The Physician’s vessel was not the spartan, utilitarian dream of mankind’s engineers and futurists. It came from a shipwright tradition that had outlived pedestrian notions like “praticiality.” Its halls and arteries were not armoured in sleek, shining metal, but instead inlaid with jade, uranian blue and carmine tesserae, forming into elaborate, fractal mosaics that cast scintillations over the Physician and his guests as they walked beneath them.
“I notice you didn’t ask me what an educator machine was when I mentioned them.”
“So?” asked Arnold sullenly. “We were kinda busy listening to you talking about how you like to eat people.”
“Eat people—no, Arnold, nothing of the sort. I simply meant that I can experiment on humans without oversight or censure here.”
“That isn’t better!” snapped Mabel.
Allison was only half listening, running her fingers over the walls as she trailed behind the others. Every chip of polished glass was engraved with its own minute, complete image: depicting creatures and scenes that Allison would’ve been certain were allegorical if she were anywhere else. They referenced each other, creating winding, non-linear story-webs. It wasn’t art meant for people. The human eye simply couldn’t take in so much information, let alone put it together. Behind the mosaics, there were bright veins and pools of ragged grey and gold light. Rivers of thought.
The ship was alive. That crystal ringing in her ears was a song—so old and vast its notes and movements lived for hours instead of seconds. Allison suddenly felt like Jonah in the whale.
“Have you children ever wondered where your powers come from?”
“Course,” said Billy. “How couldn’t we?”
“I don’t,” said Arnold. “Lawrence kinda did all the wondering for us.”
Mabel added, “Gotta have someone to blame for this mess.”
“I know where my powers come from,” David said very firmly.
“Well, three of you are about to find out, anyway. Okay, maybe one and a third of you, but still.”
The Physician stopped in front of a mosaic of a gigantic, coral-hided worm. He spat some murky syllables at the image, and the tiles began to shift and undulate. The creature’s red cone of a head split into a dozen flailing tentacles. It audibly hissed at the Physician, before rearing up and disappearing, becoming a doorway.
The Physician led the children into a chamber that could’ve been the interior of a turtle shell, with struts like ribs stretching across a white-bone ceiling above hexagon floor-tiles. A living caricature of Albert Einstein with hair like tufts of fungus and skin like poorly cured leather clad in an off-yellow lab coat was standing in front of a square glass enclosure. Inside stood a throne, made of what appeared to be dozens upon dozens of thin hexagonal grey pillars protruding from the floor. A chubby middle-aged man sat in it, naked and pale, the hair on his chest thicker than the stuff on his head. He was biting his lips, his arms and legs stiff and shaking from the pale green fear and dark excitement Allison could see play behind his eyes.
Maybe it was the manacles around his wrists and ankles.
“Gutentag, Dr. Smith!” The faux Einstein greeted the Physician and his guests in an insulting German accent. “Are these our new guests from the NHI?”
Allison could tell the “man” was a Physician (part of the Physician? She still wasn’t sure) immediately. His song hit her like hot, foul breath. She almost wished John Smith hadn’t bothered with the psi-broach. She had let herself get used to unpolluted music again.
“That they are,” Dr. Smith answered. He turned back to the children and gestured towards the false German. “Kids, this is Doctor Johannes Von Shunstaffernitzum. He’s what I look like when I’m working with our American friends.”
“Pleased to meet you!” said Billy.
“‘Von Shunstaffernitzum’?” Allison repeated incredulously, still wincing from his song. “You’re not even trying anymore!”
“Wait,” said Mabel, face turned away from the man in the glass cage’s privates. “If he’s your American you,” she hoped that was how you were supposed to say that, “why’s he sound all World War 2?”
Dr. Johannes1 answered, “Ach, Americans, they think all the scientists worth having are washed up Nazis. I think most of them tell themselves I got Paperclipped after the war. Sometimes I wish either of the Germanies had a superhuman program worth mentioning. Maybe I could wear a ten gallon hat.”
David was focused on the man on the throne, who was looking back at him with deep confusion. “Who’s he?” He looked at Dr. Smith. “…Is this a married day kinda thing?”
“Nothing like that, David. The only reason he’s not dressed is so his clothes don’t catch fire or fuse to his skin.” Smith turned to his other self. “Johannes, why don’t you tell the children what we’re doing here?”
David wished he wouldn’t. Johannes sounded like he was making fun of Eliza whenever he spoke.
Dr. Johannes’ moulderous mustache twitched as he gave a grin even his counterpart would be proud of. “Delighted to, John.” He pointed at the man on the throne. “In under ten minutes, if all goes to plan, children, Mr. Arkwright here will become an übermensch.”
The children exchanged mystified glances, even Allison.
Flatly, Johannes clarified, “A superhuman2.”
The children exploded with questions and disbelief, all except for Billy, who just intoned, “Woooow.”
“You can’t make someone a super,” said Arnold, shaking his head. “It’s just something that sorta… happens!”
“Or you’re born that way,” added David.
John Smith looked right at Mabel. “What do you think, Mabel? Nobody can give you powers, can they?”
Mabel stammered. “I mean… not like that.”
Dr. Johannes said, “Trust me children, there are many übers in the world who credit their gifts to some agent or another. Gods, spirits, men. And lightning is something that ‘just sorta happens’ and your people light your homes with it. Why should superpowers be so different?” The doctor titled his ear towards the ceiling. Allison heard a sound like diamonds moaning.
“Ah, here we go.” Johannes turned to the enclosure and clicked his tongue. The man within startled slightly.
“Mr. Arkwright,” Johannes said, “are you ready for us to start the process?”
As clearly as if there was no glass between them, Mr. Arkwright answered, “Ready as I’ll ever be!” in a brittly cheerful southern accent. “…Who’re the kids, doctor?”
“Just some of my colleague’s students, Mr. Arkwright. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re very well behaved.”
David bristled a bit at that.
Dozens of tiles rose beside Dr. Johannes, forming a nearly bullet-shaped mound about as tall as the Physician himself. It had a gap in its side, pouring fluorite light into the chamber.
Familiar music washed over Allison. It was faint, so distant she couldn’t even grab hold of it. Perhaps it was for the best. She felt like if she touched the song, it’d drown out everything that was her.
Johannes reached into the crack and pulled, the light and the music going out as he removed a thin coronet of white gold and black gems. He stepped towards the enclosure, the forward facing glass pane silently retreating into the floor before him.
He slipped the coronet onto Mr. Arkwright’s head, crowning him like a sacrificial king. “As we discussed, I can’t guarantee any results. I’d wager you’ll come out of this with a grab-bag of middling powers. Or explode. Either way, don’t expect me to turn you into the Flying Man.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Arkwright. “I’ll take whatever I get.” A sharp breath. “I need this, you know?”
Dr. Johannes didn’t answer his patient, concerning himself only with the coronet.
Allison didn’t know how a grownup with eyes or ears could throw themselves at the Physician’s mercy like this. Sure, she and her friends were staying with him on his living spaceship, but where else were they going to go? They were demis. And this guy wanted to become one.
Curious, she took a closer look at the Mr. Arkwright’s mind:
It was like a laser light-show in honour of mediocrity. A so-so time at school presaging an alright career at his father-in-law’s electroplating firm; a cooling marriage that “gave him” two children he could not and would not understand; a bank-teller staring wide-eyed down the end of a sawn-off shotgun, all overlit by the same aggrieved sense of comfort.
Allison looked away. Part of her hoped Mr. Arkwright got the power to start his childhood over again. Or shapeshift into his wife.
Dr. Johannes stepped out of the enclosure, the glass wall rising again without a word from. Dr. Smith nudged Allison in the side. “Please pay attention, Allie, I suspect your perspective on this will be very illuminating.
Tonessly, Dr. Johannes said, “Energize.”
The ship’s crystal song sped up in Allison’s ears, becoming wild and frantic as the chamber went dark. The children swiftly filled the black with questions and murmurs.
Mr. Arkwright let out a long, hard scream—the kind that left blood on the throat. The gems on the coronet started flashing, revealing his writhing and spasms in a macabre slideshow.
Allison screamed, too. Arkwright’s mind was a supernova trapped inside his skull. Allison’s eyes felt like they were going to melt out of her head.
The man’s simple, human song had become a furies’ chorus: a clashing medley stitched from a hundred thousand clashing notes. A million, million futures swirled inside Allison’s mind, dying and multiplying like lightning bugs caught in a hurricane.
Light spewed out of Mr. Arkwright’s eyes and mouth, growing brighter and brighter until the glass cage became a solid, blindingly white cube—
The chamber was quiet again. The terrible song was gone. The storm of possibility had settled down to a slow rumble. The lights had come back on. Allison was dimly aware of Mabel and David supporting her.
“Allie?” asked Mabel. “Are you okay?”
“Uh, guys,” said David, water-sense tingling. “I think we should—”
Allison shoved her friends away, retching the cuisine of a hundred worlds onto the floor.
The two Physicians watched the girl with avid interest:
“She’s the power-mimic, correct?” asked Dr. Johannes.
“Yes. Stronger reaction than I was respecting, truth be told.”
“Very interesting.” He pronounced every syllable of the second word like a tourist ordering a local delicacy. “Be sure to record—”
Allison burst into flames. Tendrils of lava sprouted from her skin and arched towards the two doctors. “Never do that to me again!”
The Physicians stood motionless in the red glare of the molten rock. The collars of their lab coats caught fire, and the skin of their faces blistered and bubbled. Even their hair burnt more like flesh than keratin. Then their mouths dropped open, releasing a round of identical canned laughter.
“Achtung3, Doctor Smith! You’ve got a feisty one here!”
“Don’t I know it.” The Physician bent under the lava to make eye-contact with the girl. “Don’t worry, Allie, this is hardly an everyday procedure.”
Allison stood there burning for a moment, glaring. Then she sighed. Her fire and magma extinguished. Why bother? It was like trying to threaten dust, or laughter itself.
As though he just remembered a pastry in the oven, Dr. Johannes turned around and asked, “How are we doing in there, Mr. Arkwright?”
Kyle Arkwright didn’t answer his benefactor. He’d somehow managed to slip his wrists out of the throne’s manacles, and was staring wide-eyed at the back of his hands as waves of scales and chrome rippled over his skin. A choked, disbelieving laugh forced its way out of him in juddering gasps.
“Let me out!” Arkwright cried gleefully. He lunged out from the chair, legs stretching out tight behind him like a rubber doll until they snapped free of their restraints. Throwing himself at the cage wall like a zoo gibbon, his face and chest flattened unnaturally against the glass. “Let me out!”
Dr. Johannes smiled indulgently, and the wall lowered.
The new super ran towards the Physician, shouting, “Thank you, thank you!” over and over like he’d been cured of something foul and terminal. He spread his arms like he was about to hug the alien, until he noticed the still burning coat. “Yeah,” he said, with a touch of affected cool, “thanks.”
“Pleased with the results?” asked Dr. Johannes as he threw his jacket off. The floor ate it.
“You kidding?” Arkwright’s paunchy flesh flushed with a deep tan. His skin wriggled like it was infested with maggots as his muscles inflated like balloons, going from nonexistent to tumorous in seconds. The receding hair on his head spread out evenly into a crew cut. Even his chin sharpened and defined. He’d become a massive cartoon of masculinity. He flexed his new biceps grandly. “I look like a god,” he said with as much base in his voice as he could muster.
Mabel rolled her eyes, humming the Popeye theme to herself. David stifled a snort. The man’s muscles were mostly water. He could probably burst them with a pin. Allison was busy taking in his song. She could still hear the old, human tune, but now it was buried beneath by a strangely separate, yet flowing blend of Turkish guitar and electric kanel.
Johannes led Arkwright out of the chamber, hopefully in search of an industrial strength shirt, leaving his other self and the children alone.
“Glad he’s happy,” said Billy. “He didn’t even say anything about my—” He gestured down at his own fur.
“He stuck a gun in a bank girl’s face,” said Allison coldly. “He’s a dickhead.”
“Did he now?” asked the Physician. He was stripping off his now flaming outfit. It was both more and less obscene than it sounded. Aside from the already healing burns around his shoulders and back, it appeared his attention to detail faded the further down you went. His nipples were nonexistent, and his groin was a goiter. His feet were solid, flipper-like slaps of bone and skin. “He should’ve rolled over a bank-truck. Probably could’ve afforded the deluxe package.”
“It’s a trick,” Arnold insisted shakily. “You just put a super in a chair and made him go all “aaauugh’ to make us look stupid.”
“And why would I have to do that?” asked the Physician.
“It’s not a trick,” said Allison. “I heard the guy’s song change.”
Arnold stared at the Physician like he’d just found out God was a dolphin playing the xylophone. “But—but how?”
John Smith’s smile was in danger of straying into his hair. “I think it’s time for you children to meet our honoured guest.”
The honoured guest’s quarters were beautiful. Some three metres back from the entryway, the artisanal, handcrafted elegance of the Physician’s ship fell away, painted terracotta tiles gave way to rough, uneven walls and stalagmites of pearlescent stone more in line with a crystalline cave than a room on a spaceship. The whole space was flooded up to the children’s ankles with water swarming with tiny flakes of silver.
The inside of the chamber only grew more ethereal, every sharp surface bevelling itself away, giving the space a softness only helped by the faint lilac glow that seemed to swell from the room’s centre, where a woman lay entombed amongst what Allison could see as the petals of a rose, sculpted from glass like song made solid.
The corpse had been left naked, her stomach slightly swollen. Tubes and cords ran from her wrists like rivulets of blood. Soft purple eyes stared unseeing up at the children, cornsilk hair falling around her shoulders. Her features were regal, as beautiful as any dead thing could hope to be. Allison could just barely hear music coming off her.
“She’s a very high maintenance patient, this one,” the Physician said, stepping past the children to fiddle with one of the cables running into her chest. “The equipment has a tendency to degrade into crystal after more than a week of contact with her.”
Billy was the first to start crying.
“… What is this?” David asked, gazing unblink at the woman’s face. “What did you do to her?”
“Very little,” the Physician replied. “She was already dead, after all.”
“Who was she?” Mabel asked quietly.
The Physician took a too-deep breath, like he was trying to filter-feed. “They say ours is not the first universe, children. Not even the second. And in the cosmos before ours, there was a species that worked out, through science or magic or some other art that hasn’t come down to our eternity, how to jump the queue.”
“What do you mean?” asked Arnold.
“I mean they won,” the Physician snapped, insofar as his voice was capable of anything beyond generic satisfaction. “They won the whole game. No matter what gifts you are born with, or what power you unearth, no living being can outrun entropy. Except for them.” He gestured at the glass rose. “They outlasted the universe. When the clockwork of creation had shorn its shears, when reality had stretched so thin time and gravity could not touch, her kind persisted, awash in a sea of lonely atoms. So you know what they did?”
The children all shook their head.
That rumbling, sputtering laughter. “They went and undid it! Built our universe over the ruins of theirs. Built us. All for their own amusement.” The Physician lay a hand on the rose. “You’re looking at one of the architects of Creation. Or at least one of their children. That’s their great strength, you see. Even before birth, they teach their children how to remake the world. To create and destroy. Psychic teaching, if you follow.”
“Like a lullaby?” asked Billy.
“Sure. A lullaby.”
John Smith plunged a hand into his own innards, pulling out a jeweled bronze starfish with a squelch. Aside from some cringing and averted eyes, the children’s reactions were fairly muted. They’d seen much stranger from the Physician.
“When I first came into custody of Asteria—”
“Asteria?” asked Allison. “Like the Titan?4”
“I had to call her something, Allie. Her true name is probably written in the dedication page of the laws of physics or something. As I was saying, when I first found Asteria, I tried to replicate this… natal education. Give the poor creature a legacy.” The Physician’s face went slack. He intoned, “Reproduction test #84.”
Light rose from the jewel in the starfish’s centre, forming a kind of bright cloud above the Physician’s palm. The light resolved into John Smith himself back in the turtle-shell room. Instead of the class cage and the floor-tile throne, there was what looked like a wooden baptismal font, topped by a large amber bubble.
There was a baby floating inside. She was nearly full-term by the look of things, her umbilical cord trailing out of sight down into the base of her substitute-womb. The former John Smith tapped at the glass, grinning like the crescent moon.
Arnold wrinkled his nose and looked at the Physician. “You made a baby?”
“Yep. Wasn’t my first, definitely wasn’t my last. Easier than you might think.” The Physician thumped Asteria’s coffin. “I just scraped an ovum from our honoured guest, mixed it with some sperm, and voila.”
Allison made a face. “You’re disgusting, you know that?”
“Waste not, want not. Still, I whipped up a baby, and let her soak in her mother’s… I suppose ‘song’ is the best way of putting it.”
“Her song?” said Allison. “But she’s dead! How did you even get an egg?”
The Physician waved his hand. “Metabolically and experientially speaking, sure, she’s dead. But a goddess doesn’t leave the world easily. Their power can outlive them. For instance, Asteria here’s cells don’t actually decompose. If I let one of your kind’s doctors take a look at her”—the idea appeared to amuse the alien—“they wouldn’t think she’d been dead a minute, let alone twenty-three years…”
“You’re not actually explaining anything,” Mabel said, still looking down at Asteria.
“What I’m saying is, Asteria’s knowledge still exists. It all… splintered off when she died.” Quickly, the Physician added, “So I imagine. The biological connection between Linda—”
“Linda?” Arnold asked.
“Had to call her something. The dead goddess reached out to her…”
In the light-cloud, the baby opened her eyes, revealing twin suns. Her tank began to glow…
“…And things got a bit out of hand.”
An explosion blew out the image. When the light and the smoke subsided, there was a grey wound in the wall of the turtle chamber, letting in sighing, snow laden winds. The font was in ruins, broken tubes spewing amniotic fluid onto the charred floor. All that remained of John Smith were two blue denim stalks protruding from a pair of dress-shoes.
The projection vanished.
“Wait,” said Arnold, “you blew up?”
“Yep,” answered the Physician. “Was a major set-back to the afternoon.”
“But why aren’t you dead?”
The Physician barrelled right past the question. “That whole debacle was very demoralizing. But then I started noticing how many of your kind were developing powers… just because. I mean, every species has the odd super. I myself have a semi-cousin who controls the weather with dance. But there’s always a reason for them. They were blessed by the gods or got they into a hyperdrive accident, or at least their parents had been. Not with these supers. Trust me, I asked. All they they all told me—”
The starfish lit up again, this time projecting a giant with stars for eyes, his arm stretched down towards the children.
“…There was a man.”
The children all looked up at the creature, Mabel especially.
“He’s the one common factor. The explanation for all you inexplicables.”
Arnold interjected, “I’ve never seen him.”
“Me neither,” said David.
“Me three!” chirped Billy.
“Same,” added Allison.
“First of all, David and Arnold, you two are perfectly explicable. As for Allison and Billy…
The Physician’s body began to wobble. “Every model has its gaps, alright?”
“Sure,” Allison said flatly.
The Physician went on. “It took me years to figure out what had happened.” He knelt down to look Asteria in the eye. “What’s left of her is teaching your species. Passing along her power in dribs and drabs. Socii—they’re like…” The Physician paused, silently cursing himself for trying to explain this to a species that hadn’t picked up domestic computing yet. “It’s knowledge. Jumbled scraps of the grammar of the world, written across your skin…” The Physician straightened. “Eventually I managed to tap the well a bit, load some of the information onto a neural network. Like making LPs from master-tapes. Used it to induce power-manifestation. Usually not as good as what you find in the wild, but baby steps.” He looked back down at Asteria. “Still have no clue why she’s latched onto your lot.”
“Maybe she’s trying to be nice?” suggested Billy.
The Physician laughed. “Really now! William, don’t let appearances deceive, you and I are far more similar than you and Asteria. We’d be less than microbes to her.” Dr. Smith started heading back towards the hall. “Come on kids, I’ve got to show you the media-room. Do you know I intercept every television transmission your kind puts out? The BBC will be hammering at my door in a few years…”
The children trailed after the Physician, eager to leave the dead goddess’ presence. Only Mabel lingered, looking right into Asteria’s eyes. She wasn’t sure what she felt for her. Anger? Pity?
All she knew was that she probably didn’t deserve to be here. But who did?
A weeping goddess, making dry plains green with her tears. A whaler with John Smith’s face, spearing a whale, letting her unborn calf slide out onto the bloodsoaked deck. Egyptians whipping Hebrews in the shadow of the pyramids. The dark underworld of a ship’s hold crammed with bodies, reeking of salt-tears and death…
Allison jerked awake, breathing heavily, sweat on her brow.
One thing you could compliment the Physician for were his standards of hospitality. The rooms he assigned the children were spacious, if odd. They reminded Allison of drained swimming pools or aquarium tanks, topped with bronze ceilings with a spiral staircase in the centre. He’d even provided them with pyjamas from something he called an “air-loom” covered in stars and planets. They were almost too normal.
This was the fourth night of nightmares in a row. Would they ever stop?
As Allison’s breath slowed and evened out, light returned to her room. There was a man sitting at the foot of her bed, smoking a clove cigarette.
“Hello, Allison,” said Alberto. “Glad we’re both awake.”
1. You will forgive us for not using the good doctor’s surname. ↩
2. “Superman” is actually a somewhat misleading translation of Nietzech’s Übermensch concept. “Overman” is more appropriate. ↩
3. The Johannes instantiation of the Physician had somehow gotten the idea that “achtung” (“attention” in English) was a general German oath. Strangely, despite regularly interacting with many World War Two veterans, nobody had ever questioned him on this. ↩
4. Specifically of stars and nocturnal cycles. ↩