For once in his life, Herbert Lawrence realized how foolish he was being.
“Oh, silly me.” The old man switched to slightly stumbling Italian. “Buongiorno, il mio nome è Herbert Lawrence.”
The young Alberto raised a hand, scowling at Lawrence’s mangled accent. He cast a vaguely Shakespearian aside at Allison, before telling Lawrence, “I speak English, mister.”
Lawrence’s smile returned. “Ah, very good. Glad to hear they’re educating you.”
“Not really,” replied the boy. “But a lotta spies speak English.”
“I picked up a lot of things from the people I saw,” the elder Alberto told Allison absently. “Not as fast as you would’ve, obviously, but I never met a liquor cabinet that wouldn’t open for me.”
Lawrence nodded understandingly. “That would be the case, wouldn’t it?” He twisted in his chair to look at the Blackshirts still standing guard behind him. They waved their bludgeons at the old man, but Alberto stilled them with a casual raised hand:
“Tutto a posto1”
Even after all she now knew, Allison still found the sight of Alberto wielding such authority unreal, let alone grown ups so readily obeying a boy her age.
Lawrence turned back to the child with a dry smile. “They’re very accommodating towards you.”
Alberto gave a schoolboy’s shrug. “We’ve got a…” He squinted at Lawrence. “Is the word ‘rapport’?”
“It works.” He pointed his thumb back at the blackshirts. There was a slight tension in both men’s arms as they resisted reaching for their bludgeons.
“Do these fine gentleman speak English, too?”
“Mhmm. Multilingualism is usually a blessing, but I think this time we can make an exception.”
“They think you’re an Anglo spy,” said Alberto.
Lawrence chuckled. “I think His Majesty would have sent someone who could manage a decent Italian lilt, young man.”
“They want me to find out what you’re here for.”
Lawrence tapped his forehead. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“…Me,” said Alberto. “You wanted to see me.”
Lawrence titled his chin in acknowledgement. “Exactly right. I’ve long held an interest in the wellbeing of young fenomeni.”
Alberto laughed. “You’re telling me you snuck into Milan to check on me?”
The old man looked right into the little esper’s eyes, as if he were trying to offer him a direct window to his thoughts. “I’m an adult. Why shouldn’t I feel concern for the young?”
“What a crock,” muttered Allison.
“He means it,” said the young Alberto quietly. “Or he thinks he does.”
The latter-day Alberto sighed. “You’d think mind-reading would let you get a bead on someone. But most of what you get is the picture they’ve built up of themselves. Nobody really knows anyone.”
Allison glowered at the memory of Lawrence, sitting there trying to talk like he was some kid’s granddad and not a stranger from far away. Whatever Alberto said about him, she couldn’t bring herself to imagine a sincere Lawrence.
Or maybe sincerity didn’t mean anything.
“Have you been… doing what you do long?” Lawrence asked.
“Dunno. Since I was five, I think?”
Lawrence shook his head solemnly. “It’s awful how we grownups drag children into our messes. I can’t imagine what you’ve had to see. Children need space to be young.”
“Yeah, right,” said Allison. “Unless he wants a baby.”
“Oh, be fair, Allie,” said Alberto. “I was, what, nine back then? That’s five whole years younger than Sadie when she had Ophelia.”
Lawrence reached his hand across the desk, taking Alberto’s in his. The Blackshirts didn’t react. Their eyes were conveniently sheened over with daydreams, Allison noticed. She could see their shadows. Pretty girls. Money they were owed. Men with deeply confusing moustaches.
“Did Lawrence know you were messing with the Blackshirts?” the girl asked. “I know they don’t know what he’s saying, but he’s being kinda touchy right now.”
“Not really,” said Alberto. “Bertie always had a bad habit of forgetting his audience when he speechified.”
“At least he was trying,” the younger Alberto said. His eyes were downcast, looking at the gloved hand holding his.
“No one sane would blame you for anything,” Lawrence said gently. “I’ve seen what some would have your kind do for them, and nobody expects a boy to say ‘no’ to a man with a gun.”
After a long while, Alberto spoke again. “Italy’s done for,” he said with quiet bluntness. “The Germans are going to retreat. Your lot will have Milan in a fortnight. Il Duce is going to be hanging from a petrol station before May.”
Lawrence was taken aback. “That’s… very specific.”
“I can see the future,” admitted Alberto. “Sorta.”
Allison expected Lawrence to lash the boy with questions, interrogating him about everything from the range of his foresight to when the glorious race to come would erect a statue to their beloved educator.
Instead, he just said, “That must be a heavy burden for you.”
Alberto’s face was very still, but tears were starting to crawl down his cheeks. “If your guys catch me, they’re gonna—they’re gonna…” He broke out into a wail. “They’re gonna do the same thing to me!”
Allison looked up at her Alberto. “Really? But you were so small…”
“Amazing what little a murderous army-raid can do to a child. Trust me, there were plenty of widows and orphans in Milan who would’ve kicked the stool from under my feet.”
Lawrence gripped both of young Alberto’s hands. “I’m not going to let that happen. I don’t care what you’ve done. You don’t deserve a mob because of some narrow little man’s awful, cruel idea of the world. We’re both going to get out of here.”
Alberto sniffled. “You mean it?”
“My hand to God,” said Lawrence. He sighed. “I hate to be another adult asking you to solve their problems, but your talents—is there anything you can do to clear our way to the entrance at least?”
Alberto took a deep breath.
The Blackshirts looked around wildly like hounds catching a scent. They both started shouting about partisans in the grand foyer. One of them barked, “Restate qui2
” over their shoulder at Alberto as they ran out of the office.
Lawrence watched them go, clearly impressed. When he turned back to the little psychic, Allison thought she recognized a little of the man who had once wondered over her and Arnold on the train.
“Was that an illusion?”
Alberto managed a shaky smile. “Yeah. Made them think they were hearing the PA.”
Allison looked up at the child’s future. “Was it really just illusions?”
“Mostly. You know, in all the years we knew each other, Bertie never asked why a couple of Blackshirts left their pet psychic alone with the English spy…”
Lawrence ruffled Alberto’s hair. “Clever lad! Now, how about we go and meet my friends?”
The older Alberto raised the bottle (a tall-necked whiskey cylinder) he was holding up to his lips. “I think this calls for a toast!”
He downed the spirit in one almost superhuman skoll, his throat bulging like a duck trying to swallow a chocolate bar. Within seconds the bottle was empty. It was the finest feat of alcoholism Allison had ever witnessed.
Alberto let out a great belch, the sound of it vibrating the world until it shattered.
When it reformed, Allison and Alberto were standing in another of the Palace of Justice’s painfully polished hallways. Lawrence and the psychic’s past personages appeared around a corner, marching their way up to a faintly out of place metal door at the end of the hall.
They passed right through their future observers. After so much of Alberto’s (and Elsa’s) magical mystery tour, it hardly phased Allison. It was like being Haunt, but actually invisible.
“It wasn’t hard getting Laurie through the Palace,” said Alberto.
“I made him look like one of the Blackshirts,” his younger self piped up. “Andrea I think he was called.” He looked up at Lawrence with a kind of bemused, mournful sadness. “Wasn’t too hard. Both mostly beard.”
Lawrence banged on the door with his fist, bellowing, “Open up, camerati! The Cervellone wants to speak to the Anglo’s little bastards!”
The young Alberto looked back at himself and Allison. “It meant ‘egghead’. More or less.” He frowned. “Pretty easy to swallow being called ‘Tiresias’ after that.”
The door opened, but instead of revealing one of the Palace of Justice’s many blackshirted glowerers, there stood a young Chinese teenager, grinning broadly at Lawrence with very slightly crooked teeth3
. His white buttoned shirt was stained with specks of blood. A gold bracelet coiled around his arm like a contented snake.
“I bloody heard that, Laurie,” the boy jeered cheerfully with his thick Australian twang. “Why so mean?”
Lawrence laughed. “Sorry, Chen my boy, just playing a part.”
It was like watching the Devil and… if not an angel than a finer breed of demon break bread.
“God,” said Allison. “He’s smiling at Lawrence.”
“Why not?” said Alberto. “He wasn’t a bastard back then.”
Chen looked at the young Alberto, his smile brightening even more. “You must be that mind-reader Laurie dragged us here for. I’m AU.”
Allison blinked. “…I thought Chen hated that name.”
“Nicknames are a lot more bearable when you can fall back on your real one.”
Chen offered the young Alberto his hand. “Put it here, mate.”
Alberto didn’t take the hand. He was staring wide-eyed at its owner.
Chen didn’t have a Socii, or any of the other marks of power Allison had seen in her short career as a telepath. Instead, he had filigree, a fine second skin of gold covering him from head to toe, visible even under his clothes.
“I can’t imagine what it was like suddenly seeing your buddies the way I do,” said Alberto. “Well,” he added, “I can. I was there. Because you ate me.”
“Get to the point,” said Allison.
“But even if I wasn’t, I can still kinda relate. I’d never seen another super before Chen, and then suddenly—bam! Glamy soul-armour. It was like that bit in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy stumbles into the technicolour.”
Chen was examining the awe-struck little boy with some concern. “You alright, mate?” He snapped his fingers in front of Alberto’s eyes.
He shook himself. “I’m fine. You just look… amazing.”
A tight, smug smile. “Don’t I know it.”
Chen lead Lawrence, Alberto, and their unseen voyeurs into the palace’s makeshift dungeon. It was a suitably gloomy realm. Flickering light globes in wide-brimmed hats dangled from long stalks, spilling mustard-stained light over the cavernous space. The floor was interrupted often by empty cages. Beneath them, Allison could just make out rectangular, dustless shadows. The scars of torn out filing cabinets, maybe.
“This used to be an archives wing,” explained the young Alberto. “They started chucking my ‘guests’ here because it had already had a security door. And the cages.”
They weren’t alone in there. Blackshirts writhed and groaned on the floor. Some clutched at their mouths, their fingers sticky with blood. Others lay in pools of sick, their faces covered with angry, bulbous blisters like venom sacks. The two groups had quite a bit of overlap.
Lawrence frowned tersely. “I hope you and Żywie haven’t been excessive.”
Chen was striding in front of the group, his hand held out flat as chinks of metal zipped into his palm like hungry golden fish. “Lighten up, Laurie, we didn’t kill anyone.” His smile faltered slightly. “I think.”
“Remember kids,” said the elder Alberto. “Don’t kill fascists, kill ten year old boys.”
“Don’t joke about that,” said Allison quietly.
“Aww, don’t be—”
At the far end of the room, a dark shape crouched over a moaning Blackshirt. A night-hag. A demon. Looking at it made Allison’s skin buzz, like she was staring at a tiger.
“What is that?” she whispered to Alberto.
“At the time,” he answered, “I thought it was a living corpse.”
The shape narrowed and stretched upwards. As the languid light of the dungeon fell over it, Allison caught sight of a slightly hooked nose, like a witch.
“Laurie!” the shape called out in a heavy German accent. It glided towards the old man like a gust of acrid smoke. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, Eliza,” said Lawrence.
Allison gawked at the dark shape. “That’s Żywie?” She looked at Alberto. “Why does she look like a monster?”
The psychic didn’t answer. All his attention was focused on Eliza. Allison was a little surprised she didn’t literally melt under his gaze.
Eliza—fourteen and just beginning to grow gawky—stood on her toes and gave Lawrence a daughterly peck on the cheek. “There’s some—how you say?—germs in the air I don’t want you catching.”
Lawrence was smiling again. “Thank you, my dear.” He put a hand on little Alberto’s shoulder. “The Blackshirts were kind enough to introduce me to—”
Alberto knocked the old man’s hand away, stepping back so hard he fell to the ground. Without stopping, he kept scrambling away from the cloaked girl. “Don’t let her near me!”
Concern was written across Eliza’s so very young face. “Little boy, I don’t—”
“Your not real!” Alberto howled, hysterical tears again forcing their way out his eyes. “You’re empty!”
“That’s what it looked like, at least,” said the older Alberto, a little calmly. “Flesh and blood, moving and talking, without a glimmer of soul.”
“Why not?” asked Allison.
“No power works on Eliza,” Alberto told her. “Not directly, at least. Sure, if Sadie punched her in the face”—a morbid little smile—“I bet her head would go flying, but Fran could never touch the water bound up in her body, and she might as well have been a brick wall to old Haunt.” He looked down at Allison. “Actually, you’re the only one I know who can do anything with her power…” He shrugged. “Lucky you, I guess.”
Eliza was still walking towards the frightened Alberto, her hand outstretched towards him. “Are you unwell? Do not worry, I can make it better…”
“The antipodes of mind and body, Laurie called us…”
Eliza managed to touch the boy’s cheek. Allison was suddenly filled with a vivid sense-memory of the healer’s wires running through her body.
“…Except she could touch me, and I couldn’t.” A green bulb of absinthe appeared in Alberto’s hand. “Story of my fucking life, as you’ll see.”
He threw the bottle like a grenade. When it shattered at the floor, the scene was washed away in a summer sea.
When the tide subsided, Alberto and Allison were standing somewhere deeply familiar: the bank of the Avon River, at the New Human Institute.
It felt like late summer. The fields of dry yellow grass looked like they had been painted with a fine, delicate brush. The waters of the river meanwhile were strangely still, like an inlaid vine of blue-grey glass. Allison spotted Alberto, perhaps a year or two older than he’d been in Milan, building tiny castles out of the riparian mud.
“Aren’t we skipping a lot?” she asked wearily.
“Eh, there’s not much to say about right after the war. We stopped by South Africa for…” Alberto waved his hand. “…I don’t remember, sue me. I think it was to do with the Physician. Eliza made Laurie bring Hugo with us like a stray cat, and Lawrence spent a while giving free counselling to blitzed out Londoners. How he met Mrs. G, actually. Make of that what you will.”
“Why’d you come to Australia?”
“Don’t know. Bertie said John told him Oz had a load more super-babies. Like, one in a hundred thousand births or something. Honestly, I think he just missed the warmth in his bones…”
Alberto allowed the strong but distant sounds of hammers and saws to drift down to the riverbank.
“So Eliza healed the King—”
“Wait, she healed who?”
“…Got us all citizenship while Lawrence found himself a private little kingdom in the Wheatbelt. Then he waited for us to flock to his palm like little lost birds.”
There was a splash in the middle of the river.
“Didn’t take too long, it turned out.”
The young Alberto didn’t even look up from his castle. Splashes happened all the time. Probably just some happy fish. But then a hand—small and pale—reached out of the river. It pawed the air for a moment, before grabbing hold of the water’s skin like it was at the edge of a cliff. A little girl, maybe six or seven, with slick, water-dark hair pulled herself up onto the river’s surface, which froze beneath her feet. She was completely naked, and her eyes were two chips of lapis.
“Huh,” said Allison. “So that’s where David gets—” The girl remembered what had become of Françoise, and couldn’t bring herself to say anything more.
Alberto didn’t seem to notice (or care about) his companion’s sudden silence. “You should’ve been there when Lawrence had that bloody portrait made,” he said wistfully.
His younger self had spotted Françoise. “Uh, hi?” the boy called across the water. “Are you a super or something?”
He didn’t really need to ask. Even if she hadn’t emerged from the river like Nimue’s daughter, through the lens of Alberto’s memory, the little water-nymph existed as flesh, mist, ice and water all at once. The lights of her thoughts glowed like abyssal fish risen from the depths to feed.
“Are you a super or something?” the girl shouted back at Alberto.
“She copied people a lot back then. Still learning to talk. Echolalia I think they call it.”
“Ah, yeah, I am.” The young esper slipped off his shirt and sandals before wading into the water up to his waist. “I asked you first.”
Without warning, Melusine melted into the river.
“Weirdo,” muttered Alberto.
“You don’t seem very surprised by the naked water girl,” commented Allison.
Alberto let the younger version of himself field that one. The boy looked back at the shore and said, “I live with a walking, faith-healing corpse and a teenager whose sweat melts metal, sue me.” Resuming character, he started trudging and splashing back towards his mud-earthworks, when a small geyser erupted in his path.
Alberto yelped and leapt backwards, but the waterspout wilted as quickly as it sprouted, falling back into the river to reveal Fran; head tilted, hands on her hips, regarding the boy with an imperious shade of curiosity.
Alberto clenched his fists and tried to stand very straight. “Look… girl, I don’t know what you’re—”
Fran—now clear as glass—knocked Alberto onto his back with an open-palmed blow to the chest.
“Didn’t see that coming, Tiresias,” Allison said, smirking a little.
“Hard to predict a girl made of whim.”
Before Alberto could get back to his feet, Fran dissolved into mist, forming back into flesh on top of his chest and shoving his head underwater. Bubbles frothed from his mouth as the boy thrashed beneath her.
Allison watched it all with fascinated horror. Fran didn’t look angry. Allison wasn’t even sure she could guess at what the girl was feeling. She was smiling, yes, but it wasn’t a bully’s smile. There wasn’t any sadism, just pure, giddy amusement, like she’d found a particularly shiny rock.
Allison looked at the older Alberto. He didn’t seem all too perturbed watching himself drown4. In fact, he was smiling, too. A melancholic smile, but a smile.
“Why’s she doing that?”
“I think she liked the faces people made when they breathed in water.”
Allison gestured wildly at Françoise. “But she’s killing you!”
“I wouldn’t have been her first. You’ve got to remember, Allie, Fran grew up in the sea. Her father was the sea. She rode waves and sunk ships the way you or me played with blocks. Lawrence hadn’t squeezed her into a person shaped box yet—hell, I’m not sure if she was a goddess, or an animal.” Alberto stared at the girl in the water, her hand still effortlessly keeping him from the taste air, oh so long ago. “She was wild.” He looked back down at Allison. “Free. You ever wonder what that feels like?”
Allison had; all her life.
Alberto bent his legs till he was level with the little girl, putting a hand on her shoulder and pointing towards his near-death experience like they were on safari.
“This is the best part.”
The younger Alberto’s hand broke the surface. It found Fran’s thigh, and he raked her skin with his fingernails.
The nereid squeaked with pain, her smile screwing into an angry pout. She pressed down on Alberto’s chest with both hands, clearly making an effort to squeeze the breath out of him. The boy jerked spasmodically.
Alberto whispered, “One touch, that’s all it ever took. To get the little snots in Bovegno to leave me alone, to make my father buy me Turkish delight when we were barely making rent—”
Allison’s nose scrunched in a grimace. “Turkish delight?”
“Shut up. But I couldn’t sink my fingers into Fran. Getting a grip on her mind was like leaving a handprint on the ocean…”
“…David’s like that too, now,” Allison admitted. She kicked at the half-remembered dirt. “He won’t even let me read his mind.”
“You don’t sound happy about that.”
“What’s he got to hide from me?”
Alberto rolled his eyes. “Were you thrilled when you heard I could read your mind?”
Allison didn’t answer. Not that she ever had to with Alberto.
He continued. “The black spots were dancing in my eyes by now. So I fought back the way all the other boys in Bovegno had to…”
The younger Alberto swung his fist up at Fran’s chin, knocking the girl off of him. The little boy shot right to his feet, screaming, “Stronza5!”
He stalked towards the little girl, striking her in the face with clumsy, inexperienced blows. Allison reckoned she’d seen better punches from the Petey the asthmatic back at Harvey Primary. Françoise meanwhile just looked confused. She wasn’t even throwing her arms up or trying to get away from Alberto, like she’d never been in a fight before.
“I don’t think anyone had ever hit her back,” said Alberto. “I mean… did Fran ever tell you about Palaemon?”
Allison shook her head. “Who’s he?”
The young Alberto was still hitting Fran. The little girl’s expression changed from bewilderment to rage. She turned transparent again, lunging at Alberto and slashing at his face with sharp talons of ice.
Alberto pointed at his cheeks. “I will admit, there were some upsides to living with Eliza.”
As though on cue, Lawrence and Mary appeared over the hill. They were walking and chatting with a dark-haired giant of a man, with shoulders like the hull of a ship. He was holding a pale blue dress.
“I’m sure she’s just playing in the river,” he said, a little apologetically. “It’s been a while since she’s been near—”
The enormous man spotted Françoise and Alberto battling in the water. He ran down to the river, picking up speed like a freight train.
With one hand apiece, he effortlessly parted the children, lifting them both into the air like they were a pair of dumbbells. He looked sternly at the girl as she wriggled and reverted to human form, frowning into his warm, beetle black eyes.
“We don’t claw people, girl.”
The water-nymph huffed. The man turned his face to Alberto. “Sorry about that.”
“You weren’t the one who tried to drown me!” cried the boy.
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen pictures of Ralph Rivers out of costume,” said his adult self.
Allison stared at the man stood in the river. “That’s the Comet?”
“Yep,” said Alberto.
“What’s he doing here?”
“He took care of Fran down here a while after the war. Gave her to Lawrence because, well, major checca and all.” He shook his head. “God, imagine if he hadn’t.”
“You and Fran must’ve hated each other.”
Alberto didn’t bother with an alcohol transition this time. Maybe his showmanship was waning. Maybe he was trying for montage. Either way, Ralph Rivers was gone. Fran had the blue dress on, and she and Alberto were lounging about the shore, quite at ease. Alberto was dangling a green tree frog by one of its thin legs. Fran similarly was peering at small, panicked fish she had trapped in small orbs of water above the river.
“I’d never met anyone like Fran. She wasn’t… hollow like Eliza, but she was utterly her.” He smiled, mostly to himself.
The tree frog exploded in the young Alberto’s fingers, splattering the boy’s face with splotches of red and strips of moist green skin.
“She surprised me. All the time. You’ll find out how rare that is.”
Fran was laughing like mad. To Allison’s surprise, Alberto broke out in giggles, too.
She looked flatly at the man the boy would become. “Really?”
“Oh, don’t tell me you and Arn never tore the legs off bugs.”
Now they were standing on Northam’s main street7, and Fran and the young Alberto were watching and cackling as a man in a sparkling white server’s uniform fled down the sidewalk from a gurgling, misshapen mass of half-melted ice-cream.
“Now, I know you and Arn—or, Dave I guess—never did that, because you’re boring.”
As Allison watched the ice-cream golem menace the screaming townsfolk, she hoped Alberto couldn’t see the part of her that wished she’d thought of it.
A noon-drunk wandered out of a public house, stumbling over an Italian folk-song8 and waving a bottle of malt in his hand. It flew out of his hand, smashing into the middle of the road. Almost predictably, it unleashed a wave that roared down the street. Allison didn’t even flinch when it hit them.
They found themselves somewhere Allison was very surprised Alberto was familiar with: the bottom of the Avon river.
She looked around the riverbed. It all looked right. The mud, the way the sun rained broken caustics of light through the river’s roof, the subtle greenish tint to everything. But it didn’t feel right. The water was as weightless on her limbs as air. Pure scenery. It reminded Allison how false it all was. Alberto wasn’t standing next to her. He was just information in her head that felt chatty. That she was letting decide what she saw…
That information was looking up towards the surface. “There we are.”
Françoise was darting through the water like a tiny, towheaded dolphin, chasing after segmented gold water-snakes. Alberto was following gracelessly far behind her, waving flailing through the water like a deeply confused seagull, cheeks bulging with air. Looking at him made Allison deeply appreciate her power.
“I mean, weird god-brain aside, me and Fran—it was just nice, you know? Basil was way bigger and always trying to keep busy so the black dog wouldn’t get him, Eliza was a German depressive zombie, but Fran… sure, I was older, but Fran barely knew what that meant. Most of the ‘people’ she’d known were immortal! And we’d both grown up a bit short of friends…”
Allison spotted a shadow on the surface. It could’ve been a teenage boy lying on his back. “What about Chen?” she asked, pointing to the shape. “Basil said you and him were close.”
The world stopped.
“We are not talking about fucking Chen,” Alberto snarled.
“Fine,” Allison huffed back. “What’s your point, then?”
The young Françoise and Alberto melted away. The surface began to lower towards the riverbed. The whole river was draining like a bathtub with the stopper pulled out.
They were back at the riverside. Alberto and and Fran—now both very adolescent—were ambling along the water’s edge with that particular bored teenage gait. Alberto though was eyeing his companion like she had a pimple he wasn’t sure whether or not to tell her about.
“You’ve already seen this part of the story,” the future Alberto told Allison. “Just in reverse.”
“What do you mean?”
Alberto waved his hands at the teens. “Just look at this…”
“Me and Eliza are heading into town Saturday,” the past Fran said. “Getting our nails done.”
“What’s the point?” said the teenaged Alberto. “The paint will just flake off next time you turn to water or something.”
Fran shrugged. “It’s the chat that’s important. You wouldn’t get it, girl stuff.” A small, knowing smile. “Besides, maybe I just won’t change for a while…”
Alberto almost spat the words, “She let Lawrence and the rest make her into a person! Domesticated her! Made her boring. Like turning water to mud.”
The teenage Alberto stopped walking for a moment, staring at Fran’s back. Then he caught up with her, surreptitiously brushing her hand with his.
The young woman swung around and kissed him right on the lips. A very grown up kiss, Allison thought. She winced at the sight.
Fran pulled back almost immediately, wiping her face and flashing Alberto the kind of nervous, apologetic grin the six year old sprite in the river never could’ve. “I’m sorry. Don’t know what came over to me.”
The young Alberto forced a smile. “Hey, I’m not complaining.”
Fran shook her head. “Practise makes perfect I suppose.”
Allison glared up at Alberto. “You made her kiss you.”
“She did what I told her,” he hissed. “I could make her do whatever I wanted.”
“You made Fran kiss you,” repeated Allison.
The psychic ran his hands down his face and groaned. “What was the point after that? You can’t be friends with a puppet.”
Allison folded her arms. “I have your powers and friends.”
“You’d had my powers for less than a week, sweetie, don’t get carried away.” Alberto produced an amber Jo Jo flask. It had no label, just the embossed image of Saturn devouring his child. “There’s one more thing I need to show you.”
Alberto pulled out the cork. Allison braced herself for whatever flood or plume of remembrance it produced.
Instead, the flask started sucking in air. Alberto and Allison stretched and contorted as they were pulled through its neck like genies being sucked back into their bottle9.
No wonder he wanted to play Prospero, Allison thought to herself.
When everything was its proper shape again, the pair were standing in Lawrence’s study. The man himself was standing with his back to his desk, looking out the office’s great clock face window. The only real difference made to the Oxfordian was the length of his beard. On the other side of the desk, a sixteen year old Alberto was staring at his sandshoes in the centre seat.
It almost amused Allison. It was like God saw the scene in Milan and realized he’d gotten Alberto and Lawrence mixed up.
The elder Alberto did not look amused. He was staring at the back of Lawrence’s green checkered suit with pure, undisguised hate.
“Mr. Jefferies from the off-licence phoned me today, Tiresias,” the old man said quietly. All too steadily. “He was very confused. And angry.”
Alberto looked up at Lawrence in confusion. “What, you mean Crackbone Pete?”
Lawrence swung around and snapped, “We do not use vulgar nicknames here, young man.”
That earned a quick bitter laugh from both his future students. To Allison’s immense surprise, the young Alberto bent his head.
His older self shook his head at the display. “God, I was such a pussy.”
“Do you know why Mr. Jefferies called me, Tiresias?”
Allison hated when grownups did that: the toxic combo of rhetorical questions and using your name like they thought you would forget it.
Although, she guessed, that wasn’t completely out of the question at the Institute.
Lawrence sat down, resting his elbows on the desktop and rubbing his fingers on his forehead like he had a migraine. “Don’t lie to me, Alberto.” He used the boy’s human name like it was an insult, or maybe a serial-number. “Mr. Jefferies told me he handed you an entire slab of beer, free of charge. And ‘by God’ he can’t remember why.”
Tiresias tried to shrug. It looked more like his shoulders were breaking. “Maybe he felt charitable and he’s regretting it?”
“I’ve lived in the Avon Valley for a long time. I know for a fact ‘Crackbone Pete’ feels no such urge.” He looked Alberto hard in the eye. “What did you do to him, Tiresias?”
The man who’d been called Tiresias nudged Allison in the side. “Watch me think on my feet.”
“…Okay, I’ll confess. It was an illusion. Made Mr. Jefferies think I slipped him a tenner.” He tried to smile. “I can pay him back if you want.”
Lawrence swallowed hard. “No, Tiresias. Mr. Jefferies didn’t tell me his money vanished, he told me he gave you the beer.” He clenched his fists. “Why did he do that?”
“Now watch, Allie,” said Alberto. “If I was smart, I would’ve leapt at Bertie and blanked his memory, like I did back at Adam’s house.”
“I know,” she muttered.
Alberto sighed. “I was not smart.”
“…I can make people do what I want,” Tiresias admitted. “When I touch—”
Lawrence slapped him across the face, hard and sharp.
Tiresias’ hand went to his cheek. He was staring at Lawrence, more shocked than anything.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I—I thought you might not want me if you knew.”
Lawrence took a deep breath. “Tiresias, that is an ugly, abominable ability. Have you ever… manipulated the others this way?”
“…Once or twice.”
Another smack. “Never do this again, not to anyone, but especially not your brothers and sisters. This kind of coercion isn’t fit for new humans. It’s pure mental violence.”
Tiresias’ eyes were wet. “Are you going to tell the others?”
Lawrence shook his head. “No.”
“Gotta keep a card up your sleeve,” whispered Alberto.
“I don’t want them to have to look at you like this.”
“And that’s the only way Bertie ever looked at me again,” said Alberto. He looked down at Allison. “Lawrence didn’t see us as different people, you know. Not really. He thought of us like some big superorganism. Pun fucking intended. A beehive. And I was a bee that steals all the honey or something. A big fat—”
Alberto blinked at Allison. “What?”
“Stop trying to make me feel sorry for you. You’re a bad person.”
Alberto thrust his hands at Lawrence, now frozen mid-lecture. “Look at what I had to work with!”
Allison didn’t look, neither at Lawrence or Alberto. “Laurie was bad to all of us. Didn’t make us all evil.”
Alberto laughed without mirth. “Evil? Chrissakes, is this a Sunday matinee?”
The little girl finally looked up at the esper. “I’m nine. What’s your excuse?”
“I don’t have to prove anything to you.”
“You’re trying really hard to.”
“I lived with Bertie’s complete and utter fucking hatred for half my bloody life!” Alberto shouted, abandoning his earlier protestations. “What do you want from me?”
“David lived with Lawrence’s crap his whole life. He didn’t turn out like you.”
“There’s no fucking comparison! David was Bertie’s golden boy! His masterpiece! What the shit did he have to deal with, hmm? Bertie blowing too much air up his arse?”
For a long time—whatever that meant inside her and Alberto’s shared head—Allison didn’t answer. Then she drew a bottle from the aether. Tequila, with a fat worm curled up at the bottom.
She took a long, hard draught. It burned her throat raw. The office shook and shattered.
They were in the spare bedroom. The married day bedroom. Alberto, technically the younger, but only by less than three years, and the former Stratogale were both lying on the bed. Sadie Jones was painfully exposed, her skin pale. Her face was the kind of blank mask children put on when they didn’t want to weep. She looked far younger than her fifteen years.
Beside her, Alberto took a draft of his clove cigarette. He glanced at Sadie, staring at the door like it was the last one we all pass through. “Hey, at least it’s done.”
He sounded like they were filing taxes, or closing a bank account.
“If you hate Laurie so much, why did you screw Sadie for him?”
The words felt strange in Allison’s mouth. Grownup, but only for a child.
Alberto tried not to look at Sadie. “Laurie wouldn’t shut up about it. Guess he decided my ‘abomination’ was worth having in his next generation…”
Allison glared at him. “You could’ve said no. You were the only one of us who could’ve said no.”
Alberto half-stammered. “Hey, it wasn’t fun for me, either!” He pointed at Sadie. “She doesn’t even like fellas!”
“She was a kid. You were twenty-six.”
Allison forced herself to take another long, stinging gulp of Alberto’s shame. The scene shifted to Panoply’s cenotaph—the grave of a boy who never was.
“You brought Adam here. For a joke.”
“…He was a threat! To all of us!”
“Not to you. You brought Adam here so he could hurt us. Hurt David. Just to play a joke on Lawrence.” Allison’s artificial calm broke. “To make Eliza a murderer!”
“Eliza was a killer long before she met me.”
“Does that make Adam less dead?”
“Like you ever cared about him!”
“So?” Allison took another slug from the bottle. She’d managed to down almost all of it.
They were in Françoise’s bedroom. Private Wilkins’ rifle was still smoking. What was left of Fran was still warm flesh.
Alberto blanched at the sight. He stared at Allison with white fury. “You little cow.”
“Says the bloke who shot his best friend.”
Alberto pointed at Wilkins. “Does that look like me?”
Allison scoffed. “He was how you did it. You let the raid happen. You could’ve made Tim leave us alone, and spent the rest of your life brainwashing girls and drinking yourself to death.”
“He—he knew about my power!”
A sip this time. The room shifted back to Lawrence’s study. The old man was staring pleadingly at Alberto, with a banana pointed at his temples.
“Lawrence knew about your power, but you could still do that to him. You cared more about a dumb, sick joke than you did about Fran.”
Alberto couldn’t answer the girl.
They returned to Fran’s room. Allison was smiling wickedly.
“You know what’s amazing?” she said, her voice cracking. “The absolute funniest thing about this?”
Allison laughed. “This isn’t even the worst thing you’ve ever done. Raping a girl and shooting your friend in the head is, like, third baddest!”
The little girl swallowed the rest of the tequila. When the bottle was bone dry, she shook out the worm, crunching it between her teeth.
They were in the barn, in the middle of the night. Alberto was in his dressing gown. David—or maybe Maelstrom—was standing in his pyjamas under a shower of moonlight pouring in through the barn’s skylight. His eyes were still as blue as his mother’s, and they were streaming with tears. He was also holding a pair of wooden skewers.
Alberto was pacing unsteadily back and forth in front of the boy, his cheeks flushed with Enlilian hexagons. Allison could almost smell the booze on his breath. The psychic was the kind of drunk that he normally reserved for parties, or his deepest funks.
Perhaps this was both.
Alberto was stumbling, both over his own feet and his words. “You don’t know how fucking lucky you’ve got it, Mealy.”
Maelstrom nodded. Allison didn’t know if that was Alberto’s doing, or just the instinct Lawrence had hammered into him.
“I remember when I was the future.” Alberto mimicked an explosion with his hands. “The ‘mental marvel’ Bertie fucking called me.” He stalked in close to David, his spittle hitting him in the nose. “But now he’s got you. His own personal Poseidon, with all the edges ground off.”
Alberto hit him. Allison couldn’t imagine it meant much to a boy who’d been flogged with what might as well have been a mace, but he still shook like his bones were jelly. The up-to-date Alberto was shaking too. Adults did that sometimes when you called them out.
“Fucking hell,” the previous Alberto slurred. “You know what your mum would think of ya, back when she was worth something?”
Maelstrom shook his head. He’d heard it all before, but he was a good boy, and good boys didn’t play smart when grownups were trying to tell them something.
“She’d be bloody ashamed. Probably wouldn’t even bother to drown you. You’re Lawrence’s shitty picture of her.”
Alberto tested the tips of the skewers with his thumbs, raising tiny beads of blood from his pores.
Maelstrom didn’t have to be told. He drove the skewers home.
He didn’t scream. He wasn’t allowed to. He did whimper, though. Blood and worse mixed with his tears.
Alberto tried to look away, but wherever he turned, there was Maelstrom. There were those ruined eyes.
“Oh, quit sniveling,” said the other Alberto. “You’ll be fine. Now, open the doors for us. We’re gonna go get Windshear.”
Maelstrom, retreated into ice, pulled the barn doors open. He followed Alberto out into the night.
Alberto watched them go, before turning to look at Allison.
“That’s what I see whenever I look at my best friend. Thanks.”
“He never remembered!”
“He did. He just didn’t know he did. I held him while he screamed.” Allison’s mouth twitched curiously. “Is that why you killed his mum? In case he remembered?”
“Lawrence was wrong about… pretty much everything. Except for you.”
Allison’s voice climbed higher. “You’re worthless, Alberto! The whole world would be better if you’d died inside your mum. Lawrence was right to hate you!”
They were back in the Physician’s quest quarters. Back in reality. Allison was sitting upright in her bed, regarding Alberto with almost bored disdain. His image meanwhile was hyperventilating.
Allison lay down. “We’re done,’ she said, closing her eyes. “I’m going out.” Allison hadn’t tried astral projection yet, but right then she just wanted to be away from Alberto. She rose out of her clothes and body like a sylph of the air. She was a spectre now, a reflection of herself. The girl floated up towards the metal ceiling.
“Get back in the dark.”
She passed out of sight. Alberto got shoved back into the house without windows, alone. The psychic was a little surprised. He’d half-expected to find himself dragged along wherever Allison was frittering off to.
At least this future was unfolding right.
Alberto opened Allison’s eyes. Exhaled air through Allison’s lungs. Moved Allison’s lips, and tapped Allison’s teeth with the tip of Allison’s tongue.
“Dumb little bitch.”
1. “It’s fine,” more or less. ↩
2. “Wait here!” ↩
3. The children of the New Human Institute were subject to many abuses, but they were at least spared braces. ↩
4. To be fair, you couldn’t expect him to feel suspense.↩
5. “Turd” or perhaps more relevantly, “piece of shit.” ↩
6. This—coincidentally—was Françoise’s exact assessment of Palaemon. ↩
7. Fitzgerald street, to be specific. ↩
8. “La Leggenda del Piave” written by E.A Mario in 1918 to commemorate the Italian victory in the Battle of the Piave River. ↩
9. Contrary to popular Western conception, most djinn are not bound to obey humans—indeed, it takes a powerful magician to compel to do anything they don’t want to do. What mortals take as “wishes” can often be more accurately called “favours.” ↩