this over with?”
“Glad to see we’re on the same page about this.” Yerrick’s gaze drifted downward. He cleared his throat. “Are the targets asleep?”
“They’re not targets,” said Strikepoint firmly. “Not like that. I’m just here for deterrence.”
“Ah, my apologies… but are they?”
Alberto closed his eyes, casting his third eye towards the Institute. Dozens of low, dreamy clusters of light, mostly concentrated in the dorms. A few bright stragglers and scattered sleepers, but Alberto had been expecting that.
“About as close to all of them as we can hope for.”
Alberto sighed. “Her too.”
“Right then.” Major Yerrick took his walkie-talkie off his belt. “Positions, everyone. Operation: Prometheus commences in minus ten minutes.”
The bulk of the seventy-five strong task force broke up into ten squads of five and crept like wolves into the trees bordering the west side of the highway. The remaining twenty-five men phalanxed around Strikepoint and Alberto, Major Yerrick taking spearpoint.
They marched to a dirt turnoff into the bush. It had no signpost—just as the property owner liked it. As the squad started down the path, under the shadow of bent, curious trees, Alberto started thinking one thought very hard:
DON’T PAY US ATTENTION! DON’T PAY US ATTENTION!
It was a simple enough trick. He used to pull it all the time playing hide and seek with Françoise.3
He’d never done it with so many hangers-on, though. The pressure in his ears felt like he was in a plane taking off from the bottom of the sea.
“You’re really making us invisible, esper?” Strikepoint asked.
Alberto screwed his eyes shut before blinking rapidly. “Not exactly. You ever notice the air in front of your face?”
“I might be the wrong person to answer that.”
“Then please stop talking.”
Strikepoint’s usual edifice of sage reserve cracked. “Oh sorry.”
Alberto put his fingers to his forehead. That usually told idiots he was doing psychic stuff—even when he wasn’t.
He’d never realised how long the path to the Institute was, or how fast you could reach the end by foot. He threw a hand up before the squad turned the last bend, along with a general vibe of “hold up.”
Yerrick glanced over his shoulder at Alberto. The psychic nodded back.
The major steeled himself. “Wilkins, you’re up.”
The soldiers parted to let the American make his way to the front.
He saluted the major. “Awaiting orders, sir!”
Yerrick regarded the private. He was so young. Couldn’t be more than twenty-two. He still had freckles. Who thought giving this job to someone with freckles was a good idea? Had he done well on an infiltration course4? He put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Private, you’re going to hear a voice in your head. That’s just Psi-Man, you understand?”
“Make sure you follow his instructions exactly as he gives them.” Yerrick felt like he was handing over his kid to a babysitter. “If you argue or try to resist, you might break his concentration.”
And then the super-children murder us all.
Both men winced.
“What he said.”
“Remember, son, you’re not just doing this for your country, you’re doing it for mine, and every other country where human beings make their homes.”
“If you pull this off, you might be well be saving the lives of every child at this school.”
Wilkins didn’t know why the major was trying to hammer it in so hard. He was a soldier. This was his job. “Yes, sir!”
“Good luck, soldier.”
The private trode on ahead, turning the corner and emerging onto the New Human Institute, before hopping the fence and wading out into the night-covered grass. Looking around at the silhouetted buildings and other, less definable shapes in the distance, Wilkins’ mind rapidly flicked between his family’s farm back in New England, and the forgotten, degenerate towns that dotted Lovecraft’s vision of the East Coast.
Priority Alpha is in the farmhouse, get a move on.
Private Wilkins obeyed, climbing the slope towards the looming manor.
The soldier swung around, the light on his rifle shining on a blonde teenage girl with a younger boy heading right for him.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
Private Wilkins did just that, not that he had much of a choice in the matter. Fear nailed his feet to the earth.
“…So he said ‘Well, maybe when it comes Allie can be the midwife.’ He seriously thought I was going to let a nine year old be my midwife!”
The pair passed by Wilkins without comment. Once he was sure they were out of earshot, he whispered, “How…”
I made you less interesting than the dirt you’re standing on. Trust me, it wasn’t hard. Now get on with it!
Private Wilkins soon reached the farmhouse. The front door wasn’t locked. Why would it be?
Inside, the only sources of light were a few strategically placed candles. Wilkins didn’t need them. He found himself navigating the darkened, rambling house like it was his own. He even turned his scope-light off. Why make Psi-Man’s job harder for him? Directions came not as words, but pure impulse.
He climbed the stairs to the top floor, and opened the second door on the right:
She was asleep, thank God, lying under a thin white duvet.
Through Private Wilkins’ eyes, Alberto watched Françoise Barthe’s chest rise and fall.
He’d tried arguing for her, he really had.
“For God’s sake, Valour! She could win Vietnam for you!”
Timothy Valour had turned his back to Alberto while he stared out the window of his new office. “She’s also unstable and aggressive. There’s no way she’ll go along with the removal.”
“I know you could. Ethics aside, what happens if you let the reigns slip?”
“We drown, that’s what happens.”
“…Can you blame her?”
“I offered her a sensible, humane alternative. I offered them all that. They didn’t listen.”
Private Wilkins lowered his rifle and raised his sidearm, cocking back the pistol’s hammer as he stalked closer to the Priority’s bedside.
It needs to be a headshot, right through the brain. If she even gets a second to use her powers, you will die. We will all die.
Wilkins aimed his gun just above the woman’s ear, the end almost getting tangled in the gold of her hair. His fingers wrapped around the trigger—
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They’d told him this woman was a fearsome, mighty sea-witch, more a goddess than a super. But now she just looked like a woman…
She’s more dangerous than any hero or villain you’ve heard of. She could fight the Flying and win. Easily. You have to—
The woman stirred. Her blue, gleaming eyes locked with Wilkins’ own. “What—”
Wilkins’ finger twitched. Alberto heard the bang.
The private watched as the body collapsed into water, soaking into the mattress and spilling down the sides. Soon, all that was left of Françoise Barthe was the blood on Wilkins’ face.
“Psi-Man,” he said aloud, like he was speaking to God. “She—are you seeing this?”
“Is—is she dead?”
Alberto closed his eyes. Françoise’s lights were gone. “Yes Wilkins, you did it. You fucking did it.”
The psychic felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Strikepoint’s. “Moretti, are you alright?”
Alberto brushed it off. He could find no traction on the woman’s mind, but right now he couldn’t bring himself to care. “I just helped assassinate my oldest friend. No, I’m not.” He looked over at Major Yellick. “Tell the men to start the roundup. I don’t want to be anywhere near this shithole by sunup.”
The Watercolours were panicking. It was the only sensible thing to do.
“What the hell is going on?” Arnold cried. “Why’d Mavis… do that?”
Mabel got in Allison’s face and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Did you say there was shooting?”
“That’s what it sounded like!”
Billy was tearily repeating, “Not a good game—not a good game—not a good game…”
In the middle of it all, David stamped his foot and shouted with as much of mother in his voice as he could muster, “Everyone shut up!”
The others fell silent.
David raised a hand. His eyes were burning. “People are coming.”
In the distance, torchlights cut through the trees like phantom axes.
By the time the vanguard of the gamma squad reached the Watercolours, the four children were sitting around a renewed campfire, each with a hand of playing cards.
The squad-leader’s scope-light fell on David’s back while he shuffled the deck. The soldier called out to his comrades, “Y’all get your asses up here, I’ve found them!”
The Watercolours didn’t look up from their cards, listening impassively as the heavy-booted footsteps amassed around them.
“Alright kids, it’s over.”
“Go fish,” Billy said.
“We’re playing poker, Growly,” said Mabel.
The squad-leader and his gathered troops exchanged confused glances. Did these kids even realize they were there? Did they care?
“…Look, we’re not here to hurt you!”
“We know,” said Arnold.
A storm of green lightning struck the meadow, illuminating it like green sunrise, but one gone as fast as it started. Arnold’s empty pool came alive with shouting and wild, chittering gunfire.
Allison dropped down from the trees above the patch of grass where the soldiers had been standing, now luna-barren. She tried shouting over the bullets still screeching up from the crater, “What were they doing?”
Mabel put her hand to her ear, “What?”
“I said, ‘What were they doing?’ ”
“I can’t hear you!”
Allison pointed her fingers over her shoulders. A dozen or so trees behind the girl suddenly found themselves uprooted above the crater. The soldiers screamed as they rained down upon them. The gunfire stopped.
“They dead?” Allison asked flatly, already knowing the answer.
Billy carefully approached the groaning pit, poking his head over the rim just enough to be able to peer at the mess of broken trunks, branches, and khaki-clothed limbs. “Are you fellas okay down there?”
The human bush swore almost as one entity.
Billy frowned. “Don’t be rude! You pointed guns at us!”
One of the buried soldiers gasped out, “Fuck off, Paddington Bear.”
“That doesn’t even make sense!”
Mabel joined Billy at the edge, along with the red-suited spacewoman. The astronaut pointed her raygun down at the soldiers. “Please tell the children why you’re here, fellow travellers.”
“We’re getting you freaks back. For what you did to Canberra!”
Arnold looked at David. “Wait, are they talking about you and Allie’s show?”
The water-sprite shrugged. “I thought we were pretty—”
A wave of perfect, unnatural silence washed over the clearing, drowning David’s words the moment they passed his lips.
Arnold tried to ask what was going on, but it was like he was trapped in a muted TV set. He couldn’t even hear his own thoughts. For a brief, horrible moment, Allison couldn’t hear any songs.
A second later, sound rushed back into the world.
“What was that?” asked Mabel.
Something fast and bright flitted past the girl.
“I don’t know,” answered Allison. She tilted her ear, trying to regain her hold on the Institute’s musical landscape. “Something’s—”
She took off running, back towards the Institute.
Arnold tried to run after her. “Allie! Wait up!”
The boy couldn’t hope to keep up with his friend’s inhuman speed and grace. Not after what she had heard.
It could be debated whether soldiers are very bad or in fact rather good at getting children out of bed. Alberto and Major Yellick’s men scoured the dormitories, their screamed orders jarring the students out of their dreams, while rough hands and rifle-butts forced them drowsy and bewildered out into the night.
The soldiers started to shepherd the crying, confused children towards the Institute’s wood and wire gate. Lana was being frog-marched by a pair of Americans in some twisted gesture of chivalry when she caught sight of Alberto:
“Bertie! What the hell are you doing here?” She squinted at his uniform. “When’d you join the army?”
Alberto shouted back, “Just keep doing what they tell you. It’ll be alright as long as you don’t fight!”
Louise and Tom each had an arm around Bella, trying to support the sobbing younger girl and keep up with the other children, ahead of the soldiers’ gunpoints.
“Why are they doing this to us?” Louse whispered.
“It doesn’t matter,” Tom answered. “They don’t need a reason.”
Louise hoped Bella didn’t hear him.
Strikepoint watched it all from the farmhouse verandah, her hand scorching the balustrade where she grasped it. Her thoughts were of a night thousands of sunrises gone—of children being led from a burning city towards the living death of slavery and worse.
It has to be better than that. Valour swore to me.
The newly minted superheroine searched the faces of the children below. Was Allison Kinsey among them? She wondered if Dr. Carter would think well of her “help.”
Something caught her eye. A gaggle of soldiers shouting at a pearly, iridescent dome and hammering their rifles against it.
This looked like a job for Strikepoint.
One of the soldiers, an Australian with an unfortunately patchy beard, bellowed, “You’re only making things worse yourselves!” He nodded at one of his fellows. “Do it.”
The other army man turned his gun the right way around and fired at the dome. It expanded explosively, knocking the troops closest to the ground and throwing up a crest of sod.
“What’s going on here?”
The soldiers all scrambled to attention (and their feet) seemingly racing to see who could salute Strikepoint first. She folded her arms and tried to smile wryly. “You do realize I’m not your CO, right boys?”
The badly shaved Aussie’s shoulders dropped slightly. “Yeah, but you know… superhero.”
It was funny, the instinctive respect a dollop of spirit-gum and a strip of fabric across the bridge of her nose could afford. It reminded Strikepoint of the masks the priests once wore. “Suit yourselves.” She pointed past the men at the bubble. “Still looks like you could use some help.”
The lead soldier’s face hardened. “There’s a couple demis hiding under there. They’re refusing to drop… whatever that thing is.”
So they got to be demis, while she was a superhero. Odd. “Of course they aren’t, you’re waving guns at them. Move aside.”
They obeyed. Wise. Strikepoint knelt in front of the shining bubble. She could see the shadows of two children huddling at the centre of it. It had been nearly two hundred years since she’d mothered any child, but she tried her best to remember. “Listen, I don’t blame you for doing this. I know we’re being scary, and you don’t deserve this.”
One of the soldiers tried to object, but Strikepoint threw her hand up, sunlight blazing beneath her palm. He shut up.
“Things will get better. I promise.”
The dome dessicated and faded away, revealing a grimy little girl and a boy with sand-blond hair. Strikepoint wanted to ask which of them created the force-field. She didn’t.
The girl said, “You really promise?”
Strikepoint smiled gently. “On the River Styx.” She took the pair by the hands, helping them up from the ground. She was doubly glad she’d turned down gloves. “That’s deadly serious.”
They started walking towards what Strikepoint couldn’t help but think as the chokepoint.
“Are you a superhero?” asked the boy.
Strikepoint felt the children’s hands relax slightly in hers.
It was a strange mask she wore.
Alberto was leaning against the fence when the soldiers dragged over what was left of the NHI’s staff like a cut-rate Roman triumph.
“We found them in the cottages.”
Bryant Cormey struggled against a pair of handcuffs. He spat at Alberto, “Traitor!”
Alberto ignored the teacher. He was going straight for Vercingetorix. He pushed aside past the soldiers that were flanking the headmaster and grabbed Lawrence by the front of his mouldering suit-jacket. “I fucking knew it.”
Lawrence’s voice was low, almost a whimper. “I tried, Tiresias.”
Mary was weeping into her nightgown. The soldiers at her side looked like they wanted to offer her a handkerchief. “Why are you doing this, Alberto?”
Alberto shared a look with the old woman, regret passing briefly over his features. “I’m sorry, Mrs G.” He glared back at Lawrence. “You’ll have to ask him.” Alberto turned around and walked away from the teachers, telling the soldiers, “Put them with the kids. I’m sure Tim will figure out what to do with them. Once he’s done buying me a fucking drink.”
The teachers were taken to the gate, where their students stood huddled before Major Yerrick and his praetorians, guns aimed at them from all sides.
Strikepoint fed the former Abalone and Veltha into the crowd, trying to reassure the pair as she left them to join the major.
“Please don’t drag this out,” she warned Yellick.
Alberto was with them soon enough.
Yellick asked, “Is this everyone?”
Alberto closed his eyes, opening them again almost immediately. Close enough. “Yep.”
Yellick turned to the children and started speaking: his steady, well-calloused voice clear over their tears or questions. “You are all charged with defying official DDHA orders, as well as attempting to intimidate agents. Furthermore, you are also charged orchestrating terror attacks in Perth, the ACT, and Washington D.C, resulting in at least five hundred deaths, including many members of Federal Parliament.”
The students’ confusion reached new heights.
“What the hell are you on about?” shouted Linus.
Already in his mechanical form, Troy buzzed, “They’re trying to stitch us up!”
Mary Gillespie was clutched Lawrence’s arm. “Laurie, why are they saying these things?”
She saw the vacant, staring look on the old man’s face.
“Laurie… what did you do?”
Yellick continued, ignoring all protests. “The Commonwealth of Australia is willing to show you children clemency. Through service, you may repay your country.”
Bryant Cormey started laughing, high and horse. “You see what you’ve done? You fucking kids took something glorious and turned it into shite! Threw away a future for a few weeks of frolicking!”
“Someone’s picked up the boss-man’s vocab,” Alberto muttered.
Mary begged the other teacher. “Please, Bryant. Don’t make it worse for them.”
Cormey kept on raving. “They deserve it!” He gestured around at the children. “Look at them! Gods cowering at Neanderthals with metal sticks!”
“Cormey,” Lawrence sighed. “It’s over. Let’s try and go with some dignity.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“Be quiet, sir,” ordered Strikepoint, trying not to look at a white-haired boy crying into his hands at the edge of the crowd. “You’re frightening the children.”
A choked, manic giggle. “And who are you? The freak-finders’ pet demi?” He pantomimed peering at Strikepoint. “Are you even a super? Or did they just dress up some whore and hoped we bought it?”
“You don’t know what I am.”
There was no real reason for Strikepoint to have done anything when Bryant Cormey ran at her, screaming at the top of his tired lungs. He was a handcuffed, half-mad cultist whose world was falling apart. She, by definition, could not die.
But she was so angry.
Lightning lashed from Strikepoint’s eyes, striking Cormey right in his heart. He fell face forward in the dirt, the stench of burnt hair and flesh rising from his body.
She hadn’t meant to kill the poor fool.
Screaming. So much screaming. Children caught between their fear of what just happened and the guns still trained on them.
The wind screamed too, trying to match its mistress. Bella was on the ground, her hands over her head. Her unnatural, private hurricane tore blindly at soldier, student, and staff alike. Strikepoint tried to soothe the air, but the girl had a deathgrip on it.
“Is this one of you?” Yellick yelled over the roar. “Stop it immediately!”
Mary fought the wind, painfully forcing her way over to Bella and pulling her into an embrace.
“Please, she’s just scared!”
She shouldn’t have given Yellick something to aim at.
Mrs Gillespie collapsed, Bella Wilson still in her arms. Their blood mixed in the grass.
The children’s shouting and screams died. Louise stared at her teacher and her friend. “…Bella?”
Tom looked right at Major Yellick. His voice shook. “You—you fucks.”
Strikepoint had her hand over her mouth. “No…”
Alberto shook his head at the major. “They were an old lady and a fucking kid.”
“Mary!” Lawrence ran to Mrs Gillespie’s side, falling to his knees and draping himself over her body, weeping. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”
Mavis eyes raked over the soldiers, her whole body shaking. When she finally her voice was wrong—like she was trying to build words out of the drone of locusts and hornets:
You bastards! You murdering fucking bastard—
The sound tightened and bended through the air, lancing through the inner ears of half a dozen soldiers. Their eyes exploded from their heads in great bursts of blood.
Someone got off a lucky shot, but the spell was broken. The children fought back.
Tom’s ghost charged at a soldier. He passed through the man, taking most of his insides with him. The soldier’s mates fell upon and tried firing at the boy, but it was like trying to slay mist. Their bullets whizzed through him right into each other.
Tom glared contemptuously at the men bleeding their last around him, tears running down his face like rain on glass. White fuckers and their guns.
All around, troops were being sucked under the earth, down into new, unmarked graves. Dolls and toys clawed their way out of the Institute’s soil, clambering up legs to gouge out eyes and force their way down throats. Force fields opened over soldiers and snapped shut, leaving only piles of torn fabric and gristle. Others were smashed by invisible hammers, their legs snapping beneath them as their brains were driven into their ribcage.
Not all the children fought. Sheilah and Bran were running towards one of her tears, hoping to find refuge in the darkness, the former pulling her little sister behind them.
“I’m scared!” Dawn cried, light spilling wildly from her body.
Sheilah breathlessly tried reassuring her. “We’ll be alright, Dawnie! We just need to—”
The three passed into the dark. A bullet followed.
Louise was facing down five men alone. They kept pouring ammo into her, bullets falling undeformed at her feet as she walked steadily towards them. Every round made her glow brighter, till her skin was a white corona. All that kinetic energy had to go somewhere…
She clapped. The shockwave stripped muscle from bone.
It wasn’t completely one-sided. A clutch of burning soldiers managed to land a wild shot at Brian Peters’ head as they danced from his fire.
Brian Peters died. His flames did not.
Troy’s approach was simple. He grabbed a soldier, and pounded their face with his bronze, hydraulic powered fists till they no longer had a head.
Problem was, that left him exposed.
An explosive round went off in the boy’s side. Hundreds of error messages flashed across his mind in a single second. The missing chunk of himself shifted frantically between exposed, blasted metal struts and bloodied ribs, before settling on the machine. The light in his glass eyes went out.
Strikepoint kept throwing herself between the students and the soldiers, letting bullets and God knew what else draw gold ichor from her. She didn’t know what to do. Men were dying. Men were dying trying to murder children.
“Please, we can stop this! We can all stop!”
Alberto was white as death. Lights he knew as well as the stars were going out all around. The ones that kept shining were doing things even he couldn’t have imagined. Couldn’t have considered. The whole Institute was flooded with light as black as smoke.
The psychic grabbed onto Major Yellick’s arm, turning the man around to face him. “Call them off!”
The major was staring at the carnage, forgotten by soldier and child alike. Slowly, he answered, “I don’t think I can.”
Alberto shook the man. “Do something—” He shuddered. Robert Carrol just got a rifle butt to the head. He could feel the blood clotting in the boy’s brain. Staggering backwards, he stammered, “I can’t be here. I have to get away…”
Alberto ran for the trees. A familiar, reliable thought returned to Major Yellick’s awe-drunk mind:
He ran after the telepath. “Get back here, Moretti! Get back here!”
Linus wandered numbly through the pockets of violence. His surviving foster-sister was launching white phosphorus at soldiers as they tried to mow down Jeremy, who was busy using his force-bubbles like a millstone on some of their comrades.
So many of his brothers had been heroes. Warriors. But Lucius Owens was not bred for battle. He could stop it, though. He didn’t have his guitar, but still had his voice.
Linus breathed in, feeling the notes assemble themselves before him—
He felt the air cleave next to him
It almost felt like he’d been punched in the ribs. Linus’ hand went to his side. It came up bloody. As he fell backwards, an anti-note escaped him. It grew, gorging itself on the screams and the gunfire, leaving only scraps of silence in its wake.
All fighting came to a halt.
There was a man.
No, not a man. Not quite. His hair was like flame, his skin gold, clothed in a cloak woven from a thousand dawns. He was taller than any human man, and seemed somehow more real than everyone and everything around him: a three-dimensional object descended into a two-dimensional space.
Everyone who could still stand was gripped by an urge to kneel before the newcomer. All except for Strikepoint.
He was family, after all.
Apollo, lord of song ran to Linus’ side. He fell to his knees when he saw the blood seeping from Linus’ side, despair breaking across his perfect features. “My son,” he moaned, holding the boy’s head to his chest, “my son, what have they done to you?
Linus’ breath rattled. “Hey, Dad.”
Lawrence finally looked up from Mary and Bella. “My God,” he said, staring at the god. “You are real.”
The god ignored the old man. There was nothing else in creation but his son. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I left you…”
“Don’t—it’s fine, Dad. It’ll all be fine…”
Linus trailed off. He never came back.
Apollo wailed. His grief was like the sun setting at the end of the world.
Strikepoint approached the mournful deity. “Brother, I know how this feels—”
Apollo leapt to his feet, spinning around to face Strikepoint. With a sunburst, he conjured a bow and aimed it at the superheroine’s heart. “No,” he said. “You don’t.”
One of the surviving soldiers fired at the pair. The bullet dropped a few inches from Apollo, the grass beneath catching fire as it melted into a glowing red puddle.
The soldier’s expletive was choked by a cough. His skin bubbled like boiling lava with sores and pustules. He died choking on his own blood and screams.
Apollo didn’t even look back at the man. Tonelessly, he said “Take off the mask.”
Strikepoint removed and threw aside her domino mask, staring at Apollo with her almost-black eyes.
“Why did you come here?”
“I wanted to help—”
Apollo roared, grabbing Helen by the neck and lifting her off the ground. His bright eyes had become solar eclipses, rimmed by white light. “You led these fools here! Made them brave!”
The goddess did not struggle. Instead, she wheezed out, “Athena…”
Above the Institute, a mountain of cloud swelled and thundered. Lightning lit its dark face, briefly revealing the towering, regal silhouette of an armour-clad, spear-toting woman.
Pallas Athena, king of all the gods.
Her voice showered over the Institute like iron rain:
“Apollo, do put down our sister.”
The god tossed Helen to the dirt. The goddess gasped, savouring the taste of air again. Deep gold bruises were forming around her collarbone.
“Helen of Sparta, why have you drawn my eye?”
“My son died trying to put a stop to the fight she started! And now she tries to hide behind you!”
The thunder stirred again. “I was not asking you, Apollo. You will get your chance to speak.”
Helen managed to get back on her feet, looking up at the sky. “My king, I beg your aid.”
A sigh rippled through the grass. “Sister, what have you done now?”
Shame like acid coursed through Helen. Was that her role in the world? Inflicting her mistakes on anyone who crossed her path? “The children need us.”
Apollo sneered at a pile of minced soldier. “I think they can look after themselves.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Helen didn’t stop speaking. “The people who rule this country, they’ll never let the children live. Not after this. They’ll hound the children to the ends of the Earth.”
Apollo glanced around at the cowed students, his inner glow throwing veils of shadows across their faces. “These children’s brutality was half of what killed my Lucius. I don’t care what becomes of them.”
“I think your son would.”
Apollo turned to find Lana sitting beside Linus’ body. She was stroking his face, trying to comfort a boy who wasn’t there anymore.
Slowly, the god knelt down beside the girl. He studied the young woman’s face. “…You loved him, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did. We all did. He was my brother.”
For a moment, god and mortal spoke in the perfect language of silence.
Apollo noticed the young woman’s bump. “Was he—”
Lana shook her head. “No. Not this time. His son’s out there, though. I think he’s safe, but I don’t…” She went silent for a moment. “I hope I can see him again.”
Apollo nodded. “What else would a mother wish for?”
Helen found the dirty little girl and the sand-haired boy again in the crowd. The presence of gods and a talking cloud in their midst didn’t appear to interest them. They were looking at each other—and themselves—like they were strangers. Their faces and hands were stained with blood.
Time to be a superhero.
“Your son would rest easier knowing his family was safe, I should think.”
Apollo sighed. “He would.”
The anger had drained from his lyre of a voice. It was resigned; tired and empty.
The human mien fell away. The sun burned high in the night sky, banishing the stars behind its glare.
“Three years durance, Helen. Our years.5”
Helen nodded. “I understand.”
“Athena, take them away.”
“It will be done.”
Tom finally worked up the nerve to speak. “Excuse me…. Ma’am? Couldn’t you just bring everyone back? Linus?” He took a deep breath. “…Bella?”
Lightning flickered within the cloud. The goddess’ shadow seemed somehow pensive.
Tom didn’t know thunder could sound gentle:
“I’m sorry child, but some things are beyond even our powers.”
Tom wondered what the point of them was then.
The cloud twirled long and thin, swirling around the misplaced sun like the rings of Saturn.
Fine, gleaming chains of adamantine sprouted around Helen’s wrists.
The sun and its ring descended towards the goddess, growing ever brighter. “When your durance is up, you will return to this place. You’ll meet two heroes, and join their cause till its end.”
“How will I know them?”
“One will be my son’s kin, the other… not.”
“You’ll know him when you see him.”
Lawrence started shouting, “Wait! Please, I’m sorry—”
He was dignified no answer.
The sun engulfed Helen. The light was blinding.
The children were gone. All that remained were the soldiers, Lawrence, and their shared victims.
1. He was out swimming when the bombs went off. ↩
2. Alberto sometimes wondered if the bloke who came up with the “sanctioned super” badges realized what he’d done or not. He wasn’t sure which would be worse. Or funnier. ↩
3. It was really the only way he stood a chance. ↩
4. In fact, Private Jerry Wilkins had scored high on three DOPO psychic sensitivity tests. ↩
5. Due to their somewhat broader view on time, the Olympians traditionally measure nine of our years as one. ↩