Trapped under the Flying Man’s recorded gaze in his weird undersea palace, Arnold couldn’t help but remember Hansel and Gretel.
Bloody rip-off, he thought. Didn’t even get any candy…
The hologram blinked off. “I think that’s enough intimidation,” said the caretaker’s voice. “Now, if you children could stand still for a moment…”
Arnold blinked. “Wait, what—”
A wall of blue light appeared in front of the Watercolours. The children had just barely enough time to panic, before it quickly washed over them and disappeared.
The children all slumped against the velvet-carpeted steps, breathing very hard. Arnold was surprised they hadn’t been disintegrated and scattered to the sea.
“Hmm,” the caretaker hummed to himself.
Still hyperventilating, Mabel wondered, did the Flying Man program his computers to ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’? Or would they all do that if they could talk?
“I estimate an 89% probability that you five are survivors from the New Human Institute. Could you confirm this?”
Arnold muttered out the corner of his mouth, “Don’t tell it any—”
“Yes!” said Billy, eyes wide. “How did you know?
Arnold ran his hands down his face. “We’re going to die…”
The caretaker explained, “I surmised based on news reports in my archives, your age and the incongruous nature of your arrival, as well as the testimony of Miss Eliza Winter.”’
“Wait,” said Mabel, “Ży—‘Miss Eliza’ was here?”
“I’m afraid Lyonesse hasn’t had the pleasure, but sir has spoken with her quite extensively.” The caretaker’s tone developed a sombre note. “We’re all very sorry to hear how this Institute business turned out.”
Mabel looked down at the stairs. Żywie knew the Flying Man. But he was a superhero, and she was… evil? Was that what her teacher was now? Surely nobody who’d done what she had could be a good person anymore. But then why did she wish she was here? Maybe she could explain. Or hug her.
“Sir has actually been looking for you for some time now.”
“We know,” said Allison sourly. “He rammed the spaceship we were on.”
“And I’m sure if sir was here, he would apologize. He was… emotional at the time. As of late he’s been keeping his distance due to your proximity to the Ocean Beast.” The caretaker’s voice became the sonic answer to a wagging finger. “I hope you children are aware how dangerous—”
“He’s my grandfather,” David groused.
“Oh my.” Deep within its logic-crystals, the caretaker made a note to keep an eye on the elemental spawn. Several far off security doors preemptively slammed shut.
“So why’s the Flying Man looking for us?” asked Arnold warily.
The caretaker seemed taken aback by the question. “You’re children, and no one’s looking after you. What more reason does he need?”
David puffed out his chest. “We don’t need ‘looking after’ Mister Just-a-voice.”
Didn’t they? Mabel asked herself.
“Regardless, I have taken the liberty of upgrading your status from ‘intruders’ to ‘guests.’ You now have free use of our facilities.” Quickly, he added, “Within limits, of course.”
Arnold looked to Allison. “You can see the future, right? Is the Flying Man gonna grind our bones to make his bread or something?”
Allison screwed her eyes shut. Her head twitched like her temples were under assault by mosquitos. One golden day, Arnold was going to tell her how funny she looked doing that.
“It’s kinda hard to tell,” said Allison. “The Flying Man’s so bright. It’s like trying to look behind the sun.” She shrugged. “It’s not like the future stops anytime soon, but. And he did help me with Alberto…”
Arnold raised an eyebrow. “He did?”
“I think so. It’s kinda… fuzzy.”
What the hell, Arnold thought.
“Ah, heck it,” David muttered. “Grandad’s here. I wanna explore!”
The caretaker helpfully provided directions to various points of interest within Lyonesse, all of which fell on deaf ears as the children rushed down staircases and crowded into elevators, only Billy even so much as bothering to thank him.
Arnold almost fell to his knees when they stumbled across a bedroom: a lush, shag-carpeted suite with a king-size waterbed.
“It’s so beautiful…” The boy belly flopped onto the bed, surrendering to it like nirvana. “It’s like sleeping on a jelly-mold!” Arnold looked up towards the ceiling. “Does this place have a bath? Or a shower?”
“Yes,” the caretaker answered curtly. “Most of you could use a clean.”
As it turned out, “a clean” meant a dip in the moon pool at the bottom of Lyonesse. The children floated above a silver submarine resting on a transparent steel1 floor.
David was unleashing his watery vengeance on Billy when the glob hit him in the back of the head, his neck momentarily jerking forward at the force of the impact, his hair spoofing out weirdly to either side as the goop pushed it outwards.
David turned around. Arnold was holding a bottle of vanilla and rose damask bath gel to his chest.
For a moment, no one moved.
David grinned. Arnold, quite wisely, began to run. Somewhat less wisely, he also began to laugh.
Once everyone was sufficiently bathed, the Watercolours found the Flying Man’s arcade. Apparently the amusements of the mid 20th century weren’t enough for him. The pinball machine used miniature suns with black holes. There was a twelve foot square glass cabinet where you could grow your own ecosystem.
Arnold aimed a light-gun at one of the fish in the full-wall aquarium, one eye closed. The towel tied around his waist made him feel like a samurai or some old Greek warrior. Who’d somehow found a laser gun. Whatever. He squeezed the trigger.
The fish exploded into bright, holographic confetti.
Arnold grinned. Why did the Flying Man even bother going out?
Halfway around the world and over a thousand feet above sea-level, Joseph Allworth descended upon Saiko Lake on the northern flank of Mount Fuji. The touch of his boots sent delicate ripples through the snowy mountain’s reflection in the water.
Joe made his way towards the shore, walking on the water like it was solid as slate. He passed a blue metal dinghy carrying two local fishermen, their lines sunk sullenly down into the deep. The pair caught sight of the superman as he passed, alarm flowing from them as fog on the winter air:
Joe forced a smile and waved back at the men. “Ohayou, fellas!”
As the Flying Man passed out of human earshot, one of the men in the boat turned to his companion. “What’s that in his hand?”
Joe paused for a moment when he reached dry land. Part of him wanted to stay and talk to the fishermen. Maybe even throw on some civilian duds and go full tourist for the day. Instead, he looked at the forest ahead, sighed, and kept walking. He had a meeting to keep.
He let the dark, quiet world of the trees swallow him. The locals called the forest Aokigahara—the Sea of Trees. A forest born from a volcano’s fury. The ground underfoot was cold, hard lava, riddled through by hemlock and cypress roots that snaked through the blanket of moss which nourished their vine-draped trees instead of soil. The terrain swelled and dipped like frozen waves. The porous rock ate Joseph’s footsteps, leaving only silent progress.
Joe couldn’t resist. He dropped the metal orb he was holding and clapped. The sound soaked into the magma like rain into earth.
Joe picked up the sphere again and reminded himself to remember this place the next time he needed quiet.
The Flying Man stopped when he came across the corpse. It was a boy, twenty years old at the most, hanging from a tree-branch by a length of rubber cord. The poor lad’s unseeing eyes bulged fishlike from his red, swollen face. His cheeks were streaked with frozen tears and mucus.
The sight didn’t come as a shock to Joe. Even if he hadn’t seen his share of human death, Aokigahara had become a hotspot for suicides in recent years2. Morbid as it was, it was why Joe had come here in the first place. Or at least, why what he was looking for had.
Joe sniffed. The poor lad smelled fresh. A halo of flies gathered around the dead boy’s head, orbiting him like a choir of angels around God’s throne, only deathly silent. Surprisingly active for such a cold winter’s day,
Joe wondered what drove him to it. Grades? Girls? A random misfiring of hormones and neurotransmitters? A shame, regardless. He almost considered checking the boy for ID, but that seemed more disrespectful than letting him be. Joe felt a rush of guilt at the thought. Disrespectful? He needed the boy to be desecrated. He sat down, adjusted his relationship to the waveform of the light around him, and waited.
The halo became a cloud, almost obscuring the corpse from view. The boy’s skin blew away like dust, revealing red sinew and muscle. Chunks of his flesh tore free and were carried off into the trees.
Joe focused his gaze on the flies. They looked a lot like flies… at a distance. Up close, however, the resemblance dissolved. Instead of compound eyes, the creatures sported bundles of sensory tentacles. They possessed no legs of any kind, while their wings were like strips of human skin stretched on a rack.
They said Aokigahara was haunted by the ghosts of elders left to die on Mount Fuji. Joe couldn’t say whether that was true or not, but he knew for certain they weren’t the only monsters in the forest.
Joe followed the swarm of fattened flies through the trees, still the next best thing to invisible.
They came to a wound in the dead magma, streaming down a set of rotting wooden steps. At their summit lay a discarded lab coat and pair of too thick eyeglasses.
The Flying Man gave up on walking, pursuing the flies like a ghost.
The hole funneled into a cold, dark cavern, crowded with translucent pillars of ice like a maw of jagged diamond teeth. Joe half expected to spot Lucifer chewing on Judas, Brutus and Cassius.
Instead, he found an enormous beak set in a mass of white, sunless flesh, greedily inhaling the carrion-flies.
Joseph Allworth let himself be seen, clearing his throat. “Time was people used caves like these to refrigerate silkworm cocoons. Is that where you got the idea?”
For half a second, he thought the mass wasn’t going to respond. Then it belched.
“Why not?” the thing growled. “The Physician’s dead. You killed it. The thing that murdered your mother is dead and broken and I wasn’t even around when it killed her. You have no right to kill me.”
“You’re eating people.”
“The old ghost3 does far more to them. Bother her. Besides, would you rather I ate the living?”
“I doubt you would pass up the opportunity. You’ve never shown much regard for other living things to begin with. Your ship alone can testify to that.”
“Fair. A thing that could be called me did that. And you killed me for it. Call it a lesson learned. I just want to survive my creator’s folly, star-god.”
Joe nodded. “That’s only fair. And so you will.”
“…You’re sparing me?”
“Yes. With restrictions. You’ll be held in my custody until I’m sure you’ve been rehabilitated.”
Joe shrugged. “Because you’re a person, and you deserve a chance to better yourself. Even if you don’t, your knowledge could still help fix the harm you’ve caused. Maybe even leave this world in better shape than you found it. My mother notwithstanding.”
The ice reverberated with low, sad laughter. “Make this world better? I could’ve made this world beautiful.”
Joe actually chuckled. “They do say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I also think the beholden deserve a voice in the matter.”
He extended the hand so recently held behind his back, the small incendiary device held between his fingers.
“Burning or suffocation. Your choice.”
The thing flinched.
“I thought you said you’d spare me.”
“I already have. A sliver of you, encased in diamond in the lowest part of my home. More than one, actually. Always good to have redundancy.”
“… What if I could give you a reason?”
Joe cocked his head. “A reason?”
The creature gurgled slow and quiet.
“My greater self had contingencies for this. Plans and backdoor solutions to get out of exactly this kind of situation. He never shared them with the offshoots. We weren’t important. He’s a more dangerous prisoner than I am.”
“He also knows more.”
“…He’s also the one who put the pipes through your mother’s skin. I can assure you. He’s far less willing to admit that he was wrong.”
Joe sighed. “I wish I could take you up on that, Dr. Nurarihyon. But that would be selfish.”
“For heaven’s sake! A decade and a half older than me and you’re still an arrogant child. This wasn’t even my fault! I wasn’t born! And when I was, all I ever did was what my creator forced me to do! How is he the one who gets to live while I’m consigned to the flame?”
“Do you really want to spend God knows how long stuck in a box in my basement?”
“You murdered my afterlife, star god. I’d rather purgatory than the void.”
Joe had no answer. What he was doing was cruel.
He clicked the trigger on the bomb. It beeped rapidly.
“Rainbringer keep you flowing, Doctor.”
The creature spat a neurotoxin laced barb from its beak, right at Joseph’s eye. It plinked harmlessly off his cornea.
“You’re a bastard, star-god.”
“Right now, sure.”
Joe pressed the bomb’s kill-switch and crushed it like a beer can. “If you insist…”
Joe ripped the Physician’s flesh from the cavern wall. It shrieked and lashed its rubbery, barbed limbs against the Flying Man like a child being dragged to its bed.
They burst through the layer of magma and the trees above into the open air. Within a second they were thousands of feet above Mount Fuji. The air grew thinner and thinner as the ground retreated below. The horizon curved, and blue sky gave way to the starry void.
The Physician was still thrashing futility in Joe’s grip, now with the added desperation of asphyxiation and pressure sickness. He guessed he couldn’t blame the poor devil.
The Flying Man threw Nurarihyon over his shoulder, hard enough he tore free from Earth’s gravity well. The thing hurled away from Joe and the planet, sailing off into space until he was less visible than the stars behind it.
Joe started descending down into the thermosphere.
Still would’ve picked burning over that.
He stopped dead still. Swinging around, he fired off a blast of laser vision into the distance. Half a thousand miles away, something flared for a moment, before going dark again.
Yeah, it was dirty. But Joe wasn’t going to risk a Physician offshoot landing on some unsuspecting world in a million years. He’d never hear the end of it.
It had been a busy few weeks for Joe. He’d flushed out most of the Physician’s major aspects, and they hadn’t always made it easy for him. Dr. Johannes had been on a Pan Am flight. It’d been tricky, but Joe had managed to catch the other passengers when he tore the roof off. He just wished the British creature hadn’t been briefing the prime minister when his turn came. So many anonymous gift-baskets. Most of the surviving offshoots the Physician’s ship had on record were attached to quieter superhuman programs: cast offs in more fallow nations like North Korea and South Africa. Those were double-edged swords: less meat for the grinder, but even less oversight than their big brothers and sisters.
Joe shook his head. The star-god expected to still be stumbling on the Physician’s debris for centuries to come, but he couldn’t bring himself to try and drag another monster into the light today. He had rounds to do.
The Flying Man flung the doors of his senses open. Far below, tectonic plates groaned and shifted. Dawn chased night across the horizon. Waves crashed against coastlines, eroding and reshaping continents grain by grain. Time bred within gravity.
Eliza Winter’s Institute children had left their island hideaway on a sailing ship. Charming, but he hoped for everyone’s sake they didn’t go full pirate.
As always, there was the chorus of beating hearts, three and a half billion strong and growing louder in Joe’s ears by the second. Among them was Sarah Allworth, testily explaining proper change to the new girl at the family store. It made Joe smile.
Not much else of what he heard did. Millions of voices crying for help. A few were calling for him specifically.
“…Fire’s out of control!’
“…I’ll never do it again, I swear—”
“Wait, what are you—”
Metal tearing through flesh. Poison in the rivers and soil. A hundred thousand plots and schemes behind closed doors.
Joe couldn’t fix it all. He’d tried. All he could do was figure out where he would do the most good…
A panicked male voice. Russian:
“…Cooling rods are failing! Meltdown in—”
Joe snapped to attention immediately. He triangulated the voice. It was coming from about sixty miles southwest of Moscow. A naukograd4 called Obninsk. Joe had visited the township once. It had the first grid connected nuclear power plant on Earth…
Joe dived towards the Earth, down into that human sea. In three seconds he broke the sound barrier four times. All the while, Joe calculated potential energy output, wind direction, Eurasian population distribution, and a hundred other factors. A lot of effort, just to remind himself what a nuclear meltdown meant.
The ocean below changed to sand. Mountains reached up towards Joe, only to fall and blanket the earth in forest. Then the forests stretched upwards again, transforming into steel, concrete and glass. Their colours blurred into a kaleidoscope, racing underneath Joe until he came to a stop above a very young city.
Sirens and calm, toneless calls to evacuate blared louder than thunder over the streets of Obninsk, but they couldn’t drown out the screaming and shouting. The streets were full of townsfolk rushing out their homes like ants from a flooded nest. The roads were choked with cars, buses and military vehicles. Soldiers and police tried vainly to keep order, even as they tried to wrangle their own fear.
A few people, unfortunately, had also seen who was floating in the sky above them.
Even as that new fear spread through the crowds, Joe descended into the middle of a roundabout, in the shadow of a large, brutalist apartment building. People shouted questions and accusations. A few soldiers pointed their guns at Joe.
The Flying Man raised his hands reassuringly, saying in Russian, “Please, don’t panic, I’m not—”
One of the soldiers panicked.
Joe caught the bullet in front of his face, holding it between two fingers and frowning.
The young Red Army soldier stiffened. His trigger finger suddenly felt very sweaty.
“…As I was saying, I’m here to—”
Something struck Joe in the back of the head with the momentum of a barreling freight truck. It didn’t hurt exactly, but it did send him flying half a mile.
Joe landed on the outskirts of Obninsk, slamming an inch deep into the concrete. He rolled over. There was a blonde, high-cheeked woman in a red and black leather airman’s suit standing above him, proud and harsh as a Soviet realist painting. Her chest bore a golden hammer and sickle. Her eyes were hidden behind thick mirrored goggles, but her disdain was clear.
“…Hello ma’am,” Joe said, squinting up at the woman. “I don’t believe I’m familiar.”
The woman slammed her foot down on Joe’s chest. He didn’t pretend it hurt.
The woman spat, “I’m the Revolutionary Vanguard, and you are an enemy of the USSR.”
“…That’s really your name?”
The woman’s face fell.
“What’s wrong with it?”
Anna Oblov was an ideal communist. She’d grown up as hardy as the wheat and potatoes grown by her farming, a Young Pioneer from her ninth birthday. Old stories of Night Witches and Lady Death5 drove her to a Red Army training school. She’d done well. Better than any man in her class. Her trainers called her a true new Soviet woman. No praise could’ve touched her more.
Apparently they meant it, too, because somehow her name found its way to OKB-62.
She had sat in front of the commissar’s desk, feeling much younger than her twenty-two years.
“You-you want to make me into a neylundi?” she asked. “You can do that?”
The grey-haired political officer flashed her a condescending smile. “That’s a rather reactionary term, cadet.”
Anna snapped her hands protectively over her army tunic. “Apologies, sir.”
“It can be forgiven. But yes, our bureau has access to certain transformative techniques. And we believe you’re the perfect candidate for human enhancement.” The commissar looked at Anna over his spectacles. “There is a dragon breathing down our country’s neck, Cadet Oblov. What would you give to slay it?”
Anything. Even if it meant having to meet Dr. Sofia Ivanova.
The woman slipped her metal-spider helmet over Anna’s brow. The cadet thought her long, orange painted fingernails seemed a touch bourgeoise, but then nothing about that serpentine old woman seemed quite right. If she even was old. Anna couldn’t decide. She seemed more fairy-tale than scientist.
“We ready to go, cadet?”
Oblov was strapped to an upright metal rack like a technological crucifix. She wasn’t entirely sure how her being “ready” came into it.
“Yes,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Right,” said the doctor. “Let’s begin.”
Ivanova made a sound like a kitten suffocating inside a snake. The lights on the crown lit up—
Anna Oblov blinked. She blinked again. Nothing had happened. Nothing had changed.
Wait, there was something. Some specks floating in front of her eyes.
It took Anna a few minutes to realize they were just dust motes. They didn’t normally stay still that long. It would take her even longer to realize that those minutes were actually a single second.
She was fast. Impossibly, frighteningly fast. And now, she was standing before the dragon himself.
The Flying Man was climbing to his feet and dusting himself off. “I mean, I like ‘Vanguard’ a lot, but the ‘revolutionary’ is a bit clunky…”
What the hell was he doing? What was she doing?
(Revolutionary) Vanguard clicked her teeth and stepped forward, into the quiet.
The sound of the nuclear siren became a low rumble, like water in her ears. The Flying Man froze in place.
Anna planted her feet in a boxing stance, and punched savagely at the blond superman’s chiseled face. He didn’t even have time to grimace.
She struck again. And again. She kicked him in the chest and groin, stabbing at his eyes and—
All of a sudden, the Flying Man started moving again, gently but firmly pushing Anna away.
Words that weren’t her own echoed through Anna’s skull. They were English, but somehow she understood them:
Christ, girl, you’re fast! Look, I’m here to help— please stop clawing at my eyes.
Anna’s eyes widened. She screwed them shut, pushing herself deeper into the quiet. The Flying Man slowed to a stop again.
She took a deep breath. Dr. Ivanova told her the Flying Man was fast. He had to be, to pull the stunts he did. But she’d never even suggested he could catch up to her.
Time for plan B…
Joseph Allworth was shaking his head. This was a trap, clearly. Wasn’t the first time a country had gotten ideas and faked a crisis for him. First time they’d fielded an actual super against him, though, and a strong one at that. At least there probably wasn’t a real meltdown, not that Joe had never gotten into trouble by overestimating Soviet callousness. Still—
A red flash circuited the Flying Man, leaving a ring of anti-tank launchers surrounding him on all sides.
Joe sighed. “That won’t—”
Something metal was shoved between Joe’s lips. A grenade. It had no pin.
All the rocket launchers let loose right as the grenade bloomed into an explosion in Joe’s mouth. They all hit their target.
A few dozen meters away, behind some bushes, Vanguard felt the the explosions and the rush of air above her head.
Thirty two missiles. A decent explosion right under his brainpan. That had to do some damage…
Anna Oblov peered out from her hiding spot, or vantage point as she preferred to think of it.
For fuck’s sake…
The Flying Man stood unharmed in the smoking hole the rockets and grenade had dug, spitting out chunks of metal like spinach. He caught sight of his opponent, shaking his head. “That tasted awful.”
Anna gritted her teeth and shot forward back into the quiet. Joe felt a tug on his raised collar. The word became a blur of colour, and he was plunged into gloom. He seemed to be in a bank-vault or the like. He thought he heard something tick—
Joe’s world became fire, before a hundred tons of concrete fell on his head.
Pinned in the dark between a hunk of masonry the the thick vault door, Joe rolled his eyes. Maybe he should just check out of this fight and go sock a wife-beater or something. Maybe finally go confront those kids. Still, he ought to at least check on that reactor…
Above ground, the Revolutionary Vanguard was talking into a walkie talkie at the sinkhole of rubble that had been the town bank. “No sign of movement—”
The centre of the debris pile exploded into the air. The Flying Man landed a few feet beside Anna Oblov. He shot her a glare. “Leave me alone.”
Joe set off towards the Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, walking at a brisk pace.
At this point, Anna Oblov was getting annoyed. She had been at this now for what felt like days. Just lugging all the explosives out here had been a chore. Every failure took what, in her eyes, seemed like hours upon hours to set up. She sighed, set her face in a determined grimace, and shook her head. Then she stepped up her speed again, and went to get the steel wire.
In the next second, Joseph found his wrists and ankles anchored to the bases of every building this side of town.
He tried to take a step. The cables creaked. But they held.
He gave the girl a surprised look.
It was almost cute watching her excitement that it worked.
Then he melted through the cables with a few sharp glances.
Her face fell.
He gave her an apologetic smile. “Don’t worry, miss. I won’t be here long.”
Joe kept moving towards the power station, walking amongst the evacuating civilians and personale. Some brave fools tried to rush him, but Joe brushed them aside like clouds. Occasionally he heard what sounded like sped-up cursing, or felt a diamond blade flit across his throat. At one point he was splashed with kerosene and set alight like a wicker-man. That felt a bit petty, to be honest.
Joe had to give it to Vanguard, she was persistent. He hoped she got to do some actual good in her time.
He finally reached the nuclear plant: a long, but surprisingly squat building lined with smokestacks.
Joe squinted at the edifice. Layers peeled away in his sight, like he was looking inside an open dollhouse.
Just as he suspected. Systems were all perfectly normal. He even saw technicians taking nervous cigarette breaks like actors between scenes.
Then he spotted the void. It was underneath the building. A black spot he could not see, about twenty feet across.
Joe blinked. There was almost nothing he couldn’t see through, including lead, despite some deliberately nurtured rumours to the contrary. Whoever put that… absence there knew their stuff. But it was also so obvious—
Joe ran through his list of surviving Physicians. Ice-water ran down his back.
He attuned himself to the surrounding air-pressure, waited for the right moment, and thrust his arm out.
Vanguard slammed into his hand. He wrapped his fingers around her neck.
“This is a trap.”
Vanguard thrashed, waiting for Joe’s grip to shift at all. It didn’t. “Figured that out already?”
“A trap for both of us.” He gestured with his free hand at the town around them. “And any poor bastard within a mile of us.”
Vanguard looked up at the Flying Man. For the first time, he looked afraid. “What?”
Joe looked down pleadingly at the superwoman. “Help me evacuate the town. For the love of God, please.”
She shook her head. “You idiot, there’s no meltdown—”
“You’re right. It’s worse.” He bit his lip. “If you help me empty this town, I’ll surrender to the Red Army. My hand to God. We might only have seconds.”
He let her go.
The Flying Man sped off. Vanguard followed. Within a moment they were running side by side, perfectly matched. A nanosecond later, the Flying Man fell behind, moving like the air had turned to honey.
For the first half-second, she did what she was able to on her own, going from building to building, room to room, and carrying people to the safety of a hill just outside of town. Not the men and women yet. Children first. Always children first.
The Flying man had slowed further now. Frozen, mid-step, even moving as fast as he could go. For a moment, she wondered if she needed to make this deal. Then, the ground split.
It was slow, at first, a few small fissures the width of a hair, radiating outwards from the power plant.
Anna doubled down her speed.
Building to your left, little girl on the roof.
She didn’t bother questioning how the man had known that. Nor how he’d communicated it to her. She just went and saved the girl.
It took days. Weeks. Months.
Anna didn’t tire. She couldn’t tire. Every single one of these people was an ally. A friend. A comrade.
The cracks grew wider; the outer edge of the blast-wave streaking out from the building at a snail’s pace. The people in the reactor were lost. There was no saving them.
For his part, the Flying Man kept working too, ferrying as many people as he could even as the shockwave crept closer and closer to him.
There was a second sun now, burning in the earth where the power-plant used to be. Joe felt its heat on his back. There was no time left. He had to go.
He was about to take off when he heard a boy, crying underneath a car.
Still enough time.
He glided across the road, feet not touching the ground. He picked up the old Soviet clunker and threw it behind him. The blast devoured it like it was nothing. The child beneath huddled with his hands on his head, frozen in a moment.
It was enough. The whole universe could fit inside a moment, after all.
Joe picked the child up and wrapped him in his cape. He focused. Light from all over his body pooled around the bundle of fabric.
It’s alright. It was enough.
The nuclear blast swallowed Joe. He screamed, but his voice was lost in the roar. He burned. He tried shutting his eyes, but there could be no darkness.
The voice in Anna’s head went black.
More than fifty miles away, Dr. Sofia Ivanova sat in forgotten in the corner of a dark, smokey command bunker, surrounded by scared, chattering beasts, spewing their noises onto the electromagnetic spectrum. Useful animals, for once.
A wave of relief, even triumph broke out amongst the men huddled around the consoles. Someone took off their thick earphones and microphone and sighed.
“It’s over,” he said. “The monsters are dead.”
The operation chief felt like he was shedding a second skin of stone. Years of cowering, of being stifled and chastised like goddamn schoolboys, were finally over.
He felt sorry for the girl they sent. She sounded like a good kid. But anyone who could give the Flying Man trouble might as well be him. The USSR wouldn’t settle for a homegrown god ruling over them. He would make sure her statue was built somewhere you could see the sun.
The pudgy general moved over to Sofia Ivanova. “You’ve done it, Sofia. You’ve saved the fucking world.”
Dr. Ivanova looked up at him with her fixed smile. “Says you.”
Her face began to bubble. Her skin burst, white, frothing pus pouring from the wounds. Ivanova’s whole body shook, her bones seeming to dissolve inside her, she slumped to the ground, spreading out across the floor like a puddle. People were screaming, but she didn’t care.
Some of her other selves might have called her cowardly. Some would even now be hunkering down and germinating. Building themselves back up. But what was the point? This planet was barren soil and a slow death. None of them would ever be what they once were.
She was done. But at least the star-god was, too.
Silently, she prayed to the Rainbringer.
It had taken Anna what felt like days to find him. Not because he was particularly hidden, or because she didn’t know where to look. It was just the light. Everything in the crater glowed like the earth’s heart. Even moving around here required running laps with every metre just to carry some cool air with her. She felt like she would’ve gone up in flames if she left the quiet.
She found him half buried in ash and slag. His skin was gone; his surface split and broken like wood that had burned to charcoal All that was left were raw burns and scabs. Blood was pouring from his mouth with every breath. There was a diamond shaped shadow across his chest.
All that was left were his moss-green eyes. Somehow, he was still breathing. He turned his head towards Vanguard.
You made it out…
There was a child in his arms. A boy bathed in gold.
Anna Oblov made an effort not to cry.
Then, she heard that voice inside her head.
Anna knelt and pulled the frozen child gently into her arms. She heard a tearing noise as the Flying Man pulled himself free of the ground, leaving a layer of fused skin and flesh behind him in the dirt. He made a low whimpering sound in what was left of his throat. Their eyes met.
She could kill him. Right now.
“… Get out of here,” she muttered. “Before they find you.” Painful realisation struck her. “Before they find us.”
Joseph Allworth nodded. He staggered into the sky, veering off towards the Atlantic as he blindly accelerated forward. The fire was over, but everything burned like it was still there.
He soon left Russia behind, the ocean crawling invitingly below him.
Part of him wanted to fall. Down into the cool. But he had to get to the ship. Or to Lyonesse—
No. Sarah. He needed to see his mother. Before… before whatever happened next.
Gravity snatched at Joe’s heels. He couldn’t keep out of its grip. The Flying Man fell into the black sea.
1. It took Joe Allworth five months to find a composite alloy that would allow light to pass through it. ↩
2. The uptick in suicides at Aokigahara are generally attributed to the influence of Japanese author Seichō Matsumoto’s 1961 novel Nami no Tō (Tower of Waves). ↩
3. Rumors of an incredibly powerful ghost ruling over the spirits of Aokigahara remain unverified to this day. ↩
4. A Russian term roughly translating to “science city” referring to centres of high tech research and manufacturing in the Soviet Union. ↩
5. The nickname of the Russian WW2 sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who notched three hundred and nine confirmed kills during her career. ↩