All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Thirty-Eight: By These Hands…

A lot of you reading won’t be very familiar with Adolf Hitler. If you are, he’ll likely just be some old warlord trampling through your history books, no more present or real today than Genghis Khan or Napoleon. This is natural, and perhaps in some ways necessary. If every tragedy or atrocity remained fresh in the world’s memory forever, the weight of history would crush us all. But I can tell you now, such forgetfulness did not seem possible when I was young.

I met the man once. It was no great encounter. A diversion during a tour of the Greater Reich1.

He seemed so small. I had been hearing his speeches on the radio for years—like fire in broadcast form. Everything I had ever read of the man spoke of this great Wagnerian hero. But here he was, reeking of barbiturates, hands trembling by his sides, coddled by aides and doctors2. Stripped bare of his pomp and loudspeakers, the man was a ghost of his own persona3.

My minders had me turn a rose-bulb blue for him. A paltry trick to be sure, but more appropriate for an audience with the Führer.  

“A true testament to our strength and vigour.”

Even if that meant anything, he didn’t sound convinced. I can imagine why. I was a knobby-kneed ten year old girl, with frizzy brown hair that devoured combs and an awfully Jewish nose. I have to assume questions were raised about my ancestry.

“Pure German going back five generations, sir,” my father told the SS officer who took me away.

Maybe so—I was no more or less a mongrel than all other human beings—but still, I was never going to grace a propaganda poster. I was a tool—a scalpel whose edge Auschwitz and Dachau honed sharp.

I spent most of my life in the camps cooped up in the commandant’s quarters, trying to play or study under the wary eye of their wife or whoever else they set to watch me. I would try describing these women, but their features flow together in memory. Sometimes they wear my mother’s face, or even Mary Gillespie’s4.

Two or three times a day, guards would escort me to the camp’s clinic, where soldiers lay waiting for my touch. These were not the breaks and scrapes of everyday life I had made my bread and butter in Danzig, but the carnage of war. Bullet-shredded flesh, lungs rotted by mustard gas, eyes burnt out by flashbangs and ears blasted deaf by the endless chitter of gunfire.

But normalcy hadn’t completely abandoned me. Soldiers and guards still dropped things on their toes or came to me with coughs and colds. Men at Dachau would pay me penny-candy to rid them of the clap. The only things war cannot kill are common misfortune and carelessness.

All these I mended while men with white coats and clipboards slowly figured out what I had already told them. I feel like Allison Kinsey would have sympathised if I had ever told her of this.

Then there was what they had me do to the prisoners.

At first, I suspect those poor souls thought me a saviour. The Angel of Danzig’s legend had spread far throughout Poland and beyond by that point. Not only that, but those prisoners who were destined to meet me often received special treatment. Their barracks were kept free of filth and vermin, they were well fed, and were spared both hard labour and the harshest cruelty of the guards.

Disease, malnutrition, and injury would have tainted the results.

I remember the first boy I killed. He was a Polack, with curly brown hair and a port-wine stain on his shoulder. I’m not sure if I wish I knew his name. They laid him out on the examination bed, and the supervising physician pulled out a needle, its tip wet like a wasp’s stinger.

“Now this injection is to keep you safe from typhus.”

The boy looked at me, standing silent in the corner. “Couldn’t the Angel do that?”

The doctor was quick with an explanation. “Yes, she could. But she also wants people to be safe when she isn’t around. You can help her.”

The boy nodded, as if he had a choice.

And so, the doctor injected the boy right in the heart. The phenol made him gasp and shudder, and soon he was still.

I moved towards him, but the doctor held a hand up. “Not yet, dear.” He pulled out a stopwatch, and clicked.

For five minutes, we stood there and let nature do what it does to unpreserved meat.

After what felt like hours, there was a click.

“Alright, resuscitate him.”

That part was easy. Just restarting his heart and sparking his neurons.

He screamed like a newborn. No, less than that. It was a cry of animal suffering. His eyes darted around the room, uncomprehending. He was making noises I had never heard from a person.

The doctor strode over then and started poking and prodding the child, taking notes with one deft hand as he examined our handiwork. “Subject appears to suffer significant cognitive impairment after five minutes without oxygen flow to brain.”

The boy stared at me. I don’t know if he still recognized me, or if he simply was looking to the only person who wasn’t hurting him.

The doctor eventually pulled away from the boy, seeming to disregard him as soon as he wasn’t looking at him.

“Doctor, should I… turn him off?”

“Hmm? Oh, right, yes. Do try to preserve the brain, we’ll need it for autopsy.”

“Preserve” I thought was an odd word to use, after what we had done to him.

As gently as possible, I took the little boy’s hand. A few moments later, he was asleep. It seemed less cruel that way. Like a boat on a dark shore, I pushed him out onto a deep, black sea.

They had me infect Jews with typhus, or turn their women’s ovum cancerous. They poisoned, electrocuted, and drowned people, then had made me bring them back so they could give their testimony. Children were beaten in front of their mothers and fathers, while I kept them in states of chemical ecstasy. Autopsies were replaced by a brush of my hand.

I let myself sleep for a long time. It was the only way I could cope. Every experiment—every touch—reminded me how pointless it all was. The truth was imprinted on every poor soul’s cells.       

I first encountered another superhuman at Auschwitz. I had known for a long time that there were others like me, of course. The whole Wehrmacht was terrified of meeting the Crimson Comet, who they said could shrug off tank-fire like rain on his shoulders. As for our lot, we had Hel5 and Baldr: the man who couldn’t die6. But they were always distant, absent figures. And their deeds always seemed so far removed from mine. So much more noble.

He wasn’t one to start with. They had scheduled me for an experiment  involving… I want to say fertility7, and my subject was already strapped into the chair when I stepped into the clinic.

The old man was gagged, but I still heard his scream batter against the mouth guard when he caught sight of me. I had a new legend by then. The Angel of Danzig had become the Angel of Death.

The man thrashed and tried to tear his way free, but the metal chair and the leather-straps held tight. The guards on either side whipped him with the butts of their guns. They weren’t supposed to treat my “patients” so roughly, but guards at Auschwitz either crumbled, or more commonly, made cruelty a habit. Like smoking.

“Stay still!”

I held out a hand, walking towards the man. “It’s—it’ll be alright.” I don’t know why I still lied to them.

As I drew closer, I noticed something in the man’s eyes. They were wide, staring, but not at me. Like there was someone standing behind me…

I felt a cold wind whip at my back. The man was trying to say something I couldn’t make out. Though looking back, I think I can guess.

“There’s a man—”

A giant soap-bubble appeared in front of the man’s face. At least, that’s what it looked like. Once the guards were done shouting and swearing, they gawked and batted at the orb with something between awe and bemusement. One of them glanced in my direction.

“This you?”

The bubble slammed into the soldier, grinding his head against the wall till only a red stain was left. His comrade was luckier, only being shoved into the wall cabinets.

I was running for the door by then, but I tripped, my face slamming against something curved. A bubble had formed around me. And it was shrinking.

I scrambled around to face my captor. He was still strapped into the chair, still gagged. He couldn’t or hadn’t figured out a way to free himself. All he could do was lash out.

I was screaming, crying, imagining myself reduced to a slurry of broken bone and meat. I begged for my life, the way so many like him had begged me.

The man could’ve been a grandfather. How many of his family had passed through my hands? Or been consigned to the gas and the fire?

And odd look played on his face. Angry, but sad. Considering.

I think it was mercy. It was not something I had much experience with back then.

There was a bang, and the old Jew jerked forward. There was a hole in his head.

The bubble popped out from under me, sending me sprawled onto the ground. The surviving guard was breathing heavily, his still raised in front of him.

“The hell was that?”

I didn’t answer. For the first time in my life, I had faced death.

And I knew I deserved it.

In the dark, dead time between night and morning, Eliza Winter sat alone in her office, reading over her latest attempt at a letter. A ball of rejected drafts lay in the wastepaper basket. She didn’t know why she was bothering with tidiness at this point, but it was a reflex.

The healer set the paper down, smoothed it out, and sighed. It didn’t say nearly enough. But then, what could?

She slipped the latter inside an envelope, sealing it with the one of the Institute’s wax pebbles. The ones with the little finches Lawrence had custom made. Eliza used to enjoy them. Now, they just seemed pompous.

She had to move quickly.

Alberto had always preferred the night. Dreams were quieter than waking thoughts. Easier to get some reading done. And to wish they had a bloody television.

There was a knock on his bedroom door. The lack of lights behind it was a dead giveaway. “You might as well come in, Eliza.”

She did. “Evening, Alberto.”

“Oh, so we’re using people names tonight?”

“I suppose we are. Could I sit down?”

Alberto reached from his chair to pat his bed, hiccupping, “Might as well.”

Already drunk. That would make things easier.

As she sat down, Eliza asked, “What are you reading?”

Alberto looked at his book and jerked backwards, like he had forgotten he was holding it. “Oh, this? Odd John. It’s this book about a trumped up little superman telling us how great he is.” He chuckled. “It’s like finding a road-map for Bertie’s mind!”

Eliza nodded. “Yes, I remember Laurie suggesting that for my English class8. I thought it was a touch racy.”

“No shit, the kid sleeps with his mum.” Alberto threw his head back, his eyes closed. “What are you doing here, El? You been thinking about what I said.”

“I have.” Silence. “Alberto, have you been… manipulating us somehow?”

Eliza tensed her muscles, waiting for the esper to try and make a break for the door.

Instead, all he did was sigh. “Shit. I knew you’d figure it out sometime. Surprised it took ya this long, honestly.”

“You—you admit it?”

“Why not? Not like I was going to convince you otherwise. Hell, you’re the only person here I couldn’t convince otherwise.”

“How long?”

“What—”

How long?”  

“Pass me the wine.”

Almost automatically, Eliza obeyed. The psychic swigged from the bottle hard.

“Not at first. Bertie used to find the whole idea of me terrible. What I can do. That’s why he got poor old Hugo to get with Fran when Chen scarpered.” He frowned. “Old bastard was fine using me to get them in line, but he wasn’t going to have another of me in the world…”

Eliza’s eyes narrowed. “Let me guess, you weren’t happy about that.”

Alberto tilted his head at her. “What? You talkin’ about Ophelia? She was Bertie’s idea.” He shrugged. “I didn’t feel like arguing.”

“But you said—”

A cold, pale smile. “You can’t say Lawrence hasn’t gotten a bit wacky in his old age.” He went on. “I mean, first he just needed me to make Hugo and Fran think they were alright going to bed together—give or take bamboozling a customs agent or a reluctant parent.” He laughed again. “But then he got it into his head the kids needed to go forth and multiply. It wasn’t just them I needed to fiddle with! Mary was fine with the whole thing back when she thought it was all just consenting adults doin’ it for science or whatever. But kids…” A gulp. “That took some doing.”

Eliza just sat there, listening. Alberto was destroying what was left of her life like he was down the pub complaining about his boss.

“I’ll tell ya, it isn’t always easy. So many kids running around, so many reasons for them to pissed off. And Fletcher and Cormey! Everyone else I got to ease into it, but them—Therese was never Boudica or anything, but put it this way, she wasn’t always such a lush.” Alberto sighed. “Chen was always hard to bend. Maybe it was an alchemy thing, I don’t know.” A sad smile. “Fran used to be too, when we were little. Before we domesticated her. Davey-boy’s been getting harder since his eyes changed…”

Eliza finally spoke, “And what about me?”

Alberto snorted. “You’re not getting off that easy, El. I wasn’t lying when I said you were impervious to me. Even if you weren’t, do you think I was hiding under Mengele’s lab coat?”

And with that, the last strand of hope inside Eliza snapped.

“So, it’s all out in the open. If it’s any comfort, this whole shitshow will be over soon. Maybe I should’ve taken the Americans’—”

Eliza clapped her hand over Alberto’s mouth. The psychic thrashed, tried to pry the healer off of him, but his limbs were heavier than lead and riddled with twitching worms.

Eliza watched the panic in his eyes fade to drowsiness. He probably believed this was death, she thought.

Once he was under, she picked up the wine bottle, drank deep, and left Alberto to his dreams.

I should have killed him.

Before we go on, I must talk about one of my greatest sins as an educator—such that I was.

It was not long after Chen’s return, but before Adam Sinclair, before the end. I was in my office doing something the centuries have discarded from memory, when Hugo, Fran, and Mary came barging through my door.

“Hey, hey, hey! I thought we knocked here!”

It was Hugo who started, breathless, “It’s David.” He swallowed. “I mean Maelstrom—”

Françoise rolled her eyes. That pretty much knocked all the steam out of poor Hugo. Mary picked up for him:

“Maelstrom’s… having an episode.”

“What exactly is an ‘episode’?” I asked.

“David’s in the vegetable garden,” Fran said. “He’s screaming and blowing things up.” She paused, like she had to psyche herself up to keep talking. “He won’t let any of us near him. Won’t let me near him.” She sounded wounded.

“We were hoping you could calm him down a bit,” Mary said. “Preferably before Lawrence catches wind of this. I don’t think his reaction would be… helpful.”

Mary really was too good for us.

I could see why they asked me. David’s parents weren’t always reliable sources of comfort. Françoise was in many ways still a child herself. Or at least still learning how to be a person. As for Hugo, guilt and black moods kept him distant. So that just left me. Auntie Żywie.

In my ugliest, bitterest moods, I sometimes thought that made me more of a mother to David than anyone else.

I arrived in my garden to find David stomping around naked in the allotment. His eyes, still Barthe blue then, were blazing white. Storm clouds swirled over his head, while tears sizzled down his cheeks before freezing solid.

All around the boy, my pumpkins, melons and artichokes snapped and hissed, trying to launch themselves at him with their whipping, thrashing roots. Before they could even get close, they burst, their pulpy flesh and juices spraying over the grass. Our cow was mooing in fright.

“Shut up, Bessy!”

I hadn’t seen David this angry in years, but it wasn’t a great surprise. The boy was like a kinked hose. Years and years of bottled up rage and need. Usually it just trickled out in tears and night-terrors, but sometimes he erupted like a geyser. Not unlike his mother.

I approached him without fear. Even if I thought David could bring himself to hurt me, his powers couldn’t touch the water in my body9 “David, David, honey. What’s the matter.”

He swung around to face me. Somehow, his eyes managed to burn even brighter. “Liar!”

I stopped. “…What?”

“You lied to us!” He had his fists balled at his sides, and his teeth clenched like he was trying to keep something from escaping his throat. Then he screamed and made another cantaloupe explode.

“Lying about what, little one?”

He looked me right in the air. It was like being glared at by stars. “Your power works on you.”

All the times I had imagined someone saying that should have prepared me. “I—I—”

“Allie told me! She’s been doing stuff to herself for ages! Stuff she got from you!”

That woke up the doctor in me, and at least for that moment, she was stronger than the worst of me. I grabbed David by the shoulders, almost shaking him. “What’s she done? Is she alright?”

He threw his hands off me. “You just never wanted to have a baby, didn’t you?”

I think my face had all the answer he needed. His shoulders slumped slightly. The ice in his eyes melted. “Why didn’t you just tell Lawrence?”

I threw my arms around him, lifting him off his feet and weeping into his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“Why didn’t you wanna make a baby? You’d be good at it.”

“David. I—people like me don’t deserve to be mothers. I’ve done… bad things to children10.”

“When?” David asked me. “You’re nice.”

“I—please. You can’t tell anyone about this.”

I felt him nodding against my cheek. “Okay.”

I had no doubt he would keep my secret. David had his father’s kindness. And he was used to keeping secrets. From new students, from inspectors, from the few outsiders Lawrence ever deigned to let into his presence. He kept secrets from Lawrence, too. And he kept himself a secret from everyone.  

I had put yet another burden on David’s shoulders. I had failed him. Just like every other adult in his life.

“You alright, mate?”

Except for one.

I turned to face Hugo, still holding David.

“He feeling better?”

I nodded.

“I am, yeah,” David said quietly. “Me and Miri sorta had a fight.”

Hugo took the boy gently from my arms. I suppose that was one advantage of his present state: his father didn’t have to worry about melting his clothes.

“You want to talk about it?”

“…Not yet?”

Hugo didn’t press. “That’s alright. You wanna go get dressed?” He smiled. “Maybe we can find something to eat?”

“That’d be nice.”

Hugo looked at me. “You’re a lifesaver, Żywie.”

“It’s no problem.”

I watched them walk back towards the house. The New Human Institute was a spider web of tragedies, and one of them was that Hugo so rarely let himself be a father. That we didn’t let him. He was the only one of us that didn’t ask anything of David.

That wasn’t what I was thinking about then, though. I was wondering how much he had heard.

I never found out.

“You were so loud when you were born. Hungry for life. I don’t know how we managed to keep you so quiet.”

Eliza brushed David’s hair, the sleeping child twitching at the touch. She knew she was being foolish. She ought to be putting as many miles between her and the Institute as she could before sunup. But she couldn’t leave without saying goodbye…

“I wish I could take you. Just a week ago I would’ve worried about you crying, or trying to stop me. But now, I think you wouldn’t leave unless we could take everyone. You’re strong, David. I’m glad you’ve finally realizing that.”

She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. “You’re clean. Your father made sure of that.”

The healer looked around the dormitory. So many children. So many children she had mended, taught, and cared for. So many children she had hurt. Lawrence was right about one thing. These kids deserved the world. They deserved more than this farm, more than some old man’s fantasies.

“I love you. I love you all.”

When Eliza opened the door to leave, she found Artume standing on the steps.

“Oh, hi Żywie.”

Eliza froze. How could she have forgotten Artume? “Uh, good morning Artume. What brings you to the dorm.”

The girl shrugged. “Saw you come down here, thought something was up.” She bent sideways, trying to look past her teacher. “Is everyone alright in there?”

Eliza looked at Artume. She was so small, her blonde hair still so child-bright. She was also just starting to show.

“I am so sorry, Sheilah.”

“Wha—”

Eliza put her hand under the girl’s chin, catching her with the other when she fell asleep.

As she carried Sheilah to her hammock, she considered ridding the child of the pregnancy. It was early enough that it would take minimum fuss. She would feel no pain. Terminations were something she had much practise with from the camps.

No, she decided. Eliza had already taken away too many of her choices. And no doubt Lawrence would have had her go through it again.

As I finally left the dormitory, I found my eyes lingering on Allison Kinsey. Strange, strange little girl. All that knowledge, and yet none of it made her any less a child. With the bio-mods she copied off me, she might have been the closest thing to a daughter I will ever have.

I should’ve taken her. Far away from the Institute; far away from any other super.

I was twelve when Josef Mengele arrived at Auschwitz. My handlers had me meet him and his wife at the camp gates11. As soon as he saw me, he took my hand and kissed it.

“I’ve been very much looking forward to working with you, Miss Winter.”

I have no doubt he had. As I gathered over the months and years to come, Mengele’s assignment to Auschwitz12was something of a reward for the doctor. He was both a war-hero, and more importantly, a good Nazi.

Nobody took to Auschwitz like Mengele did. The atmosphere of ash and death drove most either into slumbers like mine, or warped them, made them crueler to the point of irrationality. In a rare few, it awoke bravery and kindness.

Mengele, though, always wore at least a faint smile. He sung and whistled while he worked, and was always asking for extra duties. He was like a fish permitted to swim for the first time.

He was also a terrible scientist. The experiments I had participated in before had been cruel, and often performed without full rigour, but they always at least had a clear point. To measure my talents, or to better figure out how to kill and rend. Mengele was more like a little boy taking a fly to pieces. He destroyed because the pieces amused him more than the whole. That was his great contribution to Nazi science. He provided thousands of samples to other researchers in the Reich. Calling him a butcher is more appropriate than some realize.

After his arrival, Mengele rarely let me out of his sight. He would talk to me like you would to a baby or a dog:

“What about this, Eliza?”

“Have you ever wondered, Eliza…”

“I think little Eva and her brother would react well to the drops, don’t you Eliza?”

Sometimes, Mengele even took me to the ramp.

The ramp was where the trains disgorged our victims. Jews, Roma, Slavs, and everyone else my people despised were herded out of the carriages, so the SS could decide who would immediately be destroyed, and who would be put to work fuelling the machine that would kill them. Children, the sick, and the very old were almost always disposed of quickly.

Even among the most callous, it was considered a stressful, trying duty. Not so for Mengele. He volunteered for the job.

He would lean down and whisper in my ear:

“So, who do we pick?”

I would look at the huddled, frightened, doomed people, the fathers trying to hold back tears as their families were led to the crematoria, the mothers clutching their children, and then I would choose.

I felt like God. I also understood why God does not walk amongst us.

Many of the children who lingered in the camps did so because of Mengele. They were the subjects of his own private kingdom. He had a kindergarten established for them in the barracks, even a playground. He would visit them with his pockets bulging with sweets, fuss over their health and the particulars of their lives, and a few hours later take a knife to them.

I find it baffling at the time. Less so in the years to come.  

The man had a fascination with twins. On a certain level, it made sense. In a world without ethics at least, identical twins are nature’s control group. Even fraternal twins share a fetal environment. But for Mengele, I think there was something more to it.

Once, he had me create him conjoined twins. Perfectly healthy children—sometimes of not even of the same sex—fused head-to-head or at the pelvis, down to their very blood vessels. It was gruesome, but at less so then when he did it himself. Another night, he had me stop the hearts of fourteen pairs of twins, and he stayed awake till dawn dissecting.

In some solipsistic way, I think he saw me as an extension of himself. His imagination made physical, maybe. But he used my power less than you might think. One of his most common experiments was injecting the children’s eyes with whatever chemicals he fancied, trying to turn them blue13. The children went blind, more often than not. I didn’t know why he didn’t have me do it. Even back then I could change pigmentation as I pleased14.

What confused me even more was why he would do such a thing. I even asked him as much.

“It’s a simple idea, Eliza,” he explained patiently. “If we can figure how to control eye and hair colour, and increase the incidence of multiple births among our women”—Fertility was yet another of his bugbears—“that’ll mean a lot more Aryan babies.”

“But blue eyes don’t see any better than brown ones.”

Mengele’s smile dimmed. “It’s a sign of superiority.”

“So if we did manage to turn a gypsy’s15
eyes blue, would they be more Aryan?”

He chuckled at that. “Of course not.”

It was like a drunk wizard’s logic. Eye-colour could mean nothing and everything at the same time. The entire Nazi-logic was like that. I knew what DNA was while Rosalind Franklin was still a university student. I knew a Jew and a German could be more similar to each other than their own neighbour. I could have told Mengele and his ilk exactly why some men were born brilliant, and others stupid. Why some were strong, and others sickly. I could have ensured every one of our children was born healthy. While they killed and burned cripples, I could have made them walk!       

But I said nothing. If Mengele had taught me one thing, it was that our masters did not value the truth. They didn’t even value skill, if it disagreed with them. Auschwitz and its brothers had rendered down plenty of brilliant men and women who did. And their families.

Reading this, you might wonder how Lawrence ever managed to win me over on his “stirrupculture” given what I had seen of eugenics. But the Nazis bred only for homogeneity, for a banal sameness of features, while destroying anything that did not match it. Lawrence promised to only add to the beauty of the world, taking nothing from it. And maybe those babies were beautiful. But he did not keep his second promise.

It had to end eventually, the camps. All fires burn themselves out eventually, or are drowned by the rain. By 1945, the Red Army was marching across Poland. Rumour had it the Anglos had lent them the Crimson Comet himself, and some strange, terrible magic that pulled the gold out of people’s teeth.

The killings sped up. Mostly I think out of a desire to destroy the evidence, but also I think as one last spasm of hate. Perhaps even just to feel like it had accomplished something. Me and Mengele were bundled into a truck bound for another concentration camp in Gross-Rosen. He brought with him two boxes of child-parts and the only records of his experiments to be spared the fire. His wife and son were in another truck. I feel this says something about the man.

I remember the bumps in the road. Mengele clutching his briefcase to his chest like his newborn. I think it was the first time I had ever seen him scared.

“They say we’re on the ropes.” He forced a smile. It looked strange on him. “Bah. We’ll go abroad, regroup. You and me? We’ll keep on going.”

I wondered if Josef thought I would be following him forever. He may have been one of the Reich’s favoured sadists, but there were plenty of those, and only one of me.    

There were screams from the front of the cabin. Mine and Mengele’s joined them, as something shot out of his mouth and pinged and whizzed around the truck-bed. We swerved, topped over. For a few seconds, the world spun around us.

When it stopped, the truck was upside down. I could hear the wheels still spinning, the ending sputtering.

Mengele was dead, his neck snapped and his head bent to the side. It was almost comical. If it had happened to anyone else, I’m sure he would have thought so.

Before I could process this, the side turned ceiling tore open. A giant was staring down at me.

I screamed, cowering in his shadow against the night. He was clad in red, his shoulders powdered with snowflakes, with one wing sprouting from his back. I knew him immediately. The terror of the Reich. The stormer of France. The Crimson Comet.

He watched me for some time as I whimpered and tried to shrink ever further into the corner. But there was no anger in those solid features. No hate. Eventually, my fear ran out of fuel. All that was left was a quiet ache. I didn’t even resist when he lifted me out of the truck.

He left Mengele where he lay.

The Comet carried me through the snow to a group of Red Army soldiers, the red on their shoulders standing out against the dull green of their uniforms. I shrieked at the sight of them, and they pointed their guns at me. A raised hand from the Comet lowered them again.

“Lawrence, I think this is the girl we’re looking for.”

The soldiers parted for a broad man in a SS officer’s coat, though his beard was redder than I’d ever seen on a German. At his side was a Chinese boy, about my age. I’d never seen an Asian up close before. I hope it didn’t show too much.

“G’day,” the boy said. “Sorry about the toss-about.”

The man said, “Could you please set her down, Comet?”

I didn’t speak English. I had no idea what either of them were saying, but the Comet lowered me to my feet.

Then, the man knelt, pulling off his gloves. His hands were crisscrossed with little white scars. Slowly, gently, he folded them around mine.

“I know what you are,” he said in German. “What you can do.” He squeezed my hands. “Hands that heal. It’s like something from the Bible.”

 Lawrence had to have been told that my powers worked by touch. He was so sincere, once.

“I can’t believe you did such things of your own free will. Someone born to heal wouldn’t think of it. Come with us. You can use your hands for what they were clearly made for.”

I nodded.

Herbert Lawrence gave me my life back. One day, I had to steal it back.

Eliza strapped the last of the babies into the back of the ute. There weren’t enough car-seats for all of them, so she’d have to hold Reverb’s still nameless daughter between her knees. At least Ophelia was practically indestructible. At least she could keep them all asleep for the time being.

It had been Therese Fletcher’s shift in the nursery. She didn’t put up much resistance, God bless her. Whatever happened, Eliza hoped she and Cormey wouldn’t go down with the ship.

She could do this, she told herself as she climbed into the driver’s seat. She had connections. Movers and shakers she had healed over the years, Timothy Valour, maybe even Ralph Rivers if it came down to it. Hell, the new queen still owed her a favour and a half for fixing up her father16. She even had money. Her salary was surprisingly generous for someone who rarely ever left the farm.

She could do this. She had to do this.

Eliza looked behind her. The babies were still sound asleep. There was a crack in the night. Soon tomorrow would spill out across the sky.

“I’ll come back,” she said to herself. “I don’t know what will happen then, but I will come back.”

And so, Eliza Winter left the Institute, and Żywie, far behind.


1. Contrary to what decades of movies and video games might have told you, Hitler took neither magic nor superhumans seriously. From what I’ve read, that was mostly Rosenberg and Himmler.

2. I sometimes wonder why they didn’t have me heal him. Paranoia, maybe, or perhaps they didn’t truly understand the breadth of my power. I’m eternally grateful they didn’t, though. I have enough to live with.

3. And that was before I even read his book.

4. Poor Mary.

5. I don’t think we ever pinned down what Hela’s powers were exactly. The hot theory is something like the St. George ultra-roar, although I personally find the psychic wail more convincing. Either way, it didn’t save her at Berlin.

6. At least until he became the first superhuman on record to be executed for war-crimes. They had to use a mortar shell for it to stick.

7. A safe bet. The only thing fascists think about as much as killing is breeding or stopping other folks from doing it.

8. Looking back, maybe the fact John and his friends went on to slaughter a whole island and then blew up should have been a warning sign.

9. No power can affect me directly. It’s certainly made the odd assassination attempt interesting.

10. I’ve thought a lot about motherhood over the years. Back then, I avoided it out of guilt. But guilt settles eventually, like dust. You either die—physically or in every other way that counts—or learn to live with it. Once I did, I found I still didn’t want children of my own very much. Great thing about immortality, I can change my mind whenever I want. But until then, I am content being every generation’s aunt.

11. Apparently I was Rolf Mengele’s godmother. I am still not sure how I feel about that.

12. More specifically Auschwitz-Birkenau, the sub-camp where Mengele was chief-physician. Over 90% of Auschwitz’ victims passed through there.

13. Mengele in general had a thing for eyes. A lot of poor heterochromatic bastards had theirs mailed to Berlin because of him.

14. That sort of cosmetic job has raised the clinic a lot of money.

15. I apologize for the slur, but it’s what I said.

16. It’s how I got me and Hugo declared British subjects. Surprisingly, the black boy had a harder time of it than the former assistant to Nazi doctors.

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Chapter Thirty-Seven: The Angel of Danzig

<Merry-Tree Publishing House is proud to present this excerpt of The Long Winter: a Memoir, the long awaited autobiography of long time WA resident and mother of superhuman medicine, Eliza Winter, available this Christmas in print, digital, and neural-pollen formats.>  

It is raining in the Heap. It pours down the solar-paneled roofs of the old Byzantine arcologies, off the shingles of the artfully restored pre-Cacophony homes that dot the hills overlooking the Swan River, and finally down into my streets. It runs through the gutters, slick with the faintest chemical rainbows. The city’s pollution, made beautiful.

I might have found it perverse, if I weren’t busy trying to shield my fish n’ chips order from the downpour. Mostly, I wish I’d brought an umbrella. At least the sun is still shining between the clouds.  

I make my way through the markets. Old men with animated tattoos and neon hair smile and greet me by name, just as their great-grandfathers had. Fruit-vendors hawk their organically grown produce a little louder when I walk past.

Unsubtle bastards.

A clutch of children—mechas, if the haze surrounding them is any hint—are dancing in the rain, catching it on their tongues and eating sunshine through their skin. I hope it’s filling. A busker in a battered top-hat juggles balls of fire behind an open guitar case with hardly any coins. I’m not surprised, the man’s obviously just a pyrokinetic. There is no art to that. Still, I flick a few dollars in.1

I turn off the street and into a grove of trees, heavy with fruit despite the winter air. Most would not recognize them, if they even bothered looking closely. As I walk along the path that cuts and weaves through them, I brush my hands against their trunks, looking for signs of rot, or parasites, or more hopefully, vaccine production.

Hiding behind the trees is what looks like a time-lost pagoda, complete with an artichoke-leaf roof to ward off evil spirits—or disease, I suppose. Blame the tastes of the architect. On the second story, a wide glassless window overlooks my tiny medicinal forest2. The stained glass front doors look painfully out of place, but they were a gift from my nephew: the only part of his house to survive the battle of Cacophony.

Above them hang the words:

Hugo Venter Memorial Clinic

I’m home.

The waiting room is empty bar Fisher (my receptionist) and Mrs. Suzuhara. Mrs. Suzuhara is about seventy if I remember right, with skin like old paper and long white braids that cover her leather jacket like a poncho.

She looks up at me from her knitting3. “Ah, Eliza!”

I hang my old travelling cloak on the coat rack. “Mrs. Suzuhara.” I frown. “Is your sciatica still flaring up? I thought I—”

The lady throws a hand up. “So old fashioned! I’ve told you, El, it’s Katie. And I’m fine.” She pulls a wine basket out from under her seat. “Just wanted to drop this off. Some of us clinic ladies chipped in for it. It’s your birthday this week, innit?”

I nod.

Mrs. Suzuhara smiles slyly. “How old?”

I sigh. “Two hundred.”

Mrs. Suzuhara walks past me, patting my shoulder. “Looking good, honey.”

I watch her got out the door. I’ve been treating her since she was a twelve year old social media influencer with scars on her wrists4.

I send Fisher home for the evening5. One member of his family or another has been working here for over forty years. It feels borderline feudal, but they are a constant. Finally, I head up to my apartment, feed the pumpkin-cat, and settle in with my soggy dinner.

“Open file memoir_1 for dictation.”

The computer console in the corner whirs to life6. No more procrastinating. It’ll already be long enough as it is.

“When you get to be my age, you must learn to live with your mistakes…”

“Two funerals in the same month,” Therese Fletcher muttered. “What’s happening to us?”

Żywie didn’t answer her fellow teacher. She was too busy watching Maelstrom at the other end of the crowd. Melusine had her arms around him, but if anything she looked more grieved than her son. Maelstrom… Maelstrom just looked confused.

He had only asked one question the day of the suicide:

“Where are we gonna bury Dad?

Mary Gillespie had fielded that one. Neither Lawrence nor Żywie could bring themselves to answer7.

Mary knelt so she was at Maelstrom’s eye-level. “A long time ago, honey, your father he—” She put her hand to her mouth, swallowing tears. “—He told us he didn’t want to be buried. Said he was worried about his… fluids affecting the soil. He was drunk, but it was a good point, and he didn’t have a will or anything written up, so we’re having him cremated. We’ll spread the ashes over the river.”

Maelstrom’s only response was to nod. “He’d like that. I’d like that.” He looked to his mother. “Then he can stay with us.”    

Melusine didn’t quite make eye contact with him. “Yeah, he can.”

Maelstrom left to try and comfort Phantasmagoria and Myriad. They were both crying more than him.

“I will say this,” Lawrence said when the boy was out of earshot. “He’s handing this very maturely.” The old man sounded almost impressed.

Żywie didn’t know what to think. Part of her wanted to shake Maelstrom by the shoulders and scream that his father was dead. Her Maelstrom—the boy she delivered, taught to read, and comforted when neither of his parents could—he wouldn’t have been so calm and collected.

But then, Żywie’s Maelstrom—Lawrence’s Maelstrom—was hardly ever happy. He took after his father that way. And what kind of woman would wish this emptying, dizzying grief on a little boy?

Mary asked, “Should we tell him what we found in Basil’s room?”

Aside from the noose, the only thing out of place in Basil’s room was a pile of half-melted stationary. On his desk was one abandoned letter:

Dav

A ruined biro lay next to it.

There was a new cenotaph next to Adam’s now: a chess knight carved from solid jade that came up to Lawrence’s waist. Żywie was just glad it wasn’t a serpent.

How many of those will line the river? She found herself wondering. And that name gilted in silver on the horse’s brow: Basilisk. It was like putting “eczema” on a man’s headstone.

Lawrence was giving his eulogy. “In many ways, Basilisk was the glue that held our community together. He was a teacher, an administrator, and our handyman. An impressive feat, given the sharp edge of his gift.”

Żywie was having a hard time remembering what the supposed point of Basil’s “gift” was. To her, it seemed more like a knife with no handle.

“But above all else, he was one of us. Our friend. And to the first child born to us, he was a father.”

Mostly without realizing it, gazes flickered like candle flames in the wind towards Maelstrom. To Żywie’s surprise, he did not shrink from the attention.

She tried to count all the times she’d heard David call Hugo “Dad.” Then she tried to remember the times Lawrence hadn’t chastised him for it.

“We’ll likely never know why Basilisk took his own life.”

Żywie had to flood her body with endorphins not to scream. It should’ve been obvious to anyone with eyes to see, or even just a heart that loved.

Lawrence’s words began to stumble. “I—I always knew intellectually that you children would have to deal with death someday. It comes for all of us. I just thought I would go first. That’s the the natural order of things. An old man shouldn’t outlive young, strong people.”

The old man started to weep. Żywie had no doubt his tears were genuine, just as they had been for Adam.

Were they being punished? They dispose of a boy out of inconvenience, and the fates take someone they loved?

Melusine went to gently pull Lawrence aside. “Shhh, it’s alright,” she whispered to her teacher. “We can let other people talk now.”

Unlike at Adam’s memorial, there was plenty of people who wanted to say something for the deceased. Tales of soothed homesickness and movie nights and maths made almost miraculously bearable. A few tacit apologies for some off-colour jokes. Even Tiresias got up to speak8:

“I’ve seen inside a lot of people’s heads over the years. Basil wasn’t the first who topped himself. A lot of religions, Catholics, Protestants, probably more, they say God punishes people who kill themselves. Calls them sinners, or weak. Well, that’s because dead people can’t tithe. I’ll tell you this, Basil never did anything to try and make another fella’s life worse. That’s more than I can say for most. If God feels like screwing around with Hugo because he wanted to stop hurting—and he was hurting for a long time—then he should go hang.”

Melusine didn’t speak. Żywie couldn’t bring herself to be angry right then. That could wait.

Myriad picked up from the psychic. “I was Basil’s assistant pretty much all the time I knew him, but he never bossed me around or didn’t let me play less than the other kids… he was just nice.”

By some unspoken agreement, David went last. Lawrence almost had to push him out front.

The boy looked around at his teachers and schoolmates. “I’m not sure what you want me to say. I’m sad. Of course I am. But… I’m glad my dad doesn’t have to be sad anymore.”

The Institute dispersed after that. There was a lot more that could’ve been said, but if it had the funeral would’ve gone on forever. Most funerals worth having are like that.

Żywie watched Tiresias slouch his way towards what she assumed was some secret boozy hideaway9. She started after him. Tiresias seemed to notice, his stride becoming herky-jerky and hurried.

Żywie was soon upon him, grabbing the thin man by the shoulders and spinning him around to face her. His face went pale.

“What the hell, Z?”

“You knew.”     

Tiresias blinked. “…Wait, you mean about Hugo?” He seemed relieved by something. “Yes, I did. Obviously.”

“You could have warned us!” Żywie roared. “Hugo’s dead and you could’ve stopped it!”

“You’re talking like he was murdered, or that an anvil fell on his head or something. But Hugo did it himself, Eliza. He wanted to go.” The esper shrugged. “Who was I to stop him?”

Żywie dug her fingernails into his arms, making him wince.

“He clearly wasn’t in his right mind!” She let go of Tiresias, going limp. “We could have helped him.”

Tiresias’ nose wrinkled. “Well, I’m sure you could have.”

“What are you saying?”

“Don’t be dense, Eliza. We all know you could’ve fixed Hugo.”

She shrunk back from him. “I told him I couldn’t! The structural changes!”

Alberto laughed joylessly. “You give pumpkins fucking teeth! You’re telling me you couldn’t have made Hugo sweat saltwater? Pull the other one.”

“Why wouldn’t I have helped him if I could?”

Alberto hissed, “Lawrence. What would he have thought about you removing his student’s ‘gift’? I mean, it made Hugo suffer all the time, but it made him a new human.”

He turned away from Żywie, continuing towards his wine stash. “I meant every word I said about Hugo, Eliza. Hell, I respect him. He and Chen had more guts than any of us.” He glanced back at the healer. “They left. They don’t have to rot here until Tim realises how much much of a pervert the bossman is and packs us off to Victoria Land to hang out with the penguins.”

Eliza’s heart skipped a beat, as if someone had wrapped their hand around it. “Have you been talking to someone?”

Another hard laugh. “Why the fear? You don’t think we’re doing something wrong, do you?”

“…You knew, didn’t you?” Eliza asked quietly.  “About Adam. What would happen if he came here.”

Alberto stopped again. “What you’d do to him, you mean?”

Eliza wasn’t even surprised he knew. She’d always suspected Lawrence’s mind was less secure than he claimed. “Why? Why did you tell us about him?”

“To be honest, boredom. And having a power-blocker walking around didn’t make me any more comfortable than it did Bertie.” He started walking again. “And you needed a reminder of what you’re capable of. You’ve been getting a bit high and mighty lately. Although, I’m pretty sure Adam got off easier than some of those Polish kids, Angel of Danzig.”

Tiresias left Eliza standing there, alone but for unwelcome memories. She tried to remember when that nickname hadn’t been so bitter.

I was born in a German city on a Polish shore. I think that most of all is what made monsters of us in the end. Today it is called Gdańsk10, but when I was a child, it was the free city of Danzig—not quite a part of Poland, not quite a nation itself—under the protection of the League of Nations, for all the good that did anyone11. A bit like Perth today, really.   

The city rested by the Baltic Sea. The clearest memory I have of my mother is her opening the kitchen window every morning to let in the salt-breeze. Apart from that, it was also the source of all our prosperity. Once, we were Poland’s greatest sea-port, all the ocean’s wealth and trade flowing through us into the country.

Once.

If any family in Danzig depended on the sea, it was the Winters. My father was a shipwright. You wouldn’t guess it from looking at him. Daniel Winter looked like a caricature of a psychiatrist, or maybe Lawrence standing sideways. He was thin, with a neatly trimmed philosopher’s beard and large, owlish spectacles, that in my memory always seemed to be fogging over. And yet, every night he came home reeking of sweat and sawdust, with wood chips and flecks of steel under his fingernails. It was like all his strength lived in his bones.

My father loved his work. Wedding wood and steel, he called it. Amouring ships against the scratching fingers of the sea.

“It’s not just building the thing that’s the victory,” he told me once. “It’s knowing how long it will last after you let it go.”

I like to think of medicine that way.

I’m not sure when I realised how unusual the degree of control I exercised over my body was. I can’t even remember how I discovered I could extend that control. I would guess flies or cockroaches, or maybe plants. I’ve always had an affinity for those. Françoise and the other girls at the Institute used to wear my Tudor roses in their hair12.

I won’t deny how much fun I had with with my power as a little girl. I used to terrify my brothers and sisters by slowing down my breathing and heartbeat till they thought I was dead.

It was surprisingly relaxing. Like sitting at the bottom of a cool, deep pool in the dead of night, with nothing but the sound of blood flowing in my ears to disturb me. It was the only time the dark did not frighten me. Maybe that was why I enjoyed it so much. Jasper or Isobel would be shouting at my faces or trying to slam my lungs back into working order, and it would be like someone dropping in pebbles far above.

Sometimes, though, I found myself wondering, would I be able to make it back to the surface? Would I forget which way was up? Would the water weigh me down and—

…Those were the times I hugged my siblings and meant it.

My other hat-trick was playing sick. Whenever the prospect of church or school was too much, I would stoke a fever inside myself, retch up my breakfast, maybe raise some hives if I was feeling dramatic, and spend the rest of the day reading or listening to the English pop-stations that strayed over the sea.

But that was the thing, I assumed everyone could do that. Maybe not as well as I could, but to some extent at least. I thought that illness was, essentially, a polite way of excusing yourself from the world for a little while. I think that was how I contextualized the scorn people around me heaped on the chronically infirm: they really just were work-shy. It would explain why Jesus sometimes seemed so impatient with the lepers and cripples who came to him13.  

What shattered that illusion was when my youngest sister came down with meningitis.

I don’t suppose many of you reading will be terribly familiar with meningitis. Most of your grandparents would have been genetically inoculated against the germs responsible, and for those who aren’t, there’s the swarms of my changed mosquitoes and horseflies and everything else that bites.

I must have seemed like the most callous child alive. Stomping around, wondering why my parents and the doctors they dragged into our apartment were fussing over Ella’s stupid cough. Why they all insisted on whispering. The air was tangling itself in knots and I didn’t know why.

“Papa,” I asked. “When will Ella get better?”

Oh, God, I sounded so impatient.

I remember my father being silent for a very long time. “God will look after Ella, Eliza.”

Good answer, I suppose.

I marched down the stairs, pushed and shoved past my brothers and sisters, and barged into the room they left my sister to die in.

My mother was leaning over my sister’s bedside. She had clearly been holding back tears, and the sight of me broke the damn. “Eliza, you can’t—”

“Ella won’t be contagious,” the doctor told her. “Not by now.”

“But she shouldn’t see this.”  

I ignored both of them, striding over to my sister’s side.

Her breath was shallow. Hollow sounding. Sweat glistened off skin marred by an almost royal purple rash. Her fingertips were turning black, and the smell of rot lingered around her.

I placed my hand on her brow. A lot of people tell me how my power feels to them. Worms or wires; being filled with hot or cold water. They rarely ask how it feels for me.

It was like Ella’s body was part of my own. I had two hearts, eight limbs, and four eyes. I could hear my own breathing, feel my own hand on her forehead. If Ella’s eyes had been open, I would have seen my own face.

I got to work. I made her sweat the filth from her blood, ordered the cells in her fingers to begin regenerating. I bullied the virus killing Ella into strengthening and fortifying her, to become a companion instead of a parasite.

My mother tried pulling me off Ella. She stopped when she saw the rash fade from her face, and the pink slowly return to her fingers.

“It’s a miracle.”

Yes, I suppose it was.     

After that, everything changed. My mother and father started spreading the word of their daughter’s healing hands. And people came. I mended the crippled and the asthmatics, the blind and the deaf. I banished consumption, vanquished polio, and lice-proofed a whole generation of Danzigers.

My parents charged, of course. It might have seemed exploitive, and maybe it was, but I loved the work. The people I healed were like pages in the greatest medical textbook ever written. They taught me the language of cells, of growth and heredity. They also taught me how rough a draft the human body was. In time, I would correct this.

Personal satisfaction aside, we also needed the money. The port was the heart of Danzig. Poland allowed us to exist entirely because of it. And yet, almost as soon as the free city came into existence, they started building a whole new port. By the time I was born, Gydnia was doing more sea-trade than us, but Poland still held tight to the rights they claimed from us.

My father would rant about it often. “Polack swine! Bloodsuckers!”

I’m sorry to admit that most of the people I treated in Danzig blur together for me. I remember them as torn spines, wet lungs, or novel genes. It’s a common vice among the medical profession. But there is one I remember very clearly.

It was noon when we they knocked on our door. By then my parents had started teaching me at home to fit more healing in14. My papa opened it to find the Wallachs standing in the hallway. Frau Wallach held a wan looking toddler in her arms.

“Your daughter, the healer. Can she help our Abhy?”

Herr Wallach was a clockmaker. I’d seen him and his wife around since I could remember. But besides glimpses on the street and the odd mindless greeting, they were strangers to my family. Mostly because they were screamingly Jewish.

Jews weren’t the most popular folk in Danzig. It was 1938: I’m not sure where they would’ve been back then. There was all the usual Christ-killing, usuraring, xenophobic nonsense. But on top of that, we were German. There were always people muttering about who exactly lost us the Great War…

Frau Wallach did not wait for my father to answer. “The doctors all say it’s Tay-Sachs.” The woman bit her lip, trying not to weep. “That they can’t do anything for her.”

Papa nodded slowly. “I see,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to discuss this with my wife.”

He and Mother retreated to the kitchen. Neither invited the Wallachs in.

I could hear them debating whether or not to let me heal the girl. I don’t doubt the Wallachs heard them, too. It is an odd trait of bigots to assume the people they hate are deaf. I like to think it made me uncomfortable even then, but that might just be my memory being charitable.

I do know that I lay sprawled on our couch, kicking my feet in the air as I examined the family with probably embarrassing intensity. I hate to imagine what it was like for that poor couple, being peered at by some ignorant gentile child while her parents decided their daughter’s fate.

It was Frau Wallach who broke the silence. “So you’re the Angel of Danzig?”

I don’t remember if that nickname came about on its own or from amateur marketing. “Uh huh. I mean, I guess so.”

Abhy Wallach twitched and jerked in her mother’s arms. She did that a lot.

“Honestly, we didn’t know if you were real,” Herr Wallach said. He was trying to sound embarrassed. Better than letting the pain bleed into his voice. “But then we saw Herr Gerber. He had new fingers!”

“Fingers are easy.”

My parents emerged from their deliberations. “Our daughter will do her best for you,” my mother said. “…Do you have money?”

Herr Wallach nodded sharply. “Yes, of course.”

My father smiled. “Of course, why did I even ask?”

It would be years before I understood the look that passed over the Wallachs’ faces.

They laid Abhy out on the sofa. She was a sweet looking little thing. Very blonde curls. I hope they were helpful to her.

Taking her hand in mine, I made her a part of myself. Not only did I have to mend months and years of neural damage, I had to instruct every cell in the poor girl’s body to change without making them give up and die. Today, it would’ve taken me fifteen minutes, and most of that would’ve been waiting for the kettle to boil. Back then, it took me hours, not that I was aware of time in that state.

Eventually, I found myself sprawled on the floor, hungry and exhausted. Frau Wallach was pulling me into a hug.

“God bless you, God bless you!”

Abhy was sitting up, looking around and blinking like a child risen from a very long sleep.

My mother soon separated us. “That’s enough of that,” she said, a little too quickly.

As she fussed over me, holding water to my mouth and checking my eyes for whatever reason, I watched the Wallachs. They were clutching their daughter like they’d just pulled her from the ocean.

They gave us a grandfather clock. It was a lovely piece of work, dark wood and gilded hands. Sometimes I wonder what happened to that clock. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the Wallachs.

Żywie sat with Lawrence in his study, gripping a tumbler of scotch like she was trying to shatter it. Normally, she could metabolize alcohol faster than it could reach her brain, but tonight she wanted to be numb.

Lawrence often invited the healer for after-dinner drinks, far more often than Melusine, or even Basilisk15.

When she’d been much younger, it had made her feel very important.

Lawrence had already drained his glass, and the one before that. “I think we ought to consider the November birthday party.”

Żywie sighed. One custom the New Human Institute borrowed from other Australian care homes was celebrating all a month’s birthdays with one party. As some of the children always grumbled, Lawrence was rich enough to throw a party for every student, but the headmaster liked the communal feel of it. Plus, somehow they had managed to acquire seven students whose birthdays fell in June, and that was just excessive.    

“Lawrence, after everything that’s happened, are you sure the children would even want a party?”

The old man raised his hand defensively. “I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous. Maybe even vulgar. But life must go on, Żywie. Our children are still living and growing. Basilisk wouldn’t want the children to deny themselves some joy on his count.” He closed his eyes. “Especially not Maelstrom.”

No, he wouldn’t.

Żywie nodded. “Maybe we do need this. Help the sun rise over this month.”

Lawrence went on. “I was considering barring Maelstrom from the party, given his recent behaviour, but with Basilisk’s passing…” The old man almost squirmed. “He’s been handling it so well.”

Żywie still wasn’t sure about that. When she looked at Maelstrom’s new eyes, she couldn’t tell if she saw acceptance, or repression hiding in the green. Still, she couldn’t argue the point tonight. “Yes, he has. I’m glad he can share the day with Myriad.”

“That reminds me. I was thinking. As important as maintaining normalcy for the children is, we also need to look to the future.” He took a deep breath. “Perhaps it’s time to talk to Melusine about having another child.”

Żywie suddenly found herself picturing a lilac triangle very hard. She sipped hard from her glass. “So soon after Basil?”  

Lawrence shook his head. “Not immediately, of course. But soon. If Basilisk’s passing can teach us one thing—”

Teach? Teach us what? He killed himself!

“…It’s that we must seize our opportunities while we have them.”  

Żywie tried to work out how to respond to that. She settled on a question. “Who would be the father?”

“I haven’t quite decided. It might be high time for us to see what she and Tiresias could produce.”

That image was bad enough, but Lawrence kept going:

“Of course, there’s also Linus. Or even Gwydion.”

“But—they’re so young.”

Lawrence tutted. “The age-gap between Linus and Melusine is less than ten years. And we’ve discussed this, Żywie. Those taboos don’t serve any purpose for your kind.” The man’s expression became solemn again. “I was also thinking about Panoply.”

Żywie felt something inside of her teeter, like a glass on the edge of the table. “Yes?”

“Could you, if you tried, remember that poor boy’s genetic code?”

Żywie nodded. She could have tapped Adam Sinclair’s genes out on Lawrence’s desk.

“Could you recreate it?”

“…Yes.”

“Well, perhaps then you could synthesize his… well, his seed.”

“…What would we do with it?”

“What better memorial to the boy than allowing him to contribute to the next generation? I’m sure Myriad would make an excellent mother for his child someday. I think we need to become more ambitious with our stirrupculture.”     

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we could be more creative with our couplings. And perhaps we’re too cautious? Fourteen, fifteen, yes, that’s a good baseline, but there are Amazon tribes where young women give birth at twelve without issue. I feel it’s important we think about how much our standards are still being influenced by cultural conditioning, you understand?”

The healer looked down into her whiskey glass, her reflection gazing up from the gold pool at the bottom. Żywie. Eliza.

“I think I do, Lawrence.” She got up from her chair. “I think I’ll head to bed now. Will you be alright here?”

Lawrence nodded. “Of course, my dear.”

Before she was out of the room, her teacher said one last thing:

“You’ve been very brave this last month. I don’t think I would have made it without you.”

She rested her hand on the doorframe. “Thank you, Lawrence.”

As soon as Eliza reached her bedroom, she locked the door behind her, dropped the needle on one of her old Billie Holiday records, buried her face in her pillow, and wept.

Bertrand Russell once said that hate was always foolish, and love was always wise. A beautiful sentiment, but one experience has not born out for me. Hate can only destroy, but unwise love, that can do far worse.

It can change you.

That was the night I realised what Lawrence’s love had done to us. Or maybe when I could finally admit it to myself. We weren’t his students anymore. I’m not even sure we were people. We were mules for DNA. Vessels for the power.

That was the night I realized I had to leave.


1. Poor boy. He might’ve attracted crowds even just sixty years ago.

2. Or at least it was glassless until I had the repulsion field installed. Meredith is a dear, but back then he designed with exclusively the impervious in mind. And people who didn’t need to sweep.

3. Old women were big into knitting when I was a girl. Funny how these things go in cycles.

4. This was before social media became self-aware and the Aegis had to kill it. Good riddance.

5. I technically have opening hours. Nobody has ever abided by them, nor will they ever.

6. I’ve never trusted those ocular implant set-ups, sue me.

7. May God have mercy on us both.

8. Alberto was brought up by Italian fascists. I’ve come to view their lot as being much like Lawrence: absolute believers in the filthy baseness of the world, bar a chosen few. Alberto, though, made no such exception. Not even for himself, I think.

9. I was right.

10. You readers might know it as the site of St. Dominic’s Fair for almost a thousand years. I still attend now and again. Once I had a needleless tattoo stall. Led to some interesting birthmarks in coming generations, I imagine.

11. The League of Nations was the predecessor to the United Nations, which in turn was collapsed during the Great Chaos. Geopolitics gets repetitive once you hit about a hundred.

12. And David, once.

13. Although, now that I think about it, I can see why how being asked to mend and heal every little thing could try the nerves…

14. Alright, that was probably exploitive.

15. For Alberto it would have just been a change of venue.

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Chapter Thirty-Six: Backwards Day

While he sometimes liked to pretend he didn’t, Dr. Herbert Lawrence always looked back fondly on his time at Balliol College. Getting blind-drunk and gathering by the garden shed to shout the Gordouli over the wall at the neighbouring Trinity college1; satirical rhymes that had already outlived their context by Lawrence’s day; that sense of radicalism that he felt set it apart from so many other halls of learning at the time2. And most of all, he cherished his days at the Hysteron Proteron Club3.

The Hysteron Proteron Club was a dining society born out of the upper class fad for odd dinner parties. Eating in drag, stitching together chimeras of roast pheasant and pig, slathering your face with shoe-polish and going to North African restaurants4, that sort of thing. The gimmick of the Hysteron Proteron Club was comparatively modest. Simply put, they took their meals backwards. Liquors and desert would be followed by savouries, and finally conclude with soup.

“You had to be there,” Lawrence told people. “And we didn’t have television back then5.”  

At least once a term, though, the club endeavoured to live the whole day in reverse. And so did the Institute.

Myriad awoke to the sound of Mrs Gillespie bellowing at the children of Lorikeet dorm to settle down and get to sleep. All around her, children were up and dressing in the most clashing colours they could find. A few were pulling socks over their hands. For once, some of the students were assigned skirts and dresses, but only the boys.

Rubbing her eyes, Myriad asked, “What’s going on?”

“Backwards Day,” Talos buzzed mechanically, the green of his oversized dress standing out like aged copper next to his bronze skin.

Breakfast was ice-cream, followed by roast lamb with all the trimmings. Myriad didn’t even want to ask how early the teachers woke to set this up. They were all sitting around the head of the table, smoking cigars in dinner jackets, even the ladies. All except for Żywie. She sat among the children, picking half-heartedly at her plate. Occasionally Basil would glance over his cards at her.

Tiresias stalked into the dining room, a wine bottle in his hand. He was scowling like he was auditioning for Richard III. He waved the bottle, hissing, “Who did this?”

“Did what?” Melusine asked mildly.

Tiresias pulled the bottle’s cork out with his teeth, before snatching up a child’s empty glass and filling it up. He slammed it down in front of Abalone.

“Drink it.”

Lawrence smiled wryly. “Now, now, Tiresias. We don’t approve of underage drinking.”

“Lay off, Bertie.” Tiresias repeated his demand. “Drink.”

Abalone eyed the glass suspiciously. Tiresias couldn’t have poisoned it, could he? Oh, well, there was always Żywie. Abalone screwed his eyes shut and gulped it down, before smacking his lips. He grinned up at the psychic with red-stained teeth. “Grape-juice.”

Tiresias’ eyes shot around the table, the hexagons under his cheeks an angry red. “Who?”

Metonymy shrugged grandly. “Backwards Day.”

Laughter.

“You’ll all die for this.”

“Do you do this every year?” Myriad asked over the racket.

“Oh yeah,” David answered with his mouth full. On a dare from Abalone, he had mixed some half-melted ice-cream into his gravy. “Since before I was born. Lunch is always a bit disappointing.”

“Why?”

“Same both directions.”

After that was class. Or what passed for class on Backwards Day. The teachers had prepared a syllabus of artful nonsense. Science with Miss Fletcher consisted of discussing the properties of thiotimoline6, while Mrs Gillespie lectured at length about a history all of her own:

“And that was when Mr. Lincoln leapt from his seat, said ‘Cop this, mate,’ and flung John Wilkes Booth down into the orchestra!7

Myriad listened with rapt attention. It was rare for a history lesson not to sound like repeats. Besides, Mrs Gillespie could be very funny.

Żywie just sent the children to play outside. “I couldn’t think of anything funny,” she said, straining to smile. “I did not think any of you would object to double-recess.”

And so Myriad found herself running through the grass, drifting in and out of the loose, undeclared series of games that formed among her schoolmates like ripples on a lake. The sun was warm on her back, the air thick with pollen and song.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lawrence sitting on the porch, watching his students play with a drink in hand. She hadn’t seen him so at peace in weeks.

Then the front door opened, Reverb stepping out. Myriad’s new eyes could see a dark patch on the front of her shorts.

The older girl tapped Lawrence on the shoulder. Myriad couldn’t hear what passed between them, but the old man looked pleased. He stood up, and put a hand on Reverb’s shoulder. Magnified by his student’s power, his voice rang out across the school:

“Children, I would like you all to prepare to welcome a new member of our family.”

Backwards Day, it would seem, was over.

Reverb’s labours outlasted the sun. Myriad knew this wasn’t anything unusual. If anything, Reverb was progressing quickly.

Not surprising, really. This was her third time at it.

Dinner hadn’t been served in either order. Bedtimes came and went unnoticed. Most of the children were keeping to the margins, trying to enjoy their unusual license before the grownups remembered they existed.

Myriad, though, was curled up on the parlour couch. “…Three, four, five—”

A clattering cacophony. Screams, almost drowned out by the sounds of vacuum cleaners, power-saws, Lawrence shouting louder than thunder produced by Reverb’s contractions. As with every other sound created by her power, distance did little to dull it.

Myriad clapped her hands over her ears. On the carpet, Haunt looked up from the game of Cluedo he and Growltiger were playing.

“She better not be doing that on purpose.”

Woken wasp-nests and hammer-blows.

“Why would anyone do that on purpose?” Billy asked, a little too loud from blocking his ears.

Haunt shrugged. “Look, if I had to push a kid out of me, on a holiday, I’d want everyone to be miserable, too.”

“Did the other girls do stuff like this?”

“Worse. We had to get the ceiling replaced when Ophelia was born—”

Myriad shouted, “Will you two shut up!”

AU’s voice suddenly rang out. You fuck right off, Lawrence!

Myriad shrieked, and buried her face in the couch leather.

She grew aware of a small hand stroking her hair. Even if its owner had stayed silent, the fur gave him away. “It’s okay, Miri, he’s not really here.”

Reverb’s memory of AU’s voice kept going. You’re not talking me into it! It’s sick.

Haunt was awkwardly patting Myriad on the ankle. “Uh, it’s going to be alright?”

She looked at the older boy, her cheeks stained with tears she couldn’t even feel. “Haunt?”

“Yeah?”

“Could you… check?”

“Check what?”

“If Reverb’s… gonna be done soon?”

Haunt frowned. “Aww, gross, Myriad. Can’t you do that yourself?”

She’s like my sister!

Myriad shook her head. “Please?”

After a long moment, Haunt sighed and glanced up at the ceiling. His pupils went white, and he grimaced. “I guess I’d need a diagram or something to say for sure, but I think she’s closer to the end now.”

The unnatural cries thankfully dissolved back into random clamour, but then the three children heard Lawrence’s voice, all too real. He was arguing with someone.

“Oh, don’t be so prudish, Basilisk.”

“Look, I don’t think this is the right time. They’re so young, anyway.”

“Nonsense! Maelstrom was five years old when he witnessed his first birth.”

“And then he cried about it all night.”

“To be frankly, I’ve been wondering lately if we ought to have toughened that boy up some more. Regardless, this is a valuable learning opportunity, and I will not deny it to our students because of some cultural taboo!”

“…You’ll never listen, will you Lawrence?”

It was an odd sound, two sets of footsteps stomping away from each other.

Lawrence poked his head into the parlour, smiling when he caught sight of the kids. “Ah, Growltiger, Myriad, glad I found you two. Would you kindly follow me upstairs? You can come too if you wish, Haunt.”

Haunt tried to look as impassive as possible. “I think I’m fine Lawrence.” No way was he going to see that again if he could help it.

“Suit yourself. You two, come along.”

The old man led the pair up to the Physician’s office, expounding without looking at them. “I want you two to remember, as intense as birth is, it’s a perfectly natural, life-affirming process. I’d go so far as to call Reverb a heroine. The Spartans certainly would have8.”

Myriad didn’t hear him. She was too busy listening to Reverb. They were close enough now that they could hear Reverb’s human screams under her powers. They hadn’t taken those from her.

Elsewhere was sitting cross-legged by the Physician’s office. “Oh,” he said, “you found them.”

“That I did,” Lawrence replied. He knocked on the door. “May we come in?”

A tired, wood-muffled voice. “Please tell me you brought more towels?”

“Afraid not, my dear. I’ve brought the children to check on you and Reverb.”

A sigh. “Come in.”

Lawrence opened the door, beckoning the children ahead of him. Growltiger and Elsewhere walked in pensively, but Myriad couldn’t move. Her breath was caught in her lungs and her muscles were nailed to her bones. It was as though the air around her had turned to glass.

She felt Billy take her hand. “It’s alright, Miri,” he said. “Me and Else are with ya.”

Myriad nodded. “Okay.”

Before she could move, Lawrence put a hand to her back, pushing her forward. “Come on, Myriad, we don’t want to take up too much of the ladies’ time.”

Żywie had Reverb crouching, her fingers white around the Physician’s examination bench, mousy hair darkened by hours of sweat. Most midwives and doctors would’ve had her lying down, but Żywie knew how helpful gravity was to labour.

“That’s it, you’re doing great.”

Crying babies, explosions in the night, and underneath it all, a girl screaming at a familiar enemy.

“I can see the crown.”

And Myriad saw it, too. That child-to-be, hanging on the line between their life and everything before it. And that pain, like claws reaching in and tearing you and half, the girl knew that much. If that’s what it was like for the mother, what about the baby? What was the air and light to something that only knew water and darkness?

Growltiger covered his eyes. Elsewhere went pale. Myriad, though, just looked at Reverb’s face. But she didn’t see her.

Electric riffs.

She vanished. A second later, the door flew open of seemingly its own accord.

Invisible, Myriad ran. But that night, there was no escaping Reverb’s cries.

“You sure she’s this way?”

The beam of David’s torch flickered around till it landed on Arnold. Apparently, David could see without any light at all, but only if he was underwater. Arnold wondered how that worked on rainy days.

Like most of the other children, the boys had been dispatched to search for Allison. Torch-lights dotted the campus like fat fireflies, while Automata’s toys and Phantasma’s pictures scanned the landscape with eyes of glass and pigment.

Somehow, both boys had wound up searching along the same stretch of the river.

“Yeah,” David said. He pointed out over the water. “Unless there’s another girl over the river9.”

Arnold eyed him dubiously. “Can you really tell someone’s a boy or a girl like that?”

“Yup,” David answered casually. “The water’s shaped really different.”

Arnold tried to ignore the implications of that, squinting towards the river’s far shore. “I don’t see anything.”

“Must still be invisible,” David replied. He stepped towards the waterline, but Arnold blocked his path.

“No.”

David frowned, asking flatly, “What?”

“If you go over there and talk to her, you’ll just make her happy.”

“…And that’s bad?”

“Yes! I mean—yes! You’ll just swim with her or something for a while and then she’ll go nuts again later.” Arnold tried to remember how his mother put it once. “We gotta rip off the plaster10.”  

David protested. “I can do that!”

“No, you can’t. You’re not mean enough.”

“I can be mean!”

“Not on purpose. The only thing you’re meaner than is puppies, David.”

“Well, can’t we talk to her together?”

Arnold sighed. “No,” he said. “She’d listen to you more.” He turned towards the dark water. “…Um, do you mind helping me across?”

No response. Arnold twisted his head to find David standing there, arms folded.

“Oh, come on. Don’t be a baby.”

“Fine,” David muttered. His eyes glowed that vivid new green of theirs, but nothing seemed to happen. “Start walking.”

With some trepidation, Arnold stretched a leg out in front of him, toeing the river’s skin. It froze under his sole.

David shrugged.

Like a cut-rate version of his mother’s saviour, Arnold set across the river, the water freezing a few paces ahead of his stride, like a carpet unrolling for a prince. The ice caught and reflected the moon and stars; a band of night-sky across the river’s waist.

It occured to Arnold that David could melt this bridge anytime he wanted. He tried to forget the notion, lest he hear somehow.

Soon, the boy made landfall. The frozen path begun to break apart as soon as his feet touched solid ground. Arnold had to wonder if that was some sort of challenge.

He looked around the shore. This length of river was a lot deeper in the rainy season. A bank wall lay exposed in the night, riddled with tree roots. No sign of Allison, though.

“Allie!” he shouted. “Come on! I know you’re here! David used his peeping powers or whatever.”

Silence.

“Fine! I’m just gonna sit here all night then!” He flopped down on the dried mud. As loudly as possible, he tunelessly sang, “La la la by myself la la la la la!”

Allison appeared, her knees under her chin and her arms wrapped around herself. “Go away, Arn.”

“No.”

Green crackled under the girl’s skin. “Yes.”

For a moment, Arnold just looked at her. Then he crackled in turn, and she found her seat vanishing out from under her. She let out a yelp, before falling on her rear in the dirt.

“Stop it!” Arnold demanded. “Stop being so mean. Stop being rude. Why can’t you just talk to me?”

“Because I’m not real!”

Arnold raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

 “I’m not a real person!”

“Um,” Arnold replied, a little off footed. “I mean, uh, duh. You’re a girl.”

He hoped she would laugh. Or yell at him. Or try to kill him. Instead, she just started to cry.

“I’m just bits of other people! There’s not anything that’s me.”

“…You what?”

“I’ve never learned anything myself! And I think—I think my me’s other people as well.”      

Arnold didn’t take nearly as long to reply to that as Myriad had thought he would. It was barely more than a second after she’d finished, in fact, when he cocked his head to the side, and spoke.

“Well that’s dumb,” he muttered. “Why’d you think something as dumb as that’d be true?”

“I… when we saw Reverb… having it, I didn’t know what I felt.” The sobs came back harder and stronger. “And it’s happened before, all the time! I don’t know what I feel about the married days! I asked loads of people about it and I still don’t know! And when Adam died, and even before that when the Physician! I don’t know!”

“… So you think you’re not you anymore because big stuff’s scary?” Arnold asked slowly, sounding more confused than anything else. “Allison, you uh. You know you’re a doofus, right?”

She glared at him. “But I don’t know if it’s scary! I mean, Lawrence said me and David were gonna have a married day, and I thought that wouldn’t be so bad cuz I like him! But it also made me feel all weird inside! And babies are weird and they hurt and I don’t know which is me.”

“… I uh,” he stammered, moving to sit alongside her on the ground. “I… don’t get it. At all. Isn’t it all you?”

“But how do I know? My power takes so much from other people, why not feelings and stuff?”

“Oh,” Arnold muttered, understanding. “… Ohhhh. Okay. I get it. That’s kinda scary.” For a few minutes, they sat together like that. Then, she felt him punch her in the shoulder. “You’re still a dummy, tho. I know who Allison Kinsey is, and you’re totally her.”

Allison huffed. “And who do you think that is?”         

Arnold snickered. “Honest? You’re the girl that laughed when I tried one of my dad’s cigarettes and spewed in my mouth. You’re the girl who laughed at my mum’s Bible lunches and tried to get me kicked out of the Christmas play.”

“There were no rainbow lorikeets in Palestine!”

Arnold ignored her. “You’re the girl who used to tie my shoelaces together when I wasn’t looking, and giggled her bum off when I fell on my face. You’re Allison Kinsey, the dumbest, meanest bestie I could ever have.”

Allison stared at him. “That—that’s horrible.”

Arnold shrugged.

“Well, who else could you have nicked all that from? Your power only lets you learn stuff that’s right, right?”

“Yeah…”

“So where could you learn to be so dumb?” He stuck out his tongue.

“There were lots of mean kids at school… and I’m not mean!”

A snort.

“You’re so mean. You’re Meanie Mc Meanface, mayor of Meanville. No one at school was as bad as you.”  

“No, that was you! You’re being mean right now!”

For a minute or two, Arnold just grinned at her. Then, she felt his arm around her ribs, pulling her close.

“I don’t know how to feel about married days either,” he admitted. “S’not weird. Just… confusing.”

“It’s not just me?”

“Well, duh,” he rolled his eyes. “I kinda think it’s just… Maybe Lawrence is kind of a weirdo?”

“But, then, what are we supposed to do? For kids like us?”

“I dunno.” Arnold shrugged. “I don’t think we’re supposed to do anything?”

“That sounds it’s own kinda scary.”

“It is,” Arnold groaned.

For a little while, there was only the conversation of crickets and the churn of dark water.

“You know those feelings a lot of us get in the dark?” Allison asked.

“Yeah?”

“I think I know it is.”

“What?”

Dark water, pressing on her limbs.

“I think it’s something being born.”

Breakfast the morning after was a sedate, somewhat slapdash affair. Everyone had slept in, to the point they were practically eating lunch. Reverb sat at the head of the table with Lawrence and Żywie, her new daughter squirming under a blanket as she nursed. Gwydion had been offered a seat of honour as well, but he politely declined.

Do you think she will talk? Reverb asked the healer. Her customary voice sounded smaller than usual. Younger.  

“I don’t see any reason she won’t,”  Żywie said gently. “Chant and Chorus show all signs of normal speech development.”

Reverb nodded. That’s good. She turned to her headmaster. You thought of a name yet?

Lawrence swallowed his mouthful of scrambled egg. “My dear, she’s only been on this Earth for thirteen hours. Give a man time.” He reached under the blanket, tweaking the baby’s cheek and saying fondly, “Not that she hasn’t provided me with plenty of options.”

It usually took months for a baby’s powers to become clear, but that was before Myriad. With her blearily playing the new arrival’s song before bed, they already knew she had inherited the bones of her father’s power, and her mother’s range. She could project brightly coloured planar shapes to points far away from herself, like a giant child dropping building blocks from the clouds.

It was this service—and Żywie’s protests—that let the girl escape punishment.

She was sitting further down, between David and Elsewhere, scoffing down marmalade drowned pieces of toast. Turned out identity crises made Myriad hungry.

“You feeling better?” David asked.

Myriad thought about it. “…Not all the way. Still not sure about some things. But Elsewhere helped a lot.”

Elsewhere smiled. David though, blinked.

“That’s surprising.”

Elsewhere grinned and punched the other boy in the shoulder. “Shut up.”

Dust sprinkled from the ceiling. Across from the Watercolours, Tiresias sighed and set down his cutlery, leaving the table and the room without a word. Nobody noticed.

“Hey,” Mabel asked. “Has anyone seen Basil?”

The ceiling collapsed onto the table, plaster chunks and dust raining down like an avalanche.

There was screaming, coughing, and the kind of shocked laughter that confusion brings.

But then the clouds settled, and everyone saw what lay at their centre.

“Hugo!”

Żywie clambered onto the table, kneeling over Hugo Venter’s still form. The remnants of a leather belt were tied tight around his neck.  

“No, no no…” The healer’s fingers rubbed at the white dust covering the man’s face.

David climbed onto the table beside her. “Żywie? What happened? What’s wrong with Basil”

She didn’t answer him. “This—I can fix this. I have to fix this…”

David looked at his father. His blood lay still in his veins, and his chest didn’t rise.

“…Dad?”

There was shouting. Weeping. But it all reached David slowly, like he was underwater. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Allison crawl beside him. Her hands were wobbling beneath her.

“Żywie,” she said shakily. “Basil’s song’s gone.”

Żywie shouted, “I can bring him back! I’ve done it before!”

But she didn’t. All she could do was clutch his chest, her tears mixing with the plaster dust.

Eventually, David felt aged arms wrap around his waist, lifting him of the table. Mrs Gillespie. “Oh, child,” she whispered into his ear, “you shouldn’t be seeing this.”

David didn’t even really know what he was seeing.

The old woman set the boy on his feet, before laying her hand on Żywie’s back.

“Żywie—” she said, holding back tears. “—Eliza. You need to let him go now.”

David watched as Żywie threw her arms around Mrs Gillespie, sobbing in a way he had only seen her do once.

“Hugo…”       

David reached for his father’s hand, trying to find him in his grip. But he wasn’t there.


1. Owing to a boat race in the Dark Ages, Balliol and Trinity have held a rivalry that has long since become self sustaining. It would last until the destruction of both Oxford and Cambridge in the 2070s.

2. Especially Trinity College. “A crowd of stuffy, racist old codgers in boys’ skins,” Lawrence often called them.

3. Hysteron Proteron: a phrase meaning the reverse of the rational or logical order of things, such as “first the thunder, then the lightning,” or “first the superheroes, then the supervillains.”

4. It was a different, much worse time.

5. The traditional, half muttered response was that the Institute didn’t have television either.

6. A fictional substance invented by writer Isaac Asimov in 1948, so soluble that it dissolved before contact with water. Invented briefly for real later that year by Maude Simmons.

7. Not the most unlikely of possible timelines, given the president’s wrestling background.

8. Admittedly, they would only have given her a headstone if she’d died in the act.

9. Recent sightings of a badger-haired girl and her blue friend in the distractingly fabulous hat notwithstanding.

10. The Yankee translation is band-aid.

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Chapter Thirty-Five: The Battle of the Rabbit Hatch

David Barthe-Venter was being ignored. And it was great. Since the morning Adam died (“May he rest in peace,” Mrs Gillespie said every time she mentioned him) Lawrence hadn’t acknowledged his old favourite in any shape or form. Not when he spoke, not when they passed each other in the halls, not even when David mentioned the headmaster by name. He suspected that if he barged naked and screaming at the top of his lungs into Lawrence’s office, the old man wouldn’t even look up from his newspaper.

David had decided Lawrence was trying to guilt him. He also suspected that if he had tried the same trick before he woke up that odd morning it would’ve worked. He probably would’ve begged Lawrence for a thrashing just so he would talk to him again. So that he would tell him he was a good boy again.

Now, though, it was sheer bliss. David hadn’t been raised with any religion—besides maybe the belief in his own kind’s destiny—but he imagined it was like knowing in your bones that God was looking the other way. He knew that would frighten a lot of folks. It would’ve frightened him, too. But now, it meant freedom.  

Okay, so that wasn’t saying much. The other teachers still expected him in class. Even if they hadn’t, David had no real aversion to English or maths or history. Really, very little about David’s day had actually changed. But somehow, he found the world easier to move through, like he had stopped swimming against a riptide. Smiles came more readily. He no longer felt the urge to attack his own hands. Even the pains he sometimes woke with had stopped.

And that pale smile he saw in his sleep? Gone.

Whether by her own actions that morning or by simple proximity to David, Allison had become the second target of Lawrence’s one-man ostracism campaign. Basilisk hadn’t called on the girl’s services much lately, nor had the other teachers, maybe out of fear of offending Lawrence, which suited both children just fine.

The pair lay by the river, in the shade of the tree Mabel laser-blasted the day Arnold and Allison first arrived. Its scorched, blackened arm still hung out over the water.

Allison was fumbling with a piece of paper—tongue poking out the corner of her mouth—trying to fold it into a crane. As it turned out, origami was one of the few areas of expertise she hadn’t managed to pick up in nearly nine years.

She tore a corner and humphed. “Weird,” she muttered.

“Hmm?” David was looking out over the river, lifting bubbles of water into the air and watching the little fish within grow frantic at their new, tiny world.

“I can do paper-airplanes, why not paper birds?”

David shrugged. The fish he captured worked up the nerve or terror to plunge back into the river. “Can plane-mechanics build birdies?”

Allison slumped against the tree.  “Ha. Ha.” She squinted at the sun. “What time is it?”

David waved his arm. “Well, my watch—oh, wait.”

Allison rolled her eyes, trying not to smile. “Just guess.”

A quirk of the shoulders. “Half past 10, maybe?”

A humpf. “Lunch is ages away then.”

“You hungry?”

“Yeah.”

David smiled. “I know where there’s something to eat.”

He led them beyond the obstacle course and the edge of the bush, until they reached an ancient looking rabbit-trap. Opening the hatch and whipping out a rotting storm blanket revealed a pile of packaged junk-food: triple-wafers, tim-tams, and more.

Allison was impressed. And peckish. “What are these doing here?”

David tossed her a packet of barbecue crisps, ripping open one of the triple-wafer packets for himself. “They’re one of Windshear’s snack-stashes. She thinks they’re all real secret, and I guess they are, but I sorta… float around a lot. You see things.”

“Won’t she be mad?”

“You’re damn right I will be!”

David and Allison turned to see Windshear standing between Britomart and Haunt, a private wind upsetting her red pigtails. Brit wore a mask of cool professionalism, while Haunt settled for vague semi-interest.

“That stuff’s mine, Mealy!” the youngest girl shouted.

David sighed. “I prefer Mael, Windy. Or David. Go with David.”

Brit’s eyebrows arched. “Won’t Lawrence be mad?”

It still surprised David how little the idea bothered him. “I think he already as mad at me as he’s gonna get.”

“Wild,” said Brit.

Windshear glared at her chief-minion. “Brit, this is serious!”

“Sorry, sorry.”

That done, Windshear tried getting back to the intimidation. “I’m going to tell.”

“Sure,” Allison said. “I’m sure the grownups are gonna care so much about your racket. I bet you nicked half this stuff from the kitchen anyway.”

“She has a point,” said Haunt absently, busy watching what he thought was a wombat bounding through some distant trees. “Pretty sure your thing is against the rules too.”

Windshear scowled. “You’re a real bad employee, Haunt.”

“That would be because I’m not one, Windy. Because you’re six.”

Windshear growled and ran towards Allison and David.

The boy looked at Allison and grinned, the expression becoming fixed as he went icy. Allison in turn looked straight ahead at the charging little girl and dug her heels in. Żywie’s biofeedback numbing had finally worn off.

She almost laughed as Windshear struck them, the dervishes she had conjured hitting David with less effect than a breeze against a glacier, and with even less to herself. And she had already borrowed Brit’s song. She shot through the gale, tapping Windshear against her breast, which still managed to send her tumbling to the ground.

“Nope, not doing this,” Haunt said as he turned into a blueprint of himself.

Brit sprinted towards David, ice twinkling in the cold air behind her like stars behind an aurora. Faster than he could react, she swung a glowing fist into his head, shattering it.

The decapitated sculpture of David fell to its knees, made an agonized gesture with its hands, and collapsed to the floor.

In spite of herself, Britomart giggled. Then a tendril of water threw her into a tree.

David’s clothes were flattening like the Wicked Witch of the East’s feet, ice-water gushing from his neck hard and fast like arterial blood. It spilt up into the air to form a spectre, halfway between solid and vapour. And it was grinning.  

Windshear was becoming rapidly aware of just how much Maelstrom had been letting her bully him all this time. She’d never admit that, though. Not as long as she lived. She returned her gaze to Allison, and pulled herself to her feet, a miniature twister already forming in her hand.

Allison laughed as hard as she could at the little girl, laughter that stopped abruptly as Windshear directed her force not against her enemy, but into the ground around her. The earth at her feet exploded with a deafening crack.

As Allison tried to spit all the dirt and grass out, she saw Brit stagger past her, trying to swat away a cloud of ice-shards—ice shards that were cackling in a most un-David-like manner. It was like a swarm of bees crossed with an exploding window. They were striking her skin hard enough to shatter brick, and so felt to her like mozzie bites.

Brit growled, and vented the kinetic energy she had stored back into the air around her.

Suddenly, the ice that was David wanted very much to be water again. The cloud collapsed like a vertical wave into the dirt.

Before it could soak in, the water rose and coalesced with a splash back into David, human again. “I didn’t know you could make things hot on purpose!”  

“I didn’t either.”

“It’s neat!”

Britomart blushed… then she swung her fists at David.

The boy laughed, swerving away from her blows as he stepped backwards right through Haunt.

“Oh, God,” the older boy moaned. He shuddered. “You people are disgusting! You know that?”

David went cloudy, the mist swirling through the air over to where Windshear was advancing on Allison, pooling around her ankles and wrists before freezing solid.

“What the—”

The ice pulled her skyward, screaming as she drifted over the treetops.

“Windy!” Brit leapt into the air in a flurry of snow, slamming into Windshear and wrapping her arms around the smaller girl. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you!”

“How are you gonna get us down?”

Brit’s eyes widened.

“Brit?”

“Crap.”

Haunt was running under the girls, solid again, and openly panicking for the first time Alison could remember— well, aside from that time with the wall. Allison ran a little ahead of him. Backwards. “Keep up!”

“Don’t—you—think,” Haunt panted, “—he’s going a bit far?”

Haunt was surprised Myriad could shrug without breaking pace. “It’s David. What’s the worst he could come up with?”

“Have you met his mum?” Haunt huffed.

Surprisingly few students or staff looked up as the girl sailed over the grounds. There were about half a dozen students who could manage a feat like that. They would have been more interested if they knew which one was responsible.

Soon they found themselves over the river.

“He’s gonna drown us!” Windshear cried.

Brit tried to reassure her. “I don’t—”

The ice-manacles evaporated.

It wasn’t a great fall. With Brit’s power taking the brunt of it, they slipped beneath the water like feathers from a passing bird. Still, it was bigger in their heads. The two of them floundered as they tried orienting themselves, before a slab of ice shoved them back up into the dry air.

David was rocking on his heels, hands behind his back, the water supporting him as solidly as stone. His eyes burned green. “So, me and Miri are gonna take the snacks.”

“You sure they’ll like them?” Myriad asked.

“Sure,” said David, blinking at her. “Who doesn’t like sweets?”

With his arms laden with junk-food packets, he shoved the barn door open with his elbow, shouting, “Spoils of war! Snack-shaped spoils of water!”

“Shut the door!” Mabel barked.

“…Sorry.” David slid the door shut with his back. “Still, snacks!”

Growltiger looked up from where he’d been spinning straw into silver1. “Neat! Where’d you get them?”

Myriad answered, “Me and David won them off Windshear.” She smirked. “You shoulda seen her face!”

Growltiger’s tail twitched. “You stole them from a really little kid?”

Myriad shrugged. “She had it coming.” She trotted over to where Mabel was laying on her stomach, scratching away at her drawing pad. “You want something to eat, Mabs?”

“I’m busy,” the other girl muttered. “Practising my shading.” Like Adam told her. She grimaced as her pencil pierced the piece of paper. Stupid, sore fingers.

“You want me to leave you something?” Myriad glanced down at the pile of snack-food she was holding. “We’ve got crisps, strawberries and cream, jelly-snakes. The chocolates sorta melted—”

Mabel’s pencil-tip snapped. “Go jump in the river!”

Myriad pouted. “Maybe I will! It’s cool down there!”

While that was going on, David had made his way to the shadowed corner where Elsewhere slouched. “Else,” he said, “Arn? I got some jaffers here. I know you like them.”

“Buzz off,” the boy said. “I don’t wanna talk to you.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re dumb,” Arnold said flatly, before getting back to kneading his fingers.

David frowned. “No, I’m not!”

“Yes. You are,” Arnold growled. “You’re running around like you’re on pixy sticks, all grinning and fighting and acting like nothing’s the matter. You’re just making everything worse.”

David folded his arms. “So you don’t like me being happy? You’ve been weird ever since Adam died. Not even the right weird. Boring, stupid weird.”

“I don’t like you being dumb.” Arnold muttered. “I like happy David. I always wanted to see happy David. But you’re being Dumb David. You’re being ‘Doesn’t give a crap about anybody’ David.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I care about people! I got you jaffers!”

“But you still kissed me!”

David sat down next to him. “I thought you’d like it. Linus’ song said so. People kiss all the time!”

“Not. Boys.”

“They do on the continent. Mum and Tiresias told me. And so what if boys don’t kiss? Boys usually don’t zap things away, either.”

“Liking you isn’t a superpower though!” He went red, but didn’t go back on it, even when he saw Growltiger looking at him with complete confusion. “It’s just… weird. I don’t like being weird.”

 At that, Mabel shrugged. “It’s not that weird,” she interjected, flicking some hay at David. “Everyone likes David a little. You’ll grow out of it.”

David glared over at the girl, poking his tongue out at her. She replied in kind.

He scowled darkly back at Arnold. “Everyone’s always telling me how I’m supposed to act. What I’m supposed to be. You, Lawrence…”

“And kissing me was like trying to tell me how to be!” Arnold’s eyes started to well. “Couldn’t—couldn’t you have asked?”  

“Would you have said no?”

“No!” Arnold almost froze when he realized what he’d said, but he shook himself. “I… I don’t know! And you don’t get to make that choice for me!”

“Welcome to my world!” David shouted. “Everyone makes my choices for me!”

“And that makes it okay to be mean to the ones who don’t?” Arnold yelled. Before the final word had even left his mouth, Mabel’s palm connected with David’s cheek.

For a moment, the barn was quiet. A jaffa cake fell to the floor, unnoticed.

“We’re. Not. Lawrence!” she shouted, angry tears gathering in her eyes.

David didn’t speak for a while. “So what am I supposed to do? Just pretend to be all sad and good and behave all the time? Why does everyone else get to run around and be stupid sometimes?”

“You’re allowed to be happy!” Arnold shouted. “Please. Keep being happy. It’s great! Just don’t be so mean about it!”

David shuffled awkwardly against the wall. “Arn—” A flash, and he was outside, talking to the barn door. “—old.”

Half a second later, a dirty jaffa cake landed on his head. Before it was over, Allison appeared beside him with a snap.

“That… wasn’t great.”

“Shush,” David grumbled. “… He didn’t even keep the cakes.” He looked down at his feet. “I think I need to talk to someone. Allie?”

“Yeah?”

“Could you go get my pants?”

Allison glanced up and down the boy. “Sure, buddy.”

On the other side of the door, Billy turned to the still fuming Arnold.

“… That would have been easier if he’d been dressed. Wouldn’t it?”

He nodded furiously.

Dr. Herbert Lawrence sat alone in his office, his business done for the day. The Institute’s various sources of income—Ex-Nihilo’s raw material fabrication, Tiresias’ stocks, rent from the family home down in Claremont—were chugging along nicely. The DDHA were making their annual inspection in December, and as tense as those always were, Lawrence wasn’t letting himself worry. If any of the girls were still expecting by then, Phantasmagoria would animate their portraits and have them keep their distance, same as last time.

After that, he thought he might try and bring in more musicians for Myriad.

His slate cleared, the old man was reading an Arthur Machen collection. Currently, he was thumbing his way through “The White People”. That story had always amused Lawrence. The idea that people could only react with fear to flowers singing or stone giving rise to blossoms. Had Machen never heard of curiosity? Wonder?

Lately, though, the idea echoed longer in Lawrence’s head.

There was a knock at his door.

“Enter.”

Maelstrom stepped into the office, thankfully dressed and thankfully not screaming. “Lawrence?”

The boy’s teacher looked up at him for a second, then silently went back to his book.

David tried not to roll his eyes. “I’m here to apologize.”

That got Lawrence’s attention. “I’m glad to hear it, Maelstrom. I was beginning to think good sense had abandoned you completely.”  

David clenched his fist, but took a deep breath. “I’m sorry about the day Adam—”

“Panoply.”

“…He was called Adam then, but yeah, the day Panoply died. Me and Miri didn’t know, but I understand. You were sad, and we were being all happy. I’m sorry we barged in like that.”

Lawrence sniffed. “Not good enough, young man.”   

“…What?”

“It wasn’t just the context of your behaviour, but the behaviour itself.”

“But we weren’t doing anything bad!”

“Not a very sincere apology I see.”

“What was so bad about what me and Myriad were doing?”

“It’s not how you’ve been taught, Maelstrom. You need to be an example to your brothers and sisters.”

David swallowed. “You’re not answering me, sir.”

“This again? I shouldn’t have to tell you, Maelstrom, I’m not a ‘sir’.”

“You are such a sir!”

Without a word, Lawrence went back to his book.

David shook his head silently. How could a bloke that old be such a baby? And why did he even now still care what Lawrence thought of him?

He stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

“Stupid, mean—can’t even—”

He suddenly found his face in something brown and acrid smelling.    

David staggered backwards, coughing. “Sorry, Basilisk.”

“It’s alright, Maelstrom.” He noticed the look on his son’s face. “But you’re not. What’s wrong?”

Once his throat was clear, the boy answered. “I—I tried saying sorry to Lawrence.”

“What for?”

“That morning, when Adam…”

Basil put a hand on his shoulder. “I know whatcha mean. And yeah, that was a bit… jarring. Still, you didn’t know.”

“That’s what I said! But Lawrence said we were bad anyway. That I had to set an example…” David’s eyes started to sting. He hated them for it.

His father frowned. “You know, Lawrence is a smart man. Probably the smartest I’ve ever met. But he’s also old, Mael. Old fellas get funny ideas into their heads. I think Lawrence sometimes gets ‘being a good kid’ mixed up with ‘being a lost Etonian’. His lot, they’re all about dignity and reserve and all that. But that’s not what being good is.” He smiled. “You—you be as silly as you like, Mael. The fact you even tried to apologise means you’re still a good kid.”

Maelstrom stood straighter than years of Lawrence reminding him of posture could make him. “Thanks, Dad.” The word sounded odd in his mouth, but he liked it. “I’m gonna go find Miri. Is that alright?”

Basil’s smiled widened. “Absolutely fine.”

“And do you mind calling me David? More I mean?”

He patted his son’s shoulder. “Course not.”

Basilisk watched his son run down the hall.

He’ll be fine.


1. He’d started with gold, but people kept telling the him it was in bad taste.

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Chapter Thirty-Four: Panoply

The Physician came for Adam’s body in the afternoon. Lawrence insisted all students and staff alike be there for the handoff.

“It’s only right we see him on his way,” he had told them.

The New Human Institute bore no coffin or bier as they marched down the long dirt driveway. The Physician was waiting for them, his truck parked at the edge where school gave way to bush, henchmen—makeup thankfully washed off—flanking him on both sides. To Lawrence’s relief, he wasn’t smiling. In fact, he didn’t seem to have much of any facial expression.

Lawrence and Żywie moved ahead of the pack, trying to gesture for everyone else to stay back. Luckily, nobody needed much encouragement to keep their distance from the Physician.

The doctor had his arms folded, his long fingers furling and unfurling along his sleeves. “I trust you have kept the body cool?” he asked tonelessly.

Lawrence nodded. “We’ve tried our best, John.” He turned to look back at his students. “Artume?”

Mary Gillespie took the young girl by the hand and led her over. “You’re being very brave, love.”

The Physician’s face came to life when he recognized her, the muscles tightening like clockwork. “Sheilah Brown!” He grinned at Lawrence. “Whose idea was this?”

Żywie sighed. “Mine.”

The Physician clicked his tongue. “Not surprised!” Addressing Artume, he said, “Congratulations on the conception by the way, I’m sure the results will be very interesting.”

The girl stared at her feet. “Thank you.”

“Would you mind dislodging the carcass for us, Miss Brown?”

A gash opened in the world, bleeding black.

Artume tried not to look at the wound. “I don’t have to… get him out, do I?”

“Oh, of course not,” Mrs Gillespie assured her. “You’re doing more than your share as it is.” She turned to Żywie. “Would you assist me?”

The two women reached into Artume’s void. Without her darkvision, it was a hard search, but neither Mary nor Żywie would consider calling her over.

The Physician watched with interest. “Lawrence,” he asked. “Is handling the dead a traditionally feminine task in your culture?”

Lawrence raised a hand. “Żywie—”

“No, Lawrence. I need to do this,” she said.   

They pulled out chocolates, Coke bottles, old issues of Womens Weekly—  

“Ah,” Mary Gillespie closed her eyes. “I think we’ve got a hold of him.”

Tenderly, one arm each, the pair pulled Adam into the light of reality. Neither rigor-mortis nor the smell of death had set in yet. The boy could have been asleep, if he weren’t so cold.

At first, when the screaming hadn’t even died down, there had been some hope that Żywie could bring Adam back to life. She had done it before—still hearts coaxed into beating again under her hand. But Adam had lain dead for at least an hour, entropy scrambling the pattern that had been him. Even for Żywie, it would’ve been like putting a dust-cloud back together from memory, without mislaying a single speck or mote. What she woke might have breathed, but it wouldn’t have been Adam.

The henchmen took Adam from the women, presenting him to their master. The Physician leaned in for a sniff. “It’s not ideal, but I might work something out,” he said, straightening himself. “It’s such a shame. I was looking forward to our chats.” He pointed from Vibe and Jam to the truck. “Prepare it for transport.”

Lawrence, half out of respect, half out of curiosity, followed the pair as they carried Adam to the back of the truck bed.

They swung the doors open. Inside—amongst a disassembled tent and the Physician’s other tools—was what Lawrence could only describe as an enormous, mottled black and yellow pupa, lying in the middle of the floor. As the two men approached it, the thing opened.

Lawrence gagged at the stench of it, sickly and brackish. The chamber was filled with a blue, fluorescent fluid, thinner than ink. Jam and Vibe dropped the dead boy inside, and then he was gone, the pupa resealing once the ripples subsided.

“We’re lucky I always bring a specimen jar when I travel.”

The old man jerked at the Physician’s voice. He hadn’t heard the doctor creep up behind him. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose it is… you’re being very understanding about this, Doctor.”

The Physician shut the truck doors with Mr. Jam and Mr. Vibe still inside. Just more cargo. “Oh, Herbert, what’s the point of anger when all is said and done?” He made for the cabin. “Have a good Christmas. Tell me when the babies start coming, I’d like to have their DNA on file.”

Lawrence didn’t bother answering. He doubted the Physician would care either way. He watched the truck drive away until it turned around the first bend in the road.

As the Institute dispersed back into the campus, Lawrence felt a tug on his sleeve. He looked down. “Yes, Phantasmagoria?” he asked, tiredly.

“Why does the Physician get Adam?”

“Autopsy. He wants to make sure what caused his aneurysm won’t affect any of you.”

“But his mum and dad? They’ll get him after, right?”

Lawrence nodded slowly. “Yes, it’s only right.”

Mabel stopped walking. Her teacher left her behind without a glance.

As the little girl watched him trudge up towards the big house, she wished she could believe him.

The memorial was only a couple days later. Everyone gathered in the spot along the river where they usually put on the Namings. Lawrence stood beside something hidden under a white tablecloth.

“Adam Sinclair was only with us a short while, but I will always remember him as the boy who—when he found himself the powerful amongst us—did not use his gifts to bully or lord over his fellows, but to help maintain their spirits and standards. For a fortnight, he might as well have been the only posthuman in the world, and he behaved above and beyond what I’d hope from one.”

Next to Mabel, Maelstrom whispered, “Was it really two weeks?”

“Oh yeah,” Myriad replied. “You really don’t remember?”

Mabel wanted to shout at the pair of them, muttering during a funeral (or whatever this was) but how could she blame them? Most of the time Adam had been there, they’d been off in their own little worlds. Everyone had been, really. Nobody but her had cried—apart from Growltiger, but he was just like that—and it made her feel stupid. She barely knew Adam. What did they do together besides a few drawing lessons?

It worried her David didn’t cry, though.

“Nope. Last thing before we woke up was Linus’ singing.”

“Lucky, I guess,” Myriad said.

Lawrence kept going. “Adam’s powers were amazing. I doubt the world has seen anything like him, and won’t for a long time. But the true tragedy is all the times he could have had with us. All those experiences. Today, however, I wish to grant Adam at least one of them.”

He pulled off the bed sheet, revealing a grey marble plinth. A cenotaph, as Allison would later call it. A grave for the absent and lost. A Galapagos finch was inlaid on its face in gold, above a name in silver:

PANOPLY          

“I’d like to thank our Growltiger and Ex-Nihilo for their work on this memorial.”

Billy didn’t know whether he was supposed to acknowledge the credit or not. He settled for staring at his feet.

“I never got to Name Adam Sinclair, but I will always remember Panoply.” The old man had to take pause. The words were catching in his throat. “I hope—I hope you children can look at this stone and remember Panoply too.”

The children started clapping softly. Nobody was sure if it was the done thing, but what else could they do. Nobody knew Adam well enough to give him a eulogy.

Mabel was very glad she wasn’t standing at the front, because she couldn’t keep the anger off her face. That plinth was a lie. Nobody who had ever loved Adam had ever called him “Panopoly”. Nobody who had even liked him had called him that. It was a story; the version of Adam Lawrence had wanted. And that stupid bird. It turned it from a gravestone into an advertisement.

There’ll be a real grave somewhere, she tried telling herself. A real grave, with his real name, that his mum and dad can go visit.

It was an odd thing to hope for, but Mabel knew not everyone got as much.

Lucius Owens sat in the big house’s library, alone but for the characters of The King Must Die. Not the cheerist title, but the way those Athenian hostages bonded over bull-vaulting of all things comforted him.

He didn’t look up when the door opened, but he did when he heard Phantasmagoria’s voice: “Linus?”

Linus rested the book on his knee. “You alright, Phan?” That was the default greeting at the Institute lately.

“…I don’t know.”

Well, time to be the communal big-brother. He scooted sideways to make space on the leather couch. “Get over here.”

Phantasma sat down next to the the older boy, lolling against his side. “What’re you reading?”

He glanced at the book’s cover: two fresco-figures with their arms entwined by serpents.  “The King Must Die.”

“What’s it about?”

“Theseus.”

That caught Mabel’s interest. “So, the Minotaur?”

Linus shrugged. “Sort of. But he’s just the prince in a big bull mask. It’s one of those books that tries to show how the story could have happened without my folks getting involved.” He winked. “Pure blasphemy, I say.”

The girl looked up at him, tilting her head. “So, they made it more boring?”

Linus laughed. “I guess they did.”

“…Linus?”

“Yeah, Phan?”

“Your folks basically made the world, right?”

Linus thought he knew where this was going, but he decided to let the girl get there herself. It was just nice that some of the littlies believed him. “I suppose you could say that. I think it’s more that they painted over a lot of it.” The young man’s eyes briefly darted upwards. He hoped his family didn’t take this the wrong way. “And some of them are the world. It’s complicated.”

“…Do you know what happens to people when they die?”

“Oh.” It wasn’t the first time one of the younger kids had asked Linus that. Hell, it wasn’t even the first time Phantasmagoria had asked him. She could still remember her then—that sad, sun-dried thing Lawrence had found in the desert, lost and afraid even of her own powers. Time had almost washed that girl away like a bad chalk-drawing in the rain, but Linus thought he could see her stirring behind Phantasma’s eyes.

  She probably doesn’t even remember, he realized. Linus had forgotten how long three years felt when you were small. “Most of what I know you could probably get from books. Dad never really sat down and explained it all.”

“I still want to know.”

“Alright. You know the Grim Reaper?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, that’s basically my uncle, Hermes.”

“I thought he was the thief god?”

A smile. “He’s god of a lot of things. I think even he loses track sometimes. But like I was saying, one of Hermes’ jobs is guiding dead people down to the Underworld, where his uncle looks after them.”

Mabel was quiet for some time. “…Why?”

“What’cha mean?”

“Why do dead people have to go anywhere? Why can’t they just stay up here with us? Dying could be like… puberty or something.”

Linus frowned. “That’s called being a ghost, Phan. Nobody wants to be one of those.”

“I would!”

The boy raised an eyebrow. “Would you now?”

“Yeah! Floating around, walking through walls, being all see through. Haunt likes it.”

“Haunt can turn it off, Phan. The world’s just not built for naked souls, I think. The sun burns too bright and sounds are too sharp. The Underworld’s where they belong.”

“But that’s dumb!” Phantasmagoria cried. “Who made it so everyone has to go away forever just because they hurt too much or lived too long!” She pulled away from Linus, scrunching in on herself and scowling. “Your family’s a bunch of meanies.”

Mabel expected some kind of protest from Linus, or maybe an insult. The fact none came worried her enough to make her glance back at him.

The young man was looking contemplatively at his book. “Yeah, they can be sometimes. But my family didn’t invent death. It’s not like that Garden of Eden stuff in the Bible. Death’s always been here. Only way it could work. If nothing ever died, we’d be smothered by flies. Hell, we’d smother the flies. And it’s even littler things, too. Cancer is immortal: did you know that?” He sighed. “Maybe some angry cousin of mine invented all the other stuff. Made dying so scary. Made it so we missed people. Made it so it’s always kinda shocking, even though everyone does it.”

Mabel drew in close to him again. “Do you think they’re alright? Adam. My mum and dad. Everyone?”

“Is your uncle kind?”

His father’s voice, like music at dawn. “No. But he is fair.”

“Yeah,” Linus said. “I’m sure they are.”

They didn’t speak for some time. Linus hummed a little, and it put birdsong to shame. He wasn’t trying to use his song, but keeping magic out of his voice was like trying to keep water out of the sea.

“Do you ever think about leaving?” the little girl asked.

“Hmm?”

“Leaving the school. You’re eighteen right? Sanctioned? Couldn’t you go?”

“Why would I want to?”

Linus felt Mabel shrug. “Dunno. See the world. Go to university?” She tried to giggle. “Fight crime?”

Linus laughed. “I don’t know about that last one. You even heard of a singing superhero?”

Mabel thought about it. “There’s this old Superman story where he teams up with Pat Boone1.”

“Pat Boone is not a superhero. I’m not even sure he’s a singer. As for university—our teachers are great, but I don’t know if I have a high school certificate or anything. And I couldn’t leave the babies.”

“But Chant, Chorus, and Spitfire are yours. You could take them with you.”

“They belong to their mums, too. And all of us, really. I wouldn’t want to leave Ophelia and the kids that are going to be born, either. And… I guess I don’t really know what my life would be like. I haven’t left the valley in six years, I think.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”

Mabel lay there for a while, letting Linus sing softly or read the odd passage from The King Must Die out loud.

She wasn’t paying attention, though. Her gaze was focused on the shelf where the Institute kept all its medical books.

Elsewhere found himself with very little to do after lessons were over. Myriad was mooning over Maelstrom even more than usual, and Elsewhere couldn’t look at him right now without wanting to punch his lights out. Or wanting to—no, just the first thing.

There were all the other children of the Institute, of course, but Elsewhere felt awkward trying to play with them. They didn’t know what he knew. What he had done to Adam. The weird, broken feelings stupid Maelstrom and his stupid magic eyes stirred up in him. He felt like a leper in a swimming pool.

So, Elsewhere went in search of Mabel. She wasn’t in the barn, or any of her usual drawing practice hideaways. Eventually, Linus pointed the boy to the library.

He found the girl at the library’s grand honey-oak reading table, almost obscured from view by siege-towers of books and magazines. A fairy-tale princess and a bespectacled giraffe were working through the piles beside her.

Elsewhere was surprised. It wasn’t that Mabel was an illiterate child by any means. It was just she tended to value books more in terms of how they could be put to work.

He pulled up a chair. “What are you reading?”

The princess put a finger to her mouth. “Shush!”

“Sorry,” Elsewhere whispered. “What are you reading?”

Mabel answered without looking up, “Żywie’s doctor books.”

Calling the books “Żywie’s” was perhaps misleading. While the healer did make a point of buying up medical publications, they were less for her to use than for her amusement. She would go through them page by page—crossing out lines and adding her commentary:

Iodine actually destroys cells, dears.

Trust me, babies feel pain.

Inducing vomiting will not relieve postoperative vomiting. I’m surprised I need to tell you people this.               

“Oh,” said Elsewhere. “Why?”

Mabel looked up at him. “Wait, you don’t actually believe the grown ups?”

“Believe them about what?”

Very slowly, Mabel said, “That Adam had an ann-your-lism.”   

“You don’t think it was the Quiet Room?”

“No. That’s stupid. Why would it have only given him the ann-your-lism and not any of us?”

He bit his lip. “So—you don’t think me putting him in there… made it happen?”   

Mabel reached over and took the boy’s hand. “No. That’s stupid.”

“So what does that mean?”

The giraffe snorted, nudging the page it was on with its nose.

Mabel leaned over to look, nodded, and dispelled the giraffe and princess both. “It means we need to find Żywie.”

The Institute’s healer was at work in the veggie-garden. It was still bright out, but the blues and whites of the sky dulled like dried paint. Shadows crept up the trunks of the surrounding trees, towards leaves still lit with gold, as though the sun was pulling the light out of them as it slowly set.

Żywie grunted as she bent over one of her walking pumpkins, trying to get a brush into the spines of its mouth.

The home-bred jack o’ lantern struggled under her grip, its root-tendrils whipping and thrashing, before it finally broke free and scurried off into the bush, troubling the Institute’s cow on its way.

“Fine!” Żywie shouted after it from the dirt. “Let your teeth rot! See if I care!” She thought about running after her creation, but she couldn’t work up the energy. Some family in Northam would be in pumpkin-pie for months.

She was about to check on the cow when she heard her.

“Why are you lying about Adam?”

Phantasmagoria and Elsewhere were standing at the allotment’s gate, their faces grim. The girl was holding a book at her side.

Żywie got to her feet. “…What?”

Elsewhere said, “Phantasma’s been reading about brain ann-your-lisms.”

Żywie sighed, English teacher again for a moment. “Aneurysms, you mean.”

“Doesn’t matter,” insisted Phantasmagoria. “What matters is they don’t just happen overnight.”  

“Phantasma, aneurysms can go undetected for weeks.”

“You checked us all with the Physician the day before Adam died. How could you have missed it?”

“I—I make mistakes, too.”

“No,” said Elsewhere. “You don’t”.

“We told Lawrence Adam was taking away our powers,” Mabel said. “And don’t say we were wrong. We know we weren’t.” Her voice started to grow ragged. “Then the Physician comes, and the next morning, Adam’s dead.”

“Seems pretty lucky to me,” Elsewhere muttered.

Żywie would have smacked the boy if she were close enough. “Don’t you dare say that!”

“Stop lying to us!” Mabel shouted back. “Why do grownups always lie?”

Żywie wanted to scream. Wanted to weep. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Reverb’s standard morose teenaged voice rang out across the school:

Dinnertime.

Żywie walked out of the allotment, past Mabel and Elsewhere. “You should stop talking about things you don’t understand. Both of you. Be glad you have your powers back. Be glad you were given the ones you have.”

Mabel watched the woman go. “Eliza Winter!”

She stopped in place, not looking back.

Mabel inhaled. “Did you kill Adam?”

“…Yes.”

Her answer was calm. Almost matter-a-fact. As though she were admitting it more to herself than the children. By the time either of them had recovered enough to say anything, the healer was gone.

Arnold looked wide-eyed at his friend. “I—what—”

“I don’t know,” said Mabel. “I really don’t know”.

The pair made their way back to the big house. Silently. Numbly. They kept their distance from any other child they passed. Once they were inside, they followed the overlapping chatter and clinking of cutlery to the dining room.

Most of the student body had already sat down. David was swirling and fretting the glass of lemon cordial in front of him, much to the amusement of Brit and Allison, while Lawrence pointedly ignored him from the head of the table.

He looked up at his friends with those new eyes of his, frowning slightly. “You two alright?”

The room had gone quiet. Mabel wondered what she and Arnold looked like right then. She could barely feel her own face, and reading the expressions of others was now beyond her. Like a maths trick she had never used outside of class.

He loves her, Mabel thought. Everyone did. She did, too. Żywie, the one who made the hurt go away.  

Then she found Eliza, sitting beside the headmaster. She caught her eye. Eliza looked resolute, but resigned. Like a woman expecting a blow. A witch who wanted to be burned.

She was going to tell them, Mabel decided. She would tell everyone what Eliza had done. And then… she didn’t know what would happen then. But it was the right thing to do.

“Żywie—” The rest of the words got lost. “Żywie…”

“Yes, child?” she said. “Is something the matter?”

Arnold tried to pick up for her. “Eliza…” Now why couldn’t he say anything? “Eliza!”

Lawrence stood from his chair. “Are you two playing a game?”

Żywie put a hand on the old man’s arm. “It’s alright, Lawrence.”

“No it isn’t!” Mabel blurted. “Eliza…” The more she tried, the harder it got. It was like a bricklayer was building a wall between her mouth and her brain. “Eliza—”

She burst into tears. Arnold soon joined her.

“Oh, God,” Abalone said. “They’ve gone mad, haven’t they?”

“Now don’t go saying rubbish,” Tiresias said as he got up and approached the crying children. He pulled them both in close, feeling them grow placid at his touch. “They’ve been through an awful shock. We all have.”

The esper looked up and down the table. The children seemed to be buying it. But then his eyes landed on Eliza. That corpse-woman. The one with the mirrored mind. She was staring right at him, and those eyes made him feel transparent.

Alberto clutched the children tighter, hard against his chest.


1. Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane Volume 1 #9. Superman actually spent much of the story sabotaging and generally tormenting Pat Boone for the flimsiest of reasons, but this was also how the character generally treated his friends and loved ones at the time. You could also argue that it was Pat Boone, and thus perfectly justified.  

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Chapter Thirty-Three: Still Waters

It took a few moments for David to notice anything after waking up. The first thing he noticed was his stomach growling, like he hadn’t eaten in days. He was laying on something soft, patches of his pyjamas worn almost through and the fabric rough against his skin. Sunshine pressed against his eyelids. He didn’t open them. No need. The door was closed. The nearest moving person was downstairs. There was someone else in this room, though. Breathing, but still. Small, female. Allison. He smiled. He really wasn’t sure why.

Still with his eyes closed, David reduced himself to fog. Mist seeped out of his pyjamas and down through the floorboards.

In the kitchens, Therese Fletcher heard a pop as she sullenly worked the stove, followed by the tell-tale rustle of paper and plastic. She turned, and caught only the briefest snatch of a boy, quite naked, eyes sparkling with mischief as he dug through the drawer where the sweets were stored. Before she had a chance to say a word, however, there was another pop, and the boy vanished in a puff of fog, leaving a half empty packet of tim tams in his wake.

“… Maelstrom?” she asked absently. No. That couldn’t have been him. Maelstrom would’ve broken down and wept if he’d been caught in the treat cupboard. Probably even if Lawrence had sent him. And those eyes were the wrong colour.

Back in the darkened room, Allison Kinsey felt something cold splash against her cheek, and opened one bleary eye to Maelstrom dumping a jug’s worth of water on her head.

It took Allison a moment to recognize his song. It sounded like someone had figured out how to play hot-jazz with verrilion. Then Allison realised the songs were back and nothing else mattered in the world.

“C’mon,” said the strange boy, his eyes milky green like the edges of waves in moonlight. “I want to play.”

Allison blinked up at the friend she didn’t know. Then she grinned, the hazel of her eyes got lost in the green, and the world was a flood. David ran out of his father’s room, pursued by the ghost of Allison, her vaporous fingers reaching out to grab him.

As he ran, David savoured the way his legs moved. His whole body felt new and strange, like a toy just out of the box. The air was odd, too, thin and light around his limbs.

Allison gained on David, tickling his skin. He turned and made a sharp stop, letting her fog smash into his now icy chest.

Allison coalesced behind him, pouting. “No fair!”

Flesh and blood again, David turned and shrugged, grinning all the while. “It’d need rules to be fair!” His body collapsed into water, soaking into the carpet till he was gone.

Allison growled and followed suit.

David had never realized how porous the big house was. All the little nooks and crannies were like doors for him. Why hadn’t he thought of it before?

He dripped down towards the second floor, the droplets that were him evaporating into steam before they could hit the ground. Allison followed him, their mists intermingling in a deeply confused hug.

Once they had figured out whose water molecules were whom, they noticed Arnold leaning against a door, anxiously clawing at the wood as he zapped a ball into the air, over and over.

That confused Allison. They had their powers back. What was there to be miserable about?

David, for his part, simply saw someone being unhappy. The boy tried to think of what would make Arnold happy.

Then he remembered Linus’ song.

He materialized in front of the other child, and before he could say anything, gave him a kiss. It wasn’t a long one, but Arnold went pale before the end, nonetheless.

“It’s alright, you know.”

“M-Mael?” he asked, eyes widening as David and Allison ran laughing like mad towards the bannister, leaping over the wooden railing with no hesitation.  

On the first floor landing, splinters of ice reassembled themselves like a child attempting a jigsaw-puzzle.

Allison clutched David’s hands, bouncing on her heels. “What do you wanna do now?”

He grinned. “I wanna go outside.”

The pair burst out the front door, bounding down the veranda and into the lawn.  Left unattended in the chaos of the blackout, the grass blades now stabbed towards the sky like so many spears.

David savoured the warmth on his skin. The rays of the sun and the dirt under his feet were distant, pleasant memories, suddenly made real and vivid again. And he felt so fast. Like he could run to Perth and back without breaking a sweat.

He wanted water. Luckily the rising summer had yet to burn all the green from the world. Blades of grass, ants, and flies alike exploded, the moisture inside them pursuing David as he ran past. It didn’t matter. Their water was his.

The water clung to David’s hands. First like beads of sweat, then clear, glittering gloves, and finally crystal spheres bigger than his head. Without breaking his stride, he turned to face Allison, poking his tongue out.

Lashes of water slapped the girl in the face. Sputtering and fuming, she tried to to close the growing gap between her and David.

A red and blue diamond, split down the middle.

Nothing. Stupid Żywie, making her be weak.

Allison looked toward the ribbon of blue in the distance. All that water…

A great finger of water rose from the river, dwarfing the trees along its banks. Like a serpent, it reared over the grounds of the Institute, dragging its tail out the river and into the air, until its shadow was over Allison.

She let go of David’s song.

The entire mass lunged down onto the girl. The next second, she was fifty yards in front of David, glowing like the moon and frosted with ice.

“Nah ha!”

“No fair!”

Allison smirked. “I thought you said there weren’t any rules?”

David roared. The thousands of gallons of snow and ice-water rose behind him, and flew towards his friend.

The blizzard hit a dam of fire, hissing as it melted for the ground to drink, the steam lost in the air.

David’s song would always be Allison’s favourite, hands down. But who ever listened only to their favourite song?   

Arm in arm, the two children laughed. It was a good day. Then, David quirked his head.

“There’s a lot of people ‘round the dorm.”

“Yeah,” said Allison. “Like, halfa’ everyone.”

“Wonder why?”

Shrug. “Power-party?”

David grinned. “Wanna check it out?”

Mabel was sitting on the dormitory steps, her face flushed and threaded with tears, her breath heaving softly. Basilisk and Melusine were sitting either side of her, united in purpose. Children milled about uncomfortably, while Lawrence and Mrs. Gillespie comforted a weeping Żywie.

“Shush, shush, shush” the old woman whispered. “There’s nothing you could’ve done.”

“What’s going on?” David asked, recondensing after misting through the crowd.

Lawrence glared at the boy. “Maelstrom, this is completely inappropriate.”

For some reason, the voice itched at David. Made him want to hit something. He pushed the feeling from his mind, and asked again.

“What happened?” He frowned. “And why were we in Basilisk’s bed?”

Mabel was staring at him. “Why are you two so happy?” She pronounced the last word like it was the most dire accusation.

“Why shouldn’t we be?” David snapped, digging his heels into the ground.

All around them, children shuffled their feet and tried not to look at the water-sprite.

He stared at Lawrence. “Did you make Mabel cry?”

The old man looked like he was about to explode, and for a moment, David’s eyes flared arsenic green, but Melusine raised a hand. “David,” she said gently. “Adam passed away last night.”

Her son wilted slightly. “What?”

“She means he’s dead!” Mabel shouted.

David’s eyes were wide. “How?”

“An aneurysm,” Lawrence said. “There was a fault in the Quiet Room. It made you all lose your powers, but it gave poor Adam a brain bleed.” Tears began to escape him. “At least it was painless.”

David looked toward the crowd being parted by Allison’s elbows. “Allie?”

When she reached the front of the children, the girl looked back at him. “I—I can’t hear him anymore.”

Lawrence stepped towards David, putting a hand on his shoulder. “David, it’s time for you to go back inside.”

“But Adam’s dead.”

“Inside, now.”

No!”

Only a few of those watching were really surprised when Lawrence struck David, the back of his hand snapping the boy’s head to the side. He’d been impudent. It was a foregone conclusion.

“Your behaviour in the wake of this tragedy has been vulgar and childish, Maelstrom,” he said, his voice hard. “I should hope you’d know better.”

He swung his hand again, but all it did was disturb the mist left by David’s passing. The boy reformed as quickly as he had vanished. He met the old man’s glare not with anger, but contempt.

“Jesus,” Haunt whispered to Britomart. “What’s Mealy on?”

“Don’t know,” she replied, regarding the boy. “I think I like it?”

Françoise blinked. “David,” she said. “Where were you?”

Her father’s eyes stared back at her.

“I don’t know. But it was great.”

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Chapter Thirty-Two: Pharmakós

The Physician did not arrive at the New Human Institute in his usual dirty green Holden, but in an eight wheeler truck. From its trailer spilled out three identical men—Mr. Groove, Mr. Vibe, and Mr. Jam, their name-tags said—silent and sculpted like stone made flesh. For some ghastly reason, they were dressed like clowns. They erected a canvas tent for their master to work in, along with tables laden with snacks and cool drinks. Snacks and cool drinks that were edible to human beings no less. Although Lawrence wouldn’t have put it past the Physician to disguise his concoctions with brand name labels.

“In my country,” the Physician had explained to Lawrence, “we like to respond to public health crises with a festive spirit. Helps cheer the afflicted up, you know?”

Lawrence often wondered if the Physician was pulling his leg whenever he talked about his home. This time, though, he didn’t have the energy to question the doctor. So, he dressed the children up as nice as possible, and declared it a festival.

The students milled around the Physician’s tent, morosely picking at the sweets and sausage-rolls as they sweated in their sunday best, waiting for Żywie and the doctor to call them inside.

The alien was presently trying to stick what looked like clockwork Christmas beetles1 onto Ophelia’s temples, the toddler squirming and squealing in protest under the Physician’s writhing, worm-like fingers. For once, the discomfort appeared to be mutual.

Żywie looked up from her clipboard, frowning. “Do you want me to handle her?” she asked flatly.

“It’s fine, Miss Winter,” the Physician replied as he cautiously tried weaving his hand behind the girl’s head. She slapped it away, making the doctor visibly vibrate. Żywie gathered that was something like a flinch.

“What is with you and babies?”

“I had a bad experience with—”

Time popped. Sound and colour ran together, and for moment, the conscious and the subconscious swapped places. Every bird within a mile developed a migraine.

Żywie didn’t budge an inch. She took the grumpy baby into her arms. “Well, we know Ophelia has her father’s resistance. Didn’t even need to clap—” The healer cringed when she saw her colleague heaped on the ground.

The Physician’s bones didn’t sit right under his skin. Even under his periwinkle suit, they stuck out at odd angles. He looked less like a prone man and more like a mound of gravel and sticks poured into an empty human pelt. She caught a glimpse of something dark brown and formless trembling in the recesses of his suit, where another human’s eyes wouldn’t have had the clarity to see.

“Eugh.”

The Physician got back to his feet, his skeleton seeming to assemble itself as he did. “You know, I really do not appreciate your racism, Eliza.” There was an audible crunch as his ribs pulled themselves back into place. He straightened his jacket.

“It’s not that you’re different, John, it’s the fact you bother with this awful impression of a human being. It’s like a minstrel show for the entire human race. Trust me, we’d get along a lot better if you would just be a bug-eyed monster or whatever your lot look like at home.”

The Physician’s face split into a grin. “I sincerely doubt that, little doctor.”

Żywie’s mouth was a straight-line. “Mr. Jam.”

One of the Physician’s assistants poked his head inside the tent, his expression stolid beneath slathers of white face-paint and a red foam nose. “Yes, Miss Winter,” he said in the best Lurch impression the Physician could manage.

“Would you please take Ophelia back to her mother. Tell Stratogale she has a clean bill of health.” She plucked the child’s cheek, cooing, “Yes she does, yes she does!”

“Yes, Miss Winter.” The clown took the baby from the woman. Ophelia regarded him for a moment, before squeezing his nose and giggling.

Mr. Jam made no reaction. Unlike most clowns, he medically lacked anything resembling a sense of humour, which surprisingly was an advantage over the rest of them.   

Żywie watched him traipse off in search of their flying girl, her expression downcast.

“I wouldn’t worry about Mr. Jam,” the Physician said. “Half his brothers are babysitting your future lords and masters over in Canberra.”

“I still think it’s cruel what you put those poor creatures through.”

“Put them through what?”

“How old is that one?”

The Physician thought about it. “Oh, that. Eleven months.” A click that might have been a shrug. “They’ve never complained.”

“Hmm.”

Once they had recovered sufficiently from the Ovation, Basilisk gently led Myriad into the tent. Or as gently as he could, with how hard the little girl was digging her heels into the dirt.

“No!”

Basilisk grunted, trying to pull her a few more steps inside. “Come on, Miri. Żywie and the Physician just want to fix everything. You might be just what they need.”

“This is stupid! Take me back to David!”

“David’s napping, dear. I’ll be bringing him down soon, don’t worry.”

Angry tears. “I don’t wanna be here.”

Żywie stepped between Basil and Myriad. “I think we can take it from here,” she said, taking the child’s hands. The girl wilted like a flower at the healer’s touch.

“You sure?” Basilisk asked, eying his assistant with concern.

“Quite sure,” the Physician said, his tone clipped as always. “Go on, I’m sure one of her schoolmates is about to stick their finger in an electric outlet.”

“Back soon, Miri.”

“I don’t care!”

Basil sighed as he left. “I know you don’t mean these things, Allison.”

The girl glared at the Physician. With the blackout, there was nothing to distinguish him from anyone else, musically speaking. Not that it helped much. Getting to know the Physician was like grieving for a loved one. Necessary, sometimes even helpful, but never welcome.

The Physician clapped. “So, are you going to examine the patient, Eliza?”

“Sure, sure,” she said, resting a finger on the nape of Myriad’s neck.

“What are you—” Fast asleep.

“What was that for?”

Crouching, Eliza rested Myriad against the wall of the tent. “Because it’s less likely she’ll break our faces this way. And there’s something I want to discuss with you.”

“Oh?”

“Myriad has adopted my… structural alterations.”

“Ah. Good for her. Nice to see a child be so proactive about self improvement.”

Żywie groaned. “You don’t understand, John. I spent my whole life figuring all these out. And then this little girl just… alters herself, on a whim, without even telling a grown up.”

“I still don’t see the issue. You’re thirty-five. Nothing inside you has blown up yet, has it?”

“No,” the healer admitted. “But there’ve been some close calls. Adjustments made. I once went into cardiac arrest for a full day. Had to to force the blood through my veins manually while I adjusted for the mistake. Miri doesn’t have that luxury.” She brushed a stray lock from Myriad’s face. “What if she needs to adjust something, and I’m not there?”

“Have you found anything concerning?”

“No, she’s stable, far as I can tell.” Żywie sighed, then smiled slightly, rubbing the girl’s head. “I’ll say this about our Myriad, she doesn’t half-do anything.” She looked up at the other doctor. “I’ve been suppressing the changes, though. She isn’t well enough to be trusted with them. I would appreciate a second opinion.”

The Physician put a hand over where his heart would’ve been. “Eliza, I’d be honoured.”

The speed and ease with which he examined the child would have amazed any medic but Eliza. A pass over with a silver mirror infested with lights and wires, a few drops of blood slurped up by what looked like a tongue in a box, and a couple of things Eliza was glad Myriad was asleep for. Then he was done.

“I think she might have improved on your work, my dear.” His grin crept closer to his ears. “I like to think I had a hand in that. Still, all clear. I’m sure Allison will go on to lead a perfectly normal, healthy life. As many of those as she wants, in fact.”

“Oh. Good.”

“And you weren’t joking about her being thorough. She got right down to the germ-line. That would’ve taken some effort.” The grin was almost up to his earlobes by now. “I’m sure Lawrence would be thrilled.”

Żywie hadn’t even considered that. “You’re not going to tell him, are you?” she asked hurriedly. “You promised me, John.”  

The Physician raised a hand. “We have patient confidentiality back home too, Eliza. Still don’t get why you’re so secretive about these things, though. It’s just like those lies about infertility again. If you don’t want to have a baby, just tell Lawrence. If he presses the issue, give him cancer until he stops.”  

“You wouldn’t understand,” Eliza muttered.

“No, my dear, I don’t think I would.” The Physician stuck his Christmas beetles onto Myriad’s temples. “Would you wake her up please?”

Myriad sprung to life like Żywie had found her on button. “What happened?” she snapped.

“Nothing sweetie—”

“Don’t call me that.”

“…You just nodded off, alright.”

“I’m not a baby.”

“No one is saying you are, Allison,” the Physician said. He was fiddling with the knob of what used to be a portable TV set, its screen lit with swirls of colour that hopefully made sense to him.  “Now, would you do me the favour of trying to use your powers?”

The girl folded her arms. “I don’t have my powers.”

“I am aware of that, but seeing how your brain reacts to the attempt might yield useful data.”

“There’s nothing to hear!”

“Would you just—”

Myriad tore off the diodes. “No!”

She ran out of the tent.

The Physician made a sound like an exploding accordion. “This is just the most productive day, isn’t it?”

It at least went smoother after that. A child would come in, Żywie would sift through their cells looking for something she already knew wasn’t there, and the Physician made them playact their powers.

“Can I stop now?” Haunt asked as he walked in place against the tent wall.

Żywie looked at her partner. “I think so. What about you?”

“Yes, you can go now, Thomas. Hand the diodes back to Eliza on her way out.”

Then it was Maelstrom’s turn. Lawrence carried him down from the Big House like a babe in arms, setting him on his feet in the middle of the tent.

He stood there, swaying, his eyes darting around the tent like a panicked animal. “Z—Żywie? Dr. Smith?”

“Don’t blub, Maelstrom,” the boy’s teacher said. “You don’t see your brothers and sisters letting themselves fall apart like this2.”

Maelstrom suddenly stood very straight. “Yes, Lawrence,” he answered gravely. For just a moment, Żywie recognized him.

“I trust you’ll listen to what our fine doctors tell you?”

“I will.”

Lawrence nodded. “Good.” He turned to leave, but not before telling Żywie, “And don’t you baby him like Basilk’s been doing. We’ve brought Maelstrom up better than that.”

Żywie was going to say something, very loudly, but Lawrence was already gone, and there were more important things to attend to.

She bent down to look into the child’s dull, jeweled eyes. “Are you alright, honey?”

Maelstrom nodded hard, but the healer knew it meant nothing. Just him trying to please her. That was all that was left of him right now. With his headmaster out of sight, he was starting to shake as if he were stuck in a blizzard. Not to mention the grey tint to his skin…

“It must be awful, to only have a quarter of yourself at hand.”

Żywie stared back at the Physician. “What are you saying?”

He waved her off. “Nothing you could understand without a degree in practical metaphysics. Now, let’s not take up too much of our young man’s time.”

Maelstrom placidly let Żywie attach the beetles, not even squirming as they sunk their legs into his skin. A tap on his cheek, and Żywie learned nothing. Again.

With a squelch, the Physician pulled a canteen from behind his back. “Alright, David,” he said, unscrewing the lid, “I would like you to pull the water over to yourself.”

The boy squinted. “There’s water in there?”

The Physician glanced at the canteen. “Well, yes, of course.”

“…I can’t feel anything.”

Żywie squeezed his shoulder. “David, I know it’s hard, but this would really help us. And the other children.”

David stood a little straighter. Żywie needed him to be good.

He stared at the canteen. It was like trying to clasp air. No, vacuum. The boy tried to remember what water felt like, but not even his own tears could remind him.

“That—that’s enough, David.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Żywie hugged him. “No, don’t be. You tried your best.”

“It’s never good enough.”

Her grip tightened. “Do you want Mr. Jives to take you to Miri?”

A nod against her blouse.

The Physician didn’t see his henchman escort the child to his friend. He was occupied with the television screen. “It’s fascinating, neurologically speaking. It’s as if they aren’t even trying to…”      

He trailed off as he noticed the healer’s weeping.

“I’m so useless…”

The Physician wasn’t terribly literate when it came to human emotional expression, but enough people had burst into tears in his presence that he knew what it meant. “Oh now, what’s the matter Eliza?”

“You wouldn’t understand. I delivered that boy, John. I was the first face he ever saw.”

“…You assume I don’t have children, Miss Winter?”

The sobs subsided slightly. “Do you?”

“Oh, hundreds of them. And nieces and nephews, I suppose. Have I ever told you how odd it is English doesn’t have a gender-neutral term for that?”

“What are they like?”

“Children, Eliza, they’re just like children.”

“I can cure cancer. I’ve put babies with Downs and Tay-sachs right inside their mothers. I’ve woken the dead! I should be able to do something for these children…”

The Physician considered the woman for a second. “You would be a living saint on my world, you know that? The fact you haven’t cracked this only speaks well of the problem.”

She sniffed. “Thank you, John.”

The Physician’s grin returned. One thing he would never get about humans was how much they liked to dwell on moments like these. “Well, shall we call in Adam?”

It was the first up-close look the boy had gotten at their visitor. The closest comparison Adam could make was to the Sinclairs’ GP back in Kalgoorlie… if he had lost a lot of weight and kept the spare skin pulled back with laundry-pegs. He tried to resist the urge to scratch at the Christmas beetles. Żywie had assured him the resemblance was purely aesthetic, but sometimes he felt them rub their legs together…

“So, you want me to use my powers?”

“Exactly right, young man. One at a time, if you could,” the Physician said. He tried to snap his fingers, but the result was a wet scrape. “Actually wait just a moment.” He reached over his tool-table, tapping his speaker-starfish on its central ruby.

Roy Brown started belting out “Butcher Pete”.

“Hey everybody, did the news get around,
About a guy named Butcher Pete,
Oh, Pete just flew into this town,
And he’s choppin’ up all the women’s meat!”

The Physician’s smile was practically a crescent moon. “Begin.”

First, Adam lifted the tool-table over his head with a single finger. That should’ve impossible, according to Lawrence, although he hadn’t gotten around to explaining why. Then, he juggled suns like he was the great black hole at the centre of the galaxy, only for them to wink out as he exhaled Heaven. He winced as Eliza coughed up something black and the Physician rippled.  

After about ten powers, Adam became self-conscious. Even out of the other children’s sight, he felt as though he were rubbing it in somehow; like dancing in a polio-ward.

“Żywie…” three Adams said.

“It’s alright, Adam.” She shot a glance at the Physician… moving rhythmically in the corner, juddering and shuddering.

“Ever since Peter flew into town
He’s been havin’ a ball,
Just cuttin’ and choppin’ for miles around!”

“I’m sure Dr. Smith is almost done.”

Eventually, the Physician turned the music off. “Very well, Adam, you can stop now.”

Adam was busy pouring cordial through his hand, watching it spill out the other side as warm ice. He didn’t even know what the point of that one was. “You sure? I still have a few powers left.”

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. We’re done now. You should go play now.”

Adam headed towards the fresh air. He hesitated on the threshold, fingering the hem of the tent flap, then stepped out and disappeared into the sunlight.

Żywie sighed. “Who should we check next.”

The Physician’s only answer was to put on the Beatles. He slouched and slithered towards the door, his arms rolling and twisting to the sound of “Ticket to Ride”

The healer scowled. “And what do you think you’re doing?”

“I told you, we’re done. Now, I’m going out to enjoy the party I’m throwing, and I suggest you join me.”

Żywie watched him “dance” out into the dry grass.

“Oh, God.”

Lawrence sat behind his desk, waiting for either his old student or their visitor to tell him something. Żywie was half-slumped in her chair, like she were sixteen again and hoping against hope he didn’t know she had snuck off to Duke’s Inn for a few pints. The Physician, for his part, was sitting stock still, grinning. Lawrence was vaguely expecting dust to form on his teeth.

The old man raised a finger. “I—”

“It’s Adam,” the Physician reported cheerily. Żywie put her face in her hands, groaning softly.

Lawrence froze, then slumped in his chair. “Are you… are you sure?”

“Certain. Fairly obvious in retrospect, I must say. Surprised nobody figured it out before I got there.”

Lawrence’s gaze drifted slightly, avoiding the Physician’s eyes.

The Physician noticed. “Oh, Lawrence, I hope you didn’t bite their head off.” He lightly elbowed Żywie. “Even Eliza here might have a hard time fixing that.”

Both Lawrence and the healer gawked at him for a moment. The Physician reminded himself to work on his timing. “Still, yes. Adam is the one suppressing everyone’s powers.”        

“And you’ve ruled out a fault with the Quiet Room?”

“Yes, Lawrence, the null-chamber is secure, I checked it first thing. And I resent creatures who haven’t even figured out how to sneak around the light barrier questioning my handiwork.” He looked at Eliza as though they were sharing some private joke. “I swear, a barbwire fence is more troubling.”

Lawrence closed his eyes. “Tell me then, how is he doing this?”

“Lawrence,” Żywie said, “how would you describe Myriad’s power?”

“She looks at other new human abilities, and her power recreates them as best it can.”

The Physician nodded, “I think it was Picasso who said ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’3. Well, that’s nonsense. I would look into that Picasso if I were you, he sounds dodgy. Anyway, Adam’s power—his root ability—I think is similar to little Allison’s. But he doesn’t copy supers. I think his power looks at others, and uses them as points of inspiration for new ones. A bit like collage, I suppose.” He looked proud of himself. “Remind me, Lawrence, how many students do you have? Not counting Adam. And how many powers has he displayed?”

Lawrence latched onto that like it was a lifebuoy. “Thirty-two!” he gasped, as if it mattered. “Adam has forty-one powers! How do you explain that, hmm?”

The Physician was about to suggest it didn’t have to be a strict one to one correlation, but Eliza beat him to it: “We’re not the first posthumans Adam’s encountered, Lawrence. The Coven, AU raided his town, that poor boy they lynched afterwards…”

“That still leaves three powers unaccounted for!”

A thought struck the Physician. “The children inside your oldest girls.”

Lawrence shuddered. “Even if you’re right—”

“I am.”

“…How does it follow that Adam would be… sabotaging other new humans?”

“It’s a perfect defense mechanism.”

“Why would he need a defense mechanism against his own kind?”     

The Physician looked puzzled by the question. “Why do you humans make guns and tanks? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, I reckon. Adam gets upset—homesickness, loneliness, the breeding program, whatever—and his power tries to keep him safe. Everyone else being power-neutered stresses him out, so it keeps trying to do that.” He got up out of his chair and made for the door. “Still, you won’t have to worry about it for long.”    

Żywie twisted to keep track of him. “What do you mean?”

The Physician stopped. “Oh, I’ll be taking Adam off your hands.”

Lawrence sputtered. “You can’t—why?”

“Lawrence, this boy of yours can suppress all three Socii presentations, a demigod—don’t give me that look—sorcerers, and two elementals. At once.” The Physician’s voice grew shrill, like a kettle. “Then, he dices up their powers and makes new ones! Can you imagine the experimental opportunities?”

“But he’s my student!”

The Physician tilted his head. It looked like his neck had snapped. “Is he, though? He doesn’t strike me as an asylum find.” Lawrence could almost hear the crack of the alien’s grin as he cheerily wagged a long, spindly finger. “You know Timothy Valour doesn’t like you poaching.”

Żywie ran to the Physician’s side, putting her hand on his. “Please, John, think of the boy’s wellbeing.”

“Nonsense! He’ll be fine at my place. I’ll teach him to play checkers. And think of the powers my stock could teach him. He’ll be like the Flying Man come again!”

He started walking again, but Lawrence physically blocked the door. “I’m sorry, Dr. Smith, but I can’t let you do this. Adam needs to be among his own.”

The Physician’s eyes widened. “I just told you, he’ll be with his own kind regardless!”

“Not—not like that.”

The Physician lashed out like a viper, lifting the old Oxfordian a clear inch off the ground and setting him aside like he was made of paper. “Herbert, I’ve been very accommodating of you over the years. Face it, I’ve taught you a lot more about these children than you have me. I’ve let you keep a fair few experimentally interesting subjects. Myriad, all the ones you’ve bred.” He pointed back at Żywie. “Why, I let you keep her. And that hurt, trust me.” He pulled Lawrence in close, until the man could smell his cool, metallic breath. “But there is a limit.”    

He let go of Lawrence’s shirt, shoving the headmaster back. “I’ll be arranging a transfer of custody with Timothy, Lawrence. I trust you know what I shall be telling him if you don’t cooperate.”

The old man fell to his knees. “No, John. I’d rather you tell him about the girls than Adam! Think of what the DDHA would do with him!”

The Physician glanced down at him. “Yes,” he remarked casually. “I suppose that could get unpleasant.”

He stepped out of the room.

Lawrence wept. What else could he do? He wondered if this is was what it was like for Tiresias, when a future became impossible. Adam Sinclair was supposed to be the truest expression of what his people could be, vast and flexible. He’d already imagined his potential mingling one day with Myriad’s. To have all that snatched away from him, to not even get to Name the boy…

He was dimly aware of Żywie’s hands around his shoulders. He looked up at the woman.

“Oh, Żywie, what are we to do?”

It was the cheering that woke Mabel the next morning. Lorikeet dorm was filled with the sound of relieved celebration. And what sounded like an indoor cyclone.

“What’s going on?” she shouted over the howl, her hair whipping in the wind.

Where the door should’ve been, there was a black cloud, darker than space, lit only by flashes of green escaping from its mass. Elsewhere burst out of it, almost too bright to look at, the air swirling around him as it was struck by his power. He saw Mabel, sitting up bewildered in her hammock. “Mabes! The blackout’s over!”

Just for emphasis, he proceeded to banish the hammock out from under her.

Managing to catch herself, the girl instinctively manifested the lady astronaut’s sidearm. She was about to find out if the stun setting worked when she realized what she had done. She turned the laser over in her hand. “Oh, my God.”

She wanted to laugh. And cry. She’d been wrong, after all. And she couldn’t be happier about it. “Adam!”

She looked around the dorm for him, her eyes moving from fireworks to light-shows to rents in the world. To her surprise, Adam was still in his hammock.

Sleeping must be one of his powers.

She ran over to him, dodging Jumpcut’s repeated apparitions and Haunt rising from the floor, trying to look cool.

Mabel shook the boy. “Adam! Adam, wake up!”

No response. He felt still under her hands.

“Adam?”

She rolled him over. Cold sweat clung to his face. No breath rose from his mouth and nose.

Mabel screamed.


1. Genus of beetle commonly found in Australia and South Africa, no known association with the North Pole. Notable for their golden shells and abundance around Christmas.

2. Myriad was at least making other things fall apart.

3. It was actually W. H. Davenport Adams, and he didn’t say that either.

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Chapter Thirty-One: Blasphemy

She was an equation, faultlessly proven to be somewhere else. Then gravity snatched her out of the air—down into warm, wet darkness.

Mabel Henderson couldn’t tell up from down. Then something else plunged through the water, cutting a shaft of light in its wake, and she scrambled towards what she hoped was the surface.

She burst through a layer of old leaves and dead insects. Before Mabel could even think again, Billy surfaced a couple of feet away, gasping.

They were floating in a filthy, stagnant pond. Slowly evaporating in the heat, it was still deep enough that the children had to swim to keep afloat, even as its crumbling, curved mud walls jutted out above the water.  

Mabel remembered that day with the lads. His stupid bloody pool…

“What the hell, Arnold?”

“So where’s this elevator go?” Adams 1 and A1 asked as they followed Elsewhere through the halls.

“Where do ya think? The basement!”

Adam didn’t think he’d ever been in a house with a proper basement. He always thought only yanks and poms went in for them. “What’s so great about the basement?”

“Where Lawrence keeps his souvenirs. Like the Batcave. He used to know loads of supers and heroes and stuff. There’s mad scientist gear, one of the Raven’s guns, the Crimson Comet’s old wings, I think?” Quickly, he added, “What’s left of them, I mean.”  

Adam was pretty sure Elsewhere was lying. It wasn’t something he did well. Probably was planning on dumping a bucket of water or glue or something over him. Still, Adam couldn’t help but feel sorry for Elsewhere. He knew the younger boy was close to Myriad and Maelstrom, and some of the rumblings Adam had heard about his family…

Why not go along with it, Adam thought. Let the kid play his dumb joke. He still had his superpowers, what could happen?

Then they turned one last corner, and Adam reconsidered.

“Voila!” Elsewhere said, gesturing grandly at the silver slab set into the wall.

Adam 1 rubbed the metal, warm beneath his hand. Sure enough, there was even what appeared to be a call button next to it. “Huh. Okay. Kinda surprised it’s really here. Why didn’t Lawrence show me this when I got here?”

Elsewhere shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t want us touching his stuff?”

“So we’re probably not allowed down there,” Adam A asked, still standing a little behind the younger child.

“Probably. Still, who’s gonna care right now?”

Adam 1 nodded. “True.”

“So, we gonna take a look-see?”

Adam pushed the button. “Sure.”

The door slid open, and Adam 1 stepped inside. It was bigger than any elevator he’d been inside (not that that was many) with walls like fork-lightning trapped in obsidian. “Why aren’t there any buttons—”

He was cut off by the sound of the door closing.

Adam A tilted his head at Elsewhere, his fist slammed down the “call button”. “Wha—”

The boy disappeared in a puff of burgundy smoke.          

“Arnold Barnes!”

The child in question swung around to see Mabel glaring at him. She was soaked to the bone, bits of leaf and dragonfly tangled in her hair.

“Mabel!” Arnold cried. He glanced behind the girl. “Where’s Billy?”

“Having the hottest shower in the world,” she answered flatly, before shouting, “and you wouldn’t need to ask us if you hadn’t dropped us in your stupid, gross pool! Seriously, why?” She looked at the Quiet Room’s door. “You let him out right now!”

Arnold folded his arms. “How do you know anyone’s in there?

Mabel sputtered. “Because—because why else would you be here?”

“Then how do you know it’s a he?”

The girl stomped over to him, right up to his face. “Just let him go!”

Arnold’s eyes flashed lime. “Your powers just came back too, didn’t they? It’s him, Mabel. You know it is.”

“…Where’re all the others?”

“Baths.”

“Let him out now, before anyone notices.”

“Why?”

“Because…” Mabel couldn’t put it into words. Only images of crowds in dour clothing gathering to watch strange old ladies and touched children burn. “They’ll be mean to him.”

Arnold brought her in closer, pointing toward the ceiling. “But listen.”

Laughter, young and girlish.

“Allie’s my friend, Mabel. And so’s David. I don’t want them hurting.”

More voices joined the laughter, along with whispers of flame and wind. And splashing. Lots of splashing.

Mabel sighed, looking her friend right in the eye. “Arnold…” She shoved the boy to the ground and slammed the button.

Adam stumbled out of the Quiet Room. His face was pale, and he was breathing slowly and deliberately. “God, that was horrible.”

For a moment, Mabel had hope. She still felt the pressure of her power around her veins. Then Adam looked down at Arnold. “What the hell, Else?”

It was gone. She could hear groans from upstairs, only to be drowned out by a pained, angry scream.

“Allie!” Arnold cried from the floor, scrambling to his feet.

Adam glanced between the younger children. “What’s going on?”

Mabel grabbed Arnold’s hand and ran, hoping Adam would not follow. She pulled her friend into the library and whispered, “Please don’t tell the others. Not like this.”

Arnold tried to wrench his hand out of hers. “Okay, okay, just let me go! Allison’s screaming.”  

“Promise not to tell?”

“Yes!”

Reluctantly, she let him go, though she did follow the boy as he raced upstairs, past their disappointed, towel-clad schoolmates, up to Basil’s door.

When he opened it, Allison was twisting in Basil’s arms, screaming herself raw while David twitched on the floor.

“Not again!” she was screeching. “Not again!”

“Please, Miri—” Basil grunted, trying desperately to keep the girl’s arms in his grip. “It might be nearly over—”

She exploded out of the man’s arms, punching him in the nose and sending him to the floor in a groaning heap. Blood was seeping from his nostrils.

Allison didn’t notice. “I don’t want to be here!” she yelled as she stalked towards the doorway.

Mabel shut the door hard.

Arnold glared at her. “Mabel!”

“Did she look friendly?”

A pale fist punched through the door. It felt around for the door handle for a few seconds until its owner growled and pushed the whole thing over, wrenching it from its frame with a few metallic clicks.  

Mabel and Arnold managed to jump clear of the door a second before it landed on them. Allison was staring straight ahead, the corners of her eyes twitching. Her knuckles were bleeding, but she didn’t seem to care. “You’re not here. Get out of my way.”

They were about to obey as fast as possible when Żywie pushed past the pair. “Stay back, children,” she ordered them calmly.

She scooped up Allison effortlessly, even as the girl thrashed and clawed at the woman. Then, without loosening her grip in the slightest, she put a hand to Allison’s forehead, like she were feeling for a fever. Immediately, the child’s eyelids started to droop. She tried fighting it, but sleep found her as her teacher sung a German lullaby under her breath.

Once Allison was well and truly under, Żywie laid her down softly on the hallway carpet. Mabel thought she looked guilty.

Her attention turned to the two other children. “It’s alright, little ones,” she assured them. “Myriad is just asleep. I think she prefers that right now.”

“How did she do that to the door?” Arnold asked, his voice warbling.

“Adrenaline, dear,” Żywie said, “just adrenaline.” Allison attended to, she moved quickly but steadily over to Basil’s side. The man was still moaning, smoke rising from where his blood had fallen on the tortured wood. The healer took his hand, and he sighed.

“Don’t—she isn’t in her right mind,” Basil gasped.

“I know, Hugo,” Żywie said. “I know.”

As they watched, Arnold turned to look imploringly at Mabel. “We need to tell someone,” he whispered.

Mabel didn’t look back. She was too focused on David, still curled up in the corner.

“Mabel?”

She nodded.

Lawrence tapped the rim of his desk with one of his fountain pens, examining the two children sat before him. “So, before you tell me why we’re having this talk, might I ask how you two got into the state you’re in?”

Mabel and Arnold shared a look. The former was still damp and covered in detritus from the pool, and the latter hadn’t crossed the river again unscathed. By some silent agreement, Mabel went first. “About that, um, me and Elsewhere need to admit something. We kinda broke a rule today.”

The almost imperceptible hiss of breath escaping between clenched teeth. “How so?”

“Elsewhere and me”—she and Arnold had agreed in advance to leave Billy out of the picture—“we crossed the river today.”

Arnold had been unsure about leading with that little tidbit. Even a child (especially a child) could tell the headmaster was on edge. He had barely left his study since the blackout started, even for mealtimes. Arnold swore more of the red had gone out of his beard. It was the first time he had seen the man without a suit-jacket.

Still, Mabel thought the admission might win them some credibility.       

Lawrence swallowed sharply, like he was trying to force down bile. “I will say this, children, it speaks well of you both that you didn’t try to keep this from me. Oftentimes, the cover-up is worse than the sin.”

Here we go, Arnold thought.

“Nevertheless, I can’t emphasize enough how foolhardy that was.”

If there was one thing Arnold Barnes’ short life had taught him, it was that fessing up never spared you the lecture. It just knocked off some of the edges.

“…With how the river’s behaving right now, you’re lucky you didn’t drown.”

He had to say, though, Mabel was handling it like a pro. She nodded at all the right junctures, hit her mark every time with a “Yes” or a “I know”, maintaining a mask of solem repentance throughout it all. Arnold was beginning to wonder why the girl didn’t act in her own shows.

“…I should hope that you wouldn’t use this time of crisis and stress as a license to misbehave.”

Mabel sensed her opening. “We know it was still wrong, but can we tell you why we did it?”

Lawrence nodded. “Context is always important.”

Arnold’s turn. “So Mabel thought that if whatever was making our powers not work wasn’t inside us, it might be something around the Institute.”

“So I’m to take it you were attempting to test that hypothesis?” Lawrence asked. “Very scientific thinking.”

“Yes. Mabel thought if we walked far enough, our powers would come back on. And they did.”

Lawrence dropped his pen. “What?”

“Our powers,” Mabel said. “They came back once we were far away from the school. And they stayed till we came back.”

The hug was like being pulled into a brick wall. “Fantastic!”

Mabel and Arnold could hardly breathe, their faces buried in Lawrence’s sweat-misted undershirt. “Lawrence… too tight,” the girl managed to get out.

“I’m sorry, children,” he said, laughing as he set them down. “I can’t tell how relieved I am, children. And how much of a debt our school owes you.”

“…Ice cream?” Arnold said, his voice small.

Lawrence’s laughter came in shudders, like he was trying to keep back the tears of relief. “Sure, why not!”

Soon he was talking mostly to himself. “I’ll have to ring Valour, have him send teams. Water tests, soil work, dig up the whole bloody school till we find what’s causing this. And if we can’t, we’ll relocate. All the way to the NT if we have to! Might move you children in the meantime anyway. I hate to imagine the effects this continual assault might be having on the unborn—”

“That’s the thing,” Mabel interrupted. She really didn’t want to do this. “We know what’s making the blackout happen.”

Lawrence grabbed her shoulders. “What, girl, what?”

Mabel studied the old man’s face. He had a grin as wide as the world, like when her father first heard her read a sentence aloud. But there was something else there, too. A kind of pleading desperation she hadn’t known grownups could feel. “It’s Adam, Laurie.”

The bottom fell out of her teacher’s smile. “What?”

“When the powers came back for a sec today,” Arnold said, “it was cuz I pushed Adam into the Quiet Room—”

The smack came as hard and fast as the hug. Arnold began crying, soon to be drowned by Lawrence’s shouting.

“You cruel boy! You know what it’s like being without your powers! That room is only for children who do the worst sort of wrong! What did he do to deserve it, hmm?”

Arnold sobbed, “David and Allie were hurting…”

“And now you’re misnaming your brothers and sisters,” he hissed, before his attention fell on Mabel. “And this nonsense about Adam stealing your powers. Phantasmagoria, I never thought you would be so petty.”

Mabel had been leaning over to try and comfort Arnold, but that sent her to her feet like her chair was electrified. “What?”

“Just because our newest friend has proved immune to the blackout, you choose to believe he’s afflicting you. I would expect this from a New England Puritan, not a young posthuman.”

“I don’t think he’s doing it on purpose!” Mabel protested. “I don’t even think he knows he’s doing it!”

“Is it his shade then, working for the devil?” the man asked sourly.

“Lawrence,” the girl half-begged, “I don’t want to be right. Adam’s really nice and his powers are cool. But I think we are right, and we need to do something.”

“Whatever force is responsible for your kind’s existence would not create a child that preys on their fellows.”

Dimly, from the sore, wet place Arnold had retreated to, he was reminded of the way his mother or the sister who taught sunday school reacted to certain questions. Except they never sounded so threatened.              

Mabel growled in her throat. She wanted to throw something out the window. To push the chairs over. To tear all the pages out of all of Lawrence’s stupid books and shove them in his face. To dangle him over a dragon’s mouth till he shut up and listened to her. This was what it was like being a natural kid, she thought. All her wants just stuck inside her.

“…Maybe you’re wrong,” she said, quietly but resolutely. “Maybe you’re wrong about all this. Maybe there isn’t anyone in charge of us. Maybe powers are just things that happen to people. Or there is someone who hands them out, and they just don’t care. Maybe we’re evolving. Maybe evolution doesn’t care who it eats.”

The smack was as quick as it was expected. It was, however, far harder than she’d thought it would be. Her nose was bleeding.

Lawrence leant back on his desk, inhaling slowly. “The Physician will be here in two days. I’m sure his insight will be helpful. I think it’s time for you two to leave. Go see Żywie about your nose, Phantasmagoria.” He looked at Arnold, curled up in his chair. “If I hear about either you spreading these vicious rumours, there will be punishment. A stint in the Quiet Room seems appropriate.”

Mabel wanted to laugh at that. What set the Quiet Room apart from anywhere else in the Institute? Her hands shook even as she held them over her nose, and her breath was hammering against her chest. She was going to let it out when Arnold put his hand on her arm.

She met the boy’s grey eyes, streaming like storm clouds. They weren’t going to win this. People like Lawrence didn’t let you win.

“Yes, sir.”   

“Don’t be petulant, Phantasmagoria.”

As soon as she was out of earshot, Mabel screamed.


1. Adam Alpha was busy helping with the bathtime roundup.

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Chapter Thirty: Mabel Henderson’s On the Case!

Cervantes once wrote, “Where there’s music there can be no evil.1

Conveniently, Linus had stopped playing.

Artume was whimpering, the red from her gashed hand mixing with the spilt cola as Met frantically tried to pry her other hand away to assess the damage. It wasn’t pretty. The portal had cut clear down to the bone. Myriad and Maelstrom were both screaming now, the boy lying prone beside a puddle of his own sick. Adam didn’t know what to do with himself. What could he do? He took a tentative half step forwards, before stopping, hand half raised, useless. Despite the general shouting and panic, Linus acted promptly. He grabbed a clean blanket from the closest hammock, pried Artume and Met’s fingers free and wrapped the linen tight around the wound.

“What happened?” he asked, forcing calm into his voice.

Metonymy answered for Artume. “The portal shut on her—”

Another scream, but muffled. Next to Haunt’s hammock, a pyjama clad leg kicked and twitched, stuck halfway out the wall as if the whole dormitory had been built around it.

Linus shook his head in disbelief. “What the fu—”

Britomart was running over to the leg, panicked. Falling to the floor, she reared her fist back. “Just hold still mate…”

Linus tried rushing over the girl. “Wait, Brit, don’t—”

She struck the wall around Haunt’s leg as hard as she could muster. Normally, that would’ve brought the whole dorm down on them. This time, though, a biting, alien sensation exploded in her knuckles. A sensation she had only ever felt across her back. A shocked, confused sob, and then Britomart was bawling.

Adam looked over to Linus. The teen was running his fingers through his hair, mouthing panicked obscenities to himself as he struggled to even count the theatres of trouble springing up around him. The younger boy made his decision. He straightened his back, put on a brave face, and strode over to Brit.

She was still looking at her hand like it had betrayed her, the grazes on her knuckles starting to bleed. Adam ignored her. Haunt needed his help.

He rested his hand on the wall a few inches away from the other child’s trapped leg. From somewhere within Adam, music was playing. It ran down his arm, the song vibrating through the lines of his palm, just off the beat of his own pulse.

He shoved the song forward, deep into the corrugated steel, and the wall fell away like salt in the rain.

Haunt was finally allowed to fall to the grass outside. Before he could scream from the jolt, Adam exhaled, and Heaven was on his breath. The other boy shuddered as his broken bone snapped back into place like a doll’s leg. Across the dorm, Artume’s cut closed.

Linus sighed. Myriad and Maelstrom were still weeping, and everyone was shaken, but at least the walls weren’t closing in anymore. Mostly because of the hole.  “You’re a lifesaver, Adam.”

The young man felt a small, insistent hand tugging at his singlet. Myriad was looking up at him, her eyes raw and far too hazel for that time of night.

Linus drew an arm around her. “It’s alright, Miri, the scary part’s over.”

The girl clung to her. “Linus?”

“…Yeah?”

“I can’t hear anyone.”

Somewhere, far away, a little boy opened his eyes. He was floating, but he couldn’t see the riverbed below him. He couldn’t even feel where the water touched earth or air.  All there was to see was green in every direction, sloping down into darkness, the sun a distant sliver above him.

And that salt in his mouth. He’d never tasted it before, but he knew it.

The boy began to weep, his tears lost in the sea.

Arms wrapped around him and held him close. Those arms were the currents themselves. He was home.

Mabel Henderson sat at the edge of the Avon River, watching it twist and turn in its bed: thin, watery tendrils reaching out from the normally flat surface and weakly slithering towards the Institute like primeval worms crawling out from the sea. Clawing, breaking.

It had been doing that since the blackout had started. A week in, it had lost its novelty. Instead, Mabel focused on sketching either her seventh or seven-hundredth lorikeet for the day. Laying down her pencil, she assessed her work.

It was a decent attempt. She had managed to emphasize the shoulders better, and she had finally figured out how to make the tail feathers not look like colourful knives.  

  Without thinking, she raised her hand, ready to see what her lorikeet looked like in three dimensions.

“Annoying, innit?”

Mabel closed her hand, gritting her teeth. “I wasn’t trying to use my powers.”

Adam smiled softly. “Everyone’s done it, you know.”

Mabel twisted to face the boy. All three of him. “Everyone besides you, you mean.”

“Not just me!” the triplicated Adam protested. Somehow, they still sounded like one boy. “Żywie and Basil still have theirs.”

She frowned. “Don’t talk about the powers like they’re gone.”

“Sorry. I mean, they can still use their powers, too. Oh, and Tiresias.”

Mabel scoffed, blowing a stray lock from in front of her eyes. “Does Tiresias even use his powers?”

Adam’s fingers throbbed. “I kinda hope not.”   

“Aren’t you kinda rubbing it in, walking around, being all three of you?”

Adam(s) scratched the back of his neck. “Lawrence wanted me to make sure everyone was coping. So, then I made these two,” all three of Adam gestured vaguely between themselves, before smiling bashfully, “and I don’t know how to make them go away. Maybe we need to decide who’s the real one first.”

“And your other powers?”

Adam wasn’t sure what the right answer there was, so he just lit his sun in his hand for a moment before snuffing it out again.

“Wizard,” Mabel said, her expression flat. “Absolutely wizard.”

The Adams awkwardly shuffled their feet, glancing at each other like they were trying to settle on a scapegoat. Eventually, one of them sat down besides the younger girl. “Mind if I look at that drawing?”

Mabel mutely passed him the paper.

Adam smoothed the drawing out against the air, nodding slowly. “This is good! The legs and all don’t sticky-out anymore.”

Mabel didn’t look at him. “Great.”

The boy nervously fiddled with his hands. “…You want more drawing help?

After a moment, Mabel deigned him eye contact. “…What sorta help?”

“Well, maybe you could draw me?”

A smile betrayed her. “Big-head.”

“Well, I mean, have you done any people?”

“No. Still on birdies.”

Adams threw his hands up. “Gotta start somewhere.”

“Fine,” she muttered, still refusing to look at him. “If it makes you shush, I’ll draw you. Just sit down over there or something.”

Adam grinned at that, and decided to tease the younger girl.

“Sure you don’t want it to be a nude?”

Adam had a lot to learn about girls. More to the point, he had a lot to learn about this girl. Mabel Henderson had been raised by a single father. In a mining town. And was best mates with Maelstrom.

“Sure,” she replied without hesitation. “Just chuck your shirt and stuff over in the grass somewhere and make sure I can see everything.”

“What?” Adam asked, eyes suddenly rather wide.

“You heard me,” Mabel gave the boy a wink. All three of him. It looked like she might have had dust in her eye.

“… Maybe clothes?” The lead Adam asked, his voice small.

Mabel only laughed at that.

“Yeah. Maybe clothes.”

The next few hours were as uneventful as one could expect during a wonder-outage. She sketched, they talked, she sketched again. So it went, on and on, stick figures becoming the skeletons of full sketches. By the time the model-Adam finally grew tired of sitting still, Mabel had stopped smiling. Her mouth was set in a hard line, her back hunched over around her pad as she worked, the pencil tip scratching slowly over the paper, texturing the scene as it passed.

“Wow,” said the Adam sitting next to her. “Nice one, Mabel. That last one even kinda looks like me.” He squinted.  “I think my hair’s more red than orange, though.”

“Says you.”

“And it’s not that curly.”

Mabel grinned. “Artistic license.”

“…What’s that mean?”

She shrugged. “Don’t know, Miri said it once. Well, shouted it.” A frown. “You checked on her and David today?”

The three Adams made a diverse assortment of sombre expressions. The one closest to Mabel looked down at the space between his legs. “Yeah. I have.”

Mabel dipped her head slightly, trying to get a better look at the older boy’s face. “Any better?”

Almost imperceptibly, Adam shook his head.

Mabel got to her feet, stretching and gathering up her things. “I’m gonna go see them… you mind walking with me?”

“Sure.”

The two (or perhaps four) made their way back up to the Institute, across grass mottled with green and brown. The calendar said there were still a few weeks of spring, but her work was done, and all that was really left was for summer to go out and change the signs.

The heat clawed at Mabel more than any summer she could remember, even in the deep desolation of Circle’s End. It wasn’t any hotter than usual, at least according to the grownups and thermometers she had consulted, but it felt less escapable. Windshear would be summoning no helpful breeze, and Melusine would not be making it rain. And the flies. Swarms of them settled on the Adams’ backs even as they walked. Mabel tried to remember if there was anyone with powers that warded off bugs.

No. There wasn’t. But what else was there to pay attention to?

Children milled around half-completed battlements of gold and limestone like a construction crew after the funding fell through. A few listlessly played soccer. Just soccer. Calcio fiorentino wasn’t meant for human beings.

Windshear staggered up to Mabel and the Adams, swaying between Haunt and Britomart, each supporting a shoulder.

“You alright, Windy?” asked the hindmost Adam.

The little girl glared at him. “No, why would I be okay? Nobody’s got powers, it’s stinking hot, Adam’s cheating, and I can barely walk!”

Mabel tilted her head. “Why’s that? Were you flying all this time?”

“She used her powers to make her sense of balance better,” Brit explained. “Guess she got used to it.”

Windshear half-heartedly elbowed the other girl. “I can still talk.” She looked back at Mabel and Adam. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten what everyone owe—” She slipped out of Britomart’s grip, but Haunt caught her around the chest.

“Maybe you should lie down,” he said.

“…I’m not doing it cuz you told me to.”

“We know, Windy, we know.”

Mabel watched as the three made their way to the Kookaburra dormitory. Haunt stopped dead in front of the door, regarded it oddly, exhaled, and threw it open.

The rest of the campus wasn’t much better. Linus sat on one of Ex Nihilo crystal thrones, trying to thin the malaise with his guitar. But all that came out of it was music, made of sound. Abalone and Talos were trying to coax Ophelia into clapping, hoping it would either dislodge whatever was blocking their powers or provide some distraction. She wasn’t biting, though. Nobody could decide if she lacked Tiresias’ exemption from the outage, or if she just knew the boys wanted her to use her ovation.

Either way, she took after her father.

As they walked, the Adams peeled off to attend to students in need. Fetching Stratogale a drink, finding a torch for Ēōs come nightfall. There was only one left at Mabel’s side by the time they reached the big house.

“You alright on your own from here?” he asked her as they stepped onto the veranda. “There’s a bunch of kids I think could use me.”

Mabel nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be good,” she answered, unsure if she was being truthful.

The inside of the main house was more crowded than usual. What good was sunshine and fresh-air when you couldn’t stir those things into light-tornados? Plus, without powers, the pumpkins had gone from being funny to being in charge. Board-games unexposed to open air since the Ottoman Empire had been dug out of forgotten cupboards. Gwydion and Snapdragon were making fumbling attempts to get Basilisk’s projector up and running.

Mabel couldn’t spare them much sympathy. They were just bored. There were worse things.

She climbed up the stairs, past Żywie pouring over eighteen years worth of notes in her office, past the muffled, nigh-hysteric phone conversation seeping out from under Lawrence’s study door.

“These children need you, Smith! God knows you owe them…”

“Phantasmagoria?”

Mabel almost didn’t notice Melusine curled up on the third story landing. The woman looked down at her with eyes like poorly varnished, painted glass. Her hair, usually artfully dishevelled, looked like a rat-king.  

“Oh, hi, Mels,” the girl stammered. “You alright there?”

Melusine rested her face against the handrail. “Comme ci comme ça2,” she said weakly. “Żywie gave me something to help me relax.”

Mabel winced. She could smell her teacher’s breath from the stairs. Rumour was that Melusine had never bothered learning to brush her teeth, instead letting the transition to water carry the plaque away. Evidently there was some truth to it.

“…She gave you what?”

“She put me in a headlock and made me relax. I feel like I should be angrier about that. But I was screaming a bit.”

Mabel nodded slowly. “We were running out of plates. Are Maelstrom and Miri still in Basil’s room?”

Melusine didn’t answer.

“Mels?”

“…Tell him I’m here, will you?”

Mabel hurried up past her teacher, patting her on the shoulder as she did. “Promise. It’ll get better, Mels, I’m sure it will.”

Basilisk was playing chess. So was Myriad, ostensibly, but Basil was making half her moves for her. For the most part, the little girl sat across from him, knees tucked up to her chest, glaring.

Basil paused in the middle of moving her rapidly eroding knight. “Just tell me what you want me to do, Miri.”

The door opened. “Can I come in?” asked Mabel.

Basil quickly forced a grin. “Course, Phantasma. Probably should ask before opening the door, but still.” He turned to look at his bed. “Maelstrom, Phantasmagoria’s here!”

In answer, Maelstrom curled tightly around some donated plushies3, making a sound that might have been a word.

His father’s smile faltered, but it held long enough for him to look back at Myriad. “Say hi to Phantasma, Miri.” He hated how patronizing he sounded.

She looked at the man for a long time, narrowing her eyes. “None of this is happening, stop talking.”

“Miri…”

Myriad shook her head. “You’re not real. Stop talking.” She blurred out of her chair over to the bed, burying her face in Maelstrom’s side and clutching the sides of her head.

Mabel made to approach her friends, but Basil stopped her. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, love.”

“…She’s really fast.”

Basilisk shrugged. “Pain can do that to people.” He rubbed his shoulder. “Hits harder than you’d think, too.”

“What do you think is wrong with them?”

Her teacher shook his head. “I don’t know. Myriad, I can get my head around. Poor girl’s been crippled and deafened all at once.”

Myriad let out a spiteful, half-hearted groan. “Don’t talk about me.”

“Sorry, sweetie. But David”—He didn’t even realize what name he was using—“I don’t know. None of the other born children are reacting like this. Miri—”

“I said don’t—”

David limply drew an arm around the girl, and she snuggled into him.

“She’s suffering, Phantasma. But she’s still here. She’s angry and hurting, but she’s here. David, I don’t know where he is.” There was a tremor in his voice. “Even Fran’s more with it. Maybe it’s because she’s older. But it’s like David’s been scooped out of himself. And all that’s left is this ache.”       

Basilisk slumped back into his chair. “It’s not fair.”

Mabel wasn’t sure she had ever heard a grownup say that. “What’s not fair?”

He rubbed his fingers together. “Do you know what I’m good for, Phantasma? I break things. I make everything I touch fall apart in my hands. I stink of burning metal, all day, everyday.” He pointed towards his son and his erstwhile assistant. “David and his mother? Allison? They make wonders. Hell, they are wonders—right down to their bones. Why do they get that taken away from them, and I still warp the bloody floorboards on hot days?”

“Because you don’t have powers,” Myriad muttered from the bed. “I tried playing your song once. Nothing happened because you’re not like us.”

“Miri!” Mabel cried.

Basil threw his hand up. “She’s hurting, Phantasma. And it’s nothing I didn’t already know.”

Mabel drew up Myriad’s chair. “…Why do you think Żywie and Tiresias still have their powers?”

Basil shrugged. “I’m guessing it’s an esper thing for Tiresias. Żywie… maybe the world just can’t bear being without her? I’d think this just didn’t affect grownups, but then there’s Adam to think about. I think I saw Ophelia floating in the nursery, too.”

“Yeah. What about Adam?”

The inquiry seemed to rouse Basil from his mood slightly. “No clue there. If I had to guess, it could be something here that hasn’t had time to affect him? God knows what AU got up to between those raids; maybe he left something here to drain your powers?” He frowned. “Not sure how much sense that makes. Chen didn’t seem like he was planning on leaving as soon as he did.”

Mabel’s eyes widened. “Basil?”

“Yes?”

“Has anyone left the Institute since the blackout?”

“…No.”

Mabel stood up sharply. She almost smiled. “I gotta go. Thanks for talking!” She started towards the door.

“Wait, Phantasma, what are you thinking?”

“It’s alright, I can handle it! Keep looking after David and Allie.”

Basil managed a smile as the door slammed shut. Smart girl, that Phantasma. No wonder his son liked her so much.

David made a low whimper. With a sigh, his father rose from his chair, and lay down on the bed beside him and Allison. He pulled them both in close. Allison fidgeted slightly, but soon went placid. David draped his arms over Basil’s chest.

“I know, I’m not much help,” he said softly, listening to his boy’s hoarse breath. “When have I ever been?”

Arnold and Billy sat in the cool dim of the barn. Partly because the shade was a relief, partly because the barn was theirs and Arnold wasn’t keen to let anyone forget that, but mostly because they were pretty sure the pumpkins couldn’t batter down the doors.

Every few minutes or so, Billy would make vague hand gestures, cupping them or snapping his fingers. He always seemed disappointed by the result.    

 Arnold looked at the other boy over his contraband G-Men issue. It was an especially rubbish one, where the cheerful jackboots and their pet super went up against a mad-scientist plotting to use a suspiciously American looking statue to transform all mankind into demi-humans. If there was any downside to this scheme, the writers forgot to mention it.

“Billy”—Neither boy saw much of a point in using their new human names without their powers—“if the blackout was over, don’t ‘cha think we’d have heard about it?”

Billy pouted, his tail beating the dirt behind him. “Someone has to notice it first.” He clenched his fist. “It doesn’t make sense. Me still looking like… me, you know?”

Arnold shrugged from the floor. “Maybe your fur and stuff isn’t because powers? Maybe it’s a coincidence?”

Billy crossed his arms. “That’s just silly.”

Arnold went back to his comic—reluctantly. He couldn’t blame Billy for being grumpy. At least he could theoretically walk down the street without being hassled. Not that Arnold was enjoying himself much, either.

It was odd, he thought. He hadn’t been a super for that long, not even a year. He could still remember life without powers. But it didn’t feel the same. It was like there was a hollow under his skin. Still, they were both doing better than David and Allie…

Light slithered into the barn, followed by Mabel slamming the door hard behind her. There was a disappointed hissing noise trailing off into the distance. “Bloody pumpkins,” she said to herself, before addressing the boys. “There you are,” she tossed a couple of water bottles in their general direction. “We’re going for a walk.”

“Umm,” Arnold panted as he half walked, half jogged after Mabel. “Why exactly are we going walking?”

“We’re doing an experiment,” she replied, not breaking her stride. The boys couldn’t help but be a little impressed. Unlike them, she had burdened herself with an overstuffed backpack. Supplies, she said.

“Don’t we need… chemicals or something for that?” Billy asked.

“Not that kind of experiment,” she answered, brusque but not harsh.

That didn’t do much to answer Billy’s question. “What sort of experiment, then?”

“I can’t tell you guys yet, because that might interfere with the experiment,” she rattled off, businesslike. “You’re the…” she dug in her memories of conversations with Lawrence and Miss Fletcher’s classes, “the control group!” That sounded about right.

“Great,” Arnold muttered. “I’m back at Roberts.”

Honestly, he couldn’t complain too much. The weather was nice, and better the spring-green bush than the terrified, morose boredom of the Institute. And whatever Mabel was up to, it had to be more fun than the G-Men.

Soon enough, they reached the river. It was still acting weird. Arnold didn’t like looking at it. The tendrils prying at the earth by the water’s edge reminded him of Maelstrom’s. Except David never had any trouble making the water move, and whatever this was, Arnold couldn’t help but think it was struggling. Mabel caught him gazing down at the water’s surface, and he felt a hand prod him in the shoulder.

“Hey,” she said, her voice small. “They’re gonna be okay, you know?”

“I know,” Arnold answered. “Still, weird.”

Billy crouched down to get a closer look at the troubled water. “Do you think this is a Mels and Mealy thing, or an Adam thing?” he asked. “How many powers does he have now?”

Mabel frowned. “You have a bunch of powers, too.”

The tiger-boy shrugged. “I wasn’t trying to be mean about it. But I have like three, and he has, what, fifty?”

“Fifteen,” Mabel said quietly, hoping she wouldn’t be heard.

Arnold was looking across to the river’s far-bank. “So, how do we get across? I can’t even see the stepping stones.”

“We walk,” Mabel answered with a shrug. “Shouldn’t be hard. I tried it when the water started being wibbly. Whatever it is, it’s making it thicker, like a sponge or something. We can probably just walk right over.”

Billy made a face. “That doesn’t sound safe.”

The girl smiled. “What are you worried about? Tigers can swim.”

Billy remembered what Haunt had told him. “And witches float.”

She slapped him on the back. “Damn right!”

Mabel stepped out onto the water first. At first, her feet sank into it and the wet sand as you would expect. But as she walked, and the river rose around her ankles, she managed to pull her feet out of it and step onto the surface, like she were extricating herself from a jelly mold. Soon, she was treading the river, watching it mold itself around her feet like a deep carpet.

“… This feels so weird.”

From the shoreline, Billy giggled, before running out after her, followed by a somewhat more dubious Arnold.

It was more a messy crossing than a hard one. Tendrils and blind, rogue wavelets would splash against them, or their feet would break through the wobbly, fragile surface. Arnold didn’t even want to think how it must have felt for the fish.

Eventually, they slogged their way onto dry land again, half drenched.

“We coulda just swimmed you know,” Arnold mumbled, ringing out his shirt while Billy tried to shake his fur dry.

“Nah,” Mabel said. “It would’ve been like trying to swim through fudge or something.”

“Or worms,” Billy agreed. “So now what?”

Mabel pulled the straps of her bag tight. “We walk.”

The bush was alive. Young insects buzzed and danced with dust motes, rushing to fit a whole life into the days and weeks they had to spare, dodging the magpies and kookaburras that shouted and snatched them out the air4.

As they walked, Arnold couldn’t help but spot scars from the great lad-hunt; the ones spring hadn’t managed to heal over. Scorch marks, shards of exotic crystal, the odd rotting doll being mined out by convoys of ants. Long, bare stretches that betrayed the ghosts of trees. It made Arnold feel queasy.

Maybe we deserve it.

“Are we allowed out here?” Billy asked, trying to resist the urge to lick himself.

Mabel shrugged. “Not really, I think. But it’s the kind of not-allowed that’s alright most of the time?”

“…Sure.”

The girl frowned at him.

“Just shush up and trust me on this, kay?” She grumbled. “Lawrence’ll be totally okay with it if I’m right. We might even get ice cream for dessert. For a month.”

“Promise it might help?”

“Promise.”

Arnold hesitated for a moment, then nodded.

“Okay. I’m in. You’re the smart one, right?”

“Yup,” she nodded. “Totally.”

They walked on for a while. It was getting late enough that Arnold and Billy both feared not being back in time for dinner, not that they could keep close track of time without watches. That late in the year, daylight stretched well into the evening. Made bedtime rather frustrating.

“Mabel?” Arnold asked.

“Yeah.”

“How do we know if the experiment doesn’t work?”

“When we circle the world and walk back onto the Institute.”

“Okay… why do you think Allie lets David near her like this and not me?”

“Like this?” she asked. “… Like what?”

“All sad and scared I mean. And angry. At everything. Except David.”

“Maybe you’re the friend she wants to be happy with?” Mabel tried, unable to make it sound like she believed it.

“She’s happy with David, too. All the time. Really, really happy. Kinda makes me wanna vomit happy. You see those two in the river? Weird.”    

“… Dunno,” she admitted. “Think it’s the same reason that David won’t be like that with me?”

“What? You two are so friends. Weren’t you his only friend for a while there?”

“I was,” Mabel said, kicking at a stone. “So why’s she the special one now?” She looked away, totally not drying her eyes.

“I know, right? I was her friend back when she was just the weird pale girl yammering about songs or whatever, I got her out of the asylums, and now it’s all ‘David, David, David!’,” he finished in a whining falsetto.

“… I wish he’d just be mean one time,” she mumbled. “Then I’d be allowed to be angry at him.”

“That’s what I don’t get!” Arnold nearly shouted. “They’re not even the same. David’s all nice till he hurts and Allie’s all…” He was almost glad for a second his friend was currently powerless. “She’s… not that?”

“It’s called being a bitch,” she sniffed. “Or a cow.”

“Mabel!” Billy cried.

“You can’t say stuff like that!” Arnold hissed. “…God’ll hear you.” Or his mother. Same thing, really.

“I don’t care! David’s too good for her!”

“Maybe that’s why he needs Allie?” Billy suggested.

Mabel looked at him. “What?”

“I mean, David’s nice, yeah, but does it ever make him happy?

Mabel dug her heel into the dirt. “…Not really.”

Billy nodded. “So he needs mean lessons. Or someone to be mean for him, I don’t know. Haunt could probably explain it better?”

“But what does Allie get out of it?” Arnold asked, glaring at the other boy.

He thought about it for a moment. “…Someone who’s okay with her being a meanie sometimes?”

“But that was me!” Arnold wailed. “Even when she was making fun of my stupid Bible lunch bags! Sometimes we were mean together! Like with Petey Binks!”

The other two just looked at him expectantly.

Arnold rolled his eyes. “He had a lazy eye and warts. And he smelled like hay all the time, it was weird. What I mean is, I didn’t care Allie wasn’t always nice.”

Billy quirked his shoulders. “Then maybe she just likes water.” He turned and started walking again, continuing, “I don’t think people like other people just because they can get something of them, anyway. Haunt likes me, I think, and all he gets out of me is gold and jewels.”

Mabel and Arnold exchanged a look. “Billy…” the girl said.

“I can make jokes too! And you two are whingeing about people having more than one friend, so shush!”

They trudged along, Billy taking the lead. But Arnold couldn’t let it rest. “It’s just—it’s lonely, you know? Allison’s the only person left I really, really know. I don’t know how much she really liked me, or if it was just my song, but it felt like she liked me.”

“I like you,” Mabel said, slowing her pace till she was beside Arnold.

“The way you like corned beef, I bet,” he grumbled.

She giggled. “No, not the way I like corned beef. That’s just okay. You’re sponge-cake.”

“…Sponge-cake?”

“Because you’re great! You were like, sixty-zillion of the reasons The Tempest turned out so good.”

“…A supervillain tried to kill us5.”

“Did you invite him? I’m serious, Arnold. Doing the play with you, it felt… different than with David. I mean, he had fun too, but you got it.”

“I still think we shoulda charged for tickets.”

Mabel slipped her hand in his. It didn’t feel half-bad there. “Next time, executive-producer.”

For some reason, Arnold stood a little bit straighter.

As they walked, Mabel seriously pondered when they ought to turn back. Part of her said “never”, even if they did get their powers back. Maybe even more so if they did. They could just keep walking, and leave Lawrence and the Institute and his married days behind. Find a Daddy Warbucks to adopt them, or failing that, a nice old couple, like Superman’s mum and dad6. Or Arnold’s folks. Did she have any uncles or aunties left?

It suddenly occurred to Mabel that if she did, they probably thought she was dead. Then she noticed Billy had stopped a few paces in front of them. The boy was shuddering slightly, like someone had poured ice-water down the back of his shirt.

“What’s up?” Mabel asked.

He said nothing. Instead he raised his hand, a perfect bulb of quicksilver blooming in his palm.

The other children sprinted to join him. It was like coming down the mountain into warm, thick air. A weight they didn’t even know was there had been lifted off both their shoulders.

Arnold was laughing, his voice crackling and popping with thunder. Billy was making it rain confetti from a mirrored stormcloud.

Mabel, meanwhile, reached into her backpack with that odd, sightless sight, into the scrapbook nestled within.

A lady astronaut with a fishbowl helmet appeared before her, frowning when she caught sight of the girl.  “Not this again.”

“Spacey!”

“My name is—” The star-woman grunted as the little girl slammed into her waist.

“I’ve missed you…”    

Reflexively, the astronaut stroked her tormentor’s hair.

“Is that what the experiment was for?” Arnold asked once he’d stopped scattering trees across the country.

Billy was fading in and out of visibility, but he did manage to get some words in. “You could’ve told us!”

Mabel let go of her summon. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up!”

Having gotten the pent-up lightning out of his system—and created a new clearing—Arnold glanced from his phosphorescent hands to where they had come from. Cautiously, he treaded back towards the Institute.

After a few steps, the light in his skin died. Then he jumped backwards, reigniting before his feet hit the ground again. “…Weird.”

Mabel looked at the astronaut.

“…What?”

The girl walked slowly past Arnold.

The astronaut gasped, disappearing in a puff of pastel dust.  

“Poor thing,” said Billy.

Mabel stepped back over what she was already thinking of as the Line. The astronaut resumed existence, panting. “God. That was even worse than normal.”

Both of Billy’s friends looked at him.

“…No.”

Mabel sat down in the dirt, rubbing her chin. “So it’s not something inside us,” she thought aloud. “It’s something around the Institute. What’s changed since—”

She vanished in a blast of green light.

Billy gawked at Arnold. If he was going to say something, he didn’t get it out before he joined his friend.

Alone, the lightning-clad boy looked toward the wrong side of the Line, and sighed.

Then he ran.      


1. Cervantes having lived and died well before the invention of Florence Foster Jenkins.

2. “So so.”

3. Including Miss Fluffers.

4. As dreary as the blackout was for the Avon Valley’s posthuman population, for the first time in over ten years, its birds knew freedom.

5. As Lawrence had insisted afterwards.

6. It wouldn’t be the first time Mabel Henderson found herself sobbing into Pa Kent’s lap.

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Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Reefs of Sound

“Why would I wanna start it there?” Mabel asked, frowning sidelong at the Institute’s newest member. “If I’m drawing the barn, shouldn’t I start with the door?”

“Nah,” Adam grinned, shuffling over to the younger girl, a drawing pad balanced on his lap. He pointed at the barn resting down the hill from them. “If you start drawing the door, then you’ll just have a door. Some weird rectangle thing like you get in kiddie drawings. If you go from the outside in, then you can kinda focus on the shapes a little more, you know?”

“Like this?”

“…No. Nothing like that.”

Scribbling. “This?”

“Better, but no.” The boy put a guiding hand over Mabel’s. “Take more time with it.”

A small, mostly involuntary smile. “Fine, fine.”

Adam, as Mabel had slowly begun to conclude, was pretty alright.

“Why’s it okay for him to teach you and not me?” Myriad asked sourly from the slab of rock she was lying on, sunning herself like a goanna.

Mabel huffed. “Because he actually knows how you learn to draw.”

Myriad muttered something age inappropriate. Beside her, David crossed his arms, pouting. “I could’ve helped, you know.”

“You power-cheat as well, Maelstrom.”

“Do not!”

Mabel put her hands on her hips. “Okay, teach me how to spray stuff with water so I feel them.”

Maelstrom and Myriad both looked at each other, rolled their eyes, and stalked off towards the big house, at first together, then seeming to peel off as they got close, David heading down to the river.

Mabel pulled her gaze back to the barn, scowling. An awful, mean part of herself had cheered a little at her friends’ spat at first. They were getting way too clingy. Maybe David would play with her more again. Now, though, there seemed to be peace between him and Allison. An uneasy peace, brokered by occupying forces.

But they were still so mad at everything.

Mabel practically gouged at the paper, snapping off the point of her purple pencil1.

She wasn’t even done swearing before Adam had his hands over the dropped pencil. The air shimmered, and the pencil leapt back into Mabel’s hand, fine and sharp once more.

She blinked a few times. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t, either.”    

“How many powers is that now?”

Adam had to think about it. “…Six. Seven counting rainbow breath, but I don’t even know what that one’s for.”

Mabel giggled. “Lawrence is going to take ages picking you a name.” For some reason, she really hoped he did.

“Probably.” Adam took Mabel’s hand again. “You know what your problem is? You always point the pencil straight down, like you’re gonna stab the drawing or something. Hold it at an angle when you shade.”

He steered her into scratching a gradient—iris to eggplant—across the page. So that was how you did that.

“See? Useful.”

Definitely alright.

It took Adam a while to really get Linus. The Institute’s first male student was a constant presence in The New Child, lauded by Lawrence for his cheerful, earnest manner—even has he bemoaned his continual insistence that his father was the god Apollo:

I’ve explained to the boy—gently, mind you—that the posthuman (probably the latest in a long line) who claims to be Apollo generally keeps to Greece. Oh, sure, more often than not, Linus nods and says “Yes, Lawrence,” like the good lad he is. But there’s always that smile. That secret smile children indulge us silly grown ups with.

Adam couldn’t help but be curious how a boy who claimed such a thing about himself kept the hot air from broiling his brains. First night they were both after-dinner dish-duty, he had sidled up to Linus, grown tall and golden past the The New Child’s epilogue.

“What’s up, new kid?” he asked. He grinned crookedly. “You aren’t thinking you’ll pass on all the work to me are ya?”

Adam laughed, flicking some suds at the the older boy. “Shut up! I just wanted to get to know you lot. I mean, I’m going to be here a while, right?”

He nodded thoughtfully. “You’re probably right about that, sorry to say.”

Adam shuffled his feet. “It’s alright. I mean, it seems nice? Even before I got here, Laurie’s book, you know?”

“Well, I’m an open book. What’s on ya mind?”

“…Howdidyougetyourpowers?”

Linus stopped  scouring the dried pasta sauce off his plate, tilting his head at Adam. “Whad’ya say, mate?”

“…How did you get your powers?”

Stupid, stupid Adam, he knows you read the book, idiot!

“Oh.” Linus went back to scrubbing. “Not much of a story there. My dad’s a god.”

His father could have been a banker or a glazier, if you missed the last word. There was no bragging in his tone. Maybe once, long ago, but not anymore.

“Which one?” Adam asked.

“Apollo. He does pretty much everything my uncle—half uncle, actually, granddad owned a bike—didn’t snatch up first. Prophecy, healing, light… music.” A smile like the sun. “You can probably guess where I take after him.”

“You ever meet him?”

“Few times. It’s been years, though.”

“What’s he like?” Adam wasn’t sure if the “he” needed a capital letter.

Linus shrugged. “You know what dads are like.”

Adam found it hard to believe this boy was a father three times over.

The other thing Adam couldn’t get his head around was Linus’ power. From what he had gleaned from The New Child, Linus’ gifts were more less covered under the umbrella of “being really, really, good at music.” And Adam reckoned if that qualified for the Institute, Lawrence would need to buy up all of Northam to have enough room.

At least, he didn’t get it till that first Friday night in Lorikeet dorm. Lights out had been called three hours ago, but Linus and Gwydion were only just ambling in. That was one of the perks of fatherhood: you got to stay up till 10:30.

Linus quickly threw himself onto his hammock. Almost as soon as it stopped swinging, Windshear was tiptoeing through the dark over to him.

“Linus,” the little girl trilled in his ear, whispering louder than she usually spoke, “play us a song.”  

All around him, Adam saw and heard his dorm mates sit up or murmur expectantly.

“Not tonight, Windy,” Linus groaned with the resignation of the already defeated. “Tired.”

“And he’s not that good anyway,” Haunt called out, raising laughter. “Well he isn’t!” Haunt often claimed to be immune to Linus’ music, or as he put it, “impervious to bullshit.”

Come ooooon,” Windshear whined. “It’s Friday, you can sleep in.”

Linus smacked his pillow into her face. “Fine. Just one, though, then you’re all going to let me sleep2.”

Linus reached for the Maton six-string leaning beside the hammock and started plucking at the strings. “Oh, yeah, I’ll tell tell ya something, I think you’ll understand…”

The notes streamed like rivers from Linus’ guitar; staining the moonwash crimson and gold; flashing with every soft strum of the boy’s fingers, quick as gum-leaves on the wind. He had started off singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” but that wasn’t what the other children heard.

Adam didn’t even notice when he started singing along. That was the thing with Linus’ songs. You couldn’t help being washed away by them. He was singing along with the older boy, reciting lyrics to a song he didn’t even know the words to, dancing with a complete lack of self consciousness he hadn’t known for years. Soon he realized he was crying. He wasn’t the only one. Most of the children were.  Not the weepy, screechy sort of crying, or the type where the lungs began to clench. The clean kind, where every tear gave air to some old hurt. Those pains circled the dorm, passing from child to child as freely as a tune, building up force until it was like a rip current flowed through each of their bodies.

Each was a part of the song. Maybe the space between notes that gave them definition. Windshear, still wondering after all these years how her brother hadn’t turned out super with her. Snapdragon, trying to shake the memory of those raw, seeping burns across his father’s face. Mabel, wondering if she should have burned instead of her own father. Fey of Femurs and Peter James dying all over again.

Adam glanced toward Myriad, moving with that perfect, almost grim grace, and followed a line through the air to Maelstrom, play-waltzing with Growltiger right across the other end of the dorm. A melancholic, resentful note still rang loud between the two children. You couldn’t lie when Linus sang, not even to yourself.

Haunt was still in his hammock, his teeth clenched with his arms wrapped tight around his legs, lest they betray him too. Adam felt something bitter tease at his soul; the face of a mother, only half remembered. Then he looked to Elsewhere, and felt confusion brushed with sadness; a note of longing. Elsewhere, for his part, was staring right at Maelstrom. Were it not for the honesty of the song, Adam might have laughed at him or worse. Maelstrom simply gave Arnold a sad smile.

Nobody sang the same words, but they were all the right ones. A dozen piping, out-of-key voices, a couple cracking with puberty, and all made and tuned for just this very song.

The song and the spell died down as Billy looked at Adam.

“… You killed her?” he asked, a small frown pulling at his features.

“She tried to hurt my Mum,” Adam replied. A soupy, endorphin thick exhaustion had settled on him, like he had been dancing for hours instead of minutes. “I’m not sorry… What does that say about me?”

 “Maybe you’re like a soldier?” Elsewhere suggested. “I know my dad’s killed people, and I’m not sure if he’s sorry. Or the same kind of sorry.”

For some reason, the idea hurt didn’t Adam as much as he thought it would. If he couldn’t be like the Crimson Comet, at least he could still be something besides a murderer.

The dorm caught its breath as the door swung open. The teachers usually ignored Linus’ after-hours singalongs, probably because they couldn’t bare to put a stop to them, but you never knew.

“Aww, did we miss a Linus thing?” Artume jeered as she stepped inside, her sister and Metonymy following behind her.

“Sure did,” Windshear answered dizzly.    

“The party kind or the weird touchy feely sort?” Metonymy asked.

“Weird touchy feely,” Haunt grumbled from between his knees. “Stay out of my head, Linus!”

“You gonna do another song?” Ēōs asked giddily.

Haunt shouted, “No!”

Linus through a hand up. “Alright, alright, I’ll tone it down a bit. Didn’t mean for it to come out so heavy anyway. Maybe you all needed to vent.”

“Why the fuck would anyone need that?”

Growltiger and Ēōs both let out an “ohhh” while Artume shot Haunt a look. “Don’t knock it,” she told him. “Linus sang that way after me and Metonymy’s married day. It kinda hurt, but things made more sense afterwards.”

“The married day made more sense,” Haunt specified flatly.

“Not that.” Metonymy weaved his hand into Artume’s. “Us. Being friends.”

Haunt looked around the dorm, trying to find a comrade in scorn. “You needed Linus magic to figure that out?”

Linus just smiled. “Happy to be of help.”

As promised, his next song was more sedate, and let the children stay in their own heads. Honestly, after the cathartic scouring of the last song, a simple (if strangely full sounding) rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was a relief.

For lack of anywhere else to sit, Artume and Metonymy settled down beside Adam on his hammock, watching Ēōs dance with Growltiger.

“So, Institute treating you good?” the girl asked Adam, making small talk.

Adam shrugged. “So far. Food’s nice.”

Metonymy nodded. “We really need to get Alberto to make dessert more.”

“Yeah, yeah…” Adam glanced at Artume. “So, what was your married day like?”

In the time it took the other children to face him, Linus had already slowed his tune, his lyrics becoming quieter. There was anger there, a note of hurt far more profound than Allison and David had contributed. Lucy, it seemed, was falling.

Lawrence hadn’t waited long to explain the Institute’s stirpiculture3 to the boy. As the old doctor had admitted, he used to leave it many months, till new students had adjusted to the school, and the neuroses of human society had faded somewhat.

“Cowardice on my part, dear boy. Unfair on the students, making them keep things from their brothers and sisters. Especially our brave young women.”

Adam had just sat there in the headmaster’s study, waiting for Lawrence to say something that would make sense of all this. He didn’t. “…How old do we start?”

At that, the old man’s upper lip twitched like he was speculating about the weather that week. “For girls, about fifteen. Fourteen if they’re early bloomers, but we try to play it safe. Boys, though, we can afford to start a little earlier. It’s funny, really. Girls might start down the path to womanhood younger, but boys may be men before them.” A chuckle  “Far away as it is, I look forward to seeing what you bring to the table, Adam. I mean, how often is it when a Naming is delayed because I’m spoiled for choice?”

The whole concept had itched at the boy ever since. Giggled, whispered rumours had told him enough about sex that he knew this arrangement would be scandalous back in Kalgoorlie, but he couldn’t quite remember why. Every objection he could think of felt fake, like Sister Scholastica trying to explain Original Sin for the fiftieth time. Sometimes it was felt like it was on the tip of his tongue, but he just couldn’t grasp it. Lawrence got to be be right by default, like the only horse at a race. Maybe the rules were just different for supers. If they could run around in costumes punching crooks, why not have babies sooner?

Artume was looking at Adam hard enough he worried she might leave bruises. “You want to know what a married day is like? Do you really?”

Metonymy squeezed her hand. “He’s not trying to be nasty, Arty.”

“I-I didn’t mean to.”

“I know you didn’t,” she said, firmly. “So I’m going to tell you.”

And so, in a voice like brittle iron, Artume explained the whole process. The wetness, the heat, that shuddering moment when sight abandoned her, the scratching. As she spoke, Linus’ song grew sharper, more jagged: Lucy in the impact crater with very bad acid.

Adam was white by the time she was finished, his fingers digging into the flannel of his pyjamas. Artume, for her part, was gripping Met’s hand like some sort of life buoy. A tiny part of Adam found that strange. How could he be a comfort to her, after all that?

There was a suspicion of guilt in Artume’s features. “Ah, sorry. Was that too much?”

Adam didn’t answer.

“Here, I’ll get you a drink.”

Blackness bled from the air, Artume plunging her hand into the wound in search of a Coke.

Adam closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure which emotion was deeper in his skull at that moment, shame or pity. He couldn’t look at the older girl after a story like that.

Artume found her coke, and began to pull it free, frosty cold from the chilled space of her dimension, when the portal growled. Her portals never growled. She flinched, and that reaction was the only reason she didn’t lose a finger when the gap snapped shut, shearing off a length of skin along the side of the girl’s palm.

For the first time in his life, Linus missed a beat. Then Artume screamed.


1. Adam had suggested purple over black for the darkness in the barn windows.

2. This had never worked before, and there was little reason to suspect it would now.

3. It is a matter of historical conjecture whether or not Herbert Lawrence borrowed this eugenic euphemism from the Christian perfectionist (and future silverware giant) Oneida Community of the mid-1800s. All that can be certain is that it was a ghastly portmanteau.

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