The Physician’s people1 had long reached post-scarcity2 and perfected genetic engineering back when human beings were just figuring out that the little stones in fruit could turn into new plants. His culture had abolished hierarchy and fixed identity. Death and birth were as everyday life events for him as brushing your teeth.
Naturally, this made Timothy Valour’s petty realpolitik a tedious listen:
“Yada yada yada national security…
“Yada yada yada you owe Australia that much…”
At least Herbert had the decency to blow up that ghastly modernist lump the DDHA occupied back in Canberra, the Physician tried comforting himself. As far as he was concerned, Walter Burley Griffin designed buildings exactly like he did rubbish incinerators. Sure, the Royal Exhibition Building3 was a bit of a dump these days—more suited to high school matriculation exams and weekly dances than the business of government—but at least it’d been built before human architects swore off aesthetics. The Physician dreaded the day when humankind tried building spaceships.
“Yada yada yada—Dr. Smith, are you even listening?”
The Physician had been sitting stock still and grinning in his chair for the entire meeting. It made Valour feel like he was practising with a mannequin.
“Oh, I’m listening,” Dr. Smith lied, not bothering to move his lips. “So, about those bodies, I was thinking—”
Tim sighed, resting his elbows on his desk and running his hands over his face. “Smith, please tell me Chaoskampf4 is nearly ready.”
The Physician’s fingers writhed along the edge of the desk. “Still after that? I thought you were moving over to the DOPO model. Training up super-squads and all that.”
Timothy straightened himself and swallowed. “Yes. That’s the plan. Sadly, there haven’t been many applicants yet.”
“I suppose it’s hard to lure in flies with honey when you’ve spent the last three years leaving out poison. That and you killed half of the good ones last week.”
Valour inhaled. He’d learned it was best to ignore many of the things John Smith said. “That being said, if and when we get super-corps up and running, we still feel it prudent to have a… deterrent.”
Dr. Smith seemed amused by that. “Ah, I see. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
Sometimes it bothered Timothy that the Physician knew more Latin than him. Reluctantly, he called over to Mister Thumps standing in the corner. “Translation, Thumps?”
The hulking manservant drawled, “Literally translated, ‘Who guards the guards themselves?’ but commonly rendered in English as ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ ”
Dr. Smith’s head swiveled around to regard his creation. “Good lad, Thumps,” he said, before spinning his head back to face Valour. “Told you he was worth the money.”
Tim sighed. “Dr. Smith, please, what’s the status of Chaoskampf?”
The Physician wobbled in his chair. “Very promising, Valour, very promising.”
Chaoskampf was proving to be a most edifying project for him. The first honest challenge he’d faced since the 50s, aside from the obvious, eternal exception. It did ask for the expenditure of some very unique resources on his part, and if it turned out half as well as he hoped, it would certainly disrupt the balance between the nations of man. That was alright, though. Didn’t want the game to get stale.
Besides, he was sick of Ivanova rubbing her science cities in his face.
“Finally got the brain-machine interface working smoothly. Not a small feat, given that I’m working with dead—”
Valour threw his hand up. “I don’t need the details, Smith.”
“I do at least need to tell you that the final product will be much better if I have access to the NHI cadavers.”
Timothy lay his hands on his legs, silent for a spell. “…They’re children, John.”
The Physician kept smiling. “Yes, Tim, they are children. Children whose brains I will dissect and make think again with electricity. Children whose bones I will carve into marvelous weapons to protect you from scary economic systems. Children who you had shot.” The doctor let out a peal of staccato, many-voiced laughter. Timothy didn’t even think it meant mirth anymore.
“Maybe I’ll even spin their flesh into new children to guard your house at night. Domestication is one of your people’s great strengths, Valour. You take predators and make them hunt your food for you. Lawrence almost figured it out—you’ll have to as well, Timothy. Unless you want your grandchildren to grow up in those kennels instead. Only one species gets to be free.”
Talking to the Physician always made Timothy Valour feel small. Provincial, and stupid, and so very grubby. Like he was selling his soul—maybe everyone’s souls—for table-scraps.
Sometimes, he wondered if Earth was the only place fit for an aberration like John Smith. Other times, he feared Earth was the only place where men like him pretended to care about people. Over and over, John Smith and so many others asked him to make someone’s life worse, and every time, he said yes.
Maybe this time—
Tim found himself saying, “…I could say no. I could bury those kids. I could send you away and never do business with you again.”
“You could,” conceded the Physician. His grin fissured his cheeks. “…But then I’d take my work to someone else.”
“…The bodies will be ready for you by the end of the day.”
“I’m happy to hear it.”
In his corner, Mister Thumps shook his head. Nobody noticed.
The shell between his duty and his heart back in place, Valour said, “I meant to tell you, earlier Penderghast reported—”
The roar of a thousand exploding windows thundered across the face of the Exhibition Building.
Wartime instincts and engineered reflexes sent Valour and Thumps ducking for cover a split second before the office window shattered. When the rattle of broken glass subsided, Timothy peered out the teal carpet and his own bracing arms. The whole room rang with a sound like screaming wine-glasses. “Fuck!”
He cautiously got to his feet. Thumps appeared unharmed, dusting off his suit. The Physician though was riddled with shards of glass, dozens of wounds seeping dark green blood5. A jagged blade had impaled him square in the face. He was still grinning.
Timothy shouted, “Jesus Christ, John!”
“Oh, it’s fine.” The Physician absorbed the glass missiles with a grinding slurp. “You can always find a use for silica.” He looked around at the spray of glass. “Is it New Year’s already? I love fireworks, Valour, but a little warning would be appreciated.”
Valour shook his head in bewilderment. “No it’s not—we’re under attack you fool!” The DDHA chief swung around and stuck his head out the empty window frame over Carlton Gardens, just in time to spot a procession of children and monsters marching in through the blasted off front doors. A man trailed behind them, carrying something dark and bulky over his shoulder. A gun-case? A grenade launcher? And what was that hanging off him? Explosives? The armed guards that had been stationed at the entrance were pinned beneath mounds of ice or crystal.
Realization burst inside Valour like blisters of acid. “Oh, God,” he half-whispered. “I think they’re from the Institute.”
With a crunch of glass underfoot, Dr. Smith joined Timothy at the window, still beaming. “Maybe they’re here to apply for your super-squad!”
For five minutes, nobody in the office spoke. What was there to say? All their contingency plans for an invasion were written for the Canberra building. The only sounds were muffled shouting from neighbouring offices and the nearing sirens of emergency vehicles. The Physician sat back down in his chair and silently grinned like a dolphin. Mr. Thumps efficiently checked Tim over for injuries. Unfortunately, he found none.
Eventually, Valour resumed his place behind his desk. He had no doubt they would come for him, and in the face of an angry god, dignity was the only power mortals could hope for.
In the space between breaths, there was a knock.
“Come in,” said Valour.
The office-door opened, and in stepped a woman from the future. She wore a red, ludicrously skin-tight spacesuit with a fishbowl helmet. Her whole body had an odd, painted sheen.
She also had a gun.
“Mr. Valour,” she said in a vaguely American accent, “You’re wanted in the main hall.”
She sounded vaguely regretful. Timothy could relate.
The spacewoman herded Valour, Thumps, and Dr. Smith through the halls and stairways of the western annex at gunpoint. The Physician cracked and crunched with every step, chatting all the while.
“You’re one of Mabel Henderson’s projections, aren’t you.”
“Yes,” the spacewoman admitted.
“Mabel who?” asked Valour.
“You don’t know all of Herbert’s students, Timothy?” The Physician waged a long, bony finger at Tim. “For shame.” His head revolved to face the lady astronaut, making her—and Valour—flinch. “I’ve always wanted to ask, are you pure fabrication, or does little Mabel use pictorial references to access the multiverse?”
“How the hell should I know?”
“If you were killed on this plane, dear, do you think you’d return to life where you came from? Or would Mabel be summoning a new version of you from then on?”
“I swear to God, I’ll shoot.”
“Go ahead. It won’t stick.”
Alberto stood in the sunshine raining in through the Royal Exhibition Building’s Italianate dome, admiring the decorative pendentives and lunettes. Minerva, king of the gods presided over the arts of war in her chariot, while Juno reclined next to a lion, improbably representing peace. Hercules, Venus, Mercury and Mars soared in little slivers of sky. Local legend had it that the Olympians themselves descended from Heaven to pose for the artists. Alberto didn’t know if there was any truth to that, but he was glad he’d picked a pretty place for a siege.
A few clusters of unlucky civil servants cowered under the sylphs of night, spring, and winter, guarded by a spear-toting penguin riding a shark-bear, flanked by growling pandas with chainsaws for legs and a fish-man in an oilskin menacingly waving a harpoon, which Mabel unfortunately called a manerfish.
Billy was picking over the hardwood floor, spreading his mirror-mist over chunks of broken door and masonry reducing it to water for David, who’d earlier been kind enough to replace the flesh and blood of the people hit by the shrapnel.
The tiger-boy glanced sympathetically at one of the pockets of hostages. “Sorry about this,” he said with all the sincerity in the world. “I promise we’ll let you go when we’re done. It’s for a good cause!”
“Billy,” Alberto groaned, “Don’t be nice to the hostages.”
A man with a face like a coal-scuttle shouted, “You fucking freaks are gonna get it! Should’ve gassed the lot of you…”
One of the smarter hostages clapped her hands over the man’s mouth.
Alberto tilted his chin towards the east mezzanine, where Arnold and Mabel stood guard. “Arnold,” he said cooly, “send that idiot directly to Jupiter.”
The boy lit up with absinthe sparks, pointing down towards the tussling hostages. “My pleasure.”
One of the people smothering the upstart cried, “Wait, please—”
A bolt of lightning lanced down at the two. They vanished, only to instantly reappear in a heap in the centre of the hall, screaming frantically before realizing they hadn’t been deposited in the clouds of a gas-giant.
The children laughed, all except Billy, who settled for quietly shaking his head and tutting.
Alberto walked up to the teleported hostages. “Sorry about that,” he said to the one on top. “Crossfire, you know. You can go back to the huddle now.”
The woman scarpered off, leaving the man with the Neanderthal brow staring wide eyed up at Alberto.
“Next time,” he hissed, “Jupiter.”
The man nodded frantically and ran back to the others.
Alberto looked around the hall at the rest of the hostages. “That goes for the rest of you, too.”
That bit of intimidation theatre done, Alberto took on David’s song and misted over towards its source at the head of the hall.
“Doors sealed?” Alberto asked as he resolidified. It was surprisingly refreshing, like a full-organ sluice.
Two globes of water thrice the size of David orbited the boy like planets blown from glass. Toolbox and ammo belt all in one. He ran a hand over the thick walls of ice he’d replaced the front doors with and rubbed his fingers approvingly. “Nobody’s getting in unless I say.”
Satisfied, Alberto went to check in on the honorary sixth Watercolour: Carl Jessop, the cameraman they’d borrowed from the Melbourne ABC6.
“We good here?”
The ginger cameraman gave Alberto a thumbs up, coupled with a vacant smile.The double-reel camera resting on his shoulder and the mess of wires, cables, and sound equipment hanging off him made the boy look like a cut-rate cyborg. “Ready to roll, little miss.”
Alberto nodded slowly, lest Karl think his head was about to fall off. “Good work, Karl,” he told him gently.
The whammy Alberto put on Karl wasn’t the psychic’s best work. Poor bastard probably thought he was covering a flower show. Still, Alberto couldn’t feel too sorry for him. Today would probably make Karl’s career.
Assuming he survived.
“They’re here,” called Mabel.
The Watercolours all assembled as the spacewoman marched her captives into the hall. Mr. Thumps was stoic as ever, the Physician was grinning what passed for his heart out, and Timothy Valour appeared completely resigned.
Fucking predictable, Alberto thought to himself. Wrap yourself in duty tight enough, you never have to bother with anything so messy as fear in your whole life.
“It’s gonna be alright!” one of the hostages yelled with desperate jubilation. “Valour will sort these—”
Alberto shot the worker a look.
“Not today, son,” Valour said quietly. “Not the way you want, at least.”
Mr. Thumps caught sight of David and Allison and bowed to each child in turn. “Hello, Miss Kinsey. Hello, Maelstrom.”
“Hi, Mr. Thumps. It’s David now.”
“S’alright,” David replied softly. It felt weird, talking to someone both younger and taller than him. “Not your fault you didn’t know.”
The Physician was looking around at Mabel’s creations. The shark-bear growled at him. The Physician waved back. “Oh, these are charming,” he said, glancing at Mabel up on the mezzanine. “Did you make these? If so, I’d love to collaborate sometime.”
“Thanks,” Mabel said, forgetting the situation for a moment. “I’m trying to use my own stuff more.” Quickly she added, “No offense, captain.”
The spacewoman didn’t look at her summoner. “Can I go now?”
Mabel looked taken aback. “…Okay.”
The astronaut disappeared without a whisper.
Alberto wished away his sunglasses, revealing Allison’s magma eyes. “Hi Tim.”
Valour sighed. “I know you won’t believe me, Allison, but I’m glad you’re alive.”
David’s eyes flashed a green-tinted white. Valour bent and wretched as bile forced its way up his throat like an angry snake.
Alberto grasped the water-sprite’s hand. “We need him, David.”
David’s eyes returned to their resting green. Valour fell gasping to his knees.
“I know,” said David. “Just reminding the git what happens if that changes.”
Mr. Thumps helped Tim to his feet. “He is trying, David.”
Valour stared at his manservant. This had to be the first thing he’d ever heard Thumps say that wasn’t about his job. Even the Physician looked perplexed, assuming that’s what it meant when his eyes migrated to the side of his head like a flatfish, shifting across the surface of his skull until they were staring at his creation.
David looked flatly at the drone. “Thumps, most people don’t have to try not to shoot kids. Or my Mummy.”
“I didn’t want—” Valour trailed off. What was the point? Arguing with his daughters had never got him anywhere when they were this age. And they hadn’t been right. “I suppose you kids have demands.”
“Damn right we do,” Alberto said. He pointed towards Karl and his camera. “First, you’re gonna tell the nice cameraman all about what you do here at the DDHA.”
This for broadcast or blackmail? Either way, these kids were clever. Maybe Lawrence was onto something.
Valour stepped in front of the camera. The boy the children had drafted to man it looked over the viewfinder at him, wearing a broad, slightly drunk grin. “Smile for the camera, Mr. Jenkins!”
Timothy Valour did not. Instead, he looked towards the other hostages—still gazing at him with woefully misplaced hope—and breathed deep. Time to dispel all illusions.
“I thought it would be easy, fixing all this. I thought I could shut down the asylums, convince the supers to come back into the fold, after what we did to them. To make us stronger. I thought the DDHA was a creature of pure, dumb panic. I still don’t think I was wrong about that. But people like me—men of action, I suppose—we think we can push past all the fuss and red-tape by ignoring the world and using ‘common-sense’.” Valour scoffed. “No such thing. I thought I was stronger than a country’s fear. I wasn’t. I drowned in it, same as everyone else.”
“Get on with it,” said David. “You’re starting to sound like Lawrence.”
Valour glared right at the camera. Time to be the monster. “As chief of the DDHA, I made many legally, ethically, and morally dubious deals with an extraterrestrial creature calling himself John Smith.”
The DDHA employees lucky enough to have never met the Physician gasped.
“He provided the frankly torturous super-restraints used in several DDHA facilities, often on children. Dr. Smith also provided the government with what I believe are artificial men. Drones grown to serve. Slaves, in other words.” He gestured half-heartedly towards Mr. Thumps.
“In exchange for these and other pieces of technology, I personally allowed Dr. Smith custody of many DDHA inmates for the purpose of human experimentation.” He inhaled. “I don’t know the full extent of what these experiments entailed. I tried to avoid finding out. I know enough however, to say that Dr. Smith is a blight upon this earth. A blight I helped to cultivate.”
The Physician muttered to Thumps, “I think Valour’s got it confused about who was doing the cultivating here…”
“You’re not done yet,” said Arnold.
“No, I’m not. For years, I allowed the psychiatrist Herbert Lawrence to run a private care-home for superhuman children. Part of me hoped he could offer us something better than the asylums. Something more humane. Another part knew we’d save money by letting him take on some of our less containable inmates. Under my watch, Herbert Lawrence bred those children like cattle. Raped them. When I was told, I could have had him arrested on the day. I wanted to. I wanted to kill him, even. But I didn’t. I let him fester and plot. He orchestrated the terror attacks in Canberra. I ordered a raid on his school. This raid resulted in the death of good soldiers, children, and the loss of two superhuman assets.”
Don’t have to tell me, thought Alberto.
“You also killed Francoise Barthe,” Alberto cut in, his voice acid. “You ordered your men to shoot her. In the head. While she slept.”
Behind him, David’s fists were clenched, his knuckles white.
“I did.” Valour looked down at the floor. “Less than half an hour before this recording, myself and Dr. Smith were in my office, negotiating the exchange of those children’s corpses in exchange for biological weapons. For something to kill more children.”
Some of the hostages were weeping. Others were shouting questions or swearing at Valour, or declaring it all lies. Some, Alberto noted, were silent. A few quietly thinking it justified. Alberto almost laughed. Some Nazis never died. He supposed it must be a thrill for such mediocrities, finding out they were cogs in a decent atrocity.
Timothy had ran out of words. He’d confessed everything—probably enough to bar him from ever stepping foot outside of some dank cave, but he didn’t feel any worse for it. Despair was so clean.
“I think that about covers it,” said Alberto. He took Valour’s hand, pulling him backwards. “Now be a good boy and stand quietly in the corner.”
“You’re letting me live?” Valour asked, sounding completely disinterested in the answer.
“Of course. Nobody would believe any of this mad shit if we didn’t. Hell, half the hostages think you made it up.”
Alberto approached the Physician next, running a small finger along his jaundiced hand. “Your turn, Smith.”
The Physician smiled his plastic smile down at Allison, no doubt about to say something deeply condescending, when he found himself lurching towards the camera. He couldn’t stop himself His head twisted around to stare at the little girl.
Alberto grinned and nodded at the alien.
The girl’s powers had expanded, Dr. Smith realized. He was completely under Allison’s control. For the first time in his long earthly sojourn, the Physician was at the mercy of a human being.
Suddenly, he knew exactly how Captain George Pollard felt7.
The Physician came to a stop before the camera, spotting his reflection in the lens. An earth-person would’ve said he looked like he was trying to sell something. The Physician, however, knew that he looked bloody terrified.
His whole body rattled like he was a wind-up toy set on a bumpy surface. If that bothered Karl Jessop, he didn’t let it show.
“You’re live, buddy!”
“I’ve been playing you all,” the Physician blurted. “Me, myself and I have been supplying information and assistance to every nation of men worth mentioning. It’s a game I play, setting you against each other. Like Risk.”
The Physician clapped his hands over his mouth. The skin on his forehead bulged and tore, revealing another mouth:
“I’m also not very good at this!” it said in a wheezing falsetto, inspiring giggles from the Watercolours. “I barely qualified for the Physician’s Guild! The only reason I’ve gotten so far with people is because of how easy it is for humans to get powers!”
John Smith’s form began buckling and changing, his features shifting to those of Dr. Johannes, complete with fungi moustache. “This is what I look like when I’m working for the Americans.” Then he grew a grey beehive, while bloodied bone forced its way out of his head in a parody of eyeglasses. His nails grew long and orange. “And this is what I look like in Russia—”
Valour stalked towards the Physician. “You fucking traitor!” He punched the alien in the side of the head, only to shout when his knuckles came away bloody.
The Physician regarded the DDHA chief cooly, shards of glass poking out the side of his head. “Told you you can always find a use for silica. Traitor to what? Did you ever honestly consider me Australian? And at least I gave your backwater something.”
Their two prize bucks busy locking antlers, Allison approached one of the hostage-patches, asking casually, “Anyone have a pen and paper?”
Nobody answered. Even the ones with pens visibly sticking out of shirt pockets.
“Pencil’s fine too, I’m not fussy.”
Still no answer.
Fucking hostages, I swear.
Alberto huffed and put Allison’s hands on her hips. “Look, the sooner I get something to write on, the sooner you can all go home.”
“…I have a pad and a good ball-point,” offered a reedy voiced old man. “It’s red, though.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Alberto stretched out Allison’s hand. “Come on, hand it over.”
Trembling, the elderly clerk rose from the floor and pulled out his pad and pen, treading through the seated crowd to pass it to the little girl with the red-eyes.
“Thanks,” Alberto said as he started scratching at the paper. A thought occurred to him:
“Hey, lady who tried to get the moron to stop talking, come on up! Don’t worry, I won’t bite.”
The hostage in question—a plump, dyed redhead with a carnation pinned to her breast—crept cautiously from where she was cowering like a spooked rabbit. “Y—yes?”
Alberto finished his missive with a very sharp full-stop. “Look, I’m sorry about the crossfire thing earlier. I really didn’t want to punish you for stopping someone being stupid. That’s the opposite of how civilization’s supposed to work. Tell ya what. For being helpful, you and Methuselah get to go home early.”
“…Thank you,” said the old man, trying not to look at any of the other hostages. Some of them were already glaring.
Alberto shoved the paper into the woman’s hands. “All you have to do in exchange is deliver some of our demands here to the coppers outside.” He looked up towards the mezzanine. “Arnold there will teleport you a ways off so they don’t go nuts and fill you with lead. My advice is to put your hands on your heads before we send you, so no one gets too jumpy. Understand?”
The hostages nodded vigorously.
Smiling, Alberto said, “And if you don’t give them our demands, you get to drink drain-cleaner. Trust me, you will. But only if you don’t deliver, got it?”
Much more nodding.
“Blast ‘em, Arn.”
The pair whipped up in a quick green storm.
“… What’d you ask for?” Mabel asked from the mezzanine.
“Just some small stuff,” he replied. “Refreshments. A book or two, and Herbert Lawrence.”
“Think they’ll bring him?” asked David.
In his head, Alberto watched the storm of futures move in one direction. “Bet my life.”
Allison’s life, at least.
It took a couple of hours for the Watercolours’ guest to arrive. After much begging, Billy was allowed to try and raise the hostages’ morale. He chose charades.
The tiger-boy hopped on one foot, holding his arm in front of him like he was a crane8.
“A flamingo?” suggested one hostage. People had gotten more into the spirit of things after the snacks arrived. And after David offered the winner their freedom.
“Getting closer,” Billy answered charitably. At least the discourse had moved towards animals since they’d started. People had been pointedly avoiding the subject in the presence of the chainsaw panda.
“A land-sea-serpent,” the maner-fish gurgled.
“…You mean a snake?” asked Arnold.
“No, boy. Land-sea-serpents swim through the rock and soil, pulling unwary truck-captains down into the depths of the mantle.”
Arnold shot Mabel an amused smile. The girl returned it, shrugging.
“A crane! One of those long-neck dinosaurs!”
“I don’t know why you won’t let me play,” the Physician said sullenly from his corner. “My people perfected charades.”
“Hush you,” said Alberto. “It doesn’t work when you actually turn into the thing.”
“A frilled-neck lizard!”
“A chicken,” said Thumps.
“It’s a bloody elephant!” Tim Valour yelled. The Watercolours had been nice enough to provide the war hero gin for the duration.
“You got it!” said Billy.
“Yeah,” said David, “but you we’re not letting go.”
Valour fell onto his back. “Why was he hopping?”
David could feel three men walking close together towards the front entrance. The one in the middle was much bulkier than the other two.
David marched purposefully to the front entrance. The ice in the centremost doorway melted and evaporated, revealing Herbert Lawrence standing on the stairs like a penitent. Two policemen were backing away towards the bank of police cars behind Exhibition Fountain.
The old man was dressed in a striped prison uniform, and his beard had been shaved. Raspberry bruises circled his eyes.
David didn’t bother correcting Lawrence. His name would mean nothing from his mouth. “Get inside.”
David pulled Lawrence into the Exhibition Building as the steam reformed into ice behind him.
Lawrence tried to embrace the boy. “I thought you’d—”
David pushed him away, his body suddenly ice. His voice echoed cold and verrillon, “You don’t get to hug me, Laurie. You don’t get to talk to me. I’m done with you.” He pointed at his friends. “But they’re not.”
David led Lawrence roughly under the dome and threw him in front of the other Watercolours. “Do what you like with him.”
“Please do,” said the Physician. “Show me for buying free-range…”
Alberto had his hands on Allison’s hips, sneering at the sight of his old teacher. “God, I see why you never shaved, Laurie. Your chin is really weak.”
Lawrence gave Allison a weak shadow of his infuriatingly paternal smiles. “Ah, but I’m not the only one who’s gone through a change, am I?” He regarded David and Allison’s costumes with woozy bemusement. “Interesting plumage. And your eyes, Myriad…” He glanced to his sides. “There isn’t some new posthuman you’re copying, is there?”
Alberto struck Lawrence across the face with as much of Allison’s strength as he dared. “Now why would I tell you that?”
“You tricked me,” shouted Arnold, his cheeks flushed. “You made me bomb all those people!”
Lawrence seemed welcome. “Elsewhere, my boy, you couldn’t have known. I kept you innocent.”
“Laurie,” said Alberto, “never talk about keeping kids innocent.”
David raised an eyebrow at that. That sounded a lot more like something a grownup would say.
“I didn’t see you declaring yourself the bomber,” said Valour sourly.
“I did what I had to do for my children,” said Lawrence.
Mabel’s eyes narrowed on him. “Like what you did for Adam?”
“Wait,” said Valour. “Who’s Adam?”
“Boy Laurie poached,” answered the Physician. “Had him euthanized. Bloody nuisance, too. He was promised to me alive.”
Valour stared at Lawrence. “Jesus Christ.”
“Adam was a threat to the new human race, Timothy. Men like you would’ve used him to snuff them all out,” Lawrence said. He looked up at Allison. “I loved Adam. I still do, same as all of you.”
“For God’s sake!” shouted Alberto. “Stop the bollocks, Lawrence! You don’t love us! You can’t love anything outside your own head!”
“If I must be your Cronus, children, so be it. The future is not for me. It’s not for any of us.” Lawrence sighed. “I hoped I could ease the transition for your kind. Show mankind how to pass on with dignity. But maybe this revolution is necessary for you. Like blood pumping through a butterfly’s wings when they tear—”
Alberto shook his head. Dear God, he still didn’t get it. The old bastard had replaced his soul with speeches. “It’s not a revolution!” screamed Alberto. “We’re not doing this for your fucking future. We’re just angry! You fucked up our lives! Over and over!” He violently shook Lawrence’s shoulders. “Christ’s sake, Laurie.” His voice cracked. “Can’t you just say ‘I was a shit dad, I’m sorry’? Is it that bloody hard?”
A look of realization struck Lawrence. He tried to stand up, to strike Allison.
He couldn’t. Just like that awful chat in his office…
He smiled and leaned forward, whispering into Allison’s ear. “It’s good to see you again, son. Tell me, Tiresias, do the other children know who wears their friend’s face?”
Alberto shoved Lawrence back, forcing silence upon him.
The fucker needed to die. That Alberto was certain of.
Maybe he could break his neck? Or burn him? He tried to imagine himself actually killing Lawrence, but the image didn’t come. Why not? He hated him. It should’ve been easy…
Alberto decided he was being greedy. He walked over to David and took his hand, pointing at Lawrence. “Kill him,” Alberto half-begged. “Get rid of him.”
Lawrence closed his eyes and sighed. Billy was staring open jawed at Allison.
“Come on, Dave, he’s no good for anyone. Nobody’s had to deal with his bull more than you…”
David looked Allison right in her eyes for a moment, seeming to consider something. “…Pass,” he said eventually. “Me being like this is already killing him. Won’t judge if any of you want to.”
Alberto growled in his throat, before looking at Billy, grinning just a bit too hard. “What about you, Growly?” he asked. “You could turn him into a statue of himself! Laurie’s always wanted to be one of those anyway.”
Billy just shook his head, eyes screwed shut. “Stop it, Allie. Please.”
“Well that was a sucker’s bet,” Alberto said to himself.
He thought about just making Billy doing it, but that felt wrong. He was better than Lawrence. He could at least offer them this choice.
“I could do it,” The Physician offered cheerfully. “I could use some replacement biomass.”
“Or me,” said Valor, glaring at Lawrence with pure loathing in his eyes. “Trust me, kids, you’d be glad I did it later.”
“Shut up!” Alberto spat at them. He wasn’t giving either of them the satisfaction.
Alberto moved onto Arnold. The boy caught Allison’s gaze, and raised his arm, lightning already crackling at his fingers.
Well done, little fag. You’re my new favorite.
Arnold glared at Lawrence, fingers flaring. He didn’t fire.
“He made you a killer, Arn,” said Alberto. “He used you to kill hundreds of men, women, and children!” The psychic slammed Allison’s fist into Arnold’s shoulder. “Remember what he was going to do to your family? Just because they wanted to send you letters!”
Arnold’s whole body crackled. He clenched his fist. Unclenched it.
Then he imagined how his mother would react. Would she cry? She never cried.
Arnold dropped his arm. The lightning went out.
Alberto scowled at him. “Weak.”
He walked up to Mabel. “We’re just wombs with legs to him—”
There was a crack of thunder above everyone’s heads.
The old man let out a high, short-lived scream as he plummeted from the dome. He hit the floor with a hard thud. Dark blood pooled beneath his head like a red halo.
Herbert Lawrence, would-be architect of the superhuman soul, was dead.
Nobody spoke. The only sound beyond the echo of police sirens was Arnold breathing hard and sharp, his whole body heaving.
Alberto knelt before Lawrence’s body and closed his old teacher’s eyes. “At least someone fucking finished this…”
Billy started hyperventilating. Then he started screaming. The walls shook. Dust and plaster rained like snow. The windows in the dome popped and shattered. Cracks opened in the frescoes and stenciling.
Arnold seemed to break out of a trance that had nothing to do with Alberto Moretti. He looked quickly between his victim and the weeping Billy.
“Billy… I’m sorry.”
Billy started trying to run, to get away from that thing that had been a person a second ago, but he collided with Mr. Thumps. He instinctively hugged the drone, mewling quietly for his nanny, or Mary Gillespie, or anyone who could make this better.
“It will be alright,” Thumps said in his deep, soft voice. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
He was embracing the tiger-boy, but he was looking right at Arnold.
The teleporter felt something with thin legs land on his arm. He looked down to find a butterfly, dark wings edged in yellow with bright blue spots9.
Whispers and shouts broke out amongst the hostages. Arnold and the other children turned to see a many-splendored cloud of butterflies where the ice-doors had been. At ease in that cloud stood a dark skinned man holding a long staff.
“Good evening children,” Howard Penderghast said. “I think we need to have a talk.”
1. The squishies, as they came to call themselves in English. ↩
2. At least, compared to Earth. ↩
3. Built in 1880 for the Melbourne International Exhibition, the Royal Exhibition Hall also hosted the opening of the first Australian Parliament after Federation 1901. However, the building would fall into disrepair in the first half of the 20th century, narrowly avoiding demolition in 1948. By the end of 1965, the Melbourne City Council was somewhat relieved to be able to offer the space to the DDHA. ↩
4. Literally “struggle against chaos” in German, referring to folkloric narratives centred around deities or culture heroes battling and slaying “chaos beasts”, commonly dragons or serpents. Examples include St. George and the dragon, or the battle between Horus and Set. ↩
5. Not all of God’s children have hemoglobin. ↩
6. Australian Broadcasting Company, not to be confused with the American commercial network of nearly the same name. ↩
7. The captain of the whaleship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, providing the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick thirty years later. ↩
8. He wasn’t a crane. Mabel had already guessed that. ↩
9. Nymphalis antiopa, known as the Camberwell beauty in the UK, or more pertinently, the mourning cloak in North America. ↩