All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Sixty-Two: The House Without Windows

“The ship woke you up, didn’t she?” Alberto blew out a puff of cloven smoke. Allison could smell it, real as anything. “Always throwing a pity-party, her. But I guess I don’t have a gaggle of Physicians crawling around inside me.” The psychic looked at Allison with a questioning smile. “You’d know the word for a group of physicians, right Allie? A herd? A college?”

Allison had drawn her bedsheets protectively up to her chin. The red glow of her eyes changed to ocean green.

Alberto put his palm to his face, shaking his head in annoyed embarrassment. “Don’t be stupid, Kinsey, you know I’m not really here. You left me bleeding out my eyeballs in the fucking bush. I’m a…” He rolled his tongue over his teeth in thought. “A metaphor. I’m your brain trying to make sense out of me.” Alberto glanced at his cigarette. “I’m not sure if I should thank you or be insulted.”

“Why are you here?” Allison asked in a whine. “You’re not—” She grabbed the sides of her head, eyes pointed down at the wrinkles of her duvet. A small, confused voice said, “…You’re not supposed to talk.”

Alberto scowled. “What? You think you can take my powers, my memories, everything except my nuts, and not get me in the bargain?” He crawled up the length of Allison’s bed till they were less than an inch apart. “You fucking ate me.”  

The girl could feel the man’s breath on her face, hot and burning with alcohol. His face was flushed with hexagons. Exactly as she remembered Alberto. Exactly how he remembered himself. She almost wanted to reach out and touch him—test his solidity. She wasn’t sure if it would be better or worse if her hand passed through him. “You—you were shot. I wanted to save you…”

Alberto leaned back, face deadpan. “Yes, because most vital organs are located in the right shoulder.” He scowled. “You were just hungry.”

Allison protested. “I wasn’t—what does that even mean?”

“You know what it means, Kinsey.” Alberto got up off the bed, circling it slowly as he examined Allison with bitter, mock curiosity. “It felt good, didn’t it? Like you were full for the first time in your life.”

Allison’s only answer was a glare: hard, but glistening with gathering tears.  

“Must be nice, finally being a real super.”

That broke Allison’s silence. “I was always a real super!”

“Yeah, when some of us were around for you to plagiarize. Nosferatu wasn’t as much of a parasite as you.”

“I know everything!”

Alberto was looking at his fingernails. “So do most University Challenge teams.” He sighed. “Shouldn’t be surprised you’re a massive thief. Jesus Christ, stuck in a Gypsy brat forever. My once in a species psionic powers will serve you well in making tourists think you’ve got a limp.”

“You keep making me feel yuck,” muttered Allison, arms wrapped around herself. “When I think about my mummy, or Valour”—a tense, itching heat—“…or Fran.”

“I’m sorry I’m giving you indigestion.” Alberto bent and hissed into Allison’s ear. “It might seem like I’m standing here smoking and whispering to you, but I’m not. I’m sitting alone, in a house without windows, with only our thoughts for company, shouting at the dark.”

“…I don’t care,” Allison said, mostly to herself. “You were a bad man, and I don’t care.”

Alberto straightened and drew up an eyebrow. “Is that what you think?”

“I have your memories.”

“Only when you can’t avoid them,” countered Alberto. “Take a closer look. I dare you.”

“How the hell am I supposed to do that?”

“You read our own minds! It’s like a memory-palace, but better.” Alberto let out a grunt of a laugh. “Got that from your head, by the way, ‘memory-palaces.’ I never used that trick much. Introspection is a shitty hobby. Buuuut I figure we should get to know each other now we’re headmates, hmm?”

“…Will you shut up if I do this?”

“Cross my heart. Wherever that is.”

Allison sighed and closed her eyes. 

It wasn’t hard. It was almost second nature, in fact. Allison turned her newest senses inward and—

She turned inside out.

For a second Allison thought she and Alberto were in space. Inner space, perhaps. They were floating high above a Milky Way of blood-red stars, streaked through with wisps of white.

“What’s that?” asked Allison.

“Another metaphor. All those lights are memories.” Alberto squinted. “I think the red ones are mine.”

Allison stared down at the galaxy of thought, at the cobwebs of herself. Her bones thinned and hollowed inside of her. She felt small, weightless. A flake of paint on someone else’s portrait.

“There’s so much you…”

“You’re nine, I’m twenty-nine. Of course there is.”

They drew closer to the lights, or maybe the lights came up to meet them. As they neared, they began to see through the glare. There were objects hidden within the lights. Keepsakes and mementos. Old teddy bears, well-worn pencils, or—in the case of most of Alberto’s memories—bottles of spirits. 

Alberto snatched a deep-blue coffin flask out from the whirling mess of booze and children’s toys. He squinted at the bottle’s embossing.

“Shitty hometown, vintage 1939. Good a place to start as any.”

He popped the bottle’s cork, and a whole sky flowed forth.

Alberto let go of the bottle, allowing it to drift off and pop like a soap bubble. He spread his arms out and exclaimed, “Welcome to Bovegno1!”

The pair were standing in a cobbled street on a cloudless winter afternoon. A humble steeple protruded above snow-powdered, dull red rooftops, dwarfed in turn by the grey-treed mountain slopes that cradled the little spit of town. But as cozy and provincial as the town should’ve been, every cottage and townhouse had been monstrously magnified, looming over Alberto and Allison like skyscrapers. Everything from the stones of the road to the frost in the windows was either broadly sketched or painstakingly precise, with greater resolution than reality itself could support. The colours were bright enough to make Allison’s eyes water. The whole place seemed somehow composed of smells: fresh bread, pasta, and woodsmoke. 

“It’s a bit… impressionist,” said Allison. 

“Not surprised,” replied Alberto. “I think I was about three at the time.” He pointed up the road. “There’s me now.”

A little boy wrapped in a chrysalis of woolens and scarves stood alone and distinct amidst a swirl of brushstroke people. Allison could just make out the red hexagons on his winter-flushed cheeks. 

“Huh,” she said. “You were sorta… cute.”

Alberto shrugged. “S’pose I was.” 

The younger Alberto vanished. Most of the colour went with him, along with the vague shadows that passed for people. Now his older self and Allison were standing in an empty, washed out Bovegno—alone, except for a tall, dark figure where the young boy had been. He felt familiar. Like a whispered of but never seen uncle.

Alberto spoke like he was reciting the oldest story in the world. “A long time ago, a stranger came to Bovegno. Nobody knew where he came from…”

Dr. Smith’s voice echoed over the memory-scape like the arch, indifferent voice of God. “…Definitely from Enlil. They like kicking their troublemakers off world. ‘Compassionate exile’ they call it.”

Alberto went on. “He was beautiful, they say. And cruel.”

Suddenly, the dark man was surrounded by fawning will-‘o-wisps.

“Nobody even recognized his language, and he never bothered to learn ours. He didn’t have to. When he spoke, you knew what he was saying. Exactly. And whatever he asked, you gave it to him. Didn’t matter if it was money, your daughter, or your own beating heart.”   

“He was like you,” said Allison.

“Yes. Maybe even more.”

Now the dark man was enthroned, receiving tribute from a line of bedraggled wooden puppets, their strings all leading to the man’s palm. It looked more Czech than Italian to Allison, but then it wasn’t her imagination. Or was it? She wasn’t sure.

“For nearly twenty years, he ruled Bovegno like a king. Or maybe ‘god’ is a better word.”

The dark man tugged at the strings held. The puppets prostrated themselves, weeping.

“But then, one day…”

Another shadow—this one feminine—crept behind the throne. The man turned his head just in time to see her drive a knife into his neck.

“Someone finally told him no.”

“Why couldn’t he stop her?”

“Simple. She was his daughter.”

The man’s blood was seeping into cobblestones, running down through the cracks between till it reached Allison and Alberto’s feet.

“She was far from the only one. The stranger might have been gone, but his get would be part of Bovegno forever.”   

“Including you.”

“Yep. And the good people of Bovegno weren’t keen on a repeat performance. Telepathy—the kind I’ve got at least—doesn’t always pass on the way other powers do, but it did keep popping up. Usually they drowned us—”

Allison grimaced.

Alberto chuckled. “Naturals being shitty to us supers. Shocking, innit? Still, if we were cooperative, sometimes they bundled us off to the Church to keep us safe and celibate.” A surprisingly warm laugh. “Trust me, Allie, there are some nuns2 and priests in Lombardy you do not lie to.”

Everything went dark. A thin strip of light slid open in the black. A harsh, pitiless whisper said: 

“I know that’s not all you have to confess, boy.”

Daylight returned, and the two were back in 1936. The younger Alberto was being shoved around by a pair of bigger boys—or human sharks, as his memory cast them.

“Now, I’m sure a lot of us snuck under the radar. Pretty sure my ma could read papa’s mind, at least.”

Bigol3!” one of the boys shouted gleefully as they pushed little Alberto at their friend.

The other child grabbed the small boy and shook him, grinning maliciously. “Sürlin4!” He slapped Alberto’s cheeks. “Paiaso5!” 

The boy threw Alberto to the ground, laughing as the small boy smacked against the pavement. 

Alberto looked up at his tormentors. He noticed that his nose was bleeding, dapping at the trickle of blood and rubbing it curiously between his fingers. Then he smiled.  

His older self smiled, too. “But I don’t think laying low was ever going to be an option for me.”

The boy who’d thrown Alberto stopped laughing, switching his attention to the ground until he found a weighty stone and plucked it up, walking towards his friend.

The other child blinked at him. “Ohi, set dre a fa?

The boy slammed the rock into the side of his head. Over and over. Now Alberto was laughing. Both of them.

Allison winced. 

Alberto noticed, frowning down at his companion. “Oh, come on, I was three.”

“You’re not three now,” the girl retorted.

“Please. Do I have to bring up Judith Felini?”

An anachronistically dressed little girl ran screaming out of an alley, drenched head to toe in school paste.

“And that’s not even mentioning Major Yellick…”

Allison clenched her fists. “Okay, I get it, you got picked on. So did David, but he never—” She remembered what David had told her at the dam. “You know what I mean!”

Alberto nodded slowly. “The bullying was part of it, sure. And knowing my great-great-great granddad was a space-rapist. But mostly it was knowing that I had two futures ahead of me: priest or apple-bobbing casualty.” He clapped. “Then the Blackshirts found me!”

Night fell instantly, and Alberto and Allison were standing in front of a townhouse, wary eyes in yellow lit windows watching a pair of Blackshirts shepherding a sleepy, five year old Alberto into their equally black Alfa Romeo. 

“Il Duce or somebody had caught wind of what I could do—some of it, that is—and decided they could use a boy like me.”

“What about your mum and dad?” asked Allison. “I know you had those.”

Alberto looked down at the girl with genuine surprise in his eyes. Then he broke into a cackle. “Oh, oh Allie, you’re a dear sometimes.”

Alberto stuck his hand into the night air, shattering it like the surface of a pond. He pulled out another bottle: this one a red, sterling-silver handled oval labelled “Milanese Shame.”

The psychic grinned with poisonous mirth. “Here’s to Mama and Papa Morreti, and the medal that replaced me on their mantle.”

He poured the bottle out on the ground. And kept pouring. And pouring. The cherry liquorice spirit now pooled around Albert and Allison’s ankles, rising rapidly.

“Um, Alberto?” Allison said as the stuff reached her knees. “Bertie?”

Alberto shushed her. “I’m paying tribute, Allison.”

The liquor swamped them both, plunging Allison into sharp, wet darkness. Panicking, she reached for David’s song, panicked some more when she couldn’t find it… and then remembered where she was: still lying in bed, soaking in drama-queen metaphor.  

She kicked upwards, out of the flood and into the shadow of a monumental building. It was a massive, Novecento-style slab of off-white brick and steel-framed windows, separate and removed from the city around it, with waves of stairs spilling out from three arches cut into its centre. 

“There used to be a church here,” said Alberto. “They tore it down to build this. A church for the state. The Milanese Palace of Justice—” He smiled. “Sounds like a superhero lair when you say it in English, doesn’t it?”

Allison could just make out someone walking up palace’s steps, like Jack on the giant’s threshold. The feeling she had felt when she glimpsed her and Alberto’s entwined memories made a keen, unwelcome return. “Makes you feel small…”

“Fascist shit does that. Makes you feel like just a drop in the ocean.” Alberto’s gaze went soft. “But the ocean washes away everything, in the end.”

Allison felt something inside the man. A lonely spark of nostalgia, dancing in the cold wind of Alberto’s heart.

“Come on,” he said. “We’ve only got forever.”

With a few impossible steps, they were inside the palace. They crossed marble floors speared through by great square columns. They climbed wide staircases and strolled past bas reliefs celebrating biblical, Roman, and fascist justice: the carved classical figures of the third panel blissfully ignorant of the paradox in their subject matter. 

“Over twelve hundred rooms: fascists never do anything small.”

Alberto lead Allison into a small side-office. It could’ve been any 20th century lawyer’s study: thin green carpet, a heavy looking darkwood desk in front of rows and rows of near-identical legal tomes. Except the office was strewn with children’s books and wooden toys. A seven year old Alberto was sitting behind the desk like a boy left alone in his father’s office. But instead of shuffling paperwork and pretending to boss about the secretary like a wholesome child, he was sullenly bouncing a rubber ball, idly running his eyes over his copy of Cuore.

“This room was where I spent half my childhood, waiting to justify my daily bread.”

“Still better than marching around with the Balilla all day6,” the young Alberto said, making Allison jump. His young voice was even more thickly accented than his older counterpart.  “Buncha Napoleon looking midgets.”

The door opened behind Allison, and an old, Gepetto-looking man complete with apron was shoved into the room, stumbling through Allison like she was the dream and not him.

The old man caught sight of the younger Alberto, and flashed him a fragile, appeasing grin. “You must be the fenomeno 7everyone’s been talking about.”

“Guess I am,” said Alberto. He glanced lazily at a list on the desk. “What’s your name?”

“Umberto Marino.” He forced a laugh like air escaping stab-wound. “No relation, if you’re wondering.”

Alberto looked flatly at Umberto. “Sit down.”

Marini obeyed, settling in the bare sandalwood chair before the desk. “Look, kid, this… it’s all a misunderstanding. I’m just trying to run a good inn, you know? It’s bad manners to turn away guests…”

Alberto ignored the man’s pleading, instead silently studying his face. Or what lay behind it, as Allison knew full well. 

“Tell you what,” Umberto pulled a green and white banknote8 from his apron pocket and slid it over to Alberto. “You clear this all up for me, and you get to keep all that money for yourself.” He winked. “And when you’re old enough to drink, it’s all on me.”

Alberto took the money and stuck it in his desk drawer. Then he rang a bell. A Blackshirt poked his head into the office.

“This fella’s been letting the partisans use a couple of his rooms. His son’s been going to meetings.”

Umberto’s face went slack. His eyes were wide and empty. Just that moment, Allison could guess, he could see his future as clearly as Alberto. 

The Blackshirt strode in and pulled Umberto out of his chair. “Up you go, camerata,” he said with false, mocking cheer. “We’ve still got talking to do.”

The spell over Marino broke. He spat at Alberto, “You murdering little shit! You freak—”

The Blackshirt struck him across the temples with his bludgeon. “That’s enough of that.”

“He tried bribing me, too,” Alberto said in passing as he returned to his book.

Allison was staring aghast at the boy’s future. “What happened to him?”

“What happened to all of them,” answered the young Alberto.

Through the window, a hanged man’s shadow fell across the office wall.

“…You could’ve lied,” whispered Allison.

Alberto shrugged. “Maybe I could’ve. But what about the next poor bastard? And the one after that? Trust me, Allie, there were a lot.”

“You could’ve lied about them, too!”

Alberto laughed. “And what do you think the Blackshirts would’ve thought of that?”

“That they were doing a good job?”

“Fascists know there’s always someone out to fuck with them: they’d stop being fascists if they didn’t.”

A young woman was pushed sobbing into the office. The young Alberto didn’t even look up before he rang the bell and told the Blackshirt:

“She’s keeping her daughter outta the Balilla. Thinks it’s too ‘violent’.”

No sooner was that weeping lady roughly ushered to her fate than a teenage boy took her place.

“Planning on running away with his girlfriend.”

And so it went, on and on. Days flickered past out the window, lengthening and contracting as summers decayed into winter, while the Alberto behind the desk grew like a sapling in spring, unceasingly handing down dooms:

“Partisan.”

“Spy.”

“Draft-dodger.”

“Tunes into enemy-radio.”

“For God’s sake!” cried Allison. “You can read minds! You’ve got to have known they weren’t bad people!”

“Everyone else around me thought they were all traitors and cowards.” Alberto shrugged. “Who was I supposed to believe?” He looked back at his younger self. “It’s funny. They always bumped people off far away from me. I think they wanted to ‘protect my innocence’ or some shit. But I could see them dying in their eyes. And sometimes, when they actually brought me someone who hadn’t done anything, they still killed them. When it kept happening, I started making stuff up. Told the Blackshirts what they wanted to hear. Kept everyone happier, I think. I’d rather not be shot after being found innocent…”

Allison shook her head. “You didn’t think making stuff up was wrong?”

 “Truth is just what the biggest guy in the room says it is.” He scowled. “And you’re one to talk. Hiding in the Physician’s bloody spaceship like you don’t know what he is…”

Allison’s eyes narrowed. “What? That he’s an alien?”

“That he’s a monster.”

“I don’t—”

“Oh, come on,” said the now nine year old Alberto. “You know he’s a bastard. He wallows in it. Never stops rubbing it in your face.”

The older Alberto picked up the baton. “Why do you think the ship’s screaming in your ear, Allie? Do you think John Smith really just found a dead goddess? I mean, the guy was mates with Bertie. Doesn’t that tell you everything?”

Silence.

 “…We don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“And you think I had all the options in the world?” the younger Alberto asked. “At least the Blackshirts could keep me safe…”

“I mean, that’s what I thought,” said the present Alberto. 

There was a sound like thunder falling to Earth. The office window shattered, sending the past Alberto screaming under the desk.

“Then Gorla happened. Nothing had been going right for years. The Allies had taken most of the country back in ‘43. The Nazis had to whisk Il Duce up to the North. They propped him up for the rest of the war. Everyone went on and on about returning to the glory of Rome, and we were taking orders from fucking Germans!”

Alberto’s younger self crawled out into the open, treading the broken glass to look out the empty window at the rising smoke.

“The Allies bombed on a fucking school. They blew up four hundred kids and nuns. Nuns! The only survivors were a couple of kids who weren’t even in the shelters! That was when I realized I was on the wrong side: the one that was losing.”

The glass flew back into the window, and little Alberto was back behind the desk.

“Luckily, the Blackshirts were kind enough to offer me an out.”

Two burly Blackshirts sporting their best Mussolini pouts of authority marched in an old man by the arms and shoved him down in the chair like a sack of rotten potatoes. 

The skin around his eyes was black and bleeding, and the red of his beard was more vivid than Allison had ever seen it, but she recognized the man immediately.

Dr. Herbert Lawrence looked at the boy behind the desk and flashed him an honest, open smile. “You must be the esper.”

The older Alberto sighed and pulled another bottle out from nowhere. “Settle in, Allie, this is a whole ‘nother cellar.”


1. A small mountain town in the province of Brescia located in the Val Trompia valley. Currently believed to be the source of nearly all of Earth’s natural espers.

2. One monastic order that drew heavily from the town of Bovegno were Our Ladies of Still Grace, famous for both their strict vows of silence and their conversation.

3. A Lombard insult meaning roughly “moron.”

4. Essentially “little idiot.”

5. “Clown.”

6. The Opera Nazionale Balilla, the official Italian fascist youth organization operating from 1927 until its absorption into the Italian Youth of the Lictor ten years later. Similar organizations include the German Hitler Youth, the various Young Pioneer organizations throughout the communist world, or the Nova Australian Starbursts.

7. Meaning “wonderful” “amazing” and “incredible.” Can also become fenomeno da baraccone, or circus freak.

8. A 500 lira note, to be precise.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                        Next Chapter

 

Chapter Sixty-One: Grey Amber

The Physician’s vessel was not the spartan, utilitarian dream of mankind’s engineers and futurists. It came from a shipwright tradition that had outlived pedestrian notions like “praticiality.” Its halls and arteries were not armoured in sleek, shining metal, but instead inlaid with jade, uranian blue and carmine tesserae, forming into elaborate, fractal mosaics that cast scintillations over the Physician and his guests as they walked beneath them.

“I notice you didn’t ask me what an educator machine was when I mentioned them.”

“So?” asked Arnold sullenly. “We were kinda busy listening to you talking about how you like to eat people.”

“Eat people—no, Arnold, nothing of the sort. I simply meant that I can experiment on humans without oversight or censure here.”

“That isn’t better!” snapped Mabel.       

Allison was only half listening, running her fingers over the walls as she trailed behind the others. Every chip of polished glass was engraved with its own minute, complete image: depicting creatures and scenes that Allison would’ve been certain were allegorical if she were anywhere else. They referenced each other, creating winding, non-linear story-webs. It wasn’t art meant for people. The human eye simply couldn’t take in so much information, let alone put it together. Behind the mosaics, there were bright veins and pools of ragged grey and gold light. Rivers of thought. 

The ship was alive. That crystal ringing in her ears was a song—so old and vast its notes and movements lived for hours instead of seconds. Allison suddenly felt like Jonah in the whale.

“Have you children ever wondered where your powers come from?”

“Course,” said Billy. “How couldn’t we?”

“I don’t,” said Arnold. “Lawrence kinda did all the wondering for us.”

Mabel added, “Gotta have someone to blame for this mess.”

“I know where my powers come from,” David said very firmly. 

“Well, three of you are about to find out, anyway. Okay, maybe one and a third of you, but still.”

The Physician stopped in front of a mosaic of a gigantic, coral-hided worm. He spat some murky syllables at the image, and the tiles began to shift and undulate. The creature’s red cone of a head split into a dozen flailing tentacles. It audibly hissed at the Physician, before rearing up and disappearing, becoming a doorway. 

The Physician led the children into a chamber that could’ve been the interior of a turtle shell, with struts like ribs stretching across a white-bone ceiling above hexagon floor-tiles. A living caricature of Albert Einstein with hair like tufts of fungus and skin like poorly cured leather clad in an off-yellow lab coat was standing in front of a square glass enclosure. Inside stood a throne, made of what appeared to be dozens upon dozens of thin hexagonal grey pillars protruding from the floor. A chubby middle-aged man sat in it, naked and pale, the hair on his chest thicker than the stuff on his head. He was biting his lips, his arms and legs stiff and shaking from the pale green fear and dark excitement Allison could see play behind his eyes.

Maybe it was the manacles around his wrists and ankles.

Gutentag, Dr. Smith!”  The faux Einstein greeted the Physician and his guests in an insulting German accent. “Are these our new guests from the NHI?”

Allison could tell the “man” was a Physician (part of the Physician? She still wasn’t sure) immediately. His song hit her like hot, foul breath. She almost wished John Smith hadn’t bothered with the psi-broach. She had let herself get used to unpolluted music again.

“That they are,” Dr. Smith answered. He turned back to the children and gestured towards the false German. “Kids, this is Doctor Johannes Von Shunstaffernitzum. He’s what I look like when I’m working with our American friends.”

“Pleased to meet you!” said Billy.

“‘Von Shunstaffernitzum’?” Allison repeated incredulously, still wincing from his song. “You’re not even trying anymore!”

“Wait,” said Mabel, face turned away from the man in the glass cage’s privates. “If he’s your American you,” she hoped that was how you were supposed to say that, “why’s he sound all World War 2?”

Dr. Johannes1 answered, “Ach, Americans, they think all the scientists worth having are washed up Nazis. I think most of them tell themselves I got Paperclipped after the war. Sometimes I wish either of the Germanies had a superhuman program worth mentioning. Maybe I could wear a ten gallon hat.”

David was focused on the man on the throne, who was looking back at him with deep confusion. “Who’s he?” He looked at Dr. Smith. “…Is this a married day kinda thing?”

“Nothing like that, David. The only reason he’s not dressed is so his clothes don’t catch fire or fuse to his skin.” Smith turned to his other self. “Johannes, why don’t you tell the children what we’re doing here?”

David wished he wouldn’t. Johannes sounded like he was making fun of Eliza whenever he spoke.

Dr. Johannes’ moulderous mustache twitched as he gave a grin even his counterpart would be proud of. “Delighted to, John.” He pointed at the man on the throne. “In under ten minutes, if all goes to plan, children, Mr. Arkwright here will become an übermensch.”

The children exchanged mystified glances, even Allison.

Flatly, Johannes clarified, “A superhuman2.”

The children exploded with questions and disbelief, all except for Billy, who just intoned, “Woooow.”

“You can’t make someone a super,” said Arnold, shaking his head. “It’s just something that sorta… happens!”

“Or you’re born that way,” added David.

John Smith looked right at Mabel. “What do you think, Mabel? Nobody can give you powers, can they?”

Mabel stammered. “I mean… not like that.”

Dr. Johannes said, “Trust me children, there are many übers in the world who credit their gifts to some agent or another. Gods, spirits, men. And lightning is something that ‘just sorta happens’ and your people light your homes with it. Why should superpowers be so different?” The doctor titled his ear towards the ceiling. Allison heard a sound like diamonds moaning. 

“Ah, here we go.” Johannes turned to the enclosure and clicked his tongue. The man within startled slightly. 

“Mr. Arkwright,” Johannes said, “are you ready for us to start the process?”

As clearly as if there was no glass between them, Mr. Arkwright answered, “Ready as I’ll ever be!” in a brittly cheerful southern accent. “…Who’re the kids, doctor?”          

 “Just some of my colleague’s students, Mr. Arkwright. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re very well behaved.”

David bristled a bit at that. 

Dozens of tiles rose beside Dr. Johannes, forming a nearly bullet-shaped mound about as tall as the Physician himself. It had a gap in its side, pouring fluorite light into the chamber. 

Familiar music washed over Allison. It was faint, so distant she couldn’t even grab hold of it. Perhaps it was for the best. She felt like if she touched the song, it’d drown out everything that was her.

Johannes reached into the crack and pulled, the light and the music going out as he removed a thin coronet of white gold and black gems. He stepped towards the enclosure, the forward facing glass pane silently retreating into the floor before him.

He slipped the coronet onto Mr. Arkwright’s head, crowning him like a sacrificial king. “As we discussed, I can’t guarantee any results. I’d wager you’ll come out of this with a grab-bag of middling powers. Or explode. Either way, don’t expect me to turn you into the Flying Man.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Arkwright. “I’ll take whatever I get.” A sharp breath. “I need this, you know?”

Dr. Johannes didn’t answer his patient, concerning himself only with the coronet. 

Allison didn’t know how a grownup with eyes or ears could throw themselves at the Physician’s mercy like this. Sure, she and her friends were staying with him on his living spaceship, but where else were they going to go? They were demis. And this guy wanted to become one.   

Curious, she took a closer look at the Mr. Arkwright’s mind:

It was like a laser light-show in honour of mediocrity. A so-so time at school presaging an alright career at his father-in-law’s electroplating firm; a cooling marriage that “gave him” two children he could not and would not understand; a bank-teller staring wide-eyed down the end of a sawn-off shotgun, all overlit by the same aggrieved sense of comfort.

 Allison looked away. Part of her hoped Mr. Arkwright got the power to start his childhood over again. Or shapeshift into his wife.

Dr. Johannes stepped out of the enclosure, the glass wall rising again without a word from. Dr. Smith nudged Allison in the side. “Please pay attention, Allie, I suspect your perspective on this will be very illuminating.

Tonessly, Dr. Johannes said, “Energize.”

The ship’s crystal song sped up in Allison’s ears, becoming wild and frantic as the chamber went dark. The children swiftly filled the black with questions and murmurs.

Mr. Arkwright let out a long, hard scream—the kind that left blood on the throat. The gems on the coronet started flashing, revealing his writhing and spasms in a macabre slideshow. 

Allison screamed, too. Arkwright’s mind was a supernova trapped inside his skull. Allison’s eyes felt like they were going to melt out of her head. 

The man’s simple, human song had become a furies’ chorus: a clashing medley stitched from a hundred thousand clashing notes. A million, million futures swirled inside Allison’s mind, dying and multiplying like lightning bugs caught in a hurricane.

Light spewed out of Mr. Arkwright’s eyes and mouth, growing brighter and brighter until the glass cage became a solid, blindingly white cube—  

The chamber was quiet again. The terrible song was gone. The storm of possibility had settled down to a slow rumble. The lights had come back on. Allison was dimly aware of Mabel and David supporting her.

“Allie?” asked Mabel. “Are you okay?”

“Uh, guys,” said David, water-sense tingling. “I think we should—”       

Allison shoved her friends away, retching the cuisine of a hundred worlds onto the floor.

The two Physicians watched the girl with avid interest:

“She’s the power-mimic, correct?” asked Dr. Johannes. 

“Yes. Stronger reaction than I was respecting, truth be told.”

“Very interesting.” He pronounced every syllable of the second word like a tourist ordering a local delicacy. “Be sure to record—”

Allison burst into flames. Tendrils of lava sprouted from her skin and arched towards the two doctors. “Never do that to me again!”

The Physicians stood motionless in the red glare of the molten rock. The collars of their lab coats caught fire, and the skin of their faces blistered and bubbled. Even their hair burnt more like flesh than keratin. Then their mouths dropped open, releasing a round of identical canned laughter.

Achtung3, Doctor Smith! You’ve got a feisty one here!”

“Don’t I know it.” The Physician bent under the lava to make eye-contact with the girl. “Don’t worry, Allie, this is hardly an everyday procedure.”

Allison stood there burning for a moment, glaring. Then she sighed. Her fire and magma extinguished. Why bother? It was like trying to threaten dust, or laughter itself.

As though he just remembered a pastry in the oven, Dr. Johannes turned around and asked, “How are we doing in there, Mr. Arkwright?”

Kyle Arkwright didn’t answer his benefactor. He’d somehow managed to slip his wrists out of the throne’s manacles, and was staring wide-eyed at the back of his hands as waves of scales and chrome rippled over his skin. A choked, disbelieving laugh forced its way out of him in juddering gasps.

“Let me out!” Arkwright cried gleefully. He lunged out from the chair, legs stretching out tight behind him like a rubber doll until they snapped free of their restraints. Throwing himself at the cage wall like a zoo gibbon, his face and chest flattened unnaturally against the glass. “Let me out!”

Dr. Johannes smiled indulgently, and the wall lowered. 

The new super ran towards the Physician, shouting, “Thank you, thank you!” over and over like he’d been cured of something foul and terminal. He spread his arms like he was about to hug the alien, until he noticed the still burning coat. “Yeah,” he said, with a touch of affected cool, “thanks.”

“Pleased with the results?” asked Dr. Johannes as he threw his jacket off. The floor ate it.

“You kidding?” Arkwright’s paunchy flesh flushed with a deep tan. His skin wriggled like it was infested with maggots as his muscles inflated like balloons, going from nonexistent to tumorous in seconds. The receding hair on his head spread out evenly into a crew cut. Even his chin sharpened and defined. He’d become a massive cartoon of masculinity. He flexed his new biceps grandly. “I look like a god,” he said with as much base in his voice as he could muster.

Mabel rolled her eyes, humming the Popeye theme to herself. David stifled a snort. The man’s muscles were mostly water. He could probably burst them with a pin. Allison was busy taking in his song. She could still hear the old, human tune, but now it was buried beneath by a strangely separate, yet flowing blend of Turkish guitar and electric kanel.

Johannes led Arkwright out of the chamber, hopefully in search of an industrial strength shirt, leaving his other self and the children alone.

“Glad he’s happy,” said Billy. “He didn’t even say anything about my—” He gestured down at his own fur. 

“He stuck a gun in a bank girl’s face,” said Allison coldly. “He’s a dickhead.”

“Did he now?” asked the Physician. He was stripping off his now flaming outfit. It was both more and less obscene than it sounded. Aside from the already healing burns around his shoulders and back, it appeared his attention to detail faded the further down you went. His nipples were nonexistent, and his groin was a goiter. His feet were solid, flipper-like slaps of bone and skin. “He should’ve rolled over a bank-truck. Probably could’ve afforded the deluxe package.” 

“It’s a trick,” Arnold insisted shakily. “You just put a super in a chair and made him go all “aaauugh’ to make us look stupid.”

“And why would I have to do that?” asked the Physician.

“It’s not a trick,” said Allison. “I heard the guy’s song change.”

Arnold stared at the Physician like he’d just found out God was a dolphin playing the xylophone. “But—but how?”   

John Smith’s smile was in danger of straying into his hair. “I think it’s time for you children to meet our honoured guest.” 

The honoured guest’s quarters were beautiful. Some three metres back from the entryway, the artisanal, handcrafted elegance of the Physician’s ship fell away, painted terracotta tiles gave way to rough, uneven walls and stalagmites of pearlescent stone more in line with a crystalline cave than a room on a spaceship. The whole space was flooded up to the children’s ankles with water swarming with tiny flakes of silver.

The inside of the chamber only grew more ethereal, every sharp surface bevelling itself away, giving the space a softness only helped by the faint lilac glow that seemed to swell from the room’s centre, where a woman lay entombed amongst what Allison could see as the petals of a rose, sculpted from glass like song made solid. 

The corpse had been left naked, her stomach slightly swollen. Tubes and cords ran from her wrists like rivulets of blood. Soft purple eyes stared unseeing up at the children, cornsilk hair falling around her shoulders. Her features were regal, as beautiful as any dead thing could hope to be. Allison could just barely hear music coming off her. 

“She’s a very high maintenance patient, this one,” the Physician said, stepping past the children to fiddle with one of the cables running into her chest. “The equipment has a tendency to degrade into crystal after more than a week of contact with her.”

Billy was the first to start crying.

“… What is this?” David asked, gazing unblink at the woman’s face. “What did you do to her?”

“Very little,” the Physician replied. “She was already dead, after all.”      

“Who was she?” Mabel asked quietly.

The Physician took a too-deep breath, like he was trying to filter-feed. “They say ours is not the first universe, children. Not even the second. And in the cosmos before ours, there was a species that worked out, through science or magic or some other art that hasn’t come down to our eternity, how to jump the queue.”

“What do you mean?” asked Arnold.   

“I mean they won,” the Physician snapped, insofar as his voice was capable of anything beyond generic satisfaction. “They won the whole game. No matter what gifts you are born with, or what power you unearth, no living being can outrun entropy. Except for them.” He gestured at the glass rose. “They outlasted the universe. When the clockwork of creation had shorn its shears, when reality had stretched so thin time and gravity could not touch, her kind persisted, awash in a sea of lonely atoms. So you know what they did?”

The children all shook their head.

That rumbling, sputtering laughter. “They went and undid it! Built our universe over the ruins of theirs.  Built us. All for their own amusement.” The Physician lay a hand on the rose. “You’re looking at one of the architects of Creation. Or at least one of their children. That’s their great strength, you see. Even before birth, they teach their children how to remake the world. To create and destroy. Psychic teaching, if you follow.”

“Like a lullaby?” asked Billy. 

“Sure. A lullaby.” 

John Smith plunged a hand into his own innards, pulling out a jeweled bronze starfish with a squelch. Aside from some cringing and averted eyes, the children’s reactions were fairly muted. They’d seen much stranger from the Physician.

“When I first came into custody of Asteria—”   

“Asteria?” asked Allison. “Like the Titan?4” 

 “I had to call her something, Allie. Her true name is probably written in the dedication page of the laws of physics or something. As I was saying, when I first found Asteria, I tried to replicate this… natal education. Give the poor creature a legacy.” The Physician’s face went slack. He intoned, “Reproduction test #84.”

Light rose from the jewel in the starfish’s centre, forming a kind of bright cloud above the Physician’s palm. The light resolved into John Smith himself back in the turtle-shell room. Instead of the class cage and the floor-tile throne, there was what looked like a wooden baptismal font, topped by a large amber bubble. 

There was a baby floating inside. She was nearly full-term by the look of things, her umbilical cord trailing out of sight down into the base of her substitute-womb. The former John Smith tapped at the glass, grinning like the crescent moon.

Arnold wrinkled his nose and looked at the Physician. “You made a baby?”

“Yep. Wasn’t my first, definitely wasn’t my last. Easier than you might think.” The Physician thumped Asteria’s coffin. “I just scraped an ovum from our honoured guest, mixed it with some sperm, and voila.”

Allison made a face. “You’re disgusting, you know that?”

“Waste not, want not. Still, I whipped up a baby, and let her soak in her mother’s… I suppose ‘song’ is the best way of putting it.”

“Her song?” said Allison. “But she’s dead! How did you even get an egg?”

The Physician waved his hand. “Metabolically and experientially speaking, sure, she’s dead. But a goddess doesn’t leave the world easily. Their power can outlive them. For instance, Asteria here’s cells don’t actually decompose. If I let one of your kind’s doctors take a look at her”—the idea appeared to amuse the alien—“they wouldn’t think she’d been dead a minute, let alone twenty-three years…”

“You’re not actually explaining anything,” Mabel said, still looking down at Asteria.

“What I’m saying is, Asteria’s knowledge still exists. It all… splintered off when she died.” Quickly, the Physician added, “So I imagine. The biological connection between Linda—”

“Linda?” Arnold asked.

“Had to call her something. The dead goddess reached out to her…”

In the light-cloud, the baby opened her eyes, revealing twin suns. Her tank began to glow…

“…And things got a bit out of hand.”

An explosion blew out the image. When the light and the smoke subsided, there was a grey wound in the wall of the turtle chamber, letting in sighing, snow laden winds. The font was in ruins, broken tubes spewing amniotic fluid onto the charred floor. All that remained of John Smith were two blue denim stalks protruding from a pair of dress-shoes.

The projection vanished. 

“Wait,” said Arnold, “you blew up?”

“Yep,” answered the Physician. “Was a major set-back to the afternoon.”

“But why aren’t you dead?”

The Physician barrelled right past the question. “That whole debacle was very demoralizing. But then I started noticing how many of your kind were developing powers… just because. I mean, every species has the odd super. I myself have a semi-cousin who controls the weather with dance. But there’s always a reason for them. They were blessed by the gods or got they into a hyperdrive accident, or at least their parents had been. Not with these supers. Trust me, I asked.  All they they all told me—”

The starfish lit up again, this time projecting a giant with stars for eyes, his arm stretched down towards the children.  

“…There was a man.”

The children all looked up at the creature, Mabel especially.

“He’s the one common factor. The explanation for all you inexplicables.”

Arnold interjected, “I’ve never seen him.”

“Me neither,” said David.

“Me three!” chirped Billy.

“Same,” added Allison.

“First of all, David and Arnold, you two are perfectly explicable. As for Allison and Billy… 

The Physician’s body began to wobble. “Every model has its gaps, alright?”

“Sure,” Allison said flatly.

The Physician went on. “It took me years to figure out what had happened.” He knelt down to look Asteria in the eye. “What’s left of her is teaching your species. Passing along her power in dribs and drabs. Socii—they’re like…” The Physician paused, silently cursing himself for trying to explain this to a species that hadn’t picked up domestic computing yet. “It’s knowledge. Jumbled scraps of the grammar of the world, written across your skin…” The Physician straightened. “Eventually I managed to tap the well a bit, load some of the information onto a neural network. Like making LPs from master-tapes. Used it to induce power-manifestation. Usually not as good as what you find in the wild, but baby steps.” He looked back down at Asteria. “Still have no clue why she’s latched onto your lot.”

“Maybe she’s trying to be nice?” suggested Billy.  

The Physician laughed. “Really now! William, don’t let appearances deceive, you and I are far more similar than you and Asteria. We’d be less than microbes to her.” Dr. Smith started heading back towards the hall. “Come on kids, I’ve got to show you the media-room. Do you know I intercept every television transmission your kind puts out? The BBC will be hammering at my door in a few years…”

The children trailed after the Physician, eager to leave the dead goddess’ presence. Only Mabel lingered, looking right into Asteria’s eyes. She wasn’t sure what she felt for her. Anger? Pity?

 All she knew was that she probably didn’t deserve to be here. But who did?

A weeping goddess, making dry plains green with her tears. A whaler with John Smith’s face, spearing a whale, letting her unborn calf slide out onto the bloodsoaked deck. Egyptians whipping Hebrews in the shadow of the pyramids. The dark underworld of a ship’s hold crammed with bodies, reeking of salt-tears and death…

Allison jerked awake, breathing heavily, sweat on her brow. 

One thing you could compliment the Physician for were his standards of hospitality. The rooms he assigned the children were spacious, if odd. They reminded Allison of drained swimming pools or aquarium tanks, topped with bronze ceilings with a spiral staircase in the centre. He’d even provided them with pyjamas from something he called an “air-loom” covered in stars and planets. They were almost too normal.

This was the fourth night of nightmares in a row. Would they ever stop?

As Allison’s breath slowed and evened out, light returned to her room. There was a man sitting at the foot of her bed, smoking a clove cigarette.

“Hello, Allison,” said Alberto. “Glad we’re both awake.”


1. You will forgive us for not using the good doctor’s surname.

2. “Superman” is actually a somewhat misleading translation of Nietzech’s Übermensch concept. “Overman” is more appropriate.

3. The Johannes instantiation of the Physician had somehow gotten the idea that “achtung” (“attention” in English) was a general German oath. Strangely, despite regularly interacting with many World War Two veterans, nobody had ever questioned him on this.

4. Specifically of stars and nocturnal cycles.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Chapter Sixty: A Feast of Tribes

Dr. John Smith and his young guests dined beneath the stars. Not that they were were eating outdoors. Even if it weren’t twenty-five below celsius; even if it weren’t only half past ten in the morning, Ross Island wouldn’t know true night again for another six months. 

The Physician’s clear glass dinner table hung high above a world of seas. Only one true continent marred it: a bowl of dense forests and marshlands that looked up at the children like the eye of a cyclops. The rest of the planet was fringed with archipelagos—veins of white sand and trees that stretched in all directions over the horizon. Two sunsets broke over each hemisphere, colliding at the equator like waves in the ocean. 

“So, what do you think of the planetarium?” the Physician asked from behind his empty, sparkling clean plate. He hadn’t eaten anything all meal, for which the children were mostly thankful. A fat broach shaped like the offspring of a cockroach and a fish was pinned over his breast. It muted his song completely, which Allison greatly appreciated, even if it made the Physician seem like even more of a walking corpse. 

“It’s great!” Billy chirped, cheeks bulging with what the Physician had insisted upon calling “chicken nuggets”, but which in reality mostly resembled furry mammalian crickets.

Arnold glanced down nervously at the sea far below. Their seats were floating, legless bar stools. As far as his inner ear was concerned, there might as well not have been a floor at all.

“…If I fall off my chair, will I die?”

The Physician emitted a burst of canned laughter.

“Only if you teleport the floor away.”

That didn’t help. 

The table was laden with dozens of different dishes, and not one did the children recognize, Allison included. Tiny explosions encased in glass cubes. Blue and red slugs that rutted together in a bowl, sweating a purple sludge that was apparently meant to be rubbed on your teeth. Canisters of an oddly viscous, neon gas: when Billy cracked one open, it settled around his skin like a pulsing glove for a few seconds before evaporating again. Despite it never going near his tongue, the boy had described it as tasting of cheese and citrus. There was also soda water. 

“Do try the crystal-cakes, kids,” the Physician suggested, pointing to a platter of what looked like cupcakes embedded with shards of broken pottery. “Got the recipe from a planet called Zyrgon1. Amazing food, trousers that would take your eye out. Had to substitute some of the ingredients, though. Probably for the best, the original recipe made base stock humans sort of… glow drunk.”   

The children did not eat the cakes. 

The Physician’s torso twisted and bent, bones and ligaments cracking until he was looking down at the planet. “That’s my home down there, you know.”

“Huh,” said Mabel, trying to keep her eyes focused down instead of up towards the infinite waste of strange stars. They made her feel small, tinier than the finest grain of sand on the ocean floor. “I didn’t think it’d be blue for some reason.”

“Oh, the atmospheres aren’t too dissimilar,” said the Physician. “You’d die of nitrogen poisoning and about a dozen allergic reactions if you visited, but plenty of that oxygen stuff you humans like so much.”

“What’s it called?” Arnold asked.

“Earth.”

Arnold laughed. “Aww, don’t…” The boy quickly checked if his mother was in the room. “…Fuck with us.”

“I had no intention of—” The Physician remembered that word had non-literal uses. “Oh. I’m quite serious.”

“You’re trying to tell us your planet just happens to be called Earth?” asked Mabel.

“He’s saying the name means earth,” Allison explained. “It’s actually—” The girl made a sound like she was gargling galladium.  

Still bent sideways at the waist, the Physician golf clapped. “Very nice, Allie. I couldn’t have done better myself with only one throat2. She is right, though, pretty much every planet with people on it had a name that means ‘earth’ or ‘ground’ or if the species is really creative: ‘here’. There’s a reason most translators don’t bother with the world-names, it makes conversation terribly confusing.”

“There’s not many lights down there,” remarked Allison. “Do you not have cities?”   

“Very few that are visible from the surface, certainly,” the Physician said. “My people moved into the seas, oh… when did your last ice age end?3
Around then. Still have the odd contrarians scrabbling in the sun, but the real action back home is in the water.”

The Physician made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, the finger curling inward like a snail in its shell. The table swooped down into “Earth’s atmosphere”, Arnold clinging white-knuckled to the table’s edge the whole time.

The view settled a hundred feet above the continent’s west coast. A city lay in quiet ruin below the table. It looked somehow misplaced. The terrain was thick, steaming jungle, but the architecture had clearly been designed for somewhere much dryer. Low, thick walled domes of soiled sandstone, half sunken in decades and centuries of mud. Lofty sunshades were impaled by tree-branches and withered by time.

“The continent wasn’t always so wet,” the Physician explained. “Then the climate shifted, and the morphological revolution started, and I guess we went a bit nuts about the whole water thing. Outside forces and all that.”

“Outside forces?” asked Allison.

“A passing goddess. We have all sorts of names for her, but the comparative religion people call her the Rainbringer. Four of my fathers were very devout. Took me to every offering. 

“Not quite sure how she managed it, of course. The dominant theory is that she diverted a comet into our gravity well, burned it into liquid water. Some of the more religious ones tended to think she just wished it into being, of course. Religious types like that sort of thing.”

David felt funny hearing that. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was just hearing Lawrence’s friend (or whatever) take the idea of a goddess for granted. Maybe it was what he was. What his mother and grandfather had been. 

The boy decided to change the subject, to keep the thought from rattling in his skull. “So, you don’t just work for the Aussie freak-finders?”

Arnold thought the word “Aussie” sounded odd coming from David’s mouth. And not just because of the mutant French accent. He kind of liked it.

“Nope,” answered the Physician. “Me, myself and I do business with all the super-departments. The DDHA, DOPO, the Star Chamber4, and yes, Arnold, OKB-625.”

   Arnold scowled. “So you’re a traitor.”

The Physician grinned, or maybe just bared his teeth at the children. “And how would that be, Arnold? I’m the least Australian person on this entire planet, and that includes Herbert Lawrence. I wasn’t born in Australia, I’m not a citizen, and I’ve certainly never applied for any visa.” The Physician finally realigned his body, cracking and grinding like a stick trapped in a garage door. He swept his arms up at the counterfeit sky as they soared back into space. “I don’t even live there most of the time.”

“Ross Island is Australian land,” Allison interjected.

The Physician sharply swung his head from side to side, his face still and false as a laughing clown game at a carnival. “I don’t see any other Australians around, do I?” The Physician looked back to Arnold. “Besides, Arnold. Arn. Are you really telling me you’re a loyal little Aussie? After what they did to you? To all your friends?”

“I—I mean…”   

“Aren’t all these countries annoyed you’re working for everyone?” Billy asked, saving Arnold from having to figure out what he actually felt.

Another burst of suspiciously static laughter. “I don’t tell them, boy.”

Mabel stared at the Physician in disbelief. “But—but spies! Haunt said the big countries spy on each other all the time!”

“That they do, Mabel,” the Physician answered. He leaned forward across the table, his neck stretching out like a rusted slinky. When his head was over the hors d’oeuvres, he grinned around at his guests. “The trick is to not give everyone the same swag. The paranoiacs in charge assume everyone else has some secret weapon anyway, so they never put it together.”

What little faith Mabel had in the powers that be evaporated. They couldn’t even be evil effectively. 

The Physician continued: “Think about rock-paper-scissors for a second. Every move beats and is beaten by one of the others. You add enough players, and you can keep the game going forever! Or until everyone starves to death, I suppose. I gave the Americans the power-trackers, the Russians my educator-machines, and your lot got the null-chambers. ” 

“Null-chambers?” Billy repeated quizzically.

The Physician clarified, “The Quiet Room.” His head swiveled around at Arnold and Allison. “What? You think Lawrence had the only one? Trust me, kids, there are far worse places for your kind than the asylums. Be glad they didn’t send you to Maralinga, or Circle’s End.”

Mabel dropped her fork. It rattled against the empty void at her feet, fixed in orbit like a new satellite. “What?”

The Physician turned his gaze on the girl. “Didn’t Lawrence tell you? The DDHA set up camp there years back. Mostly trying trying to figure out what killed everyone, but they have a few side projects going. I drop in a fair bit.” He winked grandly. “Don’t worry, sweetie, haven’t told a soul…”

Mabel fumed in her seat, cheeks flushed, her fists shaking at her sides. “Bloody grave-robbers.”

The Physician either ignored his guest’s anger, or it simply didn’t register. He retracted his head back onto his shoulders. Then he made a noise like a truck revving at the bottom of a cold, dark lake.

It took Allison a moment to realize the Physician was laughing. Truly, honestly laughing.

His voice when he spoke was perfectly even and clear, even as the laughter kept on playing like a backing track in a song. “Sometimes I wonder how I get away with this. If you people would just get together and share your notes…”

The strange laughter grew louder, less rhythmic. The Physician’s body was jerking spasmodically in his seat. “But that’s the rub, isn’t it? You human beings divy yourselves up into so many tribes.” He looked wildly about the table, like he was voicing the frankest, clearest absurdity. 

  All he got from the children was blank stares. 

“Listen here, kids, ‘tribe’ just means ‘people I care about’ and ‘people I don’t.’ And the first one is always so small.” His head cocked towards Allison’s like a crow’s. “Tell me, Allie, what can you do with a tribe nobody cares about?”

“I don’t—”

“I’ll tell you. Whatever you want. And they’re some. I mean, you can get into one just by not having enough money! Or taking up the wrong trade! You children want to know how many sons and daughters Jessica Mallery has?”

Arnold didn’t know how to respond to that non-sequitur, so he just said, “Sure?”

“Five hundred and sixty-two. You’ve met a couple today.”

Billy blinked, his tail swaying slowly. “That’s a lotta kids

“You think you’re surprised, William, try asking Jessica! I swear, people in your country don’t care if you have a prostitute’s ovary on toast…”

Billy looked at Allison. “What’s a pros-ti-tute?”

“Tell ya later,” she muttered out the corner of her mouth, eyes fixed dead on the Physician. 

“And it’s even sillier when it comes to that ‘race’ idea of yours. You weird little apes are the most inbred, uniform species I’ve ever encountered. I think most of you must’ve died a while back or something, or else I have no idea.” He drew a line with his finger between David and Allison. “There’s so many people out there who thinks the big, defining difference between you two is your skin.” 

Allison squirmed. She didn’t like being reminded at the moment that David and her were different, now. 

The Physician pointed from her to Arnold. “Or take you two. The rest of you kids wouldn’t say Allie and Arn were very different looking, right? Basically speaking.”

A few nods and mumbled “sures.”

“Well, because Mrs Kinsey happened to be Romani, there’s a lot of respected, influential people out there who think her daughter is less of a person than Arnold. And that’s he’s less of a person than Mabel because he’s Irish and she’s English.”

Allison blinked. “Mum’s a Gypsy?”

“I noticed it when I was looking at your blood,” the Physician explained absently. “Not surprised you don’t know. Your mother probably hasn’t admitted it for years. She’s from Europe, isn’t she?”

Allison nodded slowly. 

“Definitely not, then, if she knows what’s good for her.”

A wave of revulsion swelled in Allison. For a moment, she hated her own flesh, her own mother. But it didn’t feel like her own loathing. It was someone else’s contempt… 

The Physician’s laughter returned in force, echoing against the unseen walls of the planetarium. He looked like he was in danger of falling from his seat and tumbling down into the seas of his homeworld.

“It’s a great planet, kids!” The Physician’s lips weren’t moving at all now. His voice rose from somewhere inside him like the gurgle of stomach acid. “A whole world of steaming, changeable meat that nobody wants! That won’t cry out when you pounce, because it knows no one will listen! A world that cares more for its petty little apathies and hates than its own happiness! It’s like an open bar, kids! A herd of cows pushing and shoving each other towards my abattoir!”

The children were staring at the Physician. Billy was crying softly.

There was an awkward pause.

The doctor’s mouth started moving again with a crack. “I say this with affection, of course.”

“…And what if we tell people,” Mabel blurted. “What if we tell everyone what you’re up to? What you really think of us.”

If the Physician took that as a threat, it didn’t show. “They wouldn’t believe you, Mabel. You’re not part of their tribe.”

The Physician abruptly stood up from the table, treading starlight towards the edge of infinity.

“Come on kids,” he said. “There’s something I’ve wanted to show off for a long time.”


1. Humanish world located in the western spiral, known for its inhabitants’ eclectic range of powers, love of gambling, and their nearly monthly government coups.

2. It is worth noting that John Smith’s native tongue is meant to be spoken while submerged in saltwater.

3. Around 9300 BCE.

4. A contemporary nickname for the British Ministry of Paranormality, which oversaw superhuman affairs within the United Kingdom. Named for the infamous Early Modern crown court.

5. The experimental design bureau tasked with organizing and training superhumans in the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 2005. Sometimes called “the Red Orchestra” in the First World intelligence community.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-Nine: An American Warlock in Avon Valley

Lieutenant Benjamin Veltro thought he’d gotten a plum job with his latest assignment: guarding a cleanup crew at some empty, podunk boarding school. The young soldier traded a narrow bunk in a crowded barrack for a queen sized bed with a view of pristine Wheatbelt countryside. Most of his days were spent reading dusty old children’s books, drinking forgotten bottles of red, and chatting with the cleaners on their lunch break.    

It was only a week later that Lieutenant Veltro began to wonder why a school cleanup needed military protection. Why the grounds had such deep, strange scars; as if bombarded by meteors and slashed by dragons’ talons. Why he kept finding gold along the riverbank. Why the grass was littered with spent bullets and stained with blood.

“What happened here, Royce?” Benjamin asked the head of the cleanup crew one afternoon while they relaxed in front of a small, limestone castle. The lieutenant was sitting on an overturned gold gargoyle.

Pete Royce swallowed his mouthful of cornbeef sandwich. In his white hazard-suit, the balding, middle-aged man looked like a cut-rate astronaut. “Why you asking me, soldier-boy? They don’t tell us nothing.”

“I mean—” The lieutenant gestured back at the castle. “This isn’t normal, is it?”

Royce nodded. “Sure ain’t.” The cleaner’s eyes danced conspiratorially. “I hear this place was a school for demis.” 

The lieutenant frowned. “You’re shitting me. That even allowed?”

Pete shrugged. “Dunno. Bloke who told me1 said they had some deal with the freak-finders. Then Canberra went all”—the cleaner mimed an explosion—“and I guess what was left of the government decided to crack down on the demis.” He smiled wryly. “I guess they ain’t all bulletproof.”

“Oh.”

Soon, the locals started turning up. Some of them brought food for children long gone. Some left guilty flowers to rot in the sun. Benjamin turned them all away, with only an “I’m not at liberty to discuss the matter” as an explanation

One dirty-blond young man left his spit at the lieutenant’s feet:

“Baby-killer!”

Lieutenant Veltro tried to muster some martial presence. Instead, he just stammered, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The teenage hippie choked on his anger. “ ‘I don’t know’ my arse!” The boy strode towards the soldier, but his burly companion blocked him with his arm.

“He’s not worth it, Bazza,” he said slowly, eyeing the lieutenant’s sidearm like a wasp. 

Bazza took a deep breath. “You’re right, Ed.” He turned around and walked towards the gate. “Besides, these fuckers only go after little kids.”     

“I didn’t—”

The lieutenant was alone again, his words drowned in the still summer air.

After that, a glass slide was pulled out from between the world and Lieutenant Veltro. The heat hit him harder. His spare time went from liberating to oppressive, seconds and hours stretching to breaking point. More and more, he kept spotting toys abandoned in the grass. His mind tried drawing lines between them and their absent, unknowable owners like terrible constellations2. He spent a lot of time staring at the mural on the side of barn, wondering how much of someone’s life and time went into those mermaids. Benjamin felt like an intruder in an empty, lonely Heaven. Dante without a Virgil or Beatrice. 

Then the lieutenant started going mad. He had to be. He kept hearing laughter. Light, young laughter…

Lieutenant Veltro swung around in the tall yellow grass, trying to find the voice. “Who’s there?”

No answer. Just more laughter.  

Veltro reached for his gun, but went still. He remembered the look on that hippie’s face. The contempt

I’m better than that.

Instead, the lieutenant shouted, “Come out here, kid! This area is off-limits!” He only realized the contradiction once he said it out loud.

There was movement in the trees. A boy, with a face pale as a corpse. Or a ghost. He took off into the bush.

Lieutenant Veltro ran after the child. “Wait, come back!”

The boy leapt over roots and fallen branches without effort, swerving around gnarled, tightly packed trees with ease while the lieutenant struggled to keep up.

“I just want to ask—”

The boy disappeared behind a tree. Veltro managed to catch up before he emerged from the other side—

The boy was gone; like he’d never been there at all.

Lieutenant Veltro fell to his knees, rapping the side of his head with his knuckles and slamming his fist into the dirt. “Fuck! Fuck!”

When his commanding officer rolled up in his khaki jeep, Benjamin was relieved. Maybe he was getting a transfer. Anywhere or anything would be better than this bloody haunted school. Even Vietnam would’ve been an improvement in Veltro’s book. Not like you could get up to much with the Flying Man swooping in whenever things got interesting3.       

Instead, the captain handed the lieutenant a funny smelling stick of chalk and a sealed envelope. 

“The Americans are sending someone to give the place a look over. He’ll be here tomorrow night. You’ll be getting things set up for him, your instructions are in the envelope.” The captain looked like he was about to say something else, but instead simply sighed. “Just do what it says, and do what he says, got it?” 

Lieutenant Veltro saluted and shouted, “Yes, sir!” What else was he going to do?

He opened the envelope in bed that night. All that was in it was a sheet of A4 paper with an astrological symbol scrawled on it:

☿ 

Next to it were written the words, “Draw this on a flat surface, sunset tomorrow. No earlier, no later. Use the chalk.”

Benjamin didn’t know what to think. It was yet more easy work but… Americans were a strange, strange people.

So, the next day, when the evening shadows were eating the farmhouse walls, the lieutenant found one of its abundant blackboards, and got his art on.

When he was done, Veltro stuck his chalk in his ear and lit a cigarette, admiring his efforts. He’d forgotten how bloody hard drawing a halfway decent circle freehand could be, but he thought he’d done alright. Satisfied, he turned to leave, ready to greet the yank whenever he deigned to show up.

The lieutenant still wondered why the bloke wanted him to draw some New Age symbol. Why not a flag? Or an eagle? Something Americans liked.

Outside, the roof of the sun finally dipped below the horizon. The thin, bright fuse that separates land and sky burned out. Behind the lieutenant, all its light flowed through the window into the Mercury symbol.

A warm breeze broke through into the empty classroom, carrying with it the scent of rain soaked pollen. Strange birds called to each other from some vast, near distance. Veltro could feel the sun on his back.                 

Someone cleared his throat.

Lieutenant Benjamin Veltro turned to find a man standing in front of the chalkboard. He was tall, with brown skin and serious, beetle black eyes. Dressed in the olive green of the US Army, tight curls peeked out from under his dark green beret. In his left hand was a dark wood staff.

“Lieutenant Veltro?”

Shakily, the lieutenant saluted. “A—awaiting your orders, Colonel Penderghast.”  

Lieutenant Veltro had been hearing lurid tales of Howard Penderghast for years, ever since he walked into a New England recruitment office and conjured forth the spirit of Charles Young4. People said he could make dead soldiers get up and fight, pull Viet-Cong up from Hell into an interrogation room, and then make them wish they had been left to the flames. He was like the US military’s own personal Flying Man.

So naturally, the first thing the warlock did after teleporting halfway across the world via chalk drawing was find the kitchen and make a pot of tea.

At least—Lieutenant Veltro considered—he didn’t make him do it.

Penderghast poured out three cups. Two were delicate bone china, the third a thick, cheap enamel mug. 

“Permission to speak sir?”

“Granted,” the wizard replied absently. 

“Who’s the third cup for?” 

“In case we have guests.”

With no particular flare or ceremony, Penderghast waved his staff over the tea. The cups took to the air, bobbing in the air behind him.  “Take us to the library, lieutenant.”

Benjamin tried to keep his jaw from dropping. He’d never seen any kind of magic or powers or whatever that trick was in person. He felt like a complete rube. “Yes sir.”

The school’s library wasn’t big, exactly, but it was densely packed, with floor to ceiling bookshelves lining every wall. Just glancing at the spines revealed an admirable diversity. Thin hardcover children’s books and rough, wild pulp magazines were sandwiched between fine, leatherbound volumes that were probably older than any library on the continent—with only the very beginnings of dust, as the poor lieutenant couldn’t help but notice. 

The principal piece of furniture was a honey-oak table that seemed more suited to a kitchen or dining room than a library. The colonel pulled a too-long candle out from a pouch on his belt and set it on the middle of the tabletop. He laced his fingers together and performed some painful looking contortions:       

Ignis.”     

Veltro felt the air in the room shift, like he was caught in a whale’s slipstream. The candle lit of its own accord.

Licet has exaudiat herbas, ad manes ventura semel5.”

The flame burned black. The air whispered.

“Neat—” The lieutenant shook himself, readopting the standard, almost sing-song army man cadence. “I mean, that’s very impressive, sir!”

“Nobody likes a brown noser, lieutenant.” The cups of tea settled on the table, only for Penderghast to grab the odd mug out and throw it hard at one of the few exposed stretches of wallpaper. It shattered with a clatter, faint brown liquid dripping and steaming down the worn green and red damask and soaking into the carpet. 

Veltro jerked back. “Permission to speak, colonel.”

Penderghast sighed, “I think we can take that permission as being granted until I say otherwise, lieutenant.”

“…Why did you do that?”

“Again, in case we have guests. I might have to make more tea…” Penderghast climbed on top of the table and raised his staff. “Codices, proferte vestra arcana6.” 

The library shook. Books shoved and jostled each other like they were fighting in a queue. They burst free, flying through the air on wings of paper, lining up in front of the colonel like soldiers for inspection. “Until those guests choose to show themselves, we will be sorting sorting through Herbert Lawrence’s collection of esoteric literature.”

“Yes sir. Could I just ask, who was Herbert Lawrence? I’ve heard the name, but everyone acts like I should already know his bloody birthday.”

Penderghast looked at the solder with some concern. “You weren’t told?”

“Ah. Need to know, I got it.”

Penderghast seemed to consider something. Finally, he spoke. “Herbert Lawrence was a psychiatrist who ran this place as a care home for superhumans. Wrote a book on it.” He pointed to a maroon book floating at the end of the line. “There it is, actually. Your DDHA let the school stay open as a test-case.” He paused, as though deciding whether he ought to continue. “Then it turned out he was trying to breed the students. Make a better class of superhuman. There’s evidence that suggests he may have been involved in the parliamentary bombings.”

“Christ,” muttered Veltro. “I just thought he got it for having a bunch of demis around.”

“I don’t think they like that word, lieutenant.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“Don’t apologize to me, I’m neither blessed nor psychic7,” said the man making books dance. “There was a raid. It… didn’t go as planned. That’s why I’m here. Clear up some details.”

“And the books…” 

“Are my payment. Try and find me anything that seems ‘mystic’ will you?”

For the next couple of hours, Lieutenant Veltro sat on the library’s couch, a stack of books resting beside him, calling out titles to his acting CO while tomes filed past the warlock’s cool, appraising gaze.

“Omskirk’s Revelations of Thirty-Six Other Worlds8.”

“How did the old fool get his hands on that? Keep.”

The Lives of Trees.”

“I have a friend who’d appreciate that.”

The lieutenant picked up a heavyset book bound in porous peach leather. “This one doesn’t have a title.”

“Check the front-piece.”

Veltro obeyed, sounding out the book’s title. “The Necro-nomi-con.”

“Who did the translation?”

The lieutenant squinted. “Some guy called John Dee.”

A grunt. “Might as well trash it then.”

“Right.”

Lieutenant Benjamin had a sneaking suspicion that Penderghast had only put him on book sorting duty to give him something to do. Which he might’ve appreciated, if he had forgotten the concept of “smoko breaks.” He wasn’t entirely sure why he was taking orders from a demi, whatever else he claimed to be. It didn’t help that the colonel was coloured, either. 

Still, had to make the best of it.

“If you don’t mind me asking, sir,” Veltro said, “are you really a wizard?”

Without looking away from his books, Penderghast answered, “I prefer to go by ‘warlock’. The etymology is a bit unfortunate9, but I think it projects the right… connotations. ‘Witch’ is fine, too, but some people today have… opinions on the idea of a gentleman witch. I’m sure you understand.”

Veltro nodded. “I think I get the picture. Never heard a bloke call themselves a witch. Thinkin’ about it, I’ve only ever heard blokes call women that.”

“Indeed.”

“So, how did you get to be a warlock?”

The colonel raised his chin slightly. “The Penderghasts have been practising magic for over three hundred years, since before our ancestors came on the Mayflower and the slave ships.”

“So it’s something you’re born to.”

“Not entirely.”

“…Could I learn to do magic?”

Penderghast looked at the soldier, his finger on his chin. “How old are you, lieutenant?”

Fair question. “Twenty-seven, sir.”

Penderghast nodded slowly. “And how long do you expect to live?”

Veltro wasn’t sure what to make of that one. “Um… supposing I don’t get shot or catch something nasty? Seventy I guess? Eighty if I’m lucky. My granddad got to be ninety-one.”

“And are you particularly good at anything?”

“I guess I’m a decent enough soldier. I know my way around a radio.”

“Then I don’t think sorcery would be worth pursuing.”

“Oh.” Well, no reason to let the conversation die. “Are there schools for this sort of thing?”

Penderghast waved his hand. “A few, here and there. I’d avoid Scholomance10, but there’s also Esquith11 and Saint Cyprian12.”

“Which one did you go to?”

The warlock sniffed. “None of them. The schools are fine if you don’t have anyone better to teach you, but I was tutored at home.”

“Must’ve been lonely.”

For the first time that night, Penderghast smiled. “I have four sisters and six brothers13. All older. I wished I was lonely.”

Benjamin laughed. “I hear ya, mate.”

Next to the table, the candle-flame fluttered. The air turned wintery. 

The lieutenant threw his arms around himself, shivering. “This you—”

“I don’t look like this.” 

There was a young woman standing at the table. She looked like a black and white photograph of a teacher—attired in a monochrome pintuck blouse and skirt that went all the way down to her nurse’s shoes. Her face was built for cheer, but  now set in a grim, colourless mask. Her hair was strange to behold, as though someone had managed to produce the colour red from only grey pigments. She was studying her smooth, pale hands like they belonged to a stranger. “I mean, I haven’t for years. I’m sixty-five.” She looked up at the warlock, still sitting cross legged by the candle. “Is this the way of ghosts, Mr. Penderghast? Do our souls not age with us?”  

“It varies from spirit to spirit, ma’am,”  the colonel replied. “Some shades appear exactly as they died, down to the scars of their death. I think it’s rooted in a person’s self-image.”

The ghost laughed. It was the saddest sound in the world. “You know, I never put much stock in conscious survival after death. Whenever someone asked I told them I was a Jeffersonian Christian14. So not only was I wrong on that, I get to find out I’m vain, too.”        

“I don’t know about that.” Penderghast swirled his index finger in the air like a mixing spoon. A vaporous replica of the smashed mug of tea coalesced from nothing. “Would you like a drink, ma’am?” 

The spirit took the cup and drank like a woman who only knew thirst. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” Penderghast looked past the ghost. “Put that away, Veltro.”

The lieutenant lowered his gun sheepishly. “Sorry, miss.”

“Don’t be, young man. Guns have done all they’re ever going to do to me.”

“You’re Mary Gillespie, aren’t you,” Penderghast said. “You helped run the New Human Institute.”

Mary sighed. “You’ve got me there.” She shook her head. “It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Or maybe it was and I was too foolish to see it.” The spirit wafted towards the library doorway, her form rippling like smoke in the wind. “There’s something you boys need to see.”

The shade of Mary Gillespie led Penderghast and the lieutenant to the house’s front door, passing through the wood and glass soundlessly.

The warlock turned to Benjamin and removed a small jar of ointment from his belt. “You right-handed, lieutenant?” he asked as he unscrewed the lid.   

“Yes sir.”

Penderghast held the open jar out Veltro. “Rub this in your left eye and keep your right one covered. That’s your lying eye.”

“…Yes sir.” 

With some trepidation, Veltro dug out some of the yellow, foul-smelling stuff and started applying it to his eye, while Penderghast did the same with his left. When he was done, the colonel pulled out an eyepatch and placed it over his right-eye. He looked like where soldier met pirate.

“Why don’t I get an eye-patch?” Veltro asked with his hand over his right-eye. 

“Because you didn’t come prepared. Come on, lieutenant. You don’t keep a lady waiting.”

The men stepped outside. Night had arrived in full over the Institute, and with it, phantasms.  Dozens of human afterimages were burned into the grass by the Institute’s gate. Soldiers wandered aimlessly, aiming the faint memory of their rifles at nothing and everything, yelling out silent orders and screaming mutely.

“Can—can those guns hurt anyone?” Veltro asked Penderghast.

“No. I just find it amazing a weapon can become so rooted in a person’s sense of self.”

They ventured into the long-gone crowd. Veltro made great pains to step around the ghosts, but Penderghast barged through them as carelessly as fog.

“They can’t feel it,” he reassured the other soldier.

Not all the dead soldiers were completely intact. One walked around with only a mangled jaw left of his head. Another was riddled with bullet holes, still bleeding even now his blood was gone.    

There were children among the spectres, too. Veltro startled when a boy walked through and around him, clutching at a head wound that would never heal. 

Benjamin staggered forward, almost trampling a little girl rocking in the grass. He could tell she’d been blonde, even through her grey pallor. The front of her overalls were soaked black with blood.

“Why’s the wind not listening?”   

Veltro wished he could answer the girl.

Penderghast meanwhile was keeping careful count of the ghosts, lest the casualty list for Operation Prometheus need revising. So far, he had spotted none of the unaccounted students. Not that he had expected to.

There were more soldiers than he expected clinging to the Earth. Surely they of all people should be prepared for death. 

He shook his head regretfully. Conscripts

They found Mary Gillespie mournfully watching the shade of a teenage girl. She seemed to be ranting and raving at the schoolteacher, angry, long-shed tears retracting their paths down her face:

“You bastards! You murdering fucking bastard—”

Her sentence was cut short. In a blink, she was shaking her head in disbelief, trembling with uncontainable rage.

“You bastards! You murdering fucking bastard—”

Again and again, like footage on loop.

“Christ,” said Veltro as he drew close. “You’d think you were the one who killed her.” He squinted at Mary. “…You didn’t, did you?”

 “She’s not talking to me.”  Mary tore her eyes away from her student. “It’s not fair. Death gives her a voice, but it took everything else away from her.”

“Death is very fair,” Penderghast said. “Limbo isn’t.” 

“You’re that yank wizard, aren’t ya?”

Penderghast and Veltro turned to find a shade standing apart from the others. It was a teenage boy, with hair as yellow as the sun. Not the pale, half-remembered impression of the colour, but real, honest yellow. His skin looked like it still had blood flowing under it.

The boy almost looked alive.

Penderghast’s eyes widened. “Blood of Olympus…”

Lucius Owens half-smiled. “Kinda nice to have some outside confirmation on that. You know, Laurie always said you were just a barmy psychic.”

Penderghast folded his arms. “I think we can agree Dr. Lawrence was wrong about a lot of matters.”

“I hear ya.” Linus looked around at the addled spirits of his classmates and killers. “My uncle—Hermes, you know—came for me and Mary here, and that bloke that was bossing all the soldiers. He said he couldn’t take everyone down below.”

“You didn’t go with them?” asked the lieutenant. 

Linus shrugged. “We weren’t going to leave them behind, we we?” The vivid spirit asked Penderghast, “Why couldn’t Hermes take them? Why are they all so… out of it?”

“Violent death can do that. Suffering and fear have their own awful gravity. It might be what gravity’s made of.”

“Thought it would be something like that,” muttered Mary. “It’s always like that in the stories.” She looked the warlock straight in the eye. “Can you help them?”

“Yes.”

“…Will you help them?”

“Mrs Gillespie, what else is a warlock for?”

The ghost frowned. “I hope you know what that word means, young man.”

Penderghast allowed himself a smile. “It’s my word and I can do what I want with it.” His face became grave again as he shot Veltro a glance. “Stand back lieutenant.”

The lieutenant obeyed with gusto, almost stepping out of the crowd of spirits altogether.

Penderghast closed his eyes, and raised his staff.

When a magician speaks spells, they almost never use their mother-tongue. The European magi who gave Howard Penderghast his name used Latin, the language of priests and scholars long-dead. The Romans before them used Greek and Etruscan. To use another’s speech keeps the magic ready at your fingertips, safely away from your heart.

When a sorcerer really means business, though, they use their own words, plain and simple.

“Rock and moss and trees and stars, loosen your grip…”

Penderghast’s voice was loud. Veltro thought it could echo forever and never dim. It was as if the warlock spoke not with his tongue and throat, but with every atom of the land itself.

“The dust has tasted blood, but it craves souls too. The void of Erebus opens for these spirits, and not urns nor tombs nor sepulchres shall hold them back!”

Delicate silver strings spun between the lost ghosts and Penderghast’s staff. The ground and sky groaned in protest. Lighting flashed in a cloudless sky, heralding thunder like the earth splitting open. 

“By the gods who authored light from entropy, and by the cosmic ruins that mothered them, by the fire that burns in my bones, and the thread that measures my life, I break their fetters!”

Penderghast slammed the butt of his staff into the grass. The threads snapped like a dozen cracking whips. Penderghast collapsed to his knees, breathing heavily.

“Colonel!”

As Lieutenant Veltro ran to Penderghast’s side, something broke over the gathered spirits. Lights lit in their eyes. Spectrals wounds and missing body-parts filled back in.

The boy who had been Gwydion rubbed at his head, until he spotted a soldier who’d just been reunited with most of their torso.

“You bloody killed me!”

The soldier looked at his victim, stuttering, “Oh, shit, I did, didn’t I?” 

The two stared at each other for a while.

“…Sorry.”

“…Fair enough.”

For the first time in over a week, Mavis Nowak looked at Linus and actually saw him. She ran and embraced her old friend, the smoke of their ghostly bodies as firm as anything living in each other’s arms. 

“Oh, God, Linus…” The girl’s hand went to her mouth. “I can talk!”

Linus laughed. “You never had trouble making yourself heard before!”

Mavis slapped the boy. Somehow, miraculously, it stung.

That out of the way, Mavis asked, “So, are we… alive again?”

“I don’t think so,” said Mrs Gillespie, hugging the shade that had been Windshear. “I think you’re finally dead.”

Despite that news, Mavis grinned at her teacher. “You’re looking good, Mrs G.”

Mary adjusted her bun primly. “Thank you, dear.”

Linus looked at Penderghast, back on his feet but leaning on Lieutenant Veltro and his staff for support. “Thank, Mr. Wizard.”

Penderghast raised his hand. “It was no big deal, son.”

It probably cost the warlock a few years off the end of his life, but he had plenty to spare.

“So,” said Linus, “what do we do now?”

“Do we find somewhere better to haunt?” asked Mavis. “Could always start following the Beatles around.”

“No,” replied Penderghast. “Someone will be coming now.” He laughed hoarsely. “Can’t unring a bell.”

“That you can’t,” said a velvety Louisiana drawl.

A handsome black man was standing behind the gate, watching the ghosts with a small, bemused smile . He was dressed in a silver-buttoned tailcoat and a top hat that could’ve poked God’s eye. His own eyes were hidden by thick sunglasses, and the left half of his face was painted white with ash. In one hand he held a cigarette between two fingers, in the other, he grasped an ivory cane topped with a carved ebony skull. The bottom of his dress shoes were stained saffron with pollen, like he’d been walking through 

“Hello, Lucius. You ready to come on down now?”

“You’re not my uncle,” said Linus.

“I’m afraid Mr. Penderghast here is on closer terms with me than your Hermes, son. I’ll be your guide below for the evening.”

Linus tilted his head. “There’s more than one of you guys?”

“Oh, as many as there are deaths. Maybe more.”

“Let me guess,” Mary said, waving a finger ponderously at the spirit. “Baron Samedi.”

A frown tightened his lips. “Baron La Croix, actually. There’s rather more than one of us Loa than that one showboater.”

“Sorry. Us Englishwomen tend to be more up on our Greek than our Voodoo.”

“Fair enough.”

Penderghast cut in, “Great spirit, I apologize for delaying your duties, but I have a question, if it pleases you to answer.”

The psychopomp looked at the colonel consideringly. “You can ask. Can’t promise any answers, but you can ask.”

Penderghast straightened. “Alberto Moretti of Bovegno, son of Luca and Giuseppina Morretti. Do you know how he died? What has become of his body?”

Well, that was an easy one. “Howard Penderghast, your question has no answer, for Alberto Moretti’s heart still beats. He still walks among the living, somewhere.”

“At least there’s that,” Mary said.

“Indeed,” Pendergast said through gritted teeth.

Valour’s going to love this.   

Baron La Croix clapped. “Everyone line up, you’re not the only people who need ferrying tonight.”

Student and soldier alike came together before the Guédé. Things like grudges and anger lived mostly in the blood. At the front of the crowd was Mary Gillespie:

“We’re ready… your highness?”

The Baron chucked, taking the woman by the hand. “Just Lax Croix will do, Mary. I’ve been waiting for this date for a long time.”

Mary laughed. “Flatterer.”

And so, the dead of the New Human Institute went down past where the day sleeps, over the wall of silence, beyond the darkest rivers, and after that there is no language.  


1. Crackbone Pete, still riding high from his vindication regarding the Albany tiger baby.

2. Of course, many of these toys were commanded by the student known as Automata against soldiers during Operation Prometheus.

3. This is somewhat fallacious. Generally, Joe Allworth only intervened in the fighting in Vietnam when it directly threatened civilian population centers.

4. The first African-American to achieve the rank of colonel in the US Army, later forced into retirement in 1917.

5. “Grant that in hearing this spell the shade may once more thread the grass.” Or crushed velvet as the case may be.

6. “Books, reveal your secrets.”

7. Even under the then dominant mystic paradigme, the United States needed terms for obviously non-adept superhumans.

8. Including the Super-Sargasso Sea, Meinong’s Jungle, and the Riverlands.

9. “Warlock” being derived from the Old English word “wǣrloga” meaning scoundrel or oath-breaker.

10. A small, disreputable school located by a nameless mountaintop lake south of the Romanian city of Hermannstadt, rumoured to be headmastered by the Devil himself. General opinion among the international thaumaturgical community is that anyone who believes that deserves what’s coming to them. Irish author Bram Stoker would name Scholomance the alma mater of the vampire Dracula. No administrator nor student of Scholomance has yet ventured comment on this.

11. A younger academy founded by settler wizards in Tasmania. Became co-ed in 1956.

12. An ecunemical school founded by the sorcerer turned Catholic saint Cyprian of Antioch, located in orbit of Saturn in certain realities.

13. Prester Penderghast—the runt of his generation—was always looking for ways to raise up his branch of the family, including trying to exploit the old wife’s tale regarding seventh sons of seventh sons. Modern magical research has conclusively proven this to hold little basis in reality—the effect is actually gender-neutral.

14. In more modern terms, a deist: someone who believes in a removed, non-interventionist deity.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-Eight: The Whaleboat

The Physician glided down the hall, leading his young guests deep down the halls of Ravenscroft Manor, their footsteps and his tour-guide patter reverberating off old stone:

“None of you besides Maelstrom—”

“David,” the boy cut in sharp as a knife.

The Physician kept going like nobody had interrupted him. “—Have visited me before, have you?”

“No,” David answered, his voice hard. 

The Physician hadn’t asked the children any follow up questions. Hadn’t asked how their friends and David’s mother had died, or why. Nothing resembling grief, sympathy, or even curiosity. The children could have been dropping in for Christmas lunch. Part of David was relieved. What would the Physician’s kindness look like?

“The last lord’s mother sold me the place before she went back to the UK to die. English aristocrats are a lot like elephants in that respect. Her sons had killed each other.” The Physician’s fingers scuttled against his lab-coat. “Superheroes.”

Arnold was sticking close to Mabel, just managing to resist clinging to her shoulders. The Physician’s home didn’t match its owner. His only concession to modernity was that the sconces on the walls were left empty in favour of electric lights that gave off a sodium glow not quite suited for human eyes. 

And the place was filthy. Arnold’s feet kept getting caught in sinkholes of rotten carpet. Long dead blue-bloods grew green and frog-like as mold and moss consumed their portraits. Cockroaches skittered in and out of the light, while rats chittered in the shadows. The whole castle smelled like week-old pyjama pants. Arnold was shocked. Weren’t aliens supposed to be shiny and antiseptic?  

But then, monsters were supposed to live in caves.

“Excuse me… Dr. Smith?”

“Yes, Arnold?”

“Was the castle always so… like this?” 

“Oh no,” said the Physician. Even walking behind him, Arnold swore he spotted the corners of his lips. “It took me years to get the place remotely livable. You humans keep your homes so sterile.” The Physician snatched a fat moth orbiting the light above him.  When he opened his palm, the moth was gone. “Barren.”

Billy clapped at the magic trick. The other children glared him into silence. 

Allison kept gritting her teeth. The Physician’s song didn’t hit her like a tidal wave the way it used to, but it was still music that had never been intended for her ears. Her new mess of senses didn’t help matters. The Physician’s whole body was one balefully bright brain. A book that had to be read left-to-right, right-to-left, crosswise and lengthwise, all at once. Looking at him was like staring at a candle flame, letting it burn a black hole right into her sight.

“Does Timothy Valour come here much?” Allison asked bitterly. 

“Sometimes,” answered the Physician. “Usually he sticks to the guest house. Hell of a pinochle player. Why do you ask?” 

“He sent soldiers to kill our family.”

“Oh. Yes, I think I heard about that. You blew up Parliament, apparently?”  

“We didn’t!” Arnold insisted. “That was Lawrence!”

As usual, the Physician showed no sign of surprise, though Allison did see whirls form in his aura. “I didn’t think the old man had it in him. Any idea why?”

“Because he was scared,” David said. “Scared of going to jail and scared we didn’t need him.” He skipped backwards to Allison’s side, taking her hand and smiling at her. “We’re gonna kill Tim for what he did,” he said. “We’re gonna make him wish he jumped out the window.”

Mabel and Arnold shrank in on themselves. Billy’s tail was swishing like mad behind him. 

Allison forced a smile. She hated that it didn’t come naturally. Why couldn’t she follow David to that cool, easy hate? Her own cut and scratched inside her like she’d swallowed a razor.

Queasy, unfamiliar images of Valour swam to the surface of her mind. That grey, flaccid old natural, scowling at him from behind his desk like a tired schoolmaster— 

The Physician clapped his hands together, breaking the spell. “I’m glad you have a project, kids.”

“We don’t—” Mabel started, then trailed off. “Nevermind. Thanks, I guess?”

“It would be good if you could hold off on that for a while, though.” Once again the Physician ignored any interruptions. “I have some business that could use men like Timothy.”

David frowned. “What kinda ‘business’?”

“Don’t worry, David. I don’t expect it to stretch on much longer. Especially now that you children are staying with me.”

David grinned ferally. 

The group turned a corner in time to see a man in a lichenous three piece suit wandering out of a side-room. Large, expressioness, unsettlingly Nordic—undeniably a Physician drone.       

The Physician called the man-shaped creature over. “Call ahead to ship for me and tell them to prepare five cells—”

Mabel raised an eyebrow. “Cells?”

“Call them ‘rooms’ if you must. Honestly, English is such a simple language, surely you should already know all the ambiguities.”

“Wait, the ship?” asked David. “You’re taking us to your spaceship?”

“Please don’t call her a ‘the’, it’s inaccurate. But yes, I am. I figure it’ll be easier for everyone if you’re not here when the DDHA pops in.”

Billy whooped excitedly. So did Arnold. Whatever they thought of the Physician, he had a spaceship

Dr. Smith had more instructions for his henchman. “Have them whip up dinner for them while you’re at it. Human edible this time. I don’t want another repeat of the crystalized time incident.” The Physician briefly glanced at Allison, still tensed against the tide of his song. “It’d be good if a psi-dampener was waiting for me at the table.”   

The drone intoned “Yes, master,” in his kind’s trademark monotone.

Allison looked at the drone’s blank, chiseled feature, trying to focus on his short, oddly regular song, near identical to a few others echoing through the castle. She was surprised how much the resemblance to Mr. Thumps comforted her. 

She wondered if he would have to die, too.

The drone marched off, while the Physician and company came to a set of chipped, weathered wooden doors, carved with married saints and worn dragons. 

“So how are we going to get there?” asked Arnold. “You’re not going to drive us, are you?”

“Oh no.” The Physician snapped his long fingers. They made a sound like clapping sticks. “Think of the petrol.”

The doors swung open onto a cavernous womb of polished stone and perished tapestries that probably had once been a grand dining hall. Much of the pavers had been torn out, replaced by a raised, bronze dais like a giant’s Petri dish. Another drone was standing ready at a mad scientist’s conductor stand, a book of knobs and buttons open in front of him. 

“Do you need transport, master?”

“That we do, Groove. Shipside. Try putting us down somewhere with a good view, would you?”

The drone tapped away at his control panel. The castle groaned and shook, the pavers vibrating beneath the children’s feet. 

The copper plate began to froth and bubble, though David could sense no liquid within. 

The Physician’s grin revealed yet more teeth. “I’ll go first, shall I?”

Nobody objected.

The star-tossed doctor stepped towards the edge of the circle like an Olympic swimmer getting ready to dive. He bent until he looked like a stunted capital L, and slowly leaned forward till he toppled in. 

Arnold eyed the unexpected pool warily. “Should we…”

Allison shrugged. “If it was a trick or something he wouldn’t have gone in first.”

She ran for the pool and dive bombed. 

Darkness. That didn’t surprise her. But the warmth did. She felt like she had jumped into a bubble-bath fully dressed. She fell and fell, until she found herself shooting upward—

Allison was deposited back in real space face-first. Bitter winds screamed over her, and something soft but cold pressed against her cheek. She climbed to her feet and found herself surrounded by white. Endless, rippling planes of white snow. Above the girl was a bleak, empty blue sky, broken only by the naked sun throwing down empty, cold light. Allison almost shivered, but then the warmth flowed up from the earth into her. Snowflakes melted and steamed away against her exposed skin. Allison’s suit went pale, glacial green and blue. She giggled.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?”

The Physician was standing with her back to Allison, his white lab coat fluttering like albatross wings in the blizzard. He was looking towards a range of white mountains, almost lost in the storm. 

A great tooth jutted out from the rock—or perhaps a claw, threatening the sky. Raised metal ridges on its side swirled like slicks of mercury on black water around a closed, copper-green eye, from which fanned flashing silver scales. Its belly was armoured in rust-red and Afghan blue, while its tip was capped with a dull gold cone. The more Allison looked at the sleeping beast, the more she was reminded of a giant fish.

The girl stared.

“She’s supposed to look like a raindrop,” the Physician commented. “It’s hard to tell when she’s stuck in the ground like that.”

Somehow, this didn’t damper Allison’s amazement. “Woah…” A thought twinged at her. “Shouldn’t she be covered in snow?”

“Good eye. Our lady runs too hot for snow to settle on her.” The Physician caught some snow between his fingers, rubbing it. “Besides, it doesn’t fall that much around here. This is mostly just old stuff picked up by the wind. Stale, really.”

“And where is here?”

“Ross Island. Little place off the coast of Antarctica. I think your people own it, whatever that’s worth.” He pointed towards the mountain. “That right there’s called Mt. Erebus.” In a surprisingly human gesture, the Physician pulled up his sleeve and glared at a wristwatch. “What’s keeping those friends of yours?”

David clapped his hands on Allison’s shoulders.  

“Boo!”

Allison laughed and pushed the boy back. “What took you so long?”

David was staring up at the sky, turning slowly like was trying to follow a bird in the air. “Others are being wimps about it.” He stared at the Physician. “Why didn’t you tell me you lived in the snow?”

“You never asked.”

David laughed and swept his arms. Huge wings of snow formed behind his back, while his suit frosted over like a lake in winter. Again he laughed, loudly and freely.

“Allie, look! I’m a snow angel!”

Allison snorted, grabbed David, and pointed. “Look, spaceship!”

“Ooh.” David and his suit exploded into a cloud of snow, instantly swept away by the wind.

“Where do you think he’s going?” asked the Physician absently.

“Dunno. Probably getting a closer look. He can go really fast when he’s not a person.”

She spent a few moments gazing up after the boy, then a thought struck.

“Wait. How does it handle atmosphere with all those fin-ey bits on the front?”

It was the first time she’d ever heard the Physician really laugh. It didn’t sound even remotely human. That made it a little less unpleasant, somehow.

“Ms. Kinsey. I don’t mean to sound rude, but species who still need to concern themselves with atmospheric friction really don’t have any business critiquing starship design.”

“That’s not an answer.”

Another laugh, like a dying refrigerator.

“Forcefields. When your people have been nipping in and out space as long as mine have, you can compromise a bit for aesthetics.”

“You care about aesthetics?”

“Oh, deeply. My time on Earth’s been spent in a complete state of shock.”

Allison wasn’t sure why, but she giggled at that. 

“Us too.”

The Physician made a popping noise. “Wait, did David take his clothing with him?”

“Oh, yeah,” Allison said, looking down at her suit. “Father Christmas said our costumes were super-special. Didn’t you see how David’s was all watery and stuff?”

The Physician’s whole skin went taut. “Pardon me. I had just assumed it was another piece of quaint fashion sense.”

“You’re bad at humans.”

“Quite. But let’s not get distracted. You said Santa Claus gave you these?”

There was a quiet thump in the snow behind them. Allison turned, and caught sight of Arnold kneeling in the snow, his arms tight around his ribs. He was shivering.

“Arnold!” She made it halfway into the first step, when a not quite human hand closed, vice-like, around her shoulder.

“You were telling me about Santa.”

“He’s freezing!”

“A body that size can survive these temperatures for upwards of thirty seconds without lasting damage. And even if he doesn’t, the cold will preserve—”

The Physician took a hasty step back as the heat began to vent from Allison’s form, blasting the snow around her into a metre wide ring of water that quickly sank into the pebbles below. She set her magma off to one side, and dashed to Arnold, as close as she dared.

Arnold’s teeth were chattering, even as the air around him rapidly began to warm. “Why’s—it so—c—c—cold?”   

“It’ll be alright, Arnold,” Allison called. “I’ll—”

Mabel and Billy dropped out of nothingness, and soon were both shivering like fever patients too, even with Billy’s fur working for him. 

“Where are we?” Mabel managed to get out, her question turning to mist and blown back in her face. 

Allison didn’t answer her question, instead yelling, “Get next to Arnold!”

Both children obeyed without question, shuddering as the warmth hit their systems like a drug. 

Allison looked back at the Physician, still standing there, his arm stuck out on a jagged, broken looking angle. She shouted, “Take them to the warm!” 

The Physician’s arm snapped back into place. “But they haven’t even gotten a good look— “

The magma hovered a foot or so towards the Physician.

“…You must let me have a look at that new power of yours, you kn—”

Warm!

“Fine, fine, fine.”

The Physician snapped his arms and legs to his sides, and opened his mouth unnaturally wide. Then his jaw slid down his torso, expanding his mouth until it filled most of his frame. 

Every cell in the Physician’s body screamed. Even with her toughened ear-drums, Allison had to clap her hands over her ears.

In the distance, a solid wall of snow slid down the face of Mt. Erebus. The Physician’s ship opened its eye. The air between its gaze and the children shimmered red. Their feet lifted off the ground. 

“What’s happening?” Allison asked. 

The Physician’s face was grinding and cracking back into a shape suitable for human speech. “Tractor-beam, young lady,” he said, flexing his jaw like he was checking to see if it fit properly. He hopped into the glow, snatched up by its power before his shoes hit the snow again. “Try to enjoy it.”

It was warm within the beam. Almost sauna-like. The ground cleaved farther and farther from the children as they were pulled upwards like fish caught in a riptide.

Allison leaned backwards against the air until she started tumbling head over heels, the vast plates of white and blue spinning around her. 

“Whee!”

Billy swam through the air in front of her, his cape rippling behind him like a proper superhero. At least someone was enjoying the trip.

After what could’ve been five minutes or an hour, they passed through the ship’s sullen, red eye. Allison screwed her eyes shut to shut out the glare and— 

The Physician and his students found their footing again under a sky of dark steel; studded with thousands of minute, softly shining gems like fossilized stars. 

Allison wiggled her toes. There was grass beneath her feet. 

The Physician dusted off his jacket and looked around. “Oh, we’re on the night-shift. I’ll fix it.” 

He made a circle with his pointer finger. The place rang in Allison’s ears like struck crystal. The mineral constellations above were obscured by the haze and flowering clouds of a bright, flaxen sky. There was no sun, but it was as if the air itself were charged with daylight. Dozens of trees rose from a sea of indigo grass, their branches lost in the sky; some were thinner than a human child, others had trunks like colossal marble columns. The whole field was rimmed by walls of rough, white stone.

Arnold gazed in complete wonder, remembering some of his mother’s idle speculations on the dimensions of Heaven. He looked at the Physician. “I thought you were taking us to your spaceship?”

“I did.” The Physician spread his arms out just a little too wide. “I think you would call this the lobby.”

Arnold turned around to find a copper circle exactly like the one back at Ravenscroft. He scowled, immediately rounding on Dr. Smith. “You could’ve taken us straight here, couldn’t you?”

“Of course I could’ve.”

“Then why’d you dump us in the middle of the North Pole?”

“Please, boy, the North Pole’s miles away.”

Arnold fumed and fidgeted. Billy was already running around the grass laughing when David coalesced from the ambient moisture.

“Hey guys! What took ya?”

“Freezing to death,” Mabel muttered, clutching her folder and art supplies. 

“Oh.”

The Physician clicked. “How’d you get in here, David? Ship’s airtight. It’s kind of the point of her.”

David smiled a secret smile. “There’s water in here, though.”

“Fair enough. I like your new eyes, by the way.”

David didn’t know if the Physician was being sly or just himself. He moved on. “It’s actually really neat in here—”

Fibrous, wrenching tearing. One of the larger trees cracked open at the base, widening to form a shadowed doorway. 

Allison gritted her teeth. A song was pouring out of the trunk. It was… at the very least, it belonged to the same album as the Physician’s. All the same impossible, twisting notes, the same harsh, mocking motifs, just arranged a little differently. The closest comparison Allison could make were Mels and David’s songs.

A woman emerged from the tree. She was taller than the Physician, bordering on six-foot-two, and wrapped in a ballooning black dress, with red-rimmed eye-glasses that could’ve served as air-foils. Her cobweb hair was done up in a thick beehive, though Allison would’ve expected to find spiders crawling through it before honeybees. Her long, orange painted nails could’ve sliced through steel.

She caught sight of the Physician, her eyes widening behind the thick lenses of her glasses to the size of saucers. “Dr. Smith!” 

Her Russian accent wouldn’t have been out of place in a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. She slid towards the group. The way her body moved beneath her skirt, it looked less like she had two legs under there than a thick, solid serpent’s tail. A naga that had learned to walk.

The Physician grinned and gestured towards the lady. “Children, this is Dr. Sofia Ivanova. She handles superhuman science for the Soviets.” 

Arnold frowned. “Wait, she’s a commie?” he asked, a little of his father speaking through him.

“I haven’t joined the party yet, if that’s what you’re asking, little boy.” 

Dr. Ivanova leaned forward, examining the children. Up close, Allison noticed how grey her skin was. Where the Physician was jaundiced, this woman was just dead. “So, Smith, who are these dearies I’m looking at?”

“These boys and girls are from Herbert Lawrence’s kennel. Where I got Sinclair from.” The Physician gestured at each child in turn. “Sea-spawn, external teleporter, totemic animator, matter-manipulator, and that power-esper I mentioned.”

None of the children were sure what to make of that introduction. 

The Physician put his bony, rubbery hands on Allison and David’s shoulders. “These two’s clothes came from Father Christmas. What brings you shipside, by the way?”

Ivanova’s fingers squirmed like hungry worms. “Ooh, I’m jealous. And I was just getting reacquainted with myself.”

“May I say you look amazing?”

“You flatter me, John.” Ivanova slid over to a fungus-covered patch of rock-wall. It was like a mossy, checkered blanquet every colour of the gradient. She tapped away, each square glowing as she touched it. The copper circle bubbled. “I need to go. Science City One has a new shipment of nelyudi1 from Ukraine.”

Mabel watched her slip into the metal. “So… Is that your sister? Mother? Girlfriend?”

“Oh no. Dr. Ivanova is just me, and I am just her.” The Physician started towards one of the trees. “So, Christmas lunch?”  


1. A Russian term for superhuman that roughly translates to “inhuman.” Now commonly considered a slur.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

  

Chapter Fifty-Seven: The Bacchanal at Harvey Dam

>The children were up with the dawn next morning, eager to explore Allison’s new power before the campers woke up and the army of picnickers rolled in from Harvey.

Allison stood in front of her friends like she was about to defend a thesis. They’d found a remote, tree-shadowed corner of the dam, with a curled finger of water at their backs. Mabel had insisted they do it near the water.

“So…” David hopped from foot to foot. “You gonna start?”

Allison nodded. “Yeah.” 

She reached down, right into the depths of the Earth. She pulled. Heat rushed up through her feet, filling her to bursting. 

She grinned. She burned. 

Mabel and Billy oohed and ahhed. The boy crept slowly towards Allison. “Is it safe?”

“I wouldn’t get too close,” said Allison, her voice rippling with the hiss of superheated air. “Your fur might melt.”

Billy drew as near as he dared, walking around his friend and peering at her like a marble statue. She looked like a fire-fairy. 

“You’re pretty.”

Nobody but Allison could say if she was blushing. She jumped. “Thanks.” 

Something broke. The flames went out. 

Allison examined her arms. “Huh.”

“Why’d you stop?” asked David.

“I didn’t, it just—” The warmth flowed back into her, along with the fire. She sighed, not a little relieved. “I guess I shouldn’t jump when I’m doing this.”

It was funny, Allison thought. Usually she knew all about a power the moment she used it. Except, it seemed, her own.

“Come on!” Arnold jeered. “Show us the lava!”

Allison puffed out her chest. “You want lava?” She raised her hands over her head. “Here’s your lava!”

The magma fountained from her fingertips like water caught in the sun. Leaves on their branches were reduced to glowing skeletons by the convection.

Mabel gripped David’s hand, tilting her head anxiously towards the fires breaking out in the canopy.

David squeezed back. “Don’t worry.” 

Tentacles of water rose from the dam behind them, whipping at the burning trees and dousing the flames. 

The hiss of the steam gave Allison an idea. She tried grabbing David’s song, without letting go of the heat. Her fire became tinted absinthe green, while the lava twirled in strands around her arms and legs like gymnast’s ribbons. It felt like flexing her elbow. She gathered up David’s steam and froze it, skeining the tiny comets around the molten rock as they constantly exploded and reformed, caught between the heat and her insistence they remain ice. 

Smiling, Allison stuck out her leg, ready to dance, when her whole lava lattice wobbled. Drops of magma wept from its arches and spirals, boring pinprick holes in the dirt  before vanishing completely. Allison had to let go of the ice ice to keep the whole thing from collapsing, letting the water evaporate into the air.

The girl frowned. What, I can’t even move when I’m doing this?

She stepped forward cautiously, lifting her feet off the ground as little and as quickly as possible. That was much more manageable, but she still felt her grip falter.

Well that’s boring.

Next she tried weaving and pushing the lava away out from her body, aiming for a much more flammable version of Abalone’s force-domes. At about two meters, the strands of lava cooled and solidified like a stone cage over her, blowing away in the summer breeze.

Allison’s friends applauded, until David saw the disappointment her face.

“What’s the matter, Allie?”

Allison let her fire go out. “It’s not as fun as all your things.”

“Why not?” asked Mabel.

“You guys can run and use your powers. I have to stand still or I drop everything! It’s boring!” 

Arnold rolled his eyes. “Figures. You get a new forever-power and you whinge about it.”

Allison glared at Arnold and stamped her foot. “It’s not just that!” Her head drooped. “I can’t go fiery near anyone. I’d burn you.”

David smiled gently. “I know how it feels. You’re pretty much the only one I can bring underwater with me. Properly, I mean, not in a bubble or something.”        

Allison kicked the dirt. “That’s not the same. Fire’s scary.”

Privately, Mabel couldn’t help but agree with her.

Arnold and David shared an exasperated look. The water-sprite bent his knee, ready to take off running. “Hey, Allie, turn the fire back on, I wanna try something!”

Allison dutifully combusted. David turned icy and charged at the girl. 

Arnold, Mabel and Billy screamed and ducked for cover as their friend exploded in a shockwave of steam and ice-shards. 

Mabel lowered her arm from in front of her face. Jagged daggers of ice hung fixed in a wall of mist. She rolled over to see David bent laughing in the water. 

“You should’ve seen your faces!”

Allison was laughing, too. 

“Not funny,” Arnold muttered from between his knees.

Mabel smiled. “Eh, kinda funny.”

Billy was already on his feet, clapping. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Allie, your new power’s great! It’s like you’re a volcano goddess now!” 

“Pele?”

Billy grinned blanky. “Yeah, sure! Also, you and David really need to get some pants.”

David stopped laughing. “…Why?”

Billy folded his arms, doing his best impression of sternness. “Because two kids not wearing clothes at all is weird, and the naturals might notice. And if I have to walk around invisible half the time, you two can wear pants.”

“Seconded,” said Mabel. 

“But it’s a swimming spot!” complained David.

“Kids still wear clothes sometimes here,” Mabel retorted. 

Arnold glanced between David and Allison. “Yeah, it’s getting kinda… yeah.”

Allison shrugged. “They’ve got a point, Davie.”

“Looks like you’ve been outvoted, mate,” said Mabel.

David sighed. “Fiiiine. So where are we gonna get clothes?”

“I could try making some,” offered Billy.

“Nah,” said Allison. She was looking past the other children at the shadows tomorrow cast on today. That still took getting used to. A couple of the silhouettes were familiar. She smiled. “I know where we can get some good clothes from.”

Where. Who. Allison didn’t see much of a distinction.

For the extended Walsh-Zieliński-Cancio clan, Christmas Day in 1965 fell on December 23rd. It was the only day that month where a worthwhile number of relatives could be gathered at Harvey Dam for the perfunctory holiday barbecue. 

Jenny Cancio had left her father and uncles to drink and mechanically turn cheap meat over hot coals, while her mother and aunts tried and failed to brag about their children without each other catching on. Jenny was going to be an entomologist (or as she thought of it, “bug scientist”) when she grew up, and so needed a constant supply of specimens. 

The little girl sat cross legged in front of a densely populated congregation of red bottlebrushes. She was a thin child, her warm brown hair ruthlessly bound into pigtails, with enough freckles vying for space beneath her glasses that they almost formed into leopard spots. Given the time and place in which she was born, it was perhaps a blessing that Jenny Cancio had been born without much self-consciousness.    

A banana yellow beetle crawled onto the back of the girl’s hand. Jenny grinned and called behind her, “Matt! Christmas beetle! I think that’s good luck or something!”

Matthew Zieliński looked up from the nowhere-map he was drawing in the dirt, nodded, and went right back to his art. He was Jenny’s favourite cousin. Mostly it was a matter of geography—they were in the same class at school. He was also borderline mute, though Jenny would argue he was only quiet the way cave-paintings were. 

“This one’s up really early for a Christmas beetle,” Jenny explained. “I wonder if it’s hungry?”

Matt maintained a kindly silence while he traced out sea-serpents. It wasn’t that he was uninterested, he just knew Jenny would furnish her own answers. 

“You know that by the time Christmas beetles come out of their cocoon things, their parents are dead?” Jenny smiled wickedly to herself. “Be kinda fun if that was how it worked with people.”

Without looking up from his drawings, Matt smiled, too.

Watching the beetle climb up her arm, its legs pricking at her skin, Jenifer pondered cocoons, as was her way. They made more sense to her than how human beings grew up. More delineated. From what little adults had told her, people just sort of… stretched. 

A sharp intake of breath. Matt’s silence changed timbre. 

Jenny turned around. “Matt, what’s the—oh.”

Matthew was on his feet, gawking at a naked girl with skin like cold, smudged bone. It also seemed someone had set her eyes on fire, not that she looked bothered by it. 

The Christmas beetle took off from Jenny’s arm, clumsily fleeing through the air. 

“Um, hi?”

“Hello Jenny.”

“How do you know my name?”

Allison tilted her head. Jenny and Matt had been in class with her since kindergarten. They were sort of friends, in so much as Allison had ones whose names weren’t Arnold. It helped that she was the one child in Harvey who knew as much as Jenny about bugs, at least after she met her, that was. How did they not recognize her? Had she changed so much?

Allison folded her arms and tried to smile mysteriously. “You just look like a Jenny, that’s all.”

Jenny smoothed her saffron dress nervously over her knee. She could swear the girl was eyeing it, with those two burning coals of hers. “Do I?”

The girl shrugged. “I guess.”

“Are you a demi? Like from the news?”

Like your classmate? Allison thought sourly to herself. “I—”  

“Nah, she’s a fairy!”  A tiger shaped like a boy was hanging upside down from a bark tree, his legs and tail hooked around its strongest branch. He jumped down, stuck the landing, and ran at the other children. “So am I!”

Jenny screamed. Matt squealed. 

“Kitty-boy!” Matt pulled said kitty-boy into a hug. “Look, Jenny, caaaat!” 

Jenny didn’t hear her cousin. She was too busy pacing and sharing her fears with the ground. “They’re supervillains! They probably blew up Parliament, or they’re from the Coven! Or both!” She stopped in place and screwed her eyes shut. “They’re gonna get us!”   

Allison sighed. Looked like they were going to have to rewind and start over. As she started moving towards Jenny, Billy shook his head at her. 

Let me handle it, he thought very loudly. He looked at the panicked girl. “Jenny, I promise me and”—he thought quickly— “Hesperis aren’t supervillains. I told ya, we’re dam fairies.”

Allison was quietly impressed, more by the name than “dam fairies.”

Jenny looked back up at Billy, her eyes red and wet. She sniffled. “Can you prove it?”

Billy grinned. “Sure can! Fairies can do magic, right?”

Matt nodded enthusiastically. More warily, Jenny answered “Yeah…”        

“Well,” said Billy, “name something you want. Anything!”

Jenny pondered the offer. “A bug ring.”

Allison was still trying to figure out what a bug ring was when Billy conjured up a wisp of mirror-mist and snatched something out out of it in one fluid motion. He got down on one knee and held his arm out to Jenny like he was proposing. “M’lady.”

He opened his palm to reveal a diamond ring. Not a common gold ring with a few diamonds embedded in it (that would be cheating) but a band of molecularly pure, clear cut crystal, a darkly glinting black Hercules beetle curled around it.

“Ooh.” Jenny slipped the ring on her index finger and held it up to the sun, letting it catch ablaze with light. “You are fairies!”

Allison peered into her old classmate’s mind, trying to figure out how that display seemed particularly “fairy”. All she got was a confabulation of excited pink explosions.

“Glad we’re on the same page!” said Billy, swiping his first jovially. He called out, “Oh, Triton!”

  David emerged from the local humidity. To anyone who didn’t know that, he materialised from thin air. His eyes were on full glow. “Hello!”

 Triton? Allison thought to herself. He doesn’t even have a fishtail!

Jenny offered a hand to David, grinning broadly. “Pleased to meet you, Triton!”

Philistines.

David bent and pecked the girl’s hand. “Enchantée.”

Jenny giggled. French really is a terrible weapon.

Matt’s nose wrinkled. “Hey, why are you two naked but Kitty—”

Billy clarified, “Tom Tildrum.”

Allison tried to hide her distaste. It was easier now you couldn’t truly see her eyes.

 “…But Tom Tildrum wears clothes?”

Billy patted his shorts. “Pockets!”

“Overrated,” said David. He looked out towards the dam waters and smiled back at Jenny. “Wanna go swimming?”

“Sure!”

And so the fairies led the two human children off into the wild.

Bradley Cancio had set off to find his daughter and nephew at lunchtime. Now it was nearly 7 o’clock, and the sun had nearly set over Harvey Dam—evening blue swallowing the orange horizon like the sand at high tide—and Bradley Cancio was still searching.

“Jenny!” the man called out into the indifferent, gathering gloom. “Matt! Kids, please, this isn’t funny!”

Mr. Cancio stopped and stared around the darkness, hoping desperately for any unaccounted wrinkle of shadow, but all he found were the frantic silhouettes of his own family fruitlessly searching velvet trees. 

Someone needs to head back to town, Bradley thought. Get the police over here

He stomped into the water, as though those few feet were all that were keeping him from spotting the kids out on the lake.

But if the cops are involved, than the kids will be Lost, and then— 

“Hi Dad.”

Bradley swung around in the direction of his daughter’s voice. “Jenny?”

The little girl and her cousin emerged from a crowd of wattle trees, hand in hand. They were both naked, bar Jenny’s glasses and a couple clear bands around her fingers, almost invisible in the dim.

“Jenny!” Bradley ran to the two children, almost knocking them over as he embraced them. “For Christ’s sake, we thought we lost you!” He looked both children in the eye, trying and failing to look annoyed. “You were supposed to be back at lunchtime. Where the hell were you?”

“With the fairies,” Matt answered simply. 

Jenny glared at him. The fairies hadn’t explicitly asked for their secrecy, but it seemed like the done thing. 

“The fairies,” Bradley said flatly. “Where’d you leave your clothes.”

Well, now that Matt had spilled it already… “The fairies needed them.”

Mr. Cancia shook his head. “They needed your clothes?” 

“Yeah,” said Matt. “Didn’t seem like a big ask.”

If it had been any other month, in any other year, Bradley Cancio might have been able to write it off. Not with the Flying Man still in the sky, and Parliament House still smoking.

Not when they’d taken his daughter’s clothes.

Cities of glass, where people made of song rode on wings of laughter. Great eagles that flew through the winds of gas giants. Walking mounds of flesh, begging twin suns in a dry sky for rain—  

An archly bitter voice spat, “Seen it!”

Allison woke with a start, in the dark of her stolen tent. David lay asleep beside her, dutifully clad in Matthew Zieliński’s cargo shorts and footy jersey. 

Matt and Jenny had been alright, Allison thought hazily. Fun, even. Maybe she ought to have paid them more attention, back when she thought she was human. 

Bells. Silver bells. They rang randomly, without any rhythm. But there was a song, too. Drums, deep, slow, and resounding. The tune was familiar, in a way that made Allison’s bones hum. And something was glowing beyond the tent-flaps, like a fire on the other side of a blizzard.

Dreamily, Allison crawled out of the tent. What few scraps of sky the trees let reach her were a tired, dawn grey. Kookaburras rang in the morning with their raucous conversation.

Allison shivered from the cold. She hadn’t done that since she’d taken on Eliza’s improvements. How could it be so cold in high summer?

Just beyond their copse, by the water, there stood a man. He was taller than life, and almost as broad. He wore a thick, hooded fur suit, dyed bright red with trim as white as his beard. A sleigh was parked next to him, while enormous, burly reindeer drank from the dam, bells on their collars ringing with every twitch of their necks.         

Father Christmas caught sight of the girl and smiled warmly. “Merry Christmas, Allison Kinsey.”

Allison teared up just looking at the man. He wanted to bury her face in his chest, and confess  every bad thing she had ever done. Every lie; every neglected kindness; every cruel comment. For burning that pointless, powerless old man, and for what she had done to Alberto.

Was that even a bad thing? She didn’t—

“Santa?”

Allison turned to find her friends all standing behind her, staring at Father Christmas just as she had been. 

The old man nodded. “It’s as good as name as any.”

The children ran at him, embracing him. All except for David. He just stood and watched.  

Billy was laughing. Arnold and Mabel were weeping.    

“I’m sorry,” Mabel moaned. “I didn’t mean to—”

Father Christmas sighed and stroked her hair. “Oh, child. Circle’s End was nobody’s fault.”

Mabel didn’t stop weeping. Father Christmas wasn’t surprised. He was far from the first to try and convince her of that.

Arnold stammered between sobs. “I made this happen, should’ve known…” 

“That was another’s crime, Arnold. Herbert Lawrence would’ve found some other way to leave a scar on the world even if you’d never been born.”

Allison tensed. She didn’t have to tell Father Christmas what she was thinking. Nobody had to tell him that. All he said to her was, “Some wouldn’t even feel sorry.”

Old Saint Nick gently removed himself from the hug. “Now, I’ve got some presents for you all.” he took a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and a scroll from within his jacket, donning the glasses and clicking his tongue as he let the parchment fall open in front of him. “Let’s see now.”

He walked over to his sleigh, hoisting one-handed an enormous, green sack onto the grass and pulling loose the silver cord that held it closed. He fished out three gift-wrapped, bow topped boxes, and casually tossed two of them towards Billy and Allison. The girl caught hers effortlessly, while the boy flinched and let his fall to the ground.

Billy scrambled to pick his up. “Sorry, sorry!”

Father Christmas let out a laugh that should need no description. “No harm done, son!”

With the third present under his arm, he marched over to David. The water-sprite looked up at him warily. 

“I apologise for the resemblance, sea-spawn.” He patted his belly and laughed once more. “Us bearded patriarchs, we all look much the same.” 

“I don’t care,” muttered David. “I’m not scared of him anymore.”

“I know you’re not. But nonetheless.”

“…And don’t make fun of yourself like that,” David added. “Laurie always did that. Like he wasn’t completely full of it.”

Father Christmas nodded. “I will remember that.” His expression became businesslike. “Now, son, you’re not on either of my lists. Those are for mortal children.” He handed the present to David. “But this is the season for giving.”

“Thanks, I think.” 

Father Christmas put a hand on his shoulder. “Besides, you’ve been a very good boy. Too good, for too long.” He bent till he was at eye level with the boy. “Just remember, boy, there is such a thing as overcorrecting.”

He glanced around at the children. “You can open them, you know. It’s been Christmas morning for hours.” 

Slow, vaguely reverent unwrapping, lasting much longer than David’s quick tearing. The three boxes all held the same contents: an aggressively plain grey bodysock. 

David poked at the clothing like it was a dead jellyfish. “More clothes?”

“Hey, those are life-fibres. Had to fly to the moon of Scrool to get them. They might not look like much now, but wait till you try them on.” Father Christmas looked at Billy. “The tail’s been accommodated for, son.”

Billy spent a moment double checking the single-piece bodysuit to see whether a tail hole had magically appeared, then, not wanting to gainsay Santa himself, said:

“Thank you, sir.”

Father Christmas walked back to his sack, pulling out more gifts. “Now, Mabel, Arnold, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you.” He beckoned the two close to him.

The pair approached cautiously. 

Father Christmas addressed Mabel first. “Now I heard you want to be an artist,” he said handing her a black bound drawing book and a set of colour pencils.

Mabel took her gifts and shrugged, “I’m trying.”

Father Christmas tapped the girl on the forehead. An electric chill ran down her spine.

“And you’ve been rewarded.”

To Arnold he gave a large, handsomely bound volume. Its face bore a tree growing from a river, in whose branches rested a maiden and several planets, below the gilded title:

A BARNES FAMILY COSMIC ATLAS

Arnold tried to suppress a frown. He’d never been the kind of boy who relished getting a book for Christmas.

“Do give it a chance, Arnold. I had to do a great deal of research.” Father Christmas closed his sack and threw it back onto the sleigh. “When you children move on from here—and you will, soon—I suggest going to page 234.” He climbed into the sleigh’s seat and grabbed hold of the reins. The reindeer had been harnessed to the sleigh, when and by who the children could never guess.

“You’re going?” asked Billy.

“Afraid so, William. Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t let the sun rise or a child’s waking eyes fall on me, but rules are rules.” Father Christmas raised his hand. “Now, I suggest you all get a few more hours of sleep before you play with your presents.” 

He snapped his fingers. Sleep pulled the children under, again, except for David.

“Goodbye, David. It was nice seeing you children all again. Say hello to your grandfather for me when you see him.”

David waved. “Sure—wait, my grandfather?”

The sleigh was already in the air, booming laughter echoing throughout Harvey Dam.

When Allison woke again, David was crouching in front of her. He was naked again, which didn’t surprise her terribly. Before she could say “good morning” or ask the obvious question, he said:

“Merry Christmas, Allie! Nope, that wasn’t a dream, Santa really did turn up.”

Allison laughed. “Really?” It honestly didn’t shock her too hard. A childhood in the western world had well and truly prepared Allison for this meeting.

“Yep. Left us stupid magic-I-guess clothes.” David picked up one of the bodysocks. “Wanna try them on before the others wake up?”

“Sure!”

At Allison’s cajoling, David slipped his on first. “I don’t get what’s so special about em,” David muttered, apparently unaware that the aquatic glow normally reserved for his and Allison’s eyes was rapidly spreading across the length and breadth of the fabric. “They don’t feel all that—”

Then he noticed.

“Allie!” he yelped. “I’m glowing! Help!”

The request wasn’t really needed. Before he’d even finished the sentence, Allison’s shoulder caught him in the waist as she tackled him to the floor, already fumbling with the costume’s neckline. There was just one problem there. There wasn’t a neckline anymore, no seam dividing fabric from skin. The glow spread. Allison let out a panicked squeak as, for a moment, the glow seemed to cover the entirety of David’s form, before, less than a second later, it was gone. In its place, looking quite unharmed, if a little shaken, was David. The costume was still there too. It just wasn’t grey anymore.

“… Why are you covered in waves?”

“Yo-I-what?” David spluttered. “I’m wearing-” he looked at his hands. “… Huh.”

It was a strange effect, all said, the fabric shifting and flowing across the boy’s skin, colors moving gently between deep oceanic greens and a softer navy blue, dotted occasionally by brief glimpses of white that could have been either bubbles or sea foam. It looked less like a costume and more like he was simply wearing the sea. Occasionally, if you looked closely enough, you could see what might have been a flash of scales. A mermaid’s fin. 

“I like it,” said Allison. “You gotta admit, it’s pretty.”

David was twisting around trying to get a good look at the suit. “Yeah, it is.” David mostly regarded clothing the same way a fish would, but if he were going to wear anything, it could at least look nice. On a whim, he evaporated into mist, reforming a second later. The suit followed suit.

“Woah,” said Allison. “How did Santa make that work?”

David looked worried for a second. “You don’t think—”

He misted again. This time, his new clothes simply flowed off him, forming first a puddle, then a pile of fabric on the floor. He became flesh again, looking relieved “Phew, thought I was stuck wearing clothes forever.” He shuddered, but he also put the suit back on.

Allison laughed. “Okay, my turn!” 

She threw off Jenny’s dress and pulled her suit on excitedly. For several long seconds, it stayed grey. 

“… Hey, no fai—”

Then her clothes exploded in a blinding flash of crimson light. Had Allison not been making a habit of that, David would have been very concerned that she had just caught fire. 

He grinned.

“Maybe Santa clothes aren’t the worst present ever.”

The glowing figure that was Allison gave an excited little skip.

“It’s gonna be so cool, it’s gonna be so—”

Quite abruptly, the glow faded, revealing what, to David’s perspective, had to be the dumbest costume anyone had ever seen.

It was an outfit Joseph would have been proud of1. Colourful, in a word. The whole outfit was an explosion of reds, purples, and greens, in bold defiance of any sort of pattern. The top was a jerkin shaped mess of swirling blues, smokey whites, and pale purples, all surrounding the multicoloured, many pointed star of the Nine Muses emblazoned on her chest. David hadn’t  even known you could tie-dye leather2. The sleeves and bell-trousers meanwhile were dominated by swirls of coral pink, yellow, and orange. The entire ensemble looked designed to offend the mere notion of quiet. 

“…I take it back,” he said. “You look really—”

“This,” Allison cut him off, “is, awesome!” She bared her teeth and growled. “I am Allison, queen of the rainbow-pirates!” She burst back into flames. Her new outfit caught alight too, but did not burn, the streaks of colour glowing bright. “The fire rainbow-pirates!”

David grinned. Whatever his thoughts on clothing thicker or more cumbersome than bare skin, Allison’s glee was infectious. 

Allison glanced around the campsite, eager to wake everyone up and show off. Arnold and Mabel were curled around their presents like slumbering, tiny dragons, but she couldn’t find Billy.

“Where’s Billy gone?” she asked David.

“Oh, he went to go try his on—”

Dadadada…”   

Billy came barrelling out of the trees. 

“Tada!”

For roughly five seconds, neither David nor Allison laughed. It was too cute. It was Allison, however, who broke first.

“… You don’t like it?” he asked, his furry face crumpling in disappointment as the girl giggled.

“No,” she snorted. “I do! I really do… but where’s the rest of the Famous Five?”

Billy glowered at her.

“I am not a Famous Five!”

David, quite wisely, chose not to comment.

“It has so many pockets! And look!” he turned around. “Tail slot!” he pointed to the top of his shorts, where, true to Santa’s word, there was indeed a small hole cut out to make room for his tail. Unfortunately, turning around just gave the other two a clearer view of his hero mask, which, as they could now see, was tied to his head with what looked like strip of store bought ribbon. His cape could’ve been a repurposed baby blanket, while his top was a plain white polo-shirt of all things, with a high, stiff collar, and what looked like a crudely painted, red philosopher’s stone symbol, but with the inner circle replaced by a smiling cat face.  

“It’s so comfy!” Billy’s eyes were darting around like he was looking for an adventure to dive into. 

Mabel began to stir, and like a contagion, so did Arnold. The boy blinked blearily at his costumed friends. “Not a dream?”

“Nope!” replied Billy.

“Morning, Arn,” said David. “Father Christmas made clothes a bit less crap.”

Mabel had well and truly woke up. “You guys look great!” 

Allison was posing. “I know I—ah, crap!” Her hand went to her temples. “Stupid grownups!”

Mabel rushed to her side. “What’s wrong.”

Allison’s eyes narrowed darkly. “I thought about showing this off to some kids later and, bam, angry mob!”

“Angry mob?” asked Arnold.

“Matt and Jenny’s folks,” clarified Allison. “They’ve got everyone in town all angry because we took their clothes.” She kicked the air. “Grownups are weird. They’ll be here in a couple hours.”

Arnold shook his head. “Who goes all angry mob on Christmas?”

“Grinches?” suggested Mabel.

“So what do we do?” asked David. “Do we fight them?”

Mabel shook her head firmly. “No. No more fighting.”

“Then where do we go?” asked Allison. “I bet there’s still DDHA gits looking for us.”

Arnold thought about it. “Father Christmas said something about… page 214 I think?”

 “Two hundred and thirty-four,” Allison corrected him. 

Arnold flipped through the atlas. Some of the locales were sensical enough. New York City, Sydney, the Amazon Rainforest. But then where were the skerries of Dream, or the Emu Collective of Campion3, and what the hell were the Riverlands supposed to be? 

He found his page. Arnold looked up at his friends. “Ravenscourt Manor.”

David groaned. “Figures.”

Allison sighed. “Let’s get what we want to take and get going.”

Australia had very few castles, and all of them were infants even by the low standards of human construction. The aboriginal nations had neither the material capacity or the urge for castle building, and by the time the white men arrived, they too had mostly lost their taste for it. But still, some had been built on that continent: as tourist traps, monuments, or even as homes. 

Ravenscourt Manor had been one such castle, transported brick by brick from Britain to South Australia by the ailing, but still too rich for their own health, Ashley family in the 1860s4. It was a petty castle by most standards—a casual observer might’ve written it off as just a stone mansion—but a castle it was. 

It had seen better days. The earth was eating its ramparts, and its edifice was wearing away like enamel from an old tooth. Birds swooped in and out of broken windows. The estate’s trees were all Old World transplants, bare of branch despite the summer weather. Just a couple of months before, the trees had been clad in bright, autumnal oranges. In the middle of spring.        

 David, Mabel, and Billy appeared at the rusting gates in a green flash, clutching (or wearing) their Christmas presents. A couple seconds later, so did Arnold and Allison.

“This the place?” asked the latter.

“Yeah,” said David. “I’ll do the talking.”

Arnold blasted the gates into the core of Neptune, and the children started hiking up to the entrance of Ravenscourt. 

Living scarecrows lumbered through the gardens, turning and staggering towards the children as they walked. They paid them little mind. Arnold just teleported them whenever they got close.

Eventually, they reached the tall front door. David knocked demandingly. He could hear music through the thick oak, even place the song. “Butcher Pete” by Roy Brown.

After what felt like half of all time, the door cracked open.

His face hard and set, David said, “My parents are dead. All the other kids are dead. I think people are hunting for us.”

The Physician’s grin was stiller than the stone of his home. “Well, come inside then, children.”

Turn this record over, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” 


1. At least in less adept translations of Genesis.

2. You cannot.

3. Probably Campion.

4. The Ashley family were English nobility who sold their land (but kept the title of earl of Ravenscourt) and relocated to Australia after shearing and mining interests in the mid 19th century. Their last scion—the 16th Earl of Ravenscourt—would fight crime as a masked vigilante known uncreatively the Raven after being betrayed and driven from his home by his brother Sebestian. Both men would later disappear during a confrontation in a burning Adelaide warehouse in 1947. Many superhero scholars have suggested that the later Perthite vigilante the Wight drew inspiration from the Raven.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-Six : The Brauronia of Allison Kinsey

“Whether or not the mooches and parasites wish to admit it, the days of the mediocre pinning down the exceptional beneath state and church are over. The Flying Man did not heed the whining of politicians and so called ‘patriots’ when he snatched the atom from their fumbling hands, and neither shall the rest of his kind. The true superman’s only code is their own will and ambition, and the base and common live at their sufferance—“

Timothy Valour switched off the tape-player. Ayn Rand was a powerful motivator, but only in very precise doses1.

It was nearly two in the morning, but pale blue light was slicing through the gap in Valour’s new office curtains. Between the streetlights and fluorescent lamps leering from every high rise window in Melbourne, it was as though dawn had snuck past the wall of night.

What was left of the Australian parliament had fled Canberra to its Victorian birthplace, and Timothy of course had followed. Someone had to hold things together. Not that he would’ve claimed to be doing a good job. 

Valour hadn’t seen his own bed in days. Whenever he tried picturing his wife or his house (whether intact or burned and blasted) all that came to him was more paperwork, lined with terse, official prose that failed to mask the panic bleeding from every word like wet ink. His life had been reduced to urgent, frantic meetings with shell-shocked politicians and angry Americans with hungry eyes. At least the mother country was keeping its distance, for now.

Operation Prometheus had turned into a massacre. Every student at the New Human Institute was dead or missing. Agent Moretti has been killed, his body whisked away by the Americans before a coroner could get a look in. Major Yerrick, Tim’s last surviving war buddy, was found burned to death, his flesh mingled with molten rock. The only soldier who’d returned from the mission was Françoise Barthe’s assassin, and Tim didn’t even want to think about what had become of him.

One of those facts was about to change.

Tim was still enough of a soldier to notice when the shouting started seeping through his window. He didn’t even have time to check before his young secretary barged in, all decorum forgotten.

“Sir, I think you need to see this.”

Almost the entire overburdened night-shift had spilled out onto the front lawn of the provisional DDHA Headquarters. They were pointing and gawking at dozens of hogtied soldiers, screaming and thrashing against their rough rope bindings.

And above it all, the Flying Man, floating in the night sky.

Timothy slowly approached the one bound man who wasn’t wearing a uniform. He was well past fighting age, clad in a ruined green suit and sporting a washed out red beard. 

Tim tried to resist kicking the old man. “Herbert,” he spat.

Dr. Lawrence stared up at his former friend with resigned, wet eyes. “I’m sorry, Tim.”

Timothy didn’t answer him, instead turning his gaze up towards the Flying Man. The superhuman was looking down at the crowd with open contempt. Tim felt like he was looking right at him. Maybe he was.

Tim shouted up at the sky. “What the hell do you want from me?” The shout became a scream, “What was I supposed to do!”

Joe Allworth gave no answer, his shadow shrinking against the Moon as he left the old soldier alone in the crowd.

On a dark, grassy shore, three children came into existence. They were very confused.

David shouted, “Where are we?”

Billy looked desperately at Mabel. “Did we do something wrong? Why’d Allie zap us?”

“How should I know?” Mabel yelled back, regretting it immediately as the tiger-boy burst into tears.

Another green flash lit the night, depositing Arnold and Allison amongst the children. They were holding hands. 

Mabel jumped backwards, dropping her picture-binder before shaking off the shock and marching up to Allison, scowling right in her face. “What the hell, Allie?”

Allison blinked dazedly at Mabel. The other girl’s face was tattooed with bold, angular chains of nested cubes and chevrons, flowing and interlocking with each other like drakes of architecture. They glowed bright pink in the morning, pulsing softly in the morning dark with the faintest ice-blue edging. Had they been there before?

Allison swayed on her feet. “Sorry, Mabs. Had to get you somewhere safe?”

“Safe from what?”

“The soldiers, the Flying Man,” answered Allison absently.

“What?” David asked. “The Flying Man was there? What was he doing?”

Allison looked at the water-sprite. She could see all of him now, all at once. The brown little boy, the water, the ice…

“Dunno,” she said. “Gosh, you’re pretty, David.”

David wrinkled his nose and looked at Arnold questioningly. “What’s wrong with Allie? Her eyes…”

“I—I don’t know.” The boy wrapped a balancing arm around Allison’s bare torso. “She just said we needed to leave and we teleported each other.”

Allison looked at Arnold. His presentation was far more modest than Mabel and David’s: a simple calligraphic mark inscribed on his forehead in glowing lime ink. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before, or why he was talking about her like she wasn’t there.

Now it was Billy’s turn to hurl questions at Allison. “What’s happening at school? Is Dawnie and everyone okay?”

Allison just stared at the boy. He was tattooed like Mabel, perfectly visible through his fur. His markings were disjointed, haphazard jumbles of green and pink, yellow and purple. Some sections were sharp and straight, others layered and jumbled like broken Chinese puzzle balls. They didn’t interface so much as run into each other. Messy, but it worked.

“Allie?”

Allison shuddered. “Sorry. They’re dead.”

Arnold almost dropped her. The other children began squawking questions at Allison like a flock of troubled birds. 

Allison was transfixed. She had always been able to hear feelings in songs, but now she could see them, too. Sour constellations of anger, confusion and fear ignited in her friends’ heads—coherent, beautiful patterns rising from bright and shining chaos like a symphony of stars.

Mabel was shaking her. “What do you mean, ‘dead’?”

“I mean…”

Allison slipped from Arnold’s grip, falling like a stone to the thin, rugged grass. 

She never knew fear could be so beautiful.

Allison dreamt for what felt like aeons. She dreamt of the silent beauty of lonely stars, scattered over wild, endless voids, where kinder things than she knew swam through the dark. Of worlds of black diamond, cracked with gleaming, white hot rivers. Of fonts in space-time pouring light and matter back out into creation. Of the naked hearts of dead suns, so dense the walls of atoms crumbled within them, and single seconds stretched on forever.

Sometimes Allison’s dreams were pulled back down to Earth. She found herself playing on narrow cobbled streets smothered with the scent of freshly baked bread and hot cassoeula. Or she would be sitting across from frightened old men and brave young fools in dark rooms, while black-shirted werewolves stood waiting to be fed. 

Then the cosmic would fall upon the provincial like starlight, and she would be playing hide and seek with a golden haired nymph in the canyons of the moon, or swimming after her in the corona of the sun.

“Wake up.”

Allison ignored the scolding male voice, chasing the nymph—or was that David?—through the river of the Milky Way, her graceful limbs sweeping through stars and worlds like water.

“Wake up!”

Allison jerked awake. She was lying on a thick bed of leaves, sunlight dappling down on her through a thick canopy of branches that filtered the sky like Ventian glass. It dimly reminded Allison of her arboreal cathedral back at Parliament House.

“Allie!” 

Before Allison could say anything, Mabel yanked her up into a bear-vice of a hug.

“We thought you weren’t ever gonna wake up!”

Allison managed to replace some of the air Mabel knocked out of her. “…Hey Mabs. How long was I asleep?”

“A whole day!” Mabel called out, “Guys, Allie’s awake!”

Broken twigs and cracking leaves beneath hurrying feet. Billy and Arnold almost knocked the girls to the ground. 

Arnold sounded on the brink brink of tears as he embraced them. “You’re okay!

Billy just nuzzled his fur against Allison’s cheek. She sank into the hug.

The fur pulled away. “Oh, your eyes are still doing the thing.”

Allison blinked at Billy. “What thing?”

“Um…” Mabel stepped back and conjured a hand-mirror, surprisingly reflective for something rendered in oils. She held it up to her friend’s face.

Allison’s eyes glowed bright like fresh dragon’s blood, the whites lost in their red glare. 

She tried making them go hazel again. They didn’t.

“Does it hurt?” Arnold asked. “Can you still see alright?”

She could. That almost surprised Allison. Shouldn’t it be like trying to see with a torch in her face? Then again, it never seemed to bother—

“Where’s David?”

“Allie, your eyes are glowing.”

“Where is he?” Allison asked again.

Mabel waved her hand. “He’s playing with some kids from town.”

“Town? Where are we?”

Arnold tilted his head. “What? How do you not know? The Dam was your idea.”

“The d—wait, Harvey Dam?”

Allison remembered now. She remembered a lot of things. She started walking towards the edge of the trees. “I need to find David, alright?”

Mabel tried to follow her. “Allie, wait! Before you went to sleep, you said everyone was—“

Allison looked back at the other girl with burning, plaintive eyes. “I know, but can I just find David first? I… it’s not something I want to have to talk about over and over.”

Mabel stopped. “…Yeah, sure. Be careful, okay?l

She watched Allison go. Arnold walked up next to her. “What do you think’s wrong with her eyes?”

“No idea,” said Mabel.

“Maybe it’s a growing up thing?” suggested Billy. “Like getting taller or…” He gestured vaguely around his chest.

Arnold shrugged. “Probably should’ve gotten her pants or something.”

“Or sunglasses,” Mabel added warily.

When she woke up (because of course she would) David thought to himself, he really ought to thank Allison for zapping them all to Harvey Dam. The place was full of hidden, green corners to explore. And the water itself—he hadn’t gotten to swim so deep since Lake Burley Griffin. Still fresh and bland on his tongue, but full of life and current nonetheless. 

Even more wonderful, though, was the company. As it turned out, Harvey Dam was very popular with families in the summer. And children on holiday didn’t much question a naked, strangely accented coloured boy sharing the water with them.

“Go long, David!

Liam tossed a rugby ball over the waist-deep water. He was a chubby, pale boy, with frizzy red hair that settled on top of his head like a damp sponge.

David ran backwards through the squishy lake mud like he was trying to keep apace with a falling star. He just managed to snatch the ball out of the air before it splashed down. In so doing, David himself overbalanced, falling into the murk with a wet ‘splat’. He popped back up a moment later, grinning ear to ear.

David threw the ball over his head in triumph. It was the first time he’d actually played rugby, or football as Liam insisted on calling it. Soccer—never by that name when Alberto was in earshot—had always been the preeminent game of choice at the New Human Institute. David had never felt so… Aussie. 

“Goal!”

Liam sighed. “I told you, David, footy doesn’t work that way.”

“And I told you to stop saying my name all English, so nhyyaa!” He poked his tongue at the other boy.

“Aww, lay off him,” said Liam’s sister Gwen, floating on her back. She was as pale and red haired as her older brother, but her eyes were a shade of green that almost matched David’s, much to his amusement. It somewhat perplexed the boy why she wore a one piece while her brother could get away without a shirt, but he was used to humans being weird about that sort of thing.

“Besides,” she said, “not like there’s goalposts in the water. And David’s all foreign anyway. Maybe that’s what it looks like over in… where’d you say you were from?” 

David was looking very smug. “France!” he answered cheerily. 

It was strange, hearing strangers use his real name, without having to be told it wasn’t Maelstrom or Mealy or whatever other stupid nickname stupid people called him. Strange and amazing.

Gwen thrashed suddenly, her lower half falling under the water. “Gaaah!”

“What’s the matter?” asked David.

Gwen regained her bearings. “I think a fish brushed me.”

Liam sniggered. “What a girl—aaaaugh!” The boy kicked violently. “Something grabbed me!”

A little girl broke the surface next to David, fish-pale with water-dark chestnut hair and eyes like magma. 

She grinned. “There you are, David!”

The boy tensed. What was Allison thinking? You didn’t see him walking around with glowing eyes in front of the naturals. He hadn’t even used his powers anymore than it took to be the winner of any and all splash fights. And why hadn’t he noticed Allison in the water?

Liam was scowling at the girl. “You didn’t have to be grabby, kid.”

David tilted his head. Were Harvey children the masters of tact, or was he severely misinformed about the range of human eye colours?

Gwen seemed to be taking it with better humour than her brother. “Oh, you know David?”

No comment on the eyes from her, either.

David decided to make the introduction. “Guys, this is—”

Allison threw her arm around David’s shoulders. “His cousin, Mary-Anne.”

David blinked at her, before an insistent, very familiar voice inside him hissed:

Go along with it! I knew these kids from before!

You did?

Yeah. Gwen was in my class. She always bragged about getting free ice-cream ‘cause her daddy owns the dairy. I think that’s why her brother—

The thought-line broke off. David got the vague mental image of Allison shaking her head.

Anyway, don’t want them knowing it’s me.

David thought, But why don’t they recognise you? He squinted at the McNally siblings, much to their confusion. They aren’t blind, are they? Another question hit him like a wave. Wait, are you brain-speaking? How do you still have Alberto’s—

I’ll tell you when the humans are gone, okay?

“Huh,” Gwen said. “You don’t sound French.”

“Mary-Anne” shrugged. “I’m good at languages.”

David wondered if pretending to be blood-family was the best idea. He knew from both experience and Haunt’s loud explanations that white folks could get uptight about families with more than one shade to them. On the other hand, he had no clue how this ruse was working, if it even was. 

“So,” said Liam, “wanna play Marco Polo or something?”

Unsurprisingly, Allison dominated at every game that couldn’t be decided by pure size. They played with the McNallys for nearly three hours, until the afternoon sky began to dull and their parents called them out of the water.

“Bye, David!” Gwen called as she followed her brother back onto the shore. “It was nice meeting you!” Almost as an afterthought, she added, “You too, Mary-Anne!”

“You two are lucky,” remarked Liam. “Your folks letting you swim so late.”

Knots formed in Allison and David’s stomachs.

As soon as the human children were out of sight, David hugged Allison. “Glad you’re awake,” he whispered into her ear, before he pulled away from her a step. “Now, can you tell me what the heck just happened?”

Allison took a deep breath and started wading back onto dry land. It felt wrong to talk so serious in the water. David followed without comment, feet stained to their ankles with lake mud.

“So, why didn’t those kids recognise you?”

Allison smiled. That at least was easy to answer. “Because they thought I looked like this.”

Where Allison stood, David only saw a tan, blonde girl with her old hazel eyes.

“Okay…And how are you doing that?”

The stranger shuffled her feet. “Alberto got shot by one of the boss soldiers. I didn’t want his song to go away so I… did something and now it’s inside me. Forever, I think.”

David didn’t respond to that at first. It was a bit to take in. For a few seconds, he just gazed at her, before eventually settling on:

“What?”

“I saved his song. Put it in mine. So now I can do all that psychic stuff he used to.” She looked down at the thin grass. “He could do a lot more than he said he could.”

David cocked his head at that. He didn’t like it when people picked on Alberto. But this was Allie… and there were more important questions anyways.

“So… where is he?”

“Gone. Or—not gone, but not walking around.” She rubbed her head. “I know everything he did. Not just like, facts and stuff. I can remember his mum’s face…”

The taste of old, sour wine in the back of her mouth. Soft, pale flesh in the dark…

She grimaced. “…Other stuff, too.”

For a few seconds, David contemplated giving her a hug. She didn’t sound upset. But what she was saying was…

“You okay?”

Allison considered it. “Yeah. I think I am. I’m better now. I don’t have to copy people not to be weak anymore.”

“Yeah,” he said, his tone slightly dubious. “Um. About that. So, are those eyes a forever thing now? Cuz you kinda stand out, you know?”

Mary-Ann dissolved. Allison kept forgetting her eyes. It wasn’t hard to. They didn’t feel any different. “I think they might be. But they’re not all bad.”

Allison was wreathed in fire, her skin lit lapis violet like the very heart of a flame. Globules of lava bubbled into being in her hands, which she smeared across the air in front of her like she was finger painting with light. The heat of it hit David like a bonfire’s shout.

“I can do this now! I think the Flying Man made it happen! Guess I can thank him for something…”

“…Okay,” David began, trying to think of the most tactful way to say this. “But can you ever, you know, not look like a superhero now? I kinda like getting to play with other kids, you know? Without people noticing what we are?” He thought for a moment. “Could you, I dunno, cover it up with my eyes, maybe?”

Allison frowned. “I don’t look like a superhero,” she said, sounding surprisingly hurt. “My eyes just glow a bit. But I’ll try.” 

The fire went out, the magma cooling until it was nothing. The girl screwed her eyes shut, taking in David’s whale bone whistles and glass flutes. When she opened them again, her eyes were green. “Did it work?”

“Yup!” David grinned. “You look like Allie again!”

She giggled. “No, I look like you! Allie has cool glowing eyes. And yours aren’t super-normal either.”

“At least I can turn the glowey off,” he replied playfully, raising a hand and waggling a finger up and down like he was playing with a lightswitch, his eyes lighting and dimming rapidly in time with the movement.

Allison laughed loudly, before remembering what she had come to tell him. She sat down, facing out towards the water and the white gravel hill of the dam wall. “David, bad stuff happened back at the school. I think… those soldiers killed our friends. All of them. All at onc-”

The last word never made it out her throat, cut off by the loud snapping sound ringing out from the dam. David hadn’t moved, but now that she was looking, she saw that the water behind them was suddenly very still.

“I know, Allie”, he said, his voice small. “I know. I felt the bullets go through them.” Far off in the distance, the dam’s short, squat intake tower let out another loud snapping noise, before the strut supporting it gave out, and it crumbled below the surface. 

“… What do you wanna do about it?”

Allison clenched her fists. The fire came back to her eyes. “I want to hurt them. They hurt us, we hurt them back. Bad.”

Allison had been expecting this to be a fight; that she might have to bully past David’s constitutional niceness to get at what she wanted. She’d been wrong.

“Yeah,” he said. “I wanna hurt them too.”

Allison blinked. “You do? Really hurt them? Kill them?”

“What did they do to my mum, Allie?” he asked. “Why can’t I feel her anymore?”

It barely sounded like a question.

The images clawed their way to the front of Allison’s mind. That ruined face, blood turning to water. She shook slightly. 

David watched the memory hit her, and gave her a small smile.

“Yeah. I wanna kill them.”

Allison looked long and hard at her friend. Slowly, she asked, “Davie, are you alright?”

David shrugged. “I’m angry, if that’s what you’re asking.” His smile grew a fraction wider. “And there’s a little voice in my head telling me not to hurt them. Buuut it sounds a lot like Lawrence.” 

He sat down beside Allison, putting a hand on her leg. “They killed my mummy. They killed our family. We’re gonna make them hurt and hurt till they wish they were dead.” He stretched out. “But there’s still so much good. We’re together. We’re free.” He closed his eyes. “And there’s so much water.”

Allison looked at David’s lights. She could see rage. Sadness. As white and hot as the sun. But there was joy too, blue and cool. They coiled like mating serpents; entwined, creating, but seperate. His song was much the same: what should have been cacophony and discordance harmonising, like a hot jazz band playing with a string quartet.

She envied him. 

She noticed something else, too. That was part of it, the rage, the emotion. But there was something else inside there too. Something old. She searched Alberto’s memory for it, and came up empty handed. The one in Fran’s mind had fallen quiet years ago.

“Allie,” David reached over, and gave her hand a little squeeze. “I want you out of my head now, please.”

With that, the thing inside his mind gave her a push, and she couldn’t feel him anymore. All there was was the face of the deep. 

Something else inside David had died, Allison realised. A tapeworm of personhood. Some might have called it a soul. It had been a long, slow death, but it was finally done. 

“It’s going to be okay, Allie.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah. We’re going to crush and burn and drown them all alive. Tim Valour’s going to scream till he’s coughing up blood. Then we’re gonna to swim and play chasey and eat chocolate till we spew.” The boy stood up, helping Allison to her feet. “Come on,” he said. “You need to tell the others.”

As soon as they returned to the copse, Allison had started bossing a camp into existence. Arnold had teleported some tents their way, kindly pre-assembled by the campers who owned them, along with a healthy collection of ice-boxes and picnic hampers. 

They were nearly having fun, until Allison got the fire going and started explaining:

“So… Alberto brainwashed us?”

Allison looked at Arnold. The boy’s tone was shocked, but tainted with hope. She’d just got done explaining what Lawrence had had him teleport all around Australia and beyond. The boy’s face was still pale.

“Yeah,” she answered. “Not every second of every day, but enough that we usually did what Lawrence wanted us to.”

“Did he make me…” Arnold didn’t finish the question. He didn’t need to.

Allison bit her lip. “No, Alberto didn’t want that to happen.”

Arnold curled in on himself. “Oh.”

A furred, clawed hand patted him on the back. “It wasn’t your fault,” said Billy softly. “You didn’t know what the eggs were.”

Arnold moaned, tears glinting on his cheeks in the firelight. “Why did I even send them where he said to start with? He wouldn’t have known…”

“He said he was gonna dob on your baby niece,” said David. “I don’t think I’d have risked it if I were you.”

Arnold glanced at the water-sprite out the corner of his eye. If I were you…

Mabel was standing with her back to the fire, her hands balled at her sides. “So it was all just Alberto and Lawrence playing a game with us?”

Allison dug at the dirt with her heel. “At first, I guess? They kinda stopped working together near the end.”

David leaned forward. An awful thought had occurred to him. “Was taking over the Institute Alberto’s idea?”

“No,” Allison answered very firmly. “That was all us.”

“Are you sure?” David asked. It was the least certain Allison had heard him sound in weeks.

“Sure for sure. Eliza had put him to sleep when it happened, remember?” An unwelcome stab of memory cut at Allison, making her physically wince. She blurted, “She killed Adam. He was turning off our powers so Lawrence made her kill him.”

Billy went to speak. First to ask Allie what she had meant to say. Then to tell her that she was wrong. Then to shout she was lying. When he finally opened his mouth, all that came out were choked sobs, breaking out into a long wail. 

David’s shoulders tensed. He turned his head up at the stars peeking through the branches above, trying not to look at anyone else. Deep in the waters that were his mind, the white serpent stirred.

Arnold and Mabel meanwhile, just looked at each other. What should’ve been an explosion had passed through them like a whisper. Mabel turned to Allison. “…Why are we not surprised?”

It should’ve been sarcasm. It wasn’t.

Allison took a deep breath. “You both worked it out ages back. Alberto made you forget.” Her gaze briefly flickered towards David. He didn’t notice. “He—we can do that.”

Silence. The only comment came from the crickets and the nightbirds. 

Mabel strode over to Allison, pulling her gently but firmly off the log she’d been sitting on. “You gotta promise never to mess with our brains like that, kay?” She beckoned the others to stand. “Promise all of us. Unless we’re all gonna die if you don’t do it, you’ll never make us do things or forget things we don’t want to.”

Allison nodded vigorously. “Never.”

The children all spat in their hands and put them together. It was the most sacred covenant available to them. It sealed Allison’s promise, and a thousand other unspoken trusts. Above all else, to stay together.

“What do we do now?” Billy asked, still sniffling. 

Allison thought about it. “Whatever we want.”

Luckily, Mabel had an actual suggestion. “In that case… How does that lava thing work?


1. In the years following the conclusion of the Cuban Crisis, Ayn Rand would write exhaustively on the subject of superheroes. These later writings alienated some followers, who accused the author and philosopher of abandoning the principles of Objectivism in favour of a kind of superpower backed feudalism. Detractors saw no difference. Rand would even briefly return to fiction in 1964, penning the novel Hercules’ Wake, a self-admittedly allegory for the then stalled Vietnam Conflict centred around superheroes rising up against the government. Years after her death from heart failure in 1984, several attempts at poetry by Rand were discovered dedicated to a superhero commonly believed to either be Joe Allworth or the New York superhero Green Sentinel. One commentator went on the record calling it, “Better than the stuff about William Hickman.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-Five: …And Hell Rode Behind Her

Allison Kinsey ran through the bush, bounding over branches and rocks with no conscious effort. Her muscles screamed under her skin until she silenced them. She would have played Cardea’s, or Jumpcut’s, or even Britomart’s songs, but all she could find of them was echoes in the air.

Windshear’s song had stopped first. Then Linus’ had reared to life, clear and glorious, before going jagged and ending mid-note.

Ending. How could a song end?    

The Institute’s children had all vanished—extinguished in an impossible explosion of music—leaving only the Watercolours and nearly a hundred strange, banal human songs.

And, of course, its prodigal son.

Alberto and Allison collided with no small force, both falling backwards into the undergrowth.

“Ow, fucking ow…”

Allison recovered first, springing catlike back her feet and looking down with bewilderment at the esper in soldier’s costume sprawled before her. “Alberto? What—I thought—why are you dressed like that?”

Alberto lunged at the little girl, slapping a gloved hand over her mouth. “Shut up, shut up! They’ll hear you!”

Allison backed away from the man, out of his grip. “Those soldiers?” She scowled at Alberto’s uniform. “Are you with them?”

A gasp of pure frustration throttled its way out of Alberto. “No! I mean, yes, but—” A choked noise that might have been a sob. “It wasn’t supposed to go this way.”

Allison realised there were tear-streaks on the man’s face. Quietly, she asked, “Alberto, what’s happening?”

“Valour sent his bloody people after you. Cormey went nuts, and they started shooting! Christ, Mary and Windy are dead!” Alberto’s eyes darted around like he thought there were demons in the trees. “How—where’d they go? Oh, God, I think they’re all dead.”  

Allison just stood there.

Dead.

She couldn’t get a hold on the idea. She knew what death was supposed to mean. How could she not? Sometimes it seemed to be all grown ups thought and wrote about. But those were only words. She’d never known anyone who died. Even Adam had been a brief passerby in her life, exiting quietly out of her sight.  

But then, hadn’t that just happened to all the other students?

Everyone was dead. People Allison had played with everyday for nearly a year were gone, their songs silenced forever.

Bella was barely seven. Mrs Gillespie had put flowers in Allison’s hair and held her when she cried. They’d both been shot.

Allison’s nails dug into the skin of her palms, radioactive-green light coursing through her from head to toe. “I’m gonna kill them.”

“What?”

“I’m going to kill them all!”

Alberto stared at the little girl. There was no fear in her, only pure, untempered fury. A child’s anger, a hard gem of flame that burned away everything else.

The only other supers within Allison’s grasp were the other theatre kids. Could she take on over a hundred armed men with just those powers? Normally, Alberto wouldn’t have hesitated saying “Yes!” and running far, far away, but somehow those soldiers had put out dozens of their lot, all at once.

He didn’t want to feel another child die.

“No.”

The child burned brighter. “No?”

“They just managed to rub out two footy teams worth of you! At once. I don’t know if the Physician packed them a fucking tactical nuke or what, but you can’t fight that!”

“They killed my friends! Don’t you care?”

Alberto was surprised to find he did. “They’ll kill you too, if you don’t turn around and run.”

Allison marched past the psychic. “You can’t stop me.”

Alberto had never thought much of himself. Truthfully, he was right not to. But couldn’t he stop this stupid little girl from wandering into her death?

He slipped off his gloves. “No, I guess I can’t.”

He swung around and grabbed Allison’s shoulder. “You are going to turn around, go get your friends, and run far, far away, you hear me, kid?”

For a single moment, something inside her resisted.

“… Right.”

It was as she turned to leave, orienting towards the still ringing sound of Arnold and Mabel’s songs in the distance, that she heard a quiet pop in the distance, and Alberto staggered as something struck him in the arm. “Fuck!”

Allison stopped walking, and turned to stare at Alberto. He was on the ground, cradling a  bleeding shoulder with his remaining good hand. His song was fluctuating. Spiking. What if it went away, too? Like all the others had.

She couldn’t let that happen.

She didn’t really think about what happened next. It was like reflexively reaching for an apple when you dropped it. The next thing Allison knew, she was upon the psychic, her knees pressing against his chest and pinning him there as, for the first time, she dug her power into him, pulling his song into her own.

“Oh, Christ,” he whimpered, the pain apparently forgotten. “Not like this, you little cunt.” She felt his hand against her forehead, trailing fresh blood across her scalp. “Sleep!” he commanded. “Fucking sleep, Allison!”

Why was she so tired all of a sudden? Allison ignored it. No time for that. She had to help Alberto.

“Stop fighting me.”

Alberto had been halfway through a yell when his voice cut off, his hand, halfway through trying to shove the girl away, fell back. He stopped.

“A—Allison,” he begged, a few fresh tears trickling down his face. “Please don’t. I don’t want to die like this.”

Die? Allison paused for a moment, confused. Why die? She was saving him.

“It’s gonna be okay,” she whispered, not sure how she knew that. “You’ll be fine. I promise.” For a moment, Alberto tried to object, but then she pressed his power into him, and that look of panic seemed to catch on something.

“… You promise?”

She gave him another reassuring wave of his power, and nodded.

“I’m gonna get us out of here.”

Alberto closed his eyes.

“… Okay.”

A dozen or so seconds later, Allison stood back up. Then, she turned on her heel, and set off, leaving the thing that had once been Tiresias bleeding from every hole in his face. His song was nothing but noise now, but that was okay. It was still playing inside Allison.

She felt good. The anger was still there, but even that felt good. Like a thousand birthdays.

There was a soldier in her path. An old man, with a still-smoking pistol hanging limply at his side like a child’s toy.

“Good God, girl, what did you do to Moretti?”

Allison kept walking, her head tilted. There were lights inside the man’s head: fireflies dancing in his skull. And they told her things, like Morse code. His name was Harris Yellick, and he had done very bad things.

“Why’d you kill them?”

Allison knew Yellick was going to shoot at her before he even raised his gun. The lights screamed it, but that wasn’t the only tell. It was like he had to do everything twice before it happened.

She dodged the bullet like it was a tennis ball.

“Fuck.”

Electric riffs.

Allison roared with Billy’s voice, toppling the major like a blade of grass in a hurricane. In a split second she had a foot on his throat.

“You killed Mels.” She didn’t know why she’d used that name.

“I didn’t…”

“You made someone do it.”

Allison was wondering what she was going to do with the man when she heard the song.

It rose and ebbed in a tide of flame over her. Its notes and harmonies couldn’t be counted, reaching higher than the uppermost reaches of the night, where stars lived and died. It was the voice of comet and asteroid. It was the growth of flowers, the white-gold of dawn, and the foam-wrought sea all at once.

It was everything.

Allison started to babble words born under different constellations. She knew the webs of birth and death, the pathways between ancient suns, and the very language that wrote the universe. In that moment, she could’ve reconciled quantum physics, gravity, and magic in a single sentence.

It was too much. She couldn’t take it all in.

It did help fill in some gaps, though.

Allison could remember snippets of songs. David’s, Veltha’s, Snapdragon’s, even Windshear’s. Beautiful, but powerless. Incomplete.

But then, she’d already worked Alberto’s song into her pattern, hadn’t she?

Allison burst into flames. It was ecstasy.

Major Yellick thrashed and struggled, staring up at the ashen-skinned spirit.

She looked down at him with yellow, burning eyes. “You hurt my family.”

“…I’m sorry.”

Allison didn’t answer him. Not with words. A globule of magma bubbled into existence in her hand.

“Wait, please!”

The conjured liquid rock coiled and spiraled down through the air like a river of sunlight. Major Yellick’s flesh burned. His bones blackened. His blood turned to steam in his veins. His screams were lost in that boundless song.

Allison stepped back from the smouldering body. His song was gone now. Good. She looked up through the trees, towards the source of the new music. She’d always been able to hear songs. But now she could see them.

It was thousands upon thousands of layers of mystic violet and nearly white lavender, with countless stars pressed between them like specks of gold in stained glass. They came together like rose petals.

And at the centre of it all, the Flying Man hovered above the Institute.

“Allie?”

Arnold’s voice.

“What’s going on?”

Allison turned to look at her friend. The others were standing a little behind the boy, holding onto each other.

“What the hell is that?” Mabel said, pointing at what was left of Major Yellick.

“It’s nothing,” answered Allison, meaning it.

“Something wrong with Alberto,” Billy said. “He’s all… bleeding.”

“He’ll be alright.”  

Billy, Mabel, and David all disappeared in a blast of lightning. Allison’s new fire had been replaced by Arnold’s electricity.

“Allie! What are you doing?”

“I had to put them somewhere safe. The Flying Man’s here.”

“…The Flying Man?”

“We need to leave.”

“How?” Arnold’s voice was very small.

“Your power.”

“But one of us will get left behind!”

Arnold’s aura grew brighter in Allison. She held out her hand. “Not if we zap each other at the same time.”

Slowly, Arnold started glowing, too. He reached for Allison. “You sure this’ll work?”

“Promise.”

“The Dam?”

“Yeah. The Dam.”

The two children’s hands touched—  


Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-Four: These Are the Damned

The army convoy slowly crept down the moonlit Great Eastern Highway, as though wary of attracting the gaze of the stars above. An American-donated humvee led a coterie of armoured troop-carriers down the pitch black road: a bee marshalling a parade of wasps. In their wake, four trucks dragged spired chambers carved from what looked like rough volcanic rock. “Quiet Vans,” their inventor called them. The road was so narrow, the entire procession could only drive in single file.

Someone had wanted to bring a tank, but the powers that be decided that would fall in the odd overlap between far-too-much and not-nearly-enough.

Alberto was pretty sure it had been an American.

The psychic rode in one of the cramped transports, reeking of sweat and sandwiched shoulder-to-shoulder between two soldiers on a hard metal bench, their gun-barrels crossed in front of his chest. The cabin was filled with more shadow than light, yet glaringly bright to Alberto’s eyes. Swirls of hot yellow fear, nebulas of blue curiosity, even a shameful cloud of excitement. Alberto wasn’t surprised to find that some of the boys were looking forward to testing their mettle against real supers. At least some of them were rightly scared shitless. And then there were the smart ones. The ones who knew that—whatever happened at the New Human Institute—none of them would be getting into Heaven that night.

“Feels weird, fighting kids,” one of the soldiers mused. He was an American (a very southern American, by the sound of him) whose broad features stood out in the gloom like Mount Rushmore at night. DOPO had insisted on there being an American presence on the raid. They had lost people too, the US consulate insisted, and they would have their pound of flesh.

Alright, the last part was mostly inference on Alberto’s part. Even so, he supposed the DDHA was in no position to turn down the help. After the bombings, the Australian government mostly consisted of Timothy Valour and Harold Holt1. For now, they were about as independent as the average banana republic.

“You aren’t fighting kids yet,” Alberto reminded him. With surprising vehemence, he added, “And if you have any sense, better hope you keep not fighting them.”

One of the Australian soldiers replied, “Can you really even call them kids? When they’re that strong…”

“Even gods have childhoods, Private Warren.”

Every other head in the transport snapped to look at the one woman among them. Alberto had been issued an ADF uniform for the mission, but Strikepoint looked like she had wandered in from the movie playing in the next theatre. She wore a black domino mask, with a charcoal grey body-glove broken up by cobwebs of glow-paint lightning. Her chest bore a pair of scales weighing a white feather. A swan’s, she had mentioned to Alberto back in Exmouth. Her hands meanwhile had been left bare, by specific request, apparently.

Alberto was almost certain she had been sourced from the asylums. She had the same buzz cut Allison had when he first met her.

Damn it, why did he let himself think about Allison? About any of them?

“Know that for a fact, do you?” Private Warren asked, a forced smile to his voice.

Strikepoint simply answered, “I did.”

The cabin went quiet again.

Fuck, Alberto thought to himself. Since when did superheroes have such big egos?

But was it ego? Alberto’s powers offered no answers. Trying to read Strikepoint’s mind was like attempting to parse constellations at the centre of the galaxy. It was as if her whole body was made of latticed thought.

Is she some sort of projection?

“Hey, Psi-Man.”

Alberto winced as he turned towards the American. “Yes, Wilkins?”

“Psi-Man” was his code name for the operation. It was almost as bad as “Tiresias” but at least nobody expected him to use it on his own time. He’d put his foot down at the costume, though. The DDHA had wanted him to do this in a high-collared cape and the turban. Apparently, he and Strikepoint were meant to represent “a new, more socially responsible tradition of superheroism.”

Fucking jackals.

“Sergeant says you can see the future? That true?”

“Some of them.”

“…How many?”

Trillions. At least.”

Wilkins thought he was making the word up.

“He’s right,” Strikepoint interjected. “Some dooms are fixed, but the rest of it…” She waved her hand. Her fingernails cut faint trails in the black. “People—societies—they always want something outside themselves to blame.”

One of the Australians whispered, “Blimey.”

On that note, the carrier came to a halt. Alberto half-expected the darkness to slosh about like water inside an aquarium. Instead the doors opened, diluting the shadow.

Alberto stood up as straight as he could without scraping the roof. “Well, time to pick our doom.”

Soldiers bustled about the road, setting up road blockades or assembling before their commanding officers. Some, Alberto knew, were armed with Physician-made tranquillisers, along with high-impact and explosive rounds.    

Others just had plain old bullets.

It didn’t take long for the major to find the two superhumans. He was a short, stockily built older man, with brown hair graying at the temples like wood ash and a pencil mustache. Something about his air reminded Alberto of Arnold Barnes’ father. Only taller.

He shook Strikepoint’s hand. “Good to see you, Miss… Strikepoint. I’m Major Yellick. Valour’s put me in charge of this show.”

Strikepoint nodded. “He told me about you. Said you served together in the war.”

Major Yellick allowed himself a small smile. “Yes. If the camera had been aimed a little differently, I might be the one on all the comic covers.”

Alberto raised an eyebrow. “Think a lot of yourself, do we?”

Major Yellick almost slapped the weedy looking wog around the ear for insubordination, but then he spotted the red “SS” badge on his breast2. “You’re Psi-Man, I take it?” He did not offer Alberto his hand. Tim had been very clear on that.

“If you must.”

Tim had also told him to expect lip. If anything, he should be worried if none was forthcoming. He returned it in-kind. “Yes, Psi-Man. I must.”

“Can we just get this over with?”

“Glad to see we’re on the same page about this.” Yerrick’s gaze drifted downward. He cleared his throat. “Are the targets asleep?”

“They’re not targets,” said Strikepoint firmly. “Not like that. I’m just here for deterrence.”

“Ah, my apologies… but are they?”

Alberto closed his eyes, casting his third eye towards the Institute. Dozens of low, dreamy clusters of light, mostly concentrated in the dorms. A few bright stragglers and scattered sleepers, but Alberto had been expecting that.

“About as close to all of them as we can hope for.”

“…Priority Alpha?”

Alberto sighed. “Her too.”

“Right then.” Major Yerrick took his walkie-talkie off his belt. “Positions, everyone. Operation: Prometheus commences in minus ten minutes.”

The bulk of the seventy-five strong task force broke up into ten squads of five and crept like wolves into the trees bordering the west side of the highway. The remaining twenty-five men phalanxed around Strikepoint and Alberto, Major Yerrick taking spearpoint.

They marched to a dirt turnoff into the bush. It had no signpost—just as the property owner liked it. As the squad started down the path, under the shadow of bent, curious trees, Alberto started thinking one thought very hard:

DON’T PAY US ATTENTION! DON’T PAY US ATTENTION!

It was a simple enough trick. He used to pull it all the time playing hide and seek with Françoise.3

Fran.       

He’d never done it with so many hangers-on, though. The pressure in his ears felt like he was in a plane taking off from the bottom of the sea.

“You’re really making us invisible, esper?” Strikepoint asked.

Alberto screwed his eyes shut before blinking rapidly. “Not exactly. You ever notice the air in front of your face?”

“I might be the wrong person to answer that.”

“Then please stop talking.”

Strikepoint’s usual edifice of sage reserve cracked. “Oh sorry.”

Alberto put his fingers to his forehead. That usually told idiots he was doing psychic stuff—even when he wasn’t.

He’d never realised how long the path to the Institute was, or how fast you could reach the end by foot. He threw a hand up before the squad turned the last bend, along with a general vibe of “hold up.”

Yerrick glanced over his shoulder at Alberto. The psychic nodded back.

The major steeled himself. “Wilkins, you’re up.”

The soldiers parted to let the American make his way to the front.

He saluted the major. “Awaiting orders, sir!”

Yerrick regarded the private. He was so young. Couldn’t be more than twenty-two. He still had freckles. Who thought giving this job to someone with freckles was a good idea? Had he done well on an infiltration course4? He put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Private, you’re going to hear a voice in your head. That’s just Psi-Man, you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Make sure you follow his instructions exactly as he gives them.” Yerrick felt like he was handing over his kid to a babysitter. “If you argue or try to resist, you might break his concentration.”

And then the super-children murder us all.

Both men winced.

“What he said.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Remember, son, you’re not just doing this for your country, you’re doing it for mine, and every other country where human beings make their homes.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If you pull this off, you might be well be saving the lives of every child at this school.”

Wilkins didn’t know why the major was trying to hammer it in so hard. He was a soldier. This was his job. “Yes, sir!”

“Good luck, soldier.”

The private trode on ahead, turning the corner and emerging onto the New Human Institute, before hopping the fence and wading out into the night-covered grass. Looking around at the silhouetted buildings and other, less definable shapes in the distance, Wilkins’ mind rapidly flicked between his family’s farm back in New England, and the forgotten, degenerate towns that dotted Lovecraft’s vision of the East Coast.       

Priority Alpha is in the farmhouse, get a move on.

Private Wilkins obeyed, climbing the slope towards the looming manor.

Voices. Children.

The soldier swung around, the light on his rifle shining on a blonde teenage girl with a younger boy heading right for him.

“Shit. Shit. Shit.”

Stay still!   

Private Wilkins did just that, not that he had much of a choice in the matter. Fear nailed his feet to the earth.

“…So he said ‘Well, maybe when it comes Allie can be the midwife.’ He seriously thought I was going to let a nine year old be my midwife!”

“Idiot.”

The pair passed by Wilkins without comment. Once he was sure they were out of earshot, he whispered, “How…”

I made you less interesting than the dirt you’re standing on. Trust me, it wasn’t hard. Now get on with it!

Private Wilkins soon reached the farmhouse. The front door wasn’t locked. Why would it be?

Inside, the only sources of light were a few strategically placed candles. Wilkins didn’t need them. He found himself navigating the darkened, rambling house like it was his own. He even turned his scope-light off. Why make Psi-Man’s job harder for him? Directions came not as words, but pure impulse.

He climbed the stairs to the top floor, and opened the second door on the right:

She was asleep, thank God, lying under a thin white duvet.

Through Private Wilkins’ eyes, Alberto watched Françoise Barthe’s chest rise and fall.

He’d tried arguing for her, he really had.

“For God’s sake, Valour! She could win Vietnam for you!”

Timothy Valour had turned his back to Alberto while he stared out the window of his new office. “She’s also unstable and aggressive. There’s no way she’ll go along with the removal.”

“I could—”

“I know you could. Ethics aside, what happens if you let the reigns slip?”

“I wouldn’t—”

“We drown, that’s what happens.”

“…Can you blame her?”

“I offered her a sensible, humane alternative. I offered them all that. They didn’t listen.”

Private Wilkins lowered his rifle and raised his sidearm, cocking back the pistol’s hammer as he stalked closer to the Priority’s bedside.

It needs to be a headshot, right through the brain. If she even gets a second to use her powers, you will die. We will all die.

Wilkins aimed his gun just above the woman’s ear, the end almost getting tangled in the gold of her hair. His fingers wrapped around the trigger—  

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They’d told him this woman was a fearsome, mighty sea-witch, more a goddess than a super. But now she just looked like a woman…

She’s more dangerous than any hero or villain you’ve heard of. She could fight the Flying and win. Easily. You have to—

The woman stirred. Her blue, gleaming eyes locked with Wilkins’ own. “What—”   

Fuck!

Wilkins’ finger twitched. Alberto heard the bang.

The private watched as the body collapsed into water, soaking into the mattress and spilling down the sides. Soon, all that was left of Françoise Barthe was the blood on Wilkins’ face.

“Psi-Man,” he said aloud, like he was speaking to God. “She—are you seeing this?”

Yes, Wilkins.

“Is—is she dead?”

Alberto closed his eyes. Françoise’s lights were gone. “Yes Wilkins, you did it. You fucking did it.”

The psychic felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Strikepoint’s. “Moretti, are you alright?”

Alberto brushed it off. He could find no traction on the woman’s mind, but right now he couldn’t bring himself to care. “I just helped assassinate my oldest friend. No, I’m not.” He looked over at Major Yellick. “Tell the men to start the roundup. I don’t want to be anywhere near this shithole by sunup.”

The Watercolours were panicking. It was the only sensible thing to do.

“What the hell is going on?” Arnold cried. “Why’d Mavis… do that?”

Mabel got in Allison’s face and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Did you say there was shooting?”

“That’s what it sounded like!”

Billy was tearily repeating, “Not a good game—not a good game—not a good game…”   

In the middle of it all, David stamped his foot and shouted with as much of mother in his voice as he could muster, “Everyone shut up!

The others fell silent.

David raised a hand. His eyes were burning. “People are coming.”

In the distance, torchlights cut through the trees like phantom axes.

By the time the vanguard of the gamma squad reached the Watercolours, the four children were sitting around a renewed campfire, each with a hand of playing cards.

The squad-leader’s scope-light fell on David’s back while he shuffled the deck. The soldier called out to his comrades, “Y’all get your asses up here, I’ve found them!”

The Watercolours didn’t look up from their cards, listening impassively as the heavy-booted footsteps amassed around them.

“Alright kids, it’s over.”  

 “Go fish,” Billy said.

“We’re playing poker, Growly,” said Mabel.

“Oh.”

The squad-leader and his gathered troops exchanged confused glances. Did these kids even realize they were there? Did they care?

“…Look, we’re not here to hurt you!”

“We know,” said Arnold.

A storm of green lightning struck the meadow,  illuminating it like green sunrise, but one gone as fast as it started. Arnold’s empty pool came alive with shouting and wild, chittering gunfire.

Allison dropped down from the trees above the patch of grass where the soldiers had been standing, now luna-barren. She tried shouting over the bullets still screeching up from the crater, “What were they doing?”

Mabel put her hand to her ear, “What?”

“I said, ‘What were they doing?’ ”

“I can’t hear you!”

Allison pointed her fingers over her shoulders. A dozen or so trees behind the girl suddenly found themselves uprooted above the crater. The soldiers screamed as they rained down upon them. The gunfire stopped.

“They dead?” Allison asked flatly, already knowing the answer.

Billy carefully approached the groaning pit, poking his head over the rim just enough to be able to peer at the mess of broken trunks, branches, and khaki-clothed limbs. “Are you fellas okay down there?”

The human bush swore almost as one entity.

Billy frowned. “Don’t be rude! You pointed guns at us!”

One of the buried soldiers gasped out, “Fuck off, Paddington Bear.”

“That doesn’t even make sense!”

Mabel joined Billy at the edge, along with the red-suited spacewoman. The astronaut pointed her raygun down at the soldiers. “Please tell the children why you’re here, fellow travellers.”

“We’re getting you freaks back. For what you did to Canberra!”

Arnold looked at David. “Wait, are they talking about you and Allie’s show?”

The water-sprite shrugged. “I thought we were pretty—”

A wave of perfect, unnatural silence washed over the clearing, drowning David’s words the moment they passed his lips.

Arnold tried to ask what was going on, but it was like he was trapped in a muted TV set. He couldn’t even hear his own thoughts. For a brief, horrible moment, Allison couldn’t hear any songs.

A second later, sound rushed back into the world.

“What was that?” asked Mabel.

Something fast and bright flitted past the girl.

“Or that!”

“I don’t know,” answered Allison. She tilted her ear, trying to regain her hold on the Institute’s musical landscape. “Something’s—”

She took off running, back towards the Institute.

Arnold tried to run after her. “Allie! Wait up!”

The boy couldn’t hope to keep up with his friend’s inhuman speed and grace. Not after what she had heard.

“Allie!”

It could be debated whether soldiers are very bad or in fact rather good at getting children out of bed. Alberto and Major Yellick’s men scoured the dormitories, their screamed orders jarring the students out of their dreams, while rough hands and rifle-butts forced them drowsy and bewildered out into the night.

The soldiers started to shepherd the crying, confused children towards the Institute’s wood and wire gate. Lana was being frog-marched by a pair of Americans in some twisted gesture of chivalry when she caught sight of Alberto:

“Bertie! What the hell are you doing here?” She squinted at his uniform. “When’d you join the army?”

Alberto shouted back, “Just keep doing what they tell you. It’ll be alright as long as you don’t fight!”

Louise and Tom each had an arm around Bella, trying to support the sobbing younger girl and keep up with the other children, ahead of the soldiers’ gunpoints.

“Why are they doing this to us?” Louse whispered.

“It doesn’t matter,” Tom answered. “They don’t need a reason.”

Louise hoped Bella didn’t hear him.

Strikepoint watched it all from the farmhouse verandah, her hand scorching the balustrade where she grasped it. Her thoughts were of a night thousands of sunrises gone—of children being led from a burning city towards the living death of slavery and worse.

It has to be better than that. Valour swore to me.

The newly minted superheroine searched the faces of the children below. Was Allison Kinsey among them? She wondered if Dr. Carter would think well of her “help.”

Something caught her eye. A gaggle of soldiers shouting at a pearly, iridescent dome and hammering their rifles against it.

This looked like a job for Strikepoint.

One of the soldiers, an Australian with an unfortunately patchy beard, bellowed, “You’re only making things worse yourselves!” He nodded at one of his fellows. “Do it.”

The other army man turned his gun the right way around and fired at the dome. It expanded explosively, knocking the troops closest to the ground and throwing up a crest of sod.

“What’s going on here?”

The soldiers all scrambled to attention (and their feet) seemingly racing to see who could salute Strikepoint first. She folded her arms and tried to smile wryly. “You do realize I’m not your CO, right boys?”

The badly shaved Aussie’s shoulders dropped slightly. “Yeah, but you know… superhero.”

It was funny, the instinctive respect a dollop of spirit-gum and a strip of fabric across the bridge of her nose could afford. It reminded Strikepoint of the masks the priests once wore. “Suit yourselves.” She pointed past the men at the bubble. “Still looks like you could use some help.”

The lead soldier’s face hardened. “There’s a couple demis hiding under there. They’re refusing to drop… whatever that thing is.”

So they got to be demis, while she was a superhero. Odd. “Of course they aren’t, you’re waving guns at them. Move aside.”

They obeyed. Wise. Strikepoint knelt in front of the shining bubble. She could see the shadows of two children huddling at the centre of it. It had been nearly two hundred years since she’d mothered any child, but she tried her best to remember. “Listen, I don’t blame you for doing this. I know we’re being scary, and you don’t deserve this.”

One of the soldiers tried to object, but Strikepoint threw her hand up, sunlight blazing beneath her palm. He shut up.

“Things will get better. I promise.”       

The dome dessicated and faded away, revealing a grimy little girl and a boy with sand-blond hair. Strikepoint wanted to ask which of them created the force-field. She didn’t.

The girl said, “You really promise?”

Strikepoint smiled gently. “On the River Styx.” She took the pair by the hands, helping them up from the ground. She was doubly glad she’d turned down gloves. “That’s deadly serious.”

They started walking towards what Strikepoint couldn’t help but think as the chokepoint.

“Are you a superhero?” asked the boy.

“Yes.”

Strikepoint felt the children’s hands relax slightly in hers.

It was a strange mask she wore.

Alberto was leaning against the fence when the soldiers dragged over what was left of the NHI’s staff like a cut-rate Roman triumph.

“We found them in the cottages.”

Bryant Cormey struggled against a pair of handcuffs. He spat at Alberto, “Traitor!”

Alberto ignored the teacher. He was going straight for Vercingetorix. He pushed aside past the soldiers that were flanking the headmaster and grabbed Lawrence by the front of his mouldering suit-jacket. “I fucking knew it.”

Lawrence’s voice was low, almost a whimper. “I tried, Tiresias.”

Mary was weeping into her nightgown. The soldiers at her side looked like they wanted to offer her a handkerchief. “Why are you doing this, Alberto?”

Alberto shared a look with the old woman, regret passing briefly over his features. “I’m sorry, Mrs G.” He glared back at Lawrence. “You’ll have to ask him.” Alberto turned around and walked away from the teachers, telling the soldiers, “Put them with the kids. I’m sure Tim will figure out what to do with them. Once he’s done buying me a fucking drink.”

The teachers were taken to the gate, where their students stood huddled before Major Yerrick and his praetorians, guns aimed at them from all sides.

Strikepoint fed the former Abalone and Veltha into the crowd, trying to reassure the pair as she left them to join the major.

“Please don’t drag this out,” she warned Yellick.

Alberto was with them soon enough.

Yellick asked, “Is this everyone?”

Alberto closed his eyes, opening them again almost immediately. Close enough. “Yep.”

Yellick turned to the children and started speaking: his steady, well-calloused voice clear over their tears or questions. “You are all charged with defying official DDHA orders, as well as attempting to intimidate agents. Furthermore, you are also charged orchestrating terror attacks in Perth, the ACT, and Washington D.C, resulting in at least five hundred deaths, including many members of Federal Parliament.”

The students’ confusion reached new heights.

“What the hell are you on about?” shouted Linus.

Already in his mechanical form, Troy buzzed, “They’re trying to stitch us up!”

Mary Gillespie was clutched Lawrence’s arm. “Laurie, why are they saying these things?”

She saw the vacant, staring look on the old man’s face.

“Laurie… what did you do?”

Yellick continued, ignoring all protests. “The Commonwealth of Australia is willing to show you children clemency. Through service, you may repay your country.”

Bryant Cormey started laughing, high and horse. “You see what you’ve done? You fucking kids took something glorious and turned it into shite! Threw away a future for a few weeks of frolicking!”

“Someone’s picked up the boss-man’s vocab,” Alberto muttered.

Mary begged the other teacher. “Please, Bryant.  Don’t make it worse for them.”

Cormey kept on raving. “They deserve it!” He gestured around at the children. “Look at them! Gods cowering at Neanderthals with metal sticks!”

“Cormey,” Lawrence sighed. “It’s over. Let’s try and go with some dignity.”

“And whose fault is that?”

“Be quiet, sir,” ordered Strikepoint, trying not to look at a white-haired boy crying into his hands at the edge of the crowd. “You’re frightening the children.”

A choked, manic giggle. “And who are you? The freak-finders’ pet demi?” He pantomimed peering at Strikepoint. “Are you even a super? Or did they just dress up some whore and hoped we bought it?”

“You don’t know what I am.”  

“Well then.”

There was no real reason for Strikepoint to have done anything when Bryant Cormey ran at her, screaming at the top of his tired lungs. He was a handcuffed, half-mad cultist whose world was falling apart. She, by definition, could not die.

But she was so angry.

Lightning lashed from Strikepoint’s eyes, striking Cormey right in his heart. He fell face forward in the dirt, the stench of burnt hair and flesh rising from his body.

She hadn’t meant to kill the poor fool.

Screaming. So much screaming. Children caught between their fear of what just happened and the guns still trained on them.

The wind screamed too, trying to match its mistress. Bella was on the ground, her hands over her head. Her unnatural, private hurricane tore blindly at soldier, student, and staff alike. Strikepoint tried to soothe the air, but the girl had a deathgrip on it.

“Is this one of you?” Yellick yelled over the roar. “Stop it immediately!”

Mary fought the wind, painfully forcing her way over to Bella and pulling her into an embrace.

“Please, she’s just scared!”

She shouldn’t have given Yellick something to aim at.

Mrs Gillespie collapsed, Bella Wilson still in her arms. Their blood mixed in the grass.

The children’s shouting and screams died. Louise stared at her teacher and her friend. “…Bella?”

Tom looked right at Major Yellick. His voice shook. “You—you fucks.”

Strikepoint had her hand over her mouth. “No…”

Alberto shook his head at the major. “They were an old lady and a fucking kid.”

“I—”  

Mary!” Lawrence ran to Mrs Gillespie’s side, falling to his knees and draping himself over her body, weeping. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”    

Mavis eyes raked over the soldiers, her whole body shaking. When she finally her voice was wrong—like she was trying to build words out of the drone of locusts and hornets:

You bastards! You murdering fucking bastard—  

The sound tightened and bended through the air, lancing through the inner ears of half a dozen soldiers. Their eyes exploded from their heads in great bursts of blood.

Someone got off a lucky shot, but the spell was broken. The children fought back.

Tom’s ghost charged at a soldier. He passed through the man, taking most of his insides with him. The soldier’s mates fell upon and tried firing at the boy, but it was like trying to slay mist. Their bullets whizzed through him right into each other.

Tom glared contemptuously at the men bleeding their last around him, tears running down his face like rain on glass. White fuckers and their guns.

All around, troops were being sucked under the earth, down into new, unmarked graves. Dolls and toys clawed their way out of the Institute’s soil, clambering up legs to gouge out eyes and force their way down throats. Force fields opened over soldiers and snapped shut, leaving only piles of torn fabric and gristle. Others were smashed by invisible hammers, their legs snapping beneath them as their brains were driven into their ribcage.   

Not all the children fought. Sheilah and Bran were running towards one of her tears, hoping  to find refuge in the darkness, the former pulling her little sister behind them.

“I’m scared!” Dawn cried, light spilling wildly from her body.

Sheilah breathlessly tried reassuring her. “We’ll be alright, Dawnie! We just need to—”

The three passed into the dark. A bullet followed.

Louise was facing down five men alone. They kept pouring ammo into her, bullets falling undeformed at her feet as she walked steadily towards them. Every round made her glow brighter, till her skin was a white corona. All that kinetic energy had to go somewhere…

She clapped. The shockwave stripped muscle from bone.

It wasn’t completely one-sided. A clutch of burning soldiers managed to land a wild shot at Brian Peters’ head as they danced from his fire.

Brian Peters died. His flames did not.

Troy’s approach was simple. He grabbed a soldier, and pounded their face with his bronze, hydraulic powered fists till they no longer had a head.

Problem was, that left him exposed.

An explosive round went off in the boy’s side. Hundreds of error messages flashed across his mind in a single second. The missing chunk of himself shifted frantically between exposed, blasted metal struts and bloodied ribs, before settling on the machine. The light in his glass eyes went out.

Strikepoint kept throwing herself between the students and the soldiers, letting bullets and God knew what else draw gold ichor from her. She didn’t know what to do. Men were dying. Men were dying trying to murder children.  

“Please, we can stop this! We can all stop!”

Alberto was white as death. Lights he knew as well as the stars were going out all around. The ones that kept shining were doing things even he couldn’t have imagined. Couldn’t have considered. The whole Institute was flooded with light as black as smoke.

The psychic grabbed onto Major Yellick’s arm, turning the man around to face him. “Call them off!”

The major was staring at the carnage, forgotten by soldier and child alike. Slowly, he answered, “I don’t think I can.”  

Alberto shook the man. “Do something—” He shuddered. Robert Carrol just got a rifle butt to the head. He could feel the blood clotting in the boy’s brain. Staggering backwards, he stammered, “I can’t be here. I have to get away…”

Alberto ran for the trees. A familiar, reliable thought returned to Major Yellick’s awe-drunk mind:

Deserter.

He ran after the telepath. “Get back here, Moretti! Get back here!”  

Linus wandered numbly through the pockets of violence. His surviving foster-sister was launching white phosphorus at soldiers as they tried to mow down Jeremy, who was busy using his force-bubbles like a millstone on some of their comrades.

So many of his brothers had been heroes. Warriors. But Lucius Owens was not bred for battle. He could stop it, though. He didn’t have his guitar, but still had his voice.    

Linus breathed in, feeling the notes assemble themselves before him—

He felt the air cleave next to him

It almost felt like he’d been punched in the ribs. Linus’ hand went to his side. It came up bloody. As he fell backwards, an anti-note escaped him. It grew, gorging itself on the screams and the gunfire, leaving only scraps of silence in its wake.

All fighting came to a halt.

There was a man.

No, not a man. Not quite. His hair was like flame, his skin gold, clothed in a cloak woven from a thousand dawns. He was taller than any human man, and seemed somehow more real than everyone and everything around him: a three-dimensional object descended into a two-dimensional space.    

Everyone who could still stand was gripped by an urge to kneel before the newcomer. All except for Strikepoint.

He was family, after all.  

“Lucius!”

Apollo, lord of song ran to Linus’ side. He fell to his knees when he saw the blood seeping from Linus’ side, despair breaking across his perfect features. “My son,” he moaned, holding the boy’s head to his chest, “my son, what have they done to you?

Linus’ breath rattled. “Hey, Dad.”

Lawrence finally looked up from Mary and Bella. “My God,” he said, staring at the god. “You are real.”

The god ignored the old man. There was nothing else in creation but his son. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I left you…”

“Don’t—it’s fine, Dad. It’ll all be fine…”

Linus trailed off. He never came back.

Apollo wailed. His grief was like the sun setting at the end of the world.

Strikepoint approached the mournful deity. “Brother, I know how this feels—”

Apollo leapt to his feet, spinning around to face Strikepoint. With a sunburst, he conjured a bow and aimed it at the superheroine’s heart. “No,” he said. “You don’t.”

One of the surviving soldiers fired at the pair. The bullet dropped a few inches from Apollo, the grass beneath catching fire as it melted into a glowing red puddle.

“Shit—”

The soldier’s expletive was choked by a cough. His skin bubbled like boiling lava with sores and pustules. He died choking on his own blood and screams.

Apollo didn’t even look back at the man. Tonelessly, he said “Take off the mask.”

“Apollo—”

“Now.”

Strikepoint removed and threw aside her domino mask, staring at Apollo with her almost-black eyes.

“Why did you come here?”

“I wanted to help—”

Apollo roared, grabbing Helen by the neck and lifting her off the ground. His bright eyes had become solar eclipses, rimmed by white light. “You led these fools here! Made them brave!”         

The goddess did not struggle. Instead, she wheezed out, “Athena…

Above the Institute, a mountain of cloud swelled and thundered. Lightning lit its dark face, briefly revealing the towering, regal silhouette of an armour-clad, spear-toting woman.

Pallas Athena, king of all the gods.

Her voice showered over the Institute like iron rain:

Apollo, do put down our sister.

The god tossed Helen to the dirt. The goddess gasped, savouring the taste of air again. Deep gold bruises were forming around her collarbone.

Helen of Sparta, why have you drawn my eye?

“My son died trying to put a stop to the fight she started! And now she tries to hide behind you!”

The thunder stirred again. “I was not asking you, Apollo. You will get your chance to speak.”

Helen managed to get back on her feet, looking up at the sky. “My king, I beg your aid.”

A sigh rippled through the grass. “Sister, what have you done now?”      

Shame like acid coursed through Helen. Was that her role in the world? Inflicting her mistakes on anyone who crossed her path? “The children need us.”

Apollo sneered at a pile of minced soldier. “I think they can look after themselves.”

“Please, brother—”

“Don’t call me that.”

Helen didn’t stop speaking. “The people who rule this country, they’ll never let the children live. Not after this. They’ll hound the children to the ends of the Earth.”

Apollo glanced around at the cowed students, his inner glow throwing veils of shadows across their faces. “These children’s brutality was half of what killed my Lucius. I don’t care what becomes of them.”

“I think your son would.”

Apollo turned to find Lana sitting beside Linus’ body. She was stroking his face, trying to comfort a boy who wasn’t there anymore.

Slowly, the god knelt down beside the girl. He studied the young woman’s face. “…You loved him, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. We all did. He was my brother.”

For a moment, god and mortal spoke in the perfect language of silence.

Apollo noticed the young woman’s bump. “Was he—”

Lana shook her head. “No. Not this time. His son’s out there, though. I think he’s safe, but I don’t…” She went silent for a moment. “I hope I can see him again.”

Apollo nodded. “What else would a mother wish for?”

Helen found the dirty little girl and the sand-haired boy again in the crowd. The presence of gods and a talking cloud in their midst didn’t appear to interest them. They were looking at each other—and themselves—like they were strangers. Their faces and hands were stained with blood.

Time to be a superhero.        

“Your son would rest easier knowing his family was safe, I should think.”

Apollo sighed. “He would.”

The anger had drained from his lyre of a voice. It was resigned; tired and empty.

The human mien fell away. The sun burned high in the night sky, banishing the stars behind its glare.

Three years durance, Helen. Our years.5”  

Helen nodded. “I understand.”

Athena, take them away.

It will be done.

Tom finally worked up the nerve to speak. “Excuse me…. Ma’am? Couldn’t you just bring everyone back? Linus?” He took a deep breath. “…Bella?”

Lightning flickered within the cloud. The goddess’ shadow seemed somehow pensive.

Tom didn’t know thunder could sound gentle:

I’m sorry child, but some things are beyond even our powers.

Tom wondered what the point of them was then.

The cloud twirled long and thin, swirling around the misplaced sun like the rings of Saturn.  

Fine, gleaming chains of adamantine sprouted around Helen’s wrists.

The sun and its ring descended towards the goddess, growing ever brighter. “When your durance is up, you will return to this place. You’ll meet two heroes, and join their cause till its end.

“How will I know them?”

One will be my son’s kin, the other… not.

“Not?”

You’ll know him when you see him.

Lawrence started shouting, “Wait! Please, I’m sorry—”  

He was dignified no answer.

The sun engulfed Helen. The light was blinding.

The children were gone. All that remained were the soldiers, Lawrence, and their shared victims.     


1. He was out swimming when the bombs went off.

2. Alberto sometimes wondered if the bloke who came up with the “sanctioned super” badges realized what he’d done or not. He wasn’t sure which would be worse. Or funnier.

3. It was really the only way he stood a chance.

4. In fact, Private Jerry Wilkins had scored high on three DOPO psychic sensitivity tests.

5. Due to their somewhat broader view on time, the Olympians traditionally measure nine of our years as one.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-Three: The Shoal

Until he woke up that morning, Alberto Moretti had thought throwing his lot in with the government was the best decision he’d ever made. His workload as one of the Commonwealth’s rarer monsters made George Jetson1 look like a coal canary. In exchange for glancing at the brains of suspected communist moles2 and oracling the movements of the Viet Cong and the Flying Man, Alberto got to enjoy a kingly expense account, an executive suite at the Hotel Canberra, and access to ministerial-grade escorts. The only real downside was that he had to live in Canberra, but Alberto could see ways out. As long as it wasn’t the Institute.

Then one morning his hangover was interrupted by the world screaming. The world shook. Hundreds of lights fluttering on the edge of Alberto’s vision were snuffed out all at once.    

The hotel had been bombed. Parliament House had been bombed. The Prime Minister’s house had been bombed. Robert Menzies was dead. His bloody wife was dead. And so, so many others.

Alberto knew the culprit as soon as Timothy Valour briefed him.

“Canberra isn’t the only place that got hit.” Valour thumbed vainly at his lighter’s spark-wheel, a cigarette hanging limp and unlit from between his lips. His fingers felt numb and clumsy. Like they weren’t his own. “The Americans say the Pentagon and DOPO headquarters both had bombs go off the same minute as us3. It can’t be a coincidence.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Alberto replied. “Anywhere else?”

“One of our regional offices got wiped out.”

Alberto still found thinking of himself as part of the DDHA odd. It was like taking up Devil worship after years of Sunday school. Immensely satisfying, even thrilling4 on many levels, strange and chancy on others. “…That office wouldn’t happen to be Perth, would it?”

Timothy looked away from the esper. It was only a slight turn of his head. The old airman probably didn’t realize he was doing it. “Yes.”

“Tim—”

Valour cut Alberto off before he could put voice to what they both were thinking. “Let’s not go jumping to conclusions, Moretti. We still don’t know who did this.”

That was what Alberto was supposed to find out. The psychic looked out the tinted, bulletproofed backseat window of the DDHA sedan he was riding in, his head lolling against the cheap imitation leather of his headrest.

The Flying Man may have doused the fires and pulled the survivors out of the fresh ruins, but  Canberra’s wounds were still raw and bleeding, pouring white smoke high into the sky. A full six of the nine confirmed or suspected bombs had gone off in that drearily singular planned city. Hundreds had died in the explosions themselves, with the hospitals added more names to the casualty list seemingly every minute.  And thanks to Walter Burley Griffith’s love of open vistas, you could see the results from nearly any in the city. It was like the Germans had hit King’s Park. 

Alberto screwed his eyes shut. His head was throbbing. The Canberran aether burned cold with fear and knotted panic, slicked through with sickly violet paranoia. Bovegno under the blackshirts had been like this. But at least people there had learned to compartmentalize the dread. Wading through it all was like trying to navigate an arctic sea littered with depth charges. He was suddenly very grateful he had been in the countryside during the Cuban Crisis.        

How did I miss this? Alberto kept asking himself through the migraine. For God’s sake, a bomb had gone off in his hotel! He’d glimpsed plenty of outlandish, far-out futures in the storm of possibility since moving to Canberra. Spontaneous Russian rearmament, alien invasion5, even Menagerie marching on the city with a herd of war-elephants, but not that. It was an intruder in the timeline. An ace of spades slipped into the tarot deck.  

The car eventually came to a halt. The chauffeur (a Physician drone by the looks of him, cheap bastards) scurried to open the passenger door, and Alberto stepped out in front of Parliament House.  

What was left of it.

From the terrace, the place almost looked unscathed. Then you noticed the broken windows and the charring beyond the missing front-doors, or the inescapable stench of ash and carbonized flesh. If you were to approach Parliament House from the air—as the Flying Man no doubt had—you’d see the smoking crater where the Senate and the House of Representatives used to be6. The building’s heart had been burned out. The whole complex had been cordoned off with yards of blue and white police-tape. Alberto thought it was a laughable fig-leaf. How could any of this possibly be contained?

Soldiers and coppers were milling uselessly about the grounds. Alberto could sense many of them congregating inside Allison’s living tree fort down by the lake, brandishing their respective jurisdiction’s phallic symbols at each other to try and forget their own powerlessness. Maybe that would be the new Provisional Parliament House.

All Alberto knew was that he wanted to get away from this place as soon as possible. He laid down on the sedan’s bonnet.

“Are you unwell, Mr. Moretti?” the chauffeur-minion asked flatly.

Alberto closed his eyes. It was time to be Tiresias again. “No, Mr. Whoo. I’m remembering.”

The psychic got up out of his body. Astral projection, Alberto thought was the term. The main difference he felt was that his naked mind or soul or what have you didn’t suffer nicotine cravings.

His shade climbed the ashen steps of 18 King George Terrace, up into its past. The sun flickered east, night’s shadow flowing over Alberto twice in as many moments. For a few fleeting seconds, the Flying Man hovered above the scene, his expression grave, but curious. Alberto almost thought he was looking down at him.

As if in anger, Parliament House screamed with flames. That seemed to scare the Flying Man off.

Alberto slowed his pace. Not his walking pace—or whatever one did when you’d already left your feet behind—but his pace through time. The world slowed with him.

He watched as the fire coalesced into a terrible, bulging wall of light. It began to retreat, the air in front of Alberto cooling like the tide pulling back from the sea. Specks of glass hail flew from the ground and unlucky passersby into vacant, staring window frames, fusing back together into unbroken panes.

As the explosion shrunk deeper into the building, Alberto’s spirit crept in after it—a ghost stalking the sun. The destruction led the esper up the front staircase into King’s Hall, the antechamber between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Alberto remembered it from the tour they went on back during the August trip. No snow now, only ash. He saw errant kings and prime ministers return to their portraits as the light washed over them, while scorched paint became white again. Blasted chairs and tables reassembled themselves as if Mary Poppins was starring in Bridge on the River Kwai.

Often, the light gave back people. Politicians and their harried staff. Wives and their bored children. Alberto could almost see their final thoughts. It felt like being tickled in the dark on a ghost-train.

At one point, the explosion pulled back to reveal a woman. A pretty young thing. Blonde. Some senator’s secretary, Alberto guessed. He watched as the fire gave her back her flesh, like God building an angel in real time. She looked bored. Alberto had to imagine she didn’t feel a thing.

The explosion began to collapse on itself, revealing parquetry floors of silver ash wood and jarrah as it recoiled from Alberto like a frightened beast. It spat out King George Ⅴ, stately in his bronze clothes and skin. A human king, whose power rested in the faith of other human beings. Alberto wondered how many of those were still to come

Soon the blast was small enough for a child to pick up and hold, cowering under a coffee table by a corner column. It retreated back into its egg and…

A green flash.

Alberto opened his eyes. Some iron-haired, corporeal looking bastard was looking down at him.

“Agent Moretti, is something the—”

Alberto grabbed hold of the soldier, pulled himself upright by his lapels, and hissed, “Get Timothy Valour on the phone and tell him Herbert Lawrence is a cunt.”

Allison Kinsey stood in front of the barn’s east wall against the setting afternoon sun, admiring what she had wrought. Her skin was mottled blue and green, her hair matted with half-dried paint.

Most importantly, she was very, very satisfied.

It started about a week earlier. Somehow, against all reason, Allison had found herself getting bored. Bored running around being all barbarian with David and whoever fell into their orbit. She didn’t understand how, but she knew it must be fought. It also occurred to Allison that non-Watercolours kept trespassing inside their barn. This too could not go unopposed.

David had seemed strangely unconcerned. “It’s not like there’s a big sign saying we own it.”

He was right, though. There was no sign. Allison decided to rectify that.

Painting a little over seven by thirty feet of wall by herself was easier than one might have guessed. Allison saved herself a lot of ladder hauling by borrowing Robert’s (formerly Gwydion’s) translucent platforms. The Barthe dress code meant paint-stains were a non-issue, and their hydrokinesis made for an excellent long range brush. Plus, thanks to Eliza, she only really needed about an hour of sleep a night.       

A shoal of mer-children7 swirled and sported together in a loose ring under the wave-broken light of a full moon, just below the skin of the sea. Their scales glinted cerulean, electric green, and flame-red against the pearly glow. One chestnut-haired young mermaid8 floated in the middle of the halo, arms outstretched for her companions, light filtering through the delicate webs between her fingers. If you asked the artist, they were playing tag.   

Allison cleared her throat, taking in Mavis’ breathy song:

Watercolours, assemble!

Thirty seconds of foot-tapping.

I said ‘assemble!’

Arnold’s voice shouted distantly. “Alright, we’re coming! Jeez.”

Unsurprisingly, David arrived well before the teleporter, condensing from the humidity along with his mother.    

“Ooh rah,” Françoise exclaimed as she looked the mural up and down. “Very nice, mon chéri.”

Floating as a boy-shaped cloud, David swirled around the painted merfolk, ice crystals ringing, “How’d you make the scales so shiny?”

Allison shrugged modestly. “Wasn’t that hard.”

Arnold finally caught up, Billy in tow. Once the former boy was done panting, he looked up at the merfolk. He nodded as cooly as he could. “Neat,” he remarked casually, only to blush when he got a good look at one of the sea-children. Allison had managed to translate his lightning into scale. “Really neat.”

Billy’s enthusiasm was far louder. He pointed a clawed finger toward the topmost mer-child. “That one has tiger-stripes!”

Allison smiled. “You noticed! I thought about giving him fur, but it looks weird underwater.”

“There’s seals,” Billy pointed out.

“True.”

“How do you know that one’s a boy?” Arnold asked.

Allison frowned. “Because I painted him.”

Roland Barthes1 wouldn’t put out “The Death of the Author” for another two years, so Arnold’s only response was, “You can’t see their bits.”

Fran scowled playfully, “Don’t be rude, Arnold.”

“You’re naked.”

“That’s incidental and you know it, young man.”

Allison wrinkled her nose. She was the artist, Arnold was just the consumer. She outranked him.

Suddenly, the moonlight in the painting warbled, making shadows dance on the young merfolk’s skin as they fled from the child they’d been circling. The one with the tiger-striped tail broke away from the chase, swimming down in front of Billy. His hair was a blonde mop, tinted green by the water, framing mud-brown eyes. He beamed a sharp, toothy grin, which Billy gleefully returned10.

Allison grinned too, folding her arms and glancing smugly at Arnold. “That look like a boy?”

Arnold sniffed. “Girls can have short hair too, sexist.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s lovely,” Françoise said. She kissed Allison on the temple. “You know, Allie, there’s plenty of big, blank walls around here that could do with sprucing up…”

Allison wiggled at the compliment even as she briefly thought about objecting. It was all other people’s skill, same as always. Maestros and amateur housewives alike had all left their mark on the girl. But even if all those artists had gotten together and painted the barn themselves, they wouldn’t have made this. They wouldn’t have seen the moon from the bottom of the river like she had, or have played chasey underwater. They probably didn’t even appreciate mermaids the way Allison did11.

It was hers. No one else’s.

Seeing her creation in motion reminded Allison of something. “What’s taking Mabel so long?”

Everyone looked at Allison like Mabel was long dead.

“I think Mabel’s still having quiet time,” said Françoise.

“Still? It’s been ages!”

“Allison, what Mabel admitted at the bonfire… it was very hard for her.”

“So? How is sulking in the bush going to help with that?” Allison turned and started trotting towards the Institute’s treeline. “I’m gonna find her. We can make the merlings fight. That’ll cheer her up.”

David’s eyes shot between his friend and his mother, before seemingly asking both, “That a good idea?”

Fran shrugged. “I don’t think having friends around would hurt.”

“Course it won’t!” replied Allison. She grabbed David’s hand and started pulling him along. “Cheering up is what friends are for!”

Powerless before her might, the other children followed Allison.

Françoise watched them go. Mabel would be fine. Allie would be fine. David was more than fine.

Maybe she’d take him to see Ralph sometime.

Or his grandfather.

As the Watercolours made their way to Mabel’s hideaway—Allison following the echo of her song—the topic of conversation turned to the most recent news at the Institute:

“…Easter eggs! It’s not even Christmas yet!”

“Do we do Christmas here?” asked Billy.

Allison answered, “Nope. Mavis says they haven’t for like, ten years. Maybe this year, though.”

“Seriously, why would Laurie want to send people Easter eggs?”

Billy’s tail lashed the air thoughtfully. “Were they chocolate?”

“I don’t think so… they were more orna…ornomatic?”

“Ornamental,” Allison corrected her friend.

“Yeah, that!”

“Maybe they were bribes? He is in big trouble.” Allison said it like Lawrence had been caught nicking baking chocolate from the pantry.

“I’d have used chocolate ones for that,” opined Billy.

Arnold kicked up some grass. “I still don’t know why Mary’s letting him stay. What’s the use of kicking someone out if you’re just going to let them sleep on your floor in a week?”

Allison quirked her shoulders. “I don’t care. Laurie can’t do anything to us, and they’re gonna come drag him to jail soon anyway. It’s like having a pet.”

“A very beardy pet,” Billy added.

The Watercolours’ discussion on the merits of a pet Oxfordian was cut short when Bryant Cormey staggered into their path. He was clad in grass-stained flannel pyjamas, while his unkempt beard looked like it was trying to evolve into his employer’s. The teacher was brandishing one of the beers the Northamites had donated12.

“Well look who it is,” Cormey jeered, “It’s Mealy and the Watered-Downs.”

David rolled his eyes. “Really, Bryant? You’re stealing jokes from little kids now? I think Ophelia used to call us that.”

“You looking for your girlfriend?” Arnold asked with a sneer. “I think he’s still crying in Therese’s cottage!”

Allison snorted. “You scared her away, didn’t you, Cormey? Made her put on a fake-beard when you kissed?

Without thinking, Bryant threw his beer bottle at Allison.

She let the glass shatter against her suddenly bronze skin, puffing out her chest like Superman taking a few bullets from Metropolis’s dumbest crooks. “Nice try,” she buzzed robotically.

Billy fumed. “Teachers aren’t supposed to throw things!”

“Oh, fuck off, you bloody mutant pity-case.”

Billy clenched his fists, breathing slowly and deeply.

“Aww, Bill,” said Arnold, “don’t go listening to—”

Billy vanished. A trail of grass started flattening from where he stood.

“…Bugger.”

Cormey smirked. “Not so tough? Just you wait, Lawrence is going to whip this place back into—”

Billy appeared behind the man and roared, sending the teacher flying over his friends’ heads. By the time Bryant had somewhat regained his bearings, the Watercolours were giggling off in the distance.

Arnold clapped Billy on the back as they ran. “Nice one, Growly.”

It wasn’t long before they reached the bush, long grass giving way to an autumn and winter’s worth of fallen leaves that crunched beneath their feet. Arnold occasionally blasted away a bramble or small tree from their path.

Then they ran into the witch. At least the Watercolours assumed she was meant to be a witch. The withered crone was decked out in a tattered robe the exact shade of dark green as a heavy duty rubbish bin.

She was clearly one of Mabel’s puppets. The shadow under her hood was too perfect. Allison seriously doubted she had anything besides a mouth and a nose under there.

“Who goes there?” the witch intoned in a voice like wind funneled through sandpaper.

“We’re here to see Mabel!” Billy replied cheerfully.

“You seek the Creator?” asked the hag. “Then you must answer these three—”

Allison huffed loudly, blowing a lock of hair from in front of her face. “Don’t be dumb, Mabs. We just want to see you.”

The witch made a sweeping gesture. “But first—”

Mabel.”  

Her arm dropped to her side like an actress who just noticed the looks on their audience’s faces. “Fine,” she said in a young girl’s voice, before turning around and starting to walk off. “Follow the crone,” she commanded, still with Mabel’s voice.

The crone led the children to a familiar clearing: the one where Arnold had teleported the earth from under the lads from Northam’s feet. The water that had filled the resulting pit during the rainy season had almost completely dried away, save a forlorn puddle waiting to be drank by the tree roots snaking through the crater-walls. Scattered about the place were the sleeping ashes of a campfire, an icebox, and a pile of books and drawing supplies resting on a picnic blanket.   

It was by this dismal view Mabel had hung her hammock. She was nestled with an open copy of Walkabout, the lady astronaut occasionally nudging the hammock in absence of any breeze. “Five years in the academy and this is what you make me do…”

Mabel ignored the space-adventurer, instead listlessly greeting her friends. “Hi guys.”

Billy gazed around the clearing like he had stepped into the Taj Mahal. “Wow, great camp you got here Mabs!”

Mabel supposed this did count as camping. “Thanks.”

“Allie finished her painting,” Arnold said.

Mural.”

“Whatever.”

“Yeah,” Mabel said. “I kinda guessed,”

The astronaut cut-in sourly, “Almost blew our eardrums out, you mean.”

“Shush up, you.”

Allison flung herself onto the hammock with enough force she almost sent Mabel tumbling off. “Why didn’t you come look?”

Mabel scratched her hair, not looking the other girl in the eye. “I… I just… look, it’s not like it’s going to disappear, you know?”

There was something plaintive in Allison’s voice. “But it’s new.

“You’d like it,” said Billy. “It’s got mermaids!”

That got Mabel’s interest. She looked at Allison. “…Seashell bras?”

“Course not.”

“Stupid things… maybe later.”

Allison slumped onto her back. “Come on…”

“It’s actually pretty neat,” Arnold said. “Good…” He tried to think of an art term. “…use of space. Didn’t go over the edges or anything.”

Mabel shouted, “I’m not in the mood, alright!”

Nobody spoke.

Except for Allison. “When will you be in the mood?”

Mabel spent a moment trying to figure out how to say she couldn’t know that, then gave up. “Later!”

“Well, what if I’m not in the mood later?”

Mabel blinked at the other girl. “…What?”

“What if I don’t want to show you when you are in the mood?”

“…It’s the side of a barn. You don’t need to show me.”

“Yes I do! You’re not allowed to look at it without me!”

“You can’t say that!”

“Yes I can! It’s my mural!”

“This is stupid!”

“Then can you please just be in the mood right now?”

Mabel crossed her arms and sighed. “Fine.”

Allison made a pleased noise, grabbing Mabel and pulling her into one of Cardea’s rifts.

“Well,” she said, arms spread in front of her creation, “what do you think?”

Mabel shuffled her feet. She liked the mural, she really did. And she appreciated Allison not making all the merfolk thin. She just had no space in her to be cheerful about it. “It’s good,” she mumbled. “Can we go back to my camp now?”

Allison pouted. “Sure, sure.”

A couple seconds and a few hundred yards of squeezed spacetime later, the girls were sitting back in the hammock.

“I don’t know why you’re being so weird about the Circle’s End thing,” Allison said while she picked at her toenails.

Mabel just stared at her. She couldn’t name what she was feeling. It was a bright, livid thing—beyond anger, confusion, or offense,  but claiming descent from all of them.

She glanced over at the boys, as though they could somehow explain what Allison had just said. All three of them appeared to have suddenly realized they were standing on a big white “X” in the middle of the Nevada desert.

“Allie, you do know what happened to me at Circle’s End, right? What I did?”

“I was there when you said it, wasn’t I? Your powers turned on and killed a lotta people.”

“And my dad.” Mabel would’ve cried then, but she’d had plenty of time to do that the last week or so. Her grief was a snapped tendon, too weak to support her.

“Yes. It’s awful and everything, but you didn’t mean to, did you?”

Mabel sighed. “No. I didn’t. But I think… doing that to people changes something. Something inside your guts. Even when you didn’t mean to. You’re not the same after.”

Allison tilted her head. “…That doesn’t explain why you’re hiding out here?”

“It doesn’t?”

“No,” Allison answered flatly. “I mean, if you think about it, you wouldn’t have changed when you fessed up, you’d have changed back in Circle’s End, and none of us knew you back then.”

“…Everyone looked at me weird.”

“Maybe at the bonfire yeah, but nobody’s seen you since then. How would ya know they’d keep doing that?”

“Seems kinda likely?”

“I’m not looking at you any different.”

Mabel didn’t know how to put it kindly.

Allison pointed at David. “Davie! Did you know about this before?”

“Yeah,” David admitted.

“See, nothing’s changed for him. And David’s worth like, ten other kids.”

David was glad his blush didn’t show.

Allison leaned back, a slight smile gracing her lips. “And Fran killed people for fun when she was littler than us. Are you scared of her?”

“…Kinda?” answered Mabel.

“To be fair,” said David. “A bunch of those people were Nazis.”  

Allison moved onto Billy. “What about you, Growly? You scared of Mabel?”

“No siree,” he answered with all the earnestness in the world.

“Arnold?”

The boy shrugged. “She chased me with a Dalek our first day.” He smiled. “I’ve always been scared of her.”

Mabel realised she was smiling, too. She tried shaking it off her face like a bug. She looked at Allison. “Why are you trying so hard?”

“Because I painted a very good mermaid picture and you should appreciate it more. And you’ve always tried really hard with me. Even back when I thought you were weird and scary.”

Mabel rested her head on the other girl’s shoulder. “…I’ll come back tomorrow, okay?”

“Sure,” replied Allison. “Mind if we camp here with you tonight?”

“No problem.”

Billy squeaked in delight, running off back towards the Institute in search of sleeping bags and marshmallows.

When the sun finally set, they relit Mabel’s campfire. Allison rattled off what felt like hundreds of ghost stories, which somehow all managed to end with her roaring and flailing her arms around at everyone. Mabel swore for a moment she’d managed to grab hold of the shadow-puppets. On a dare, Billy downed some of the funny-juice, and strewed the clearing with spongy rocks and ruby quartz silly string.

They stayed up well past any notion of bedtime, but sleep claimed them all in the end. Allison was even grateful for it, after an almost entirely wakeful week of hard painting.

It was still dark when the cracks woke her up. They were distant, but sharp. Allison rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She could hear shouting: not too unusual at the post-Lawrence Institute, but this didn’t sound like the usual rough play.

Those cracks again. They sounded a little like the noise the air made when Jumpcut teleported, only—  

Gunshots.

Allison shook Mabel hard. “Mabs, wake up!” she whispered harshly. “Wake up!

The girl jerked awake, blinking up at Allison through her lensless spectacles. “What’s going on?”

More cracks.

“I think someone’s shooting—”

A voice like breaking marble sliced through the trees:

You bastards! You murdering fucking bastard—  

There was a terrible, awful noise.

There was a terrible, awful silence.


1. Regular access to television was one of many things Alberto appreciated about life beyond the Institute. Part of him suspected that Darren Stephens was Herbert Lawrence’s equal and opposite in the cosmos.

2. Just like old times.

3. Both the Pentagon and DOPO’s Washington headquarters weathered the explosions far better than their Australian counterparts, the former due to the Pentagon’s extensive structural reinforcement and the latter thanks to energy sapping enchantments placed on the grounds by Howard Pendergast. The time-zone difference also played a role in reducing casualties.

4. The only time the word “thrilling” was ever used in relation to the DDHA.

5. If you could call John Smith’s people coming for him an invasion.

6. Like many other aspects of modern Australia, her political system is a nightmarish hybrid of Great Britain and the United States.

7. Allison wondered what the proper term would be. Fry?

8. Allison had considered sprinkling in some grown mermaids and mermen, but she was aesthetically opposed to seashell bras, and didn’t want to risk scandalizing Mrs Gillespie.

9. No relation.

10. Allison justified it to herself as an adaptation to a carnivorous diet.

11. As she saw it, mermaids could go almost anywhere, and the places they couldn’t were boring.

12. The fact that almost everyone at the Institute was underage didn’t seem to occur to the kindly townspeople. Alberto certainly hadn’t complained.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter