“Whether or not the mooches and parasites wish to admit it, the days of the mediocre pinning down the exceptional beneath state and church are over. The Flying Man did not heed the whining of politicians and so called ‘patriots’ when he snatched the atom from their fumbling hands, and neither shall the rest of his kind. The true superman’s only code is their own will and ambition, and the base and common live at their sufferance—“
Timothy Valour switched off the tape-player. Ayn Rand was a powerful motivator, but only in very precise doses1.
It was nearly two in the morning, but pale blue light was slicing through the gap in Valour’s new office curtains. Between the streetlights and fluorescent lamps leering from every high rise window in Melbourne, it was as though dawn had snuck past the wall of night.
What was left of the Australian parliament had fled Canberra to its Victorian birthplace, and Timothy of course had followed. Someone had to hold things together. Not that he would’ve claimed to be doing a good job.
Valour hadn’t seen his own bed in days. Whenever he tried picturing his wife or his house (whether intact or burned and blasted) all that came to him was more paperwork, lined with terse, official prose that failed to mask the panic bleeding from every word like wet ink. His life had been reduced to urgent, frantic meetings with shell-shocked politicians and angry Americans with hungry eyes. At least the mother country was keeping its distance, for now.
Operation Prometheus had turned into a massacre. Every student at the New Human Institute was dead or missing. Agent Moretti has been killed, his body whisked away by the Americans before a coroner could get a look in. Major Yerrick, Tim’s last surviving war buddy, was found burned to death, his flesh mingled with molten rock. The only soldier who’d returned from the mission was Françoise Barthe’s assassin, and Tim didn’t even want to think about what had become of him.
One of those facts was about to change.
Tim was still enough of a soldier to notice when the shouting started seeping through his window. He didn’t even have time to check before his young secretary barged in, all decorum forgotten.
“Sir, I think you need to see this.”
Almost the entire overburdened night-shift had spilled out onto the front lawn of the provisional DDHA Headquarters. They were pointing and gawking at dozens of hogtied soldiers, screaming and thrashing against their rough rope bindings.
And above it all, the Flying Man, floating in the night sky.
Timothy slowly approached the one bound man who wasn’t wearing a uniform. He was well past fighting age, clad in a ruined green suit and sporting a washed out red beard.
Tim tried to resist kicking the old man. “Herbert,” he spat.
Dr. Lawrence stared up at his former friend with resigned, wet eyes. “I’m sorry, Tim.”
Timothy didn’t answer him, instead turning his gaze up towards the Flying Man. The superhuman was looking down at the crowd with open contempt. Tim felt like he was looking right at him. Maybe he was.
Tim shouted up at the sky. “What the hell do you want from me?” The shout became a scream, “What was I supposed to do!”
Joe Allworth gave no answer, his shadow shrinking against the Moon as he left the old soldier alone in the crowd.
On a dark, grassy shore, three children came into existence. They were very confused.
David shouted, “Where are we?”
Billy looked desperately at Mabel. “Did we do something wrong? Why’d Allie zap us?”
“How should I know?” Mabel yelled back, regretting it immediately as the tiger-boy burst into tears.
Another green flash lit the night, depositing Arnold and Allison amongst the children. They were holding hands.
Mabel jumped backwards, dropping her picture-binder before shaking off the shock and marching up to Allison, scowling right in her face. “What the hell, Allie?”
Allison blinked dazedly at Mabel. The other girl’s face was tattooed with bold, angular chains of nested cubes and chevrons, flowing and interlocking with each other like drakes of architecture. They glowed bright pink in the morning, pulsing softly in the morning dark with the faintest ice-blue edging. Had they been there before?
Allison swayed on her feet. “Sorry, Mabs. Had to get you somewhere safe?”
“Safe from what?”
“The soldiers, the Flying Man,” answered Allison absently.
“What?” David asked. “The Flying Man was there? What was he doing?”
Allison looked at the water-sprite. She could see all of him now, all at once. The brown little boy, the water, the ice…
“Dunno,” she said. “Gosh, you’re pretty, David.”
David wrinkled his nose and looked at Arnold questioningly. “What’s wrong with Allie? Her eyes…”
“I—I don’t know.” The boy wrapped a balancing arm around Allison’s bare torso. “She just said we needed to leave and we teleported each other.”
Allison looked at Arnold. His presentation was far more modest than Mabel and David’s: a simple calligraphic mark inscribed on his forehead in glowing lime ink. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before, or why he was talking about her like she wasn’t there.
Now it was Billy’s turn to hurl questions at Allison. “What’s happening at school? Is Dawnie and everyone okay?”
Allison just stared at the boy. He was tattooed like Mabel, perfectly visible through his fur. His markings were disjointed, haphazard jumbles of green and pink, yellow and purple. Some sections were sharp and straight, others layered and jumbled like broken Chinese puzzle balls. They didn’t interface so much as run into each other. Messy, but it worked.
Allison shuddered. “Sorry. They’re dead.”
Arnold almost dropped her. The other children began squawking questions at Allison like a flock of troubled birds.
Allison was transfixed. She had always been able to hear feelings in songs, but now she could see them, too. Sour constellations of anger, confusion and fear ignited in her friends’ heads—coherent, beautiful patterns rising from bright and shining chaos like a symphony of stars.
Mabel was shaking her. “What do you mean, ‘dead’?”
Allison slipped from Arnold’s grip, falling like a stone to the thin, rugged grass.
She never knew fear could be so beautiful.
Allison dreamt for what felt like aeons. She dreamt of the silent beauty of lonely stars, scattered over wild, endless voids, where kinder things than she knew swam through the dark. Of worlds of black diamond, cracked with gleaming, white hot rivers. Of fonts in space-time pouring light and matter back out into creation. Of the naked hearts of dead suns, so dense the walls of atoms crumbled within them, and single seconds stretched on forever.
Sometimes Allison’s dreams were pulled back down to Earth. She found herself playing on narrow cobbled streets smothered with the scent of freshly baked bread and hot cassoeula. Or she would be sitting across from frightened old men and brave young fools in dark rooms, while black-shirted werewolves stood waiting to be fed.
Then the cosmic would fall upon the provincial like starlight, and she would be playing hide and seek with a golden haired nymph in the canyons of the moon, or swimming after her in the corona of the sun.
Allison ignored the scolding male voice, chasing the nymph—or was that David?—through the river of the Milky Way, her graceful limbs sweeping through stars and worlds like water.
Allison jerked awake. She was lying on a thick bed of leaves, sunlight dappling down on her through a thick canopy of branches that filtered the sky like Ventian glass. It dimly reminded Allison of her arboreal cathedral back at Parliament House.
Before Allison could say anything, Mabel yanked her up into a bear-vice of a hug.
“We thought you weren’t ever gonna wake up!”
Allison managed to replace some of the air Mabel knocked out of her. “…Hey Mabs. How long was I asleep?”
“A whole day!” Mabel called out, “Guys, Allie’s awake!”
Broken twigs and cracking leaves beneath hurrying feet. Billy and Arnold almost knocked the girls to the ground.
Arnold sounded on the brink brink of tears as he embraced them. “You’re okay!
Billy just nuzzled his fur against Allison’s cheek. She sank into the hug.
The fur pulled away. “Oh, your eyes are still doing the thing.”
Allison blinked at Billy. “What thing?”
“Um…” Mabel stepped back and conjured a hand-mirror, surprisingly reflective for something rendered in oils. She held it up to her friend’s face.
Allison’s eyes glowed bright like fresh dragon’s blood, the whites lost in their red glare.
She tried making them go hazel again. They didn’t.
“Does it hurt?” Arnold asked. “Can you still see alright?”
She could. That almost surprised Allison. Shouldn’t it be like trying to see with a torch in her face? Then again, it never seemed to bother—
“Allie, your eyes are glowing.”
“Where is he?” Allison asked again.
Mabel waved her hand. “He’s playing with some kids from town.”
“Town? Where are we?”
Arnold tilted his head. “What? How do you not know? The Dam was your idea.”
“The d—wait, Harvey Dam?”
Allison remembered now. She remembered a lot of things. She started walking towards the edge of the trees. “I need to find David, alright?”
Mabel tried to follow her. “Allie, wait! Before you went to sleep, you said everyone was—“
Allison looked back at the other girl with burning, plaintive eyes. “I know, but can I just find David first? I… it’s not something I want to have to talk about over and over.”
Mabel stopped. “…Yeah, sure. Be careful, okay?l
She watched Allison go. Arnold walked up next to her. “What do you think’s wrong with her eyes?”
“No idea,” said Mabel.
“Maybe it’s a growing up thing?” suggested Billy. “Like getting taller or…” He gestured vaguely around his chest.
Arnold shrugged. “Probably should’ve gotten her pants or something.”
“Or sunglasses,” Mabel added warily.
When she woke up (because of course she would) David thought to himself, he really ought to thank Allison for zapping them all to Harvey Dam. The place was full of hidden, green corners to explore. And the water itself—he hadn’t gotten to swim so deep since Lake Burley Griffin. Still fresh and bland on his tongue, but full of life and current nonetheless.
Even more wonderful, though, was the company. As it turned out, Harvey Dam was very popular with families in the summer. And children on holiday didn’t much question a naked, strangely accented coloured boy sharing the water with them.
“Go long, David!
Liam tossed a rugby ball over the waist-deep water. He was a chubby, pale boy, with frizzy red hair that settled on top of his head like a damp sponge.
David ran backwards through the squishy lake mud like he was trying to keep apace with a falling star. He just managed to snatch the ball out of the air before it splashed down. In so doing, David himself overbalanced, falling into the murk with a wet ‘splat’. He popped back up a moment later, grinning ear to ear.
David threw the ball over his head in triumph. It was the first time he’d actually played rugby, or football as Liam insisted on calling it. Soccer—never by that name when Alberto was in earshot—had always been the preeminent game of choice at the New Human Institute. David had never felt so… Aussie.
Liam sighed. “I told you, David, footy doesn’t work that way.”
“And I told you to stop saying my name all English, so nhyyaa!” He poked his tongue at the other boy.
“Aww, lay off him,” said Liam’s sister Gwen, floating on her back. She was as pale and red haired as her older brother, but her eyes were a shade of green that almost matched David’s, much to his amusement. It somewhat perplexed the boy why she wore a one piece while her brother could get away without a shirt, but he was used to humans being weird about that sort of thing.
“Besides,” she said, “not like there’s goalposts in the water. And David’s all foreign anyway. Maybe that’s what it looks like over in… where’d you say you were from?”
David was looking very smug. “France!” he answered cheerily.
It was strange, hearing strangers use his real name, without having to be told it wasn’t Maelstrom or Mealy or whatever other stupid nickname stupid people called him. Strange and amazing.
Gwen thrashed suddenly, her lower half falling under the water. “Gaaah!”
“What’s the matter?” asked David.
Gwen regained her bearings. “I think a fish brushed me.”
Liam sniggered. “What a girl—aaaaugh!” The boy kicked violently. “Something grabbed me!”
A little girl broke the surface next to David, fish-pale with water-dark chestnut hair and eyes like magma.
She grinned. “There you are, David!”
The boy tensed. What was Allison thinking? You didn’t see him walking around with glowing eyes in front of the naturals. He hadn’t even used his powers anymore than it took to be the winner of any and all splash fights. And why hadn’t he noticed Allison in the water?
Liam was scowling at the girl. “You didn’t have to be grabby, kid.”
David tilted his head. Were Harvey children the masters of tact, or was he severely misinformed about the range of human eye colours?
Gwen seemed to be taking it with better humour than her brother. “Oh, you know David?”
No comment on the eyes from her, either.
David decided to make the introduction. “Guys, this is—”
Allison threw her arm around David’s shoulders. “His cousin, Mary-Anne.”
David blinked at her, before an insistent, very familiar voice inside him hissed:
Go along with it! I knew these kids from before!
Yeah. Gwen was in my class. She always bragged about getting free ice-cream ‘cause her daddy owns the dairy. I think that’s why her brother—
The thought-line broke off. David got the vague mental image of Allison shaking her head.
Anyway, don’t want them knowing it’s me.
David thought, But why don’t they recognise you? He squinted at the McNally siblings, much to their confusion. They aren’t blind, are they? Another question hit him like a wave. Wait, are you brain-speaking? How do you still have Alberto’s—
I’ll tell you when the humans are gone, okay?
“Huh,” Gwen said. “You don’t sound French.”
“Mary-Anne” shrugged. “I’m good at languages.”
David wondered if pretending to be blood-family was the best idea. He knew from both experience and Haunt’s loud explanations that white folks could get uptight about families with more than one shade to them. On the other hand, he had no clue how this ruse was working, if it even was.
“So,” said Liam, “wanna play Marco Polo or something?”
Unsurprisingly, Allison dominated at every game that couldn’t be decided by pure size. They played with the McNallys for nearly three hours, until the afternoon sky began to dull and their parents called them out of the water.
“Bye, David!” Gwen called as she followed her brother back onto the shore. “It was nice meeting you!” Almost as an afterthought, she added, “You too, Mary-Anne!”
“You two are lucky,” remarked Liam. “Your folks letting you swim so late.”
Knots formed in Allison and David’s stomachs.
As soon as the human children were out of sight, David hugged Allison. “Glad you’re awake,” he whispered into her ear, before he pulled away from her a step. “Now, can you tell me what the heck just happened?”
Allison took a deep breath and started wading back onto dry land. It felt wrong to talk so serious in the water. David followed without comment, feet stained to their ankles with lake mud.
“So, why didn’t those kids recognise you?”
Allison smiled. That at least was easy to answer. “Because they thought I looked like this.”
Where Allison stood, David only saw a tan, blonde girl with her old hazel eyes.
“Okay…And how are you doing that?”
The stranger shuffled her feet. “Alberto got shot by one of the boss soldiers. I didn’t want his song to go away so I… did something and now it’s inside me. Forever, I think.”
David didn’t respond to that at first. It was a bit to take in. For a few seconds, he just gazed at her, before eventually settling on:
“I saved his song. Put it in mine. So now I can do all that psychic stuff he used to.” She looked down at the thin grass. “He could do a lot more than he said he could.”
David cocked his head at that. He didn’t like it when people picked on Alberto. But this was Allie… and there were more important questions anyways.
“So… where is he?”
“Gone. Or—not gone, but not walking around.” She rubbed her head. “I know everything he did. Not just like, facts and stuff. I can remember his mum’s face…”
The taste of old, sour wine in the back of her mouth. Soft, pale flesh in the dark…
She grimaced. “…Other stuff, too.”
For a few seconds, David contemplated giving her a hug. She didn’t sound upset. But what she was saying was…
Allison considered it. “Yeah. I think I am. I’m better now. I don’t have to copy people not to be weak anymore.”
“Yeah,” he said, his tone slightly dubious. “Um. About that. So, are those eyes a forever thing now? Cuz you kinda stand out, you know?”
Mary-Ann dissolved. Allison kept forgetting her eyes. It wasn’t hard to. They didn’t feel any different. “I think they might be. But they’re not all bad.”
Allison was wreathed in fire, her skin lit lapis violet like the very heart of a flame. Globules of lava bubbled into being in her hands, which she smeared across the air in front of her like she was finger painting with light. The heat of it hit David like a bonfire’s shout.
“I can do this now! I think the Flying Man made it happen! Guess I can thank him for something…”
“…Okay,” David began, trying to think of the most tactful way to say this. “But can you ever, you know, not look like a superhero now? I kinda like getting to play with other kids, you know? Without people noticing what we are?” He thought for a moment. “Could you, I dunno, cover it up with my eyes, maybe?”
Allison frowned. “I don’t look like a superhero,” she said, sounding surprisingly hurt. “My eyes just glow a bit. But I’ll try.”
The fire went out, the magma cooling until it was nothing. The girl screwed her eyes shut, taking in David’s whale bone whistles and glass flutes. When she opened them again, her eyes were green. “Did it work?”
“Yup!” David grinned. “You look like Allie again!”
She giggled. “No, I look like you! Allie has cool glowing eyes. And yours aren’t super-normal either.”
“At least I can turn the glowey off,” he replied playfully, raising a hand and waggling a finger up and down like he was playing with a lightswitch, his eyes lighting and dimming rapidly in time with the movement.
Allison laughed loudly, before remembering what she had come to tell him. She sat down, facing out towards the water and the white gravel hill of the dam wall. “David, bad stuff happened back at the school. I think… those soldiers killed our friends. All of them. All at onc-”
The last word never made it out her throat, cut off by the loud snapping sound ringing out from the dam. David hadn’t moved, but now that she was looking, she saw that the water behind them was suddenly very still.
“I know, Allie”, he said, his voice small. “I know. I felt the bullets go through them.” Far off in the distance, the dam’s short, squat intake tower let out another loud snapping noise, before the strut supporting it gave out, and it crumbled below the surface.
“… What do you wanna do about it?”
Allison clenched her fists. The fire came back to her eyes. “I want to hurt them. They hurt us, we hurt them back. Bad.”
Allison had been expecting this to be a fight; that she might have to bully past David’s constitutional niceness to get at what she wanted. She’d been wrong.
“Yeah,” he said. “I wanna hurt them too.”
Allison blinked. “You do? Really hurt them? Kill them?”
“What did they do to my mum, Allie?” he asked. “Why can’t I feel her anymore?”
It barely sounded like a question.
The images clawed their way to the front of Allison’s mind. That ruined face, blood turning to water. She shook slightly.
David watched the memory hit her, and gave her a small smile.
“Yeah. I wanna kill them.”
Allison looked long and hard at her friend. Slowly, she asked, “Davie, are you alright?”
David shrugged. “I’m angry, if that’s what you’re asking.” His smile grew a fraction wider. “And there’s a little voice in my head telling me not to hurt them. Buuut it sounds a lot like Lawrence.”
He sat down beside Allison, putting a hand on her leg. “They killed my mummy. They killed our family. We’re gonna make them hurt and hurt till they wish they were dead.” He stretched out. “But there’s still so much good. We’re together. We’re free.” He closed his eyes. “And there’s so much water.”
Allison looked at David’s lights. She could see rage. Sadness. As white and hot as the sun. But there was joy too, blue and cool. They coiled like mating serpents; entwined, creating, but seperate. His song was much the same: what should have been cacophony and discordance harmonising, like a hot jazz band playing with a string quartet.
She envied him.
She noticed something else, too. That was part of it, the rage, the emotion. But there was something else inside there too. Something old. She searched Alberto’s memory for it, and came up empty handed. The one in Fran’s mind had fallen quiet years ago.
“Allie,” David reached over, and gave her hand a little squeeze. “I want you out of my head now, please.”
With that, the thing inside his mind gave her a push, and she couldn’t feel him anymore. All there was was the face of the deep.
Something else inside David had died, Allison realised. A tapeworm of personhood. Some might have called it a soul. It had been a long, slow death, but it was finally done.
“It’s going to be okay, Allie.”
“Yeah. We’re going to crush and burn and drown them all alive. Tim Valour’s going to scream till he’s coughing up blood. Then we’re gonna to swim and play chasey and eat chocolate till we spew.” The boy stood up, helping Allison to her feet. “Come on,” he said. “You need to tell the others.”
As soon as they returned to the copse, Allison had started bossing a camp into existence. Arnold had teleported some tents their way, kindly pre-assembled by the campers who owned them, along with a healthy collection of ice-boxes and picnic hampers.
They were nearly having fun, until Allison got the fire going and started explaining:
“So… Alberto brainwashed us?”
Allison looked at Arnold. The boy’s tone was shocked, but tainted with hope. She’d just got done explaining what Lawrence had had him teleport all around Australia and beyond. The boy’s face was still pale.
“Yeah,” she answered. “Not every second of every day, but enough that we usually did what Lawrence wanted us to.”
“Did he make me…” Arnold didn’t finish the question. He didn’t need to.
Allison bit her lip. “No, Alberto didn’t want that to happen.”
Arnold curled in on himself. “Oh.”
A furred, clawed hand patted him on the back. “It wasn’t your fault,” said Billy softly. “You didn’t know what the eggs were.”
Arnold moaned, tears glinting on his cheeks in the firelight. “Why did I even send them where he said to start with? He wouldn’t have known…”
“He said he was gonna dob on your baby niece,” said David. “I don’t think I’d have risked it if I were you.”
Arnold glanced at the water-sprite out the corner of his eye. If I were you…
Mabel was standing with her back to the fire, her hands balled at her sides. “So it was all just Alberto and Lawrence playing a game with us?”
Allison dug at the dirt with her heel. “At first, I guess? They kinda stopped working together near the end.”
David leaned forward. An awful thought had occurred to him. “Was taking over the Institute Alberto’s idea?”
“No,” Allison answered very firmly. “That was all us.”
“Are you sure?” David asked. It was the least certain Allison had heard him sound in weeks.
“Sure for sure. Eliza had put him to sleep when it happened, remember?” An unwelcome stab of memory cut at Allison, making her physically wince. She blurted, “She killed Adam. He was turning off our powers so Lawrence made her kill him.”
Billy went to speak. First to ask Allie what she had meant to say. Then to tell her that she was wrong. Then to shout she was lying. When he finally opened his mouth, all that came out were choked sobs, breaking out into a long wail.
David’s shoulders tensed. He turned his head up at the stars peeking through the branches above, trying not to look at anyone else. Deep in the waters that were his mind, the white serpent stirred.
Arnold and Mabel meanwhile, just looked at each other. What should’ve been an explosion had passed through them like a whisper. Mabel turned to Allison. “…Why are we not surprised?”
It should’ve been sarcasm. It wasn’t.
Allison took a deep breath. “You both worked it out ages back. Alberto made you forget.” Her gaze briefly flickered towards David. He didn’t notice. “He—we can do that.”
Silence. The only comment came from the crickets and the nightbirds.
Mabel strode over to Allison, pulling her gently but firmly off the log she’d been sitting on. “You gotta promise never to mess with our brains like that, kay?” She beckoned the others to stand. “Promise all of us. Unless we’re all gonna die if you don’t do it, you’ll never make us do things or forget things we don’t want to.”
Allison nodded vigorously. “Never.”
The children all spat in their hands and put them together. It was the most sacred covenant available to them. It sealed Allison’s promise, and a thousand other unspoken trusts. Above all else, to stay together.
“What do we do now?” Billy asked, still sniffling.
Allison thought about it. “Whatever we want.”
Luckily, Mabel had an actual suggestion. “In that case… How does that lava thing work?
1. In the years following the conclusion of the Cuban Crisis, Ayn Rand would write exhaustively on the subject of superheroes. These later writings alienated some followers, who accused the author and philosopher of abandoning the principles of Objectivism in favour of a kind of superpower backed feudalism. Detractors saw no difference. Rand would even briefly return to fiction in 1964, penning the novel Hercules’ Wake, a self-admittedly allegory for the then stalled Vietnam Conflict centred around superheroes rising up against the government. Years after her death from heart failure in 1984, several attempts at poetry by Rand were discovered dedicated to a superhero commonly believed to either be Joe Allworth or the New York superhero Green Sentinel. One commentator went on the record calling it, “Better than the stuff about William Hickman.” ↩