All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Forty-Seven: Origin Story

After David had apologised to all womankind, and Brian repaired the bonfire with his flameproof hands, the evening went on. Children roasted marshmallows and tossed eminently burnable things into the fire. Fran and Alberto—after far too much rosé—danced to Linus’ rendition of “Great Balls of Fire.”

At the chorus’ crescendo, the pair flung apart, their faces tilted upwards towards the emerging stars. Alberto lost his grip on his partner’s hand, their momentum sending him stumbling into a row of kids, toppling them over like bowling pins. The hot night-air was spiced with laughter and curses.

“We should do Tiresias’ Midnight Theatre!” Ēōs eagerly suggested as she tried to hoist the psychic’s head off of her.

“Sure, why not?” replied Alberto from the girl’s lap.

“What’s ‘Tiresias’ Midnight Theatre’?” Allison tried to ask through a gag of melted confectionary.

Fran blinked. “Wow, it has been a while.”

“So, you kids know I can do psycho… psychomet…” Alberto tried stealing the word back from the booze. “…You know when I touch things and they tell me stuff?”

“I thought you just made it up,” said Arnold.

The esper held up a finger. “Only sometimes! And you know I can make people see what I want them to, right?”

“…I guess—ahhh!” Arnold screamed as his clothes were replaced by cobras.

Alberto continued as the boy ran off into the night, firing off lightning bolts at the serpents in his mind. “So yeah, think of me as your living movie-projector of the evening. You kids tell your ghost stories, and I provide the visuals. Like those piano-players that played at silent movies, but in reverse.”

Arnold stomped back into the bonfire’s shadow, pulling his shirt back over his head. “That was stupid, Bertie.”

“Sure, but I can do it again if you keep calling me that. So, who wants to go first?”

Louise raised her hand. “I do.”

Nobody contested her. Alberto sat down beside the girl, taking her hand. “So, what have you got for us tonight?”

Louise took a deep breath. “I’m going to tell you how I came here. The whole story.”

David nodded approvingly. The other children exchanged looks ranging from intriguement to eye-rolling disbelief.

“Sounds a bit heavy, but hey, your story.”

Alberto looked at the plume of grey smoke spewing from the bonfire. His eyes shone like car-headlights, beams of light striking the cloud. Images swirled to the surface.

Gnarled, ghostly trees with indigo leaves, almost lost among plains of tall black grass swaying in the wind. There wasn’t much of a sky overhead. Half of the horizon was taken up by an enormous, swollen red sun, glowing sullenly like the last ember in the hearth. It hung so low, it looked like someone standing in the dark field could reach up and spin the star like a top.

Sharing the sky was a void of stars. The only thing that distinguished it from a hole in space were bright, glowing cuts and scratches: rivers of molten rock.

The children oohed and ahhed. Whatever they thought about Louise’s spacy origins, they liked a good show. The girl herself was transfixed. It was like her dreams had slipped out of her head.

“Menvra and it’s dark twin: Eita,” Alberto said, almost surprised by his own words. “A double-planet—two worlds tied together by orbit and atmosphere. Probably the best and only argument for creationism in the galaxy.1

“Bull.”

Everyone looked at Jeremy. The sandy-haired little boy wilted under the sudden attention, his pearly liquid force field reflexively closing over him.

“I mean,” he said, voice muffled by the shiny dome, “Louise, how old were you when you ‘came to Earth’?”

“I don’t know,” she muttered. “Two I guess, maybe three?”

“Then how can you remember all that?          

“I don’t.” She glared at Alberto. “You aren’t making stuff up, are you?”

“I’m not reading your mind, kid. I’m reading your past. Trust me, it’s a lot easier than predicting the future. There’s only one of the former, for one thing.” He smiled to himself. “The past is the knife that cuts us off from infinity, Laurie once said.”

The visions in the smoke shifted. Buildings like stalks of wheat stood tall in the shadow of the giants in the sky, perforated by hundreds of open windows. Tiny, glowing men and women leapt in and out of them like they were just a step from the ground below.

“You were right, Louise,” Alberto said. “You’re not a super, or at least you weren’t, once.”

Louise almost flinched away from the psychic. Was this just his excuse to air her private thoughts in front of all her friends?”

“Yeah, the kinetic energy manipulators killed off the baselines and the other supers ages back. Fun fact, there was no Menvran words for ‘penthouse’.”

Oh. So that was the kind of place she came from.

Alberto rolled his eyes. “Don’t sook, girl. It happens on most planets. Hell, happens here all the time. Isn’t that right, Tom?”

A rude gesture was the only reply.

“Still, ancient history, not what we’re here for, right?”

The world in the smoke shook. The buildings were falling, their stems snapping as the screams of thousands mingled with the mocking hiss of the bonfire.

Louise tried not to look. “Can we skip this? I remember—I remember this. People, my family I guess, talking about it. I can’t remember the words, but there was something wrong with the sky…”

“Menvra and Eita’s orbit started breaking down,” Alberto said. “The sisters were quarreling, I think was how the doomsday prophets put it.”

Riots in the streets. Mass superhuman violence. Scientists and statesmen and kings hanging from what might have been streetlights, intercut with towns being swallowed by the earth and mountainous black waves washing away whole cities.

Some of the children were tearing up, not the least Louise.

Françoise looked hard at her friend. “Alberto, this is getting cruel.”

Alberto knew from experience to listen when Fran got that look. He glanced down at Louise, still holding her hand. “You wanna stop?”

Her grip tightened. “Just get to the point.”

The carnage fast-forwarded. Now they were looking into a hallway. It had no windows or obvious lights, but it was illuminated nonetheless. The walls were covered with jeweled palm leaves, the floor a glass pane over a flowing stream, riddled with cracks.

People making their way downstream, their faces grave and afraid. A man and a woman in tunics weaved from twitching yellow moths, trailed by a child with shoulder length, baby-blue hair. The woman was carrying a toddler.

“Is that you?” David whispered to Louise.    

“Yeah.”

A hard cut to a paddock. A green, earthly paddock, the kind you saw off the side of any country road, bathed in mist and pale dawn light. Three figures appeared: shimmering, phantasmic things.

“Your parents were brilliant, you know,” said Alberto. “Or they worked with a lot of brilliant people, I’m not sure. Brave, too. Everyone told them the teleporter wasn’t reliable over such distances.”

A tiny girl cleaved from one of the shades, falling backward onto the grass. The ghosts started to flicker.

“It’s a shame they were right…”

The flickering grew faster. The ghost that shed the child reached out for her. She tried reaching back, but her hands found only air.

The ghosts vanished. Soon, the toddler was weeping desperate, confused tears; alone under a strange, yellow sun.

Five years later, the girl wept again.

“I think that’s enough for tonight,” Alberto said as he let go of Louise’s hand. He patted her on the back. “Look on the bright side, kiddo, your folks would be happy with how far you’ve gotten. Not so sure about where you’ve gotten, but at least you’re alive. Doing better lately, too.”

Louise nodded weakly.

For Billy, childish curiosity won out over tact. “So, did Lawrence and the other grownups find you there?”

“No,” she answered softly. “The Institute was way later.”

“So what happened before that? Where’d you go? You didn’t live in the woods like Mowgli, did you?”

“A car came past. The couple in it saw me, took me home, and just… sorta kept me.”

Billy’s eyes lit up. “Like Ma and Pa Kent?”

Louise didn’t look at him. “…No. Not like them.”

Tom coughed into his fist, drawing the Institute’s eyes.

Fran asked, “Would you like a go, Tom?” She looked at Alberto. “If Al is still up for it, I mean.”

“Al” shrugged. Better than “Bertie”, at least. Definitely better than “Uncle Albert”.

Tom nodded. “I would, ma’m. If Louise doesn’t mind, I’d like to tell everyone what happened after.”

In the smoke, a middle aged fella with the kind of plump build that could only be summed up as “jolly” read his morning paper at a scratched kitchen table. His grey moustache twitched against dark lips, while the sun pouring through the window behind him glinted off his bald head. A cohort of brown skinned children ringed the rest of the table, the eldest maybe fourteen, the youngest in a highchair.

One of them was clearly Tom.   

“I don’t think my parents were that different from any of yours. Dad went to work, came home, did bugger all but watch tellie till bedtime, and played cricket on sundays. Mum…”

A woman bustled into view, carrying a bowl of scrambled eggs. Maybe ten years younger than the man, she looked rather thin—not exactly pretty, but pleasant. Her hair was a bush of blonde curls, and she had a well-worn smile.

“…Mum did mum stuff.”

Tom went silent for a moment, taking in the details of his family. The odd, discoloured band of pigmentation across the bridge of his mother’s nose, his most subtle inheritance from the woman. The way his younger brother kicked the air under the table. His dad’s complete inability to keep his opinions from reaching his face when he read the paper. As he watched the scene soundlessly play out—his mother slapping his father with a tea-towel in mock outrage at some forgotten joke—Tom wondered why folks made such a big deal about Alberto seeing future. The future would find them its own time. The past, though, that was gone forever. But Alberto could burn away the fog of time and memory…

“Ah, Tom,” said the man himself. “You stuck?”

Tom shook himself like Billy after a swim. “Nah, just remembering. Dad was a widower, you know. His first missus died having my sister Marilyn.” Despite what he just said, Tom smiled. “My big brother Ned said Dad was hopeless without a wife. Just not the sort of bloke built for being single. Thank Christ he met Mum.

“People didn’t think much of them. I mean, a whitefella gets a Noonga girl pregnant, that’s just being careless. If he marries her”—he scoffed—“what the hell is he thinking? But if a white-girl marries a blackfella… well, put it this way, I don’t remember half my grandparents.”

The smoke shifted again. A less smile-lined Mrs Long was sitting across from an old man clutching a glass of some amber liquid with very white fingers.

“When he blows all his pay on grog and the rent’s due, I’m not bailing you out.”

Tom grunted. “Figured. My folks never shot back when people gave them shit. They just went about being married like they were both Scot-Irish or something. I don’t know if that was badass or wet of them.” He sighed. “Didn’t do us any good in the end.”

Tom and his brothers and sisters, school bags slung over their shoulders, trudging down a long country road, lined by paddocks very much like the one Louise had found herself in. Some of the students leaned forward expectedly.

Behind the children, a white van rose from the slope of the road like a U-boat, soon pulling up in front of the siblings.

A policeman stepped out from the driver door, all smiles. “Are any of you children Tom and Gary Long?”

The Tom of long ago grabbed his little brother’s hand, while their older brother and sisters exchanged confused, dread-filled looks. “Yes, sir. Me and him here.”

Louise was shocked. He couldn’t remember Tom calling anyone “sir” outside a game of knights and dragons2, and even then under heavy protest.

The copper nodded, still smiling. “Right. You two boys left some workbooks back home. Your parents wanted us to give you a lift so you could pick them up.”

“…Okay,” Tom said slowly.

In the present, he smacked his own forehead. He started berating himself: “I was a fucking idiot. Even back then it sounded dodgy. But they were cops…”

“Why didn’t you run?” asked Troy, in his metallic form so he didn’t have to pretend he had  something in his eye. “Didn’t you say this happened to a lot to half-caste kids? You said people hid their kids when white people rolled through.”

“That’s the thing: Mum and Dad never thought it’d happen to us. Dad had a good job, and he and Mum were properly married. Hell, aside from some lingo and thinking he could use a spear when he was drunk, Dad could’ve been the world’s tannest whitefella.” He spat. “He was an idiot, sometimes.”

Meanwhile, in the smoke, the van was driving away, leaving the remaining Longs’ tears to mix with the red dust it kicked up.

Linus frowned. “Why’d they just leave your brother and sisters there?”

“Come on, mate, you’re older than me. They left them because their mother was black. Not worth “saving”. Me and Gary, though, we had good, Anglo blood in us. We could be brought up right.” Tom pointed at the shadow of the big house. “Remind you of anyone we know?”

Flashes. Belts stretched taught. Chains around ankles. Girls whimpering in the dark…

“Me and Gary got sent different places. Maybe because his skin was lighter, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. Family wasn’t really allowed at Wandering, or anything like a past really. Not that much else was allowed, though.”

In the cloud, Tom was kicking and thrashing in the arms of a black shirted, Roman collared Christian Brother, one of his fellows stalking towards him with a cane.

“I don’t remember what I’d done to ‘earn’ it.” He glanced at Alberto. “And I’d rather not, thanks.”

Alberto quirked a shoulder.

“I felt like nothing. Wandering would’ve liked that, I think. Nothing isn’t black. Nothing can be whatever you want it to be. And the thing was, I would’ve rather been nothing. I didn’t care about ever seeing my family again, or even being happy again. All I wanted was to not hurt anymore. I was about to just go limp and take the beating when…” Tom didn’t know how else to put it. “There was a man.”

The fire roared like dragon’s breath. Impossible amounts of smoke spewed up into the air, Fran worrying for a moment that the naturals of the valley might think it was a bushfire, before remembering the nature of the spectacle. “Show off,” she muttered at Alberto.

The smoke gathered together, flattening into a rectangle the size of a movie-screen. On it, a giant cloaked in darkness and stars for eyes towered over young Tom and his captor, beneath a lost winter sky.

“I thought he was God. I’m still not sure he wasn’t. It was so cold. Like a cyclone or something had torn off the roof. That’s what I thought was going on at first, but the Christian Brothers didn’t seem to care. I was screaming and screaming about this giant fella, but it was like they couldn’t even hear me.”

The children were all looking up at the man. For many of them, it was like finding a photo of a long-dead, half forgotten parent.

Sheilah tilted her head. “You know, I never noticed how fat his nose was.”
“Nice jaw, though,” commented Françoise.

Sadie shrugged. “So so.”

Allison studied the figure. She never thought she’d get to see the man herself. It was like finally being let in on some opaque running joke. She thought living with the memory of him would’ve been easier than the things in the dark.

David was looking at him, too. Until recently, the star-giant—like many other aspects of the shared posthuman experience—had seemed foreign to the water-sprite. But now, he could swear he remembered another man…

“We stared at each other,” Tom continued. “He didn’t speak. Not much for small talk, that fella. But he was telling me things. So many things. I couldn’t take it all in. I don’t think anything that keeps its brain in its head could. What I did take from him was that walls and floors and dickhead priests aren’t much more solid than air.”

Tom slipped from the Brother’s arms like light through clear glass. Or his outline did, anyway.

His future-self looked at Allison. “You know what’s funny, Allie? This lot,” he gestured around at all the other children, “they probably think that when we go see-through, we feel like nothing. Do ya?”

Allison smiled and shook her head. “Nope.”

Tom smiled back. “Me neither.”

The star-giant pointed grandly at the back wall of the head brother’s office.

“In fact, I feel like steel.”

And with that, the wall became a door.

The smoke shifted rapidly, showing Tom trekking across dark hallways and thick brush, still colourless and insubstantial. At one point, he appeared to swim through a black ocean.

Reverb asked, Where was that?

“Oh, that. That was a few meters under Perth I think. I walked for weeks. Maybe months. I don’t have to eat or sleep or anything while I’m see-through. I could’ve kept going till the end of the world…”

The smoke settled on Tom walking through a flooded field, attracting the curious, brown gaze of wading cows.  

“One day, I wondered if I could change back…”

In the smoke, the colour returned to Tom’s skin.

“…And I did. I decided to look for somewhere to hang my swag up after that.”

A farmhouse rose to the surface of the vaporous ash. Not a wannabe manor-house like the Institute, but a little plaster-walled family home floating on a lake of green grass and rows of cabbages. What it did in fact have in common with the Institute was a study looking wooden barn.

“See, thick white outlines only count as invisible in cartoons, but when you can swim beneath the ground and don’t need to use doors, it’s good enough. So, I took up in the barn and went to the house for night-time tucka.”

“What about the people who lived there?” asked Jeremy.

The smoke shattered and resolved again into a hard-jawed old lady with her hair done up in tight, grey bun standing beside a portly, jowled farmer.

“Just some old couple.”

The smoke somehow panned down, revealing a kindergartner with dark, blue-tinted hair.

“And Louise.”

That caught people’s attention.

Allison examined her peer’s younger self. She was pale, with grey patches under red eyes, and a nose that looked liked it had been rubbed raw. It reminded Allison of herself, right after McClare. She turned towards Alberto. “Why’d you make Louise look so sick?”

“Because I was always sick back then.”

“Oh. Why?”

“Menrva had different germs and stuff than here. I guess I couldn’t get used to it. I had to use my power all the time just to do stuff.”

“How’d you get better?”

A hook-nosed woman, clad in a cloak as orange as the flames beneath her, standing tall like a proud sorceress.

“How do ya think?” said Tom. “But we’ll get to that.”

A cascade of nested images. Tom watching Louise going about her little life through the walls of the barn and house. Building cities with blocks, eating dinner with her parents, blowing up trees with her tiny, frail fists. Normal stuff.

“I was jealous of her at first,” Tom admitted. “This little white girl with a better house than I had, all that space to play in, better toys…”

Little Louise threw a rock into the clouds.

“…Better powers.”

Louise managed a smile. “Shush, your powers are great. All I can do is punch stuff super-hard.”

“Well, I’d rather punch stuff, sue me. Still, I thought you had this perfect life…”

The smoke stuttered, looping a few seconds of tree-punching, as if it were hesitating.

“…Am I allowed to talk about this, Louise? They were your family…”

Louise sat up very straight, before walking over to Alberto and taking his other hand.

“My Earth parents weren’t great.”

Shattering glass and ceramic, cracking wood. Snatches of shouting.

“Jesus Christ, Louise!”

Louise’s foster-father shoved her off a couch with a freshly broken armrest, splinters spilling from her hand.

The man picked the girl up and shook her by the shoulders. “If you can’t stop breaking the fucking furniture, you sit on the bloody floor!”

Mr. Michelson dropped his daughter. His wife watched impassively as Louise picked herself off the ground. As she started towards the stairs, the woman started to shake, frustration seemingly erupting as she slapped the girl hard across the face, leaving a glowing handmark on her cheek.

“Did that even hurt?” asked Arnold, remembering the odd smack from his mother.

“No. But I knew it was supposed to. The smacks gave me more KE, too, and that just made it worse…” She sighed. “Mum and Dad never had kids of their own. They weren’t mean all the time. Sometimes they called me their blessing. But I think they never really wanted kids that much? They just kinda thought they ought to have one.”

The smoke’s Louise sneezed, blowing out a table’s legs from under it.

“And I wasn’t an easy kid.”

“So, yeah,” said Tom. “I stopped being jealous of Louise pretty quick.”

Louise, waking up to find a toy ute at the foot of her bed.

“Tom here started bringing me presents.” She grinned. “Turns out he’s a massive softie.”

“Aww, come on, what else was I gonna do? You looked so sad…”

“Freaked me out a bit till I found a note from him.”

A close up of a piece of scrap paper

Don’t mind me, just your house’s friendly ghost.

Tom groaned as some of the children started singing the theme to “Casper”.

“Oh, God, you don’t think this is where Lawrence got my name, do ya?”

Definitely,” said Louise. “Things were kinda nice for a while.”

“I had somewhere dry to sleep and an icebox to raid.”

“And I sorta had a friend.”

“But one night…”

Tom was in the house’s kitchen, fishing a bottle of Coke from the fridge in the dark. The Michelsons’ voices were drifting in from the other room.

“She’s ill all the time, Gerald.”

“Imagine, all that pain…”

“Maybe she just doesn’t belong in this world. Maybe she deserves somewhere better.”

“I gave her some pills. If we do it now, she won’t feel a thing.

“Poor baby…”

“Holy shit,” said Lana. “Why haven’t you told us this before?”

“Because I didn’t want you seeing this when you looked at me.”

Mr. Michelson pressed a pillow against his daughter’s face while her mother stroked her hand.

Tom floated up from the floor. “The hell are you doing?”

Mrs Michelson shrieked, her husband shouting, “Who the fuck are you, kid?”

“Were you trying to smother her?”

Louise’s father stalked towards the boy. “Listen, boong, I don’t know how you got in here, but this is our home, and you need to get out before I call the cops.”

“You’re about to kill Louise!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“I’m not leaving her.”

The man tried to wrap his hands around Tom’s neck, but he turned intangible. Mr. Michelson growled, blindly trying to ram the boy.

Tom closed his eyes. “Some of you might want to look away now.”

In the smoke, Tom reflexively threw his hands up as Mr. Michelson barrelled through him, only to fall to the ground behind him. There was something wet, red, and beating in the boy’s hands.  

Around the fire, there were gasps and screams, matched by Tom’s in the smoke. The boy was kneeling on the floor, retching.

“It—it was an accident.” His hands were shaking. “I’d never done anything like that before.”

“Oh, oh Tom,” said Fran. “It wasn’t your fault. Some of us have done much worse.”

David was frowning, his arms crossed. “If this was so terrible for you, why did you stick your hand in Eddie Taylor? Or pretend to try and scramble Laurie’s brains?”

Louise glared at him. “I thought you didn’t care about Laurie.”

“I don’t,” David replied flatly. “It just feels strange.”

“Lay off him.”

Tom shook his head. “Nah, Lou, he’s right. It is weird.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You want to feel in control,” said Alberto. “First time you turned a guy inside out, it was by accident. You keep putting yourself back in that position, but not going through with it. You get to feel strong and shit, and like you’re taking the high-road.”

Tom blinked at the psychic.

“Can we get back to the story?”

“Sure, sure.”

Mrs Michelson was gone from the smoke, replaced by the fading groan of a fleeing ute. Tom was trying to shake Louise awake.

“Hey, hey.”

The girl half-opened her eyes. “…Hi. Are you the ghost?”

“I think I’m glad they drugged me,” her future-self remarked.

Tom was smiling feverishly. “Yeah, yeah… you wanna go on an adventure?”

Mabel arched an eyebrow. “You just went with the weird kid you thought was a ghost?”

Louise shrugged. “Tom was nice to me. And I did say I was drugged.”

“We lasted a month together, on the run,” said Tom. “We started robbing houses. For money, or food, or painkillers…”

“Lotta antihistamines.”

“We got good at figuring out when rich folks were on holidays.” Tom asked Fran, “Can I corrupt my peers, Ma’am?”

“Knock yourself out.”

“Usually it was the houses with the lights on at four in the morning.” He let himself laugh. “They think it makes it look they’re still there! Guess rich people don’t sleep.”

A four-story house looking out over the Swan River. “That one looked real promising,” said Louise. “…Went a bit wrong.”

Darkness, fretted by the children phasing through a kitchen wall.

“Alright, I’ll go for the medicine cabinet, you—”

A light-switch flicked. A teenage boy with no shirt and a rust-stained leather vest leant scowling against the refrigerator. “Shit, now I owe Jonna fifty pounds.”

Immediately, Tom pushed Louise back through the wall, screaming “Run!” behind her. He was about to turn ghostly and follow when he began wobbling on his feet. He fainted hard, falling against the linoleum.

“That was Redcap,” Tom said, mildly. “Must’ve drained the blood from my head. Probably should count myself lucky he didn’t pull it out through my eyes or somethin’.”

Mabel started at Tom. “You got caught by the Coven? How are you not dead?”

“I’m not dead because they were looking for stock.” Tom’s voice started to shake. “They had me do… things for them first. To give me a reputation before selling me off, I gues.”

The smoke started to shift, but Tom squeezed the esper’s fingers hard enough to hurt. “No. I don’t want to see this.”

“Alright kid, jeez.”

Instead, the smoke settled on a dingy warehouse, the windows yellow with decades of industrial grime. A thin crowd in folding chairs sat before a hastily erected stage. Tom stood barefoot next to the fully assembled Coven. Aside from Redcap, the Fox, Fey of Femurs, and an inexplicable full length mirror facing out towards the crowd, there was also a young woman in a shiny green jacket covered in what looked like Christmas lights. Her face was covered in elaborate, interlocking blue runes, like human ley-lines. Her ears, nose, and lips were all pierced, and her head was completely shaven, bar a purple and green spiked strip running down the middle of her crown.   

“Shouldn’t you be in chains or something?” Arnold asked.

“They didn’t need ‘em,” Tom explained. “The Fox has this way of getting inside you. He’d get you alone in a room with him, just start talking at ya, and after a while, you couldn’t help but do whatever his lot said…”

With perfect auctioneer patter, the Fox called out, “The bidding opens at five thousand pounds.”

A fat man with grey stubble shouted, “The Honoured Society3 bids seven thou.”

“Mr. Saffron4 bids eight thousand pounds for the asset,” a man in a suit the same shade as his employer cried, seemingly trying to beat the mafia-man in terms of decibel as well as currency.

“That place was like Wandering’s big brother,” said Tom. “I finally felt like nothing.”

Feeling no need to shout, an elegantly coffered woman in a pink suit-dress said, “The House of Ghosts5 offers twelve thousand US dollars for the boy.”

“I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life doing shitty, evil things for evil, shitty people. Less than a slave. A tool.”

The Fox pointed at the woman. “Offer sits at twelve thousand US dollars. Going once—”

“But then…”

“Fifty thousand pounds6.”   

The crowd all turned to look at the latest bidder, all except for the woman in the suit-dress. She just smiled. “The House of Ghosts withdraws its offer.”

“And who might I ask is bidding?” the Fox inquired.

The red-bearded man in the green checkered suit stood up from his chair, smiling genially around the room. “Dr. Herbert Lawrence, from the New Human Institute.” He gestured at the men and women sitting either side of him. “These are some of my fellow teachers.”

It was a rare sight indeed, the original generation of Lawrence’s students (with the eternal exception of Chen) out in the wild.

Lawrence looked right at the stage. “They have a lot in common with you fine Covenators, but I’m sure Miss Lieroinen could have told you that…”

The Witch of Claremont’s face went white. Then she scowled, and her tattoos glowed an almost white blue. They died down again when she saw Françoise’s eyes do the same. The nereid in the smoke’s smile matched the one of the nereid sitting before the fire.

“Gonna say,” said Arnold. “I never imagined Lawrence standing up to the Coven.”

“I’d say he was a badass back then, but I think he was already making me have Ophelia by that point,” said Sadie.

David was staring at his mother. “Wait, when you went to get Tom, you met the Coven?”

“Yep.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Fran shrugged. “Didn’t want to worry you, sweetie.”

David’s eyes went milky with glee. “Are you kidding? It’s great!”

“It really was,” said Tom.

Mr. Saffron’s representative looked like he was about to say something, but Alberto stood up to join his mentor.  “And I can give you a precognitive forecast of the Australian stock-market for the next eighteen months.” He smiled. “Jonna should be able to confirm that.”

The Witch of Claremont looked like a demon was playing the drums with her teeth. “…He’s telling the truth.”

Linus looked at the esper. “You gave the Coven money advice?”

Alberto sighed. “Christ, you save one kid from a lifetime of slavery, and you never live it down.”

“Did they take the bid?” Mabel asked.

“I hope so,” replied Tom. “Or else this is a real long daydream.”

The Fox was handing Lawrence a manilla folder, Tom hiding behind the old man’s legs. “These are all his code-words and trigger phrases. Remember to refresh the conditioning with the couplet on the front every fortnight, or it’ll fade or get deranged. Don’t come back crying to us if you screw him up.”

Lawrence grinned broadly and shook the supervillain’s hand. It had not been offered. “I can’t see that being a problem. Live well, my friend.”

“As soon as we were out of there, Laurie made us stop at some cafe. Had Alberto strip out all the Fox’s bullshit.” Tom looked the esper in the eye. “I don’t think I ever told you thanks for that.”

Alberto squirmed at the gratitude. “Don’t mention it.”

In the smoke, the Institute’s stolen truck made its way down the familiar dirt path, Tom sitting sandwiched between Françoise and Alberto in the tray.

The was a girl waiting for them at the fence. Louise (not yet even Britomart) healthy and hale, her body now fit for her strength.

At the sight of her, Tom leapt from the truck, his intangible form sinking up to his ankles in the earth. The boy ran right through the fence, resolidying to embrace his friend, tears in their eyes.

Tom let go of Alberto’s hand. So did Louise. The new humans were allowed to see the smoke as it really was again.

“Alberto found Louise for Old Laurie,” explained Tom. “She told him about me.”

“Said I’d tear the whole place down if he didn’t find Tom.”

Tom took Louise’s hand. “Lou, I know you’ve never liked the Superman jokes but… you deserve them.”

“What?”

“What I mean is, you’re as good as Superman in my book. You saved my life, kid.” With no reservation, he pulled her into a hug. “I love ya, girl.”

“Love ya too.” She turned her head to look at the other children. “Thanks for listening, guys. It helps a lot.”

Bella rubbed her thumbs against the log she was sitting on. “…I had a twin brother. He didn’t get powers. Louise and Tom helped me get over it.”

“I got powers when they came for Dawn,” Sheilah said. “When Laurie found me, he sprung her for me.”

“Old git was good for something, I guess,” said Bran. “I doubled and tripled pots and stuff for my dad back in Wales. We came over here when bloody Woolies made it to Dolgellau and my sister turned out bronchial. They nicked me at the migrant camp.”

“I blew up my school,” Lana said simply.

Mabel took a deep breath. “My dad was a miner in Circle’s End…”

And so, long into the night, the new humans of the Avon Valley retrod old paths and reweaved their histories, together.


1. Relatively early in their history, the peoples of Menvra began using primitive interplanetary craft to ride the gravity corridor between their homeworld and Eita, which became the source of most of their civilization’s mineral and energy resources.

2. With real dragons, courtesy of Mabel.

3. The Australian branch of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

4. Abe Saffron, an Australian nightclub owner and hotelier, as well as a influential racketeer in the latter half of the 20th century. </sup

5. The House of Ghosts: An international conspiracy of mystics, assassins, and policy influencers believed to have originated in the 16th century. Known for their heavy interest in the world superhuman community, the House of Ghosts is thought to have been closely involved with the Perthite super-team known as the Superhuman Crew, a team more renowned for their appreciation of Bob Dylan than their creative nomenclature.

6. Worth roughly $1,500,000 in 2019. </sup

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Chapter Forty-Six: The Girl Who Fell to Earth

“ ‘I think it’s up to us posthumans to police ourselves, especially in light of Northam’s years of kindness and hospitality towards our community. Growing up in Italy during the war, I got very sick of bullies, superpowered or otherwise.’ ” Lawrence laid The Northam Advertiser back on his desk; the shopping party and the mayor of Northam grinning up at him in scratchy monochrome from the front page. “Really, Tiresias?”

“Well, Gertie tidied up my elocution a bit, but that was the basic sentiment.”

Lawrence’s eyes narrowed. “Gertie?”

“The reporter lady who wrote the article. Sweet thing, probably thinks we’re her ticket to a real paper. Might be right, too. We have a date next week.” Alberto smirked at the look on Lawrence’s face. “Hey, every superhero needs his Lois Lane1. Don’t worry, Bertie, I won’t be wasting my precious posthuman seed on a baseline. Not till the third date, at least.” His smile flattened bitterly. “Wouldn’t want you misplacing another of my kids.”

“You planned this,” Lawrence hissed at the psychic, “don’t deny it!”

Alberto shrugged. “Wouldn’t be a very useful psychic if I hadn’t.”

The breath fled Lawrence like he had been punched in the ribs. “The whole point of this blasted exercise was to starve some sense into the children! Now we have to beg them for food!”  

“Laurie, Laurie, you’re talking like Stalin. Or Churchill. I don’t know why you’re upset. We haven’t been this popular in the hills since Chen used to fund happy-hour back at Duke’s Inn. Mrs G is practically dancing on air.”

“This… adoration you’re enjoying is shallow, Tiresias, you must know that. And completely dependent on you playing into the narrow roles humanity has deigned your kind.”

“What, protecting people from mean fucks?”

“Brutalising members of your own kind. Allowing your predecessors to set you against each other for their own benefit.”

Alberto grimaced, shaking his head slowly. “How were you and Ralph ever friends? You know what I think this is? You just can’t stand that you’re not mentioned anywhere in that article. That we’re getting love for something that wasn’t your idea.”

Lawrence gritted his teeth. “Baseless accusations aside, how does this help us when the inspector gets here?

“Well, the fact the students look like upstanding allies of law and order won’t hurt.”

“With you as their fearless leader,” Lawrence said flatly.

“If the shoe fits…”

“Still, how will this help bring the children to heel?”

Alberto rested his chin in his hands, smiling beatifically at the headmaster.

It took Lawrence a moment to realize what his student was waiting for. He sighed. “…How will this help me?”

Alberto threw his hands up, his expression mockingly grave. “I don’t know, Lawrence. I’m not sure what could at that this point.”

“But—but you said…”

“I know, Lawrence. And I’ve tried. But at the end of the day, you still got bunch of little girls knocked up. And let’s face it, you’re not the most valuable asset here.” Alberto leaned back in his chair. “I mean, doesn’t it matter more that the kids are alright? Isn’t that why you started all this?”

Lawrence didn’t know why he expected anything more from Tiresias, but what other choice did he have? “Well,” he said, “if you have given up on bringing order to the Institute, I must continue on my own.”

“Must you?”

The old man rose from his chair, pulling back his green suit-sleeve to look at his silver rolex2. The second hand was about to join its brothers at eight o’clock. “Any minute now.”

The lights went out, night rushing in to fill the empty air.

“If you and the children are so independent, I’m sure you won’t have any need for the electricity I pay for.”

In the dark, Alberto lit a cigarette, his gaunt features cast in flickering orange shadow by the burning tobacco. “This would be a lot more effective if it was winter, Lawrence. Or if we had a television.”

He walked towards the door, taking his little patch of light with him. “Count yourself lucky I already put all the white wine in the dark dimension.”

Just as Alberto had predicted, the blackout had little effect on the children’s new routine. No surprise, really. How could it compare to the last one? This time, they had Sheilah to keep the food good; gas-bottles or Brian’s flames to cook it with; the river and the Barthes for clean, fresh water; even Linus’ music and Mabel’s hoard of pulpy nonsense for whatever entertainment they couldn’t generate themselves.

As the psychic had also said, it helped that it was summer. Even if the children couldn’t have coped without electric light or replaced it, the sun lasted long enough for most of them. Their days had escaped adult time.

It was late evening, and although the sun had set, it was still hardly darker than noon. The wide, cloudless sky arched over gum trees and dry grass like a soaring pastel dome, slowly deepening. Tom Long and Bella Wilson were building a bonfire. They had no particular occasion for it, save maybe uncertainty regarding the coming of the inspector in just three nights. Still, no reason not to have a bonfire.

The pair had already dug themselves a fire-pit demarcated by a ring of stone like a fairy-ring, and now were assembling a teepee of sticks and grass under the bemused eye of Brian “Snapdragon” Peters.

“You know I could make a fire for everyone just by thinking it, right?” the platinum-blond boy asked, absently tracing lines of flame in front of his face with his fingertip.

“Yeah,” replied Bella, grunting as she shoved a branch as long as herself into position, “and then it’d go away soon as you got bored.”

“You could at least let me light the thing”—Brian pointed at the chalky white cubes lying next to the pit—“instead of mucking around with those firelighter things. Why do we even have those?”

“Getting it lit’s half the fun,” said Tom, still bent over arranging some hay from the barn. “Least that’s what it was like with dad and my uncles.”

Were they uncles, or cousins? Tom could barely remember anymore.

A few feet away, the air blurred. David, Fran, Bran and Tina “Cardea” Vicks stepped out from one of her portals.

“Hey guys,” said Brian. “Back from town?”

“Yep,” answered Tina, stretching like she had spent the night in a suitcase. She pointed at her passengers. “These guys were helping clean up. I had to make ten portals in like ten seconds both trips!”

“Yeah, but you didn’t have to do anything else all day,” retorted Bran. “I had to put all their roads back to rights, and un-smash that house Sadie bunged up. How hard is making a bunch of portals anyways?”

“That many? It’s like stretching a napkin over a king-sized bed, without tearing it, because that would make us tear.”

“Least you weren’t stuck cleaning bird-crap offa’ everything,” muttered David.

So Dave can swear, thought Tom. Learn something new everyday.

Françoise laughed like a clear spring over rocks. “Oh, shush, you had fun. And some of them paid us.”

“Who needs money when we have gold?” asked Bella, a good little libertarian.

David looked around searchingly. “Where’s Brito—Louise I mean?”

“…I don’t know,” said Tom. He supposed he, Bella and Louise were usually a unit. “I think she knew we were doing the bonfire tonight.”

“It’s the full-moon,” said Bella.

Tom went “Ah,” as if that explained all the mysteries of the world.

Curious, David reduced himself to mist, and went to go find the girl.

He hovered over the Institute, the water that had been his body diffused so thinly through the air, he might as well have been invisible. It didn’t matter. David was everywhere there was water.

Louise was sitting on a sloping rock rising from the tall yellow grass like an iceberg floating in the sea at sunset. David wasn’t sure how he knew what that looked like, but he did.

The boy reformed next to the rock.

“Hey.”

Louise jerked slightly. With Mrs Gillespie too busy to cut her hair lately, it’d grown past her shoulders, making the blue lowlights much more obvious. “Uh, hi, David. How was town?”

“Kinda boring,” He shrugged. “Just washing stuff. Got all dusty.” He gestured absently at his spotless form. “Took forever, too.”

Louise blushed slightly. “Whatcha doing over here?”

“Seeing if you’re okay… are you?”

The red in her cheeks grew more vivid. David noticed her blood was flowing a little faster. “Oh, I didn’t know you really noticed me.” She looked up. “I was just looking at the Moon.”

It hung up there almost transparent, the little green splotch the Gatekeeper and his people3 called home breaking up the dusty, silver wastes4.

“It’s pretty up there, huh. A lotta people don’t know you can see it before it’s dark, isn’t that wild?” He gave her a smile. “Nice down here, too. People almost seem like they like us.”

Louise sighed. “I guess. About the Moon being pretty, I mean. And the naturals, too.”

He chuckled “Yeah.” Then she felt him bump her with his shoulder. “Other stuff’s pretty too, tho.”       

She laughed. “What happened to you when your eyes changed? You pretty much asked Laurie permission to say hello before.”

“Dunno,” he shrugged. “Guess I don’t feel alone so much now, though. It’s easier to not care about him, you know?”

“Kinda,” she replied. “You really don’t remember the blackout at all? The real one I mean.”

“Nope,” he sighed. “Wish I did, but all I remember is this really fuzzy dream. Like being hugged.”

“I like my dreams. They remind me of home, I think.” She pointed at the Moon again. “Where I come from, their moon isn’t just this little grey smudge in the sky. It was like this whole other planet! And you could see volcanoes and rivers of lava!” Her face became wistful. “You remember that bushfire last year? The way the sun was all red through the smoke and ash? That’s what it was like all the time. And the grass was black! And, and…”

She found herself at the end of her recollections.

“Heh,” David chuckled. “I believe it. But I always felt more at home when I can’t really see the moon. Or the sun. Or the sky. When I’m just water and so’s everything else that matters. It’s like being part of the whole world.” For just a moment, his eyes gleamed.

“That does sound nice. Do you actually believe me? About not being from here? Nobody else does. Besides Tom and Eliza and that.”

She felt a hand resting against her own.

“Course I do. It’s true, right?”

She smiled sadly. “Yeah, it is. People think I just got it from a Superman comic. That I wanna look special or something.” She dug a finger into the stone. “I wish I remembered more. All I really know is that I’m not like the other kids. Not human, I mean. Laurie says none of us are, but for me it’s really true. I don’t even think I’m really a super. Just from somewhere people do extra things.”

“… I feel like that too,” David admitted. “Just, I think I really am from here. Maybe more than anyone else.”

“Feels crappy, doesn’t it?”

“Sometimes, yeah,” he shuffled his way across the tiny gap between them, and put an arm around her shoulders. “But it’s okay. The people here are nice.”

“But we’re not like them.”

“…You think humans get to touch the sky?”

“What?”

“The sky.” He pointed at one of the lonely ridges of cloud hanging high overhead like flaring gills. “Think they ever get to touch it?”

“…No?”

That was all David needed.

“Well. We’re gonna. Come on, space girl. Let’s go hug a cloud.”

He vanished.

“Wait, where’re you—”  

Louise felt something cold slide under her, only to start started floating into the air on a diamond-clear. She normally had no real fear of falling, but the sudden motion still made her yelp.

“David!”

“What are you waiting for?” the ice chimed. “Start charging.”

Louise closed her eyes, pulling the heat from the air around her. As the ambient temperature grew positively arctic, her skin glowed brighter and brighter. They rose higher. She glanced down, and regretted it. Northam’s patchy lights hugged the horizon.

“So, what the hell are we doing?”

“Didn’t I tell you?” David laughed, rising beside her from the ice like the Lady of the Lake in wintertime. As always, Louise tried to ignore the out-of-place nudity. “We’re gonna touch the sky.”

“Aren’t we already doing that?”

“…Guess so,” he admitted. “Wanna just watch the moon?”

She gave the water-sprite a steely look. “No.” She pointed at cloud. “I’m gonna touch the sky.”

And with that, she leapt towards it.

Behind her, David cackled. The cloud jumped to the side, just half a foot next to the girl.

Louise felt gravity start pulling her down, building up momentum. “Dickhead!”

A wisp of cloud broke away, solidifying into a glassy platform under her. The rest of it, however, became a smiley face… with its tongue out.

The girl landed on her feet, transforming the impact into power. She laughed. “Still a dick!”

The shape the cloud assumed went unrecorded by history books.

Louise grimaced, before looking around the sky for something (or someone) solid to punch. “When did you get so gross?”

“Always was,” David said from right beside her. “Just stopped apologizing for i—”

She rammed into the little boy, knocking them both off the platform.

David giggled wildly. “You bitch!”

Louise managed to glare at David as they tumbled through the air. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said—” he placed a palm against her chest, before misting out of her grasp, then slamming against her ribs with all the might of an icy missile. Her body rocketed through the sky, scattering one particularly vulgar cloud to the wind in her wake.

Louise landed in the bonfire, emerging from the flames brighter than the Moon itself.

David coalesced in front of her, grinning. “…Bitch.”

Only then did the two children notice half the Institute staring at them, including a very peeved Tom. And an even more peeved Fran.

For the first time in weeks, Louise thought David looked sheepish. The boy rubbed his neck. “Uh, hi Mum.”


1. Especially in the opinion of Fredric Wertham.

2. It used to be gold.

3. And about half of Northam’s pet dogs.

4. “The mote in Selene’s eye” generations of poets have called it.

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Chapter Forty-Five: The Bellows of Giants

“Shit, shit, shit…”

Menagerie was pacing in front of the truck like he was trying to cut a trench in the road.

Fo-Fum was shouting at him, “What do you mean Hettie’s gone?”

“I mean she’s gone. I can’t find her anywhere! And my birds… I think they got her!”

Menagerie’s forces howled and shrieked, trying to cow the increasingly restless naturals:

“Oi, trouble in paradise?” a man in the crowd jeered.

“Are the freak-finders on their way?”

“I hear they cut your—”

The last heckler was set upon by a flurry of kookaburras.

“Shut up!” Fo-Fum thundered. “We’re still in charge here!”

Music drifted down the mainstreet. Gentle singing, weaved with guitar notes sweeter than angel harps. Soft, and yet louder than the crowd and the animals. Not that it needed to be. All went silent as it washed over them

The music drew closer. Townsfolk parted like the Red Sea to reveal a golden haired young man, striding forward with a guitar in hand, his eyes closed in the rapture of song. A little boy with a tail and tiger-fur skipped along beside him, singing along:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…

Dogs and cats started swaying on their feet, their eyes drooping shut. Birds buried their heads in their own feathers, falling asleep where they perched.

Sleep pressed against Menagerie, too, pouring into the supervillain through his animals. He let go of all their reins, lest it overtake him completely.

For the first time since he could remember, Peter Frum was a man alone. In a leopard-print coat, with a domino mask, standing next to a half finished Mexican wrestler.

It got worse. Fo-Fum pointed up. “Look, up in the sky!”

There were birds. Hundreds of them. They ribboned through the air, twisting and curving like one shattered organism. A young woman floated ahead of the flock like their grand-marshal, three small children and a man riding astride a broomstick next to her.

Up in the sky, Mabel Henderson let out a long, witchly cackle.  

She felt Arnold’s arms tighten around her waist. “Don’t move so much!”

Mabel rolled her eyes. “Please. You ever see witches fall off these in pictures?”

“Ready to fight?” Alberto called out to Sadie from the middle of the stick.

She shouted back, “Not until the bridge!”

On the ground, Linus was still singing:

Near the village, the peaceful village, the lion sleeps tonight…

The crowd started dispersing. Families wandered off or strolled into stores and restaurants like it was just another Saturday.

Fo-Fum didn’t know what was going on. A girl who could’ve been the Flying Man’s daughter was floating inside a storm of stolen birds, backed up by what looked like a tiny witch, all while a crazy kid with a guitar sung like God himself, and none of the townspeople seemed perturbed in the slightest.

Worst of all, most of them hadn’t paid up yet.

“Hey!” Fo-Fum shouted. “Get back here!

The Northamites ignored him. The young man flashed the supervillain the kind of smile he gave Lawrence when he said his father was just a posthuman.  

Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling, the lion sleeps tonight…

Fo-Fum was about to go over and throttle the boy, but Menagerie held him back.

“Fuck it,” he said. “I’m cutting our losses.”

“But they got Hettie!”

“I know but—arggggh!”

The birds were upon them. Galahs, magpies, and even a few monstrous black swans pecked and clawed at the two villains, ignoring Linus, Billy, and the few remaining stragglers like an unfair Hitchcock film1.

Menagerie pulled his coat over his head, shouting, “I gotta get the truck started. Cover me!”

Fo-Fum was desperately trying to bat away birds. Some got flung backwards like they had flown into gale force winds. “Why do I got to?”

Menagerie glared out from his leopard-print cave. “Because someone has to lift the fucking truck over the barrier.” He started running for the truck cabin.

Alberto watched him from above. From that height, he looked like an ant glowing violet with fear. The psychic tapped Arnold on the shoulder.

“Hey, kid, can ya zap me into the driver’s seat?”

“Easy peasy. Sure you’ll be alright?”

Alberto grinned. “Trust me, it’ll be great.”

Fo-Fum clambered into the truck bed. Behind him, birds flattened against thin air as if they had hit a glass window.

Sadie flinched at her new friends’ pain. “Fuckin’ cunts.”

She dived towards the truck to avenge them, but was slammed against the side of an antiques store. The girl grunted, trying to push off from the redbrick, but she was pinned by something moist and salty.

Sadie gagged and quickly gave up trying to force her way through, instead shooting up out from under whatever was holding her.

Uyimbube, uyimbube…

Menagerie fought his way through the blizzard of beaks and talons, eventually closing his scratched, bleeding hands around the driver-door handle.

It flung outward, sending him to the ground.

“Fuuuugh…”

Alberto smirked from behind the wheel. “Where to, buddy?”

Menagerie screamed, grabbing the psychic by the legs and pulling him out of the cabin, punching him hard in the nose as soon as they were level.

The man looked the villain right in the eye, a trickle of blood flowing from his nose onto smiling lips. “Thank you very much, Frum.”

Sadie was not having a good time. Something she couldn’t see kept slamming or crushing or flicking her and her birds whenever they got too close to the truck. It almost hurt, too.

What the hell is this bloke’s power? she asked herself as she zigged and zagged wildly through the air, trying to avoid whatever it was she was fighting.  

Sadie tried to remember all of Françoise’s power development classes. It didn’t feel like wind control—

One of her cockatoos got sideswiped. She felt its wings break.

—And it didn’t feel like she or the birds were being interfered with themselves. Forcefields? Or had they actually found one of Lawrence’s beloved general telekinetics? But what about that liquid—

Sadie was shoved face first into the road. She felt the tarmac or whatever it was crack against her cheek. And there was that moisture again…       

A giant’s voice growled. “Now why don’t you stay there, you little slut? Spare your sprog the stress?”

She didn’t struggle. Instead, she took in the sensation. Her body felt… squished. Like there were two solid bars to either side of her, layered in some thick, heavy kind of padding. Something ground against her shoulder; solid, yet indented. Was that a knuckle?

Knuckles?

With what little mobility she had, she looked around the street. It was dotted with shallow oblong craters, longer than they were wide, and one always a yard or two ahead of another.

What had the lads called this freak?

“Fe-Fi…”

All her birds received the same order: flock. The first dozen or so settled over Sadie, their feet finding purchase on the empty space above her.

In the truck bed, Fo-Fum felt the prick of talons on his right hand. “Oh, shit.”

More and more birds joined in. Soon, in the middle of the street, there crouched a giant made of wings.

The giant reflexively raised his closed fist—the size of a volkswagen—and Sadie broke free, beelining for his featureless, feathered face.

The birds exploded out of the way of their mistresses’ mighty blows. Phantom flesh and cartilage broke against her fists. Cries of pain echoed like the groans of icebergs.

“I’m not the one who should be stressed, cocksucker.”       

Close by a frantic Menagerie had no idea of what was happening. He was fighting the skinny bloke with the hip flask—trying to, anyway—but his moves weren’t his own. He dodged the other man’s blows, but not fast enough to actually avoid them. When he was allowed to get a hit in, something made him pull his punches.

Alberto grabbed Menagerie around the waist, throwing him to the ground.

Come on, an amused little voice in his head he didn’t recognize said. Don’t you want to put on a good show?

Menagerie just wanted to to scream. Instead, he spat, “Fuck you, arsehole!”

Alberto pinned him under his knees, taking his hip flask from his belt and twisting the lid off with his thumb. “Alright, enough of this.” He forced the flask between Menagerie’s lips. “Drink up!”

Peter Frum’s mouth filled with a chalk, sickly-sweet liquid. Blue dribbled out the corner of his mouth. Suddenly, he didn’t just feel alone. He felt numb.  

Sadie was still whaling on the giant, even as he tried to shake off the birds. Her fists kept coming away wet with invisible blood, but the giant wouldn’t let up.

“Should’ve quit while you were ahead.”

She flew backwards, flipping around so her feet faced forwards, and shot like a javelin at the giant’s knee.

With a sound like a falling redwood, the giant’s leg was wrenched in the wrong direction. Sadie felt what might have been bone scrape against her skin.

The giant screamed, “I surrender, for fuck sakes I surrender!”

He disappeared, his avian skin squawking at being so robbed of their roost.

Linus stopped singing, his fingers going still.

Billy looked out from behind the older boy’s legs. He’d taken refuge there about when Sadie had unleashed her birds of war. “Is it over?”

“Yeah, Billy,” Sadie said as she landed. “It’s over.”

Alberto dragged over Menagerie. “Definitely is for Frum here.”

“Ugh,” the dazed supervillain muttered weakly, “what did ya do to me?”

“Quit moaning, you’ll piss it out eventually.”

People were slowly emerging from the shops and the alleys separating them—cautiously, the calm of Linus’ song quickly dissipating.

A thickly mustachioed police constable in an awfully militaristic navy blue uniform marched up to the new humans. He looked like Lord Kitchener. Or Big Brother.

He cleared his throat. “Good afternoon, I’m Constable Preston. You folks are?”

They gave their names in turn, Alberto explaining they came from the Institute, as though there was a chance they came from the other superhuman care home in the valley.

More folks were spilling out onto the road.

“Ah, Old Laurie’s place,” said the policeman. “I haven’t heard from you in years. Hope that means everything is going smoothly.”

Sadie clawed at her shorts. Her fingers were throbbing.

Preston glanced at Menagerie. “I’m guessing you’re not with him?”

“Oh, of course,” said Sadie. “We bond as a team by beating each other to a pulp.”

To her surprise, the constable chuckled. “Silly questions get silly answers.”

Alberto handed Preston his hip flask. “Give him a sip of this every few hours till he’s out of your hair,” he said, shaking his captive lightly.

The esper glanced at the Fearsome Three’s truck. Fo-Fum had dragged his beaten form into the light, his eyes almost completely hidden by livid, swollen bruises.

“I don’t think you need to worry too much about that one, or their lady-friend.”

Constable Preston humphed. “Well, I’m glad you were here to put a stop to them.”

Billy smiled his fanged grin. “Glad we could help!”

Someone in the reconvened crowd started to clap. So did his neighbour. Applause and cheering spread through the people as an ecstatic virus. The noise of it was deafening. Men and women clapped the new humans on the backs. Mabel and Arnold descended on their broomstick, waving at the naturals below them to even more cheering.

Alberto Moretti closed his eyes, enjoying the lightshow of Northam’s adoration. For the first time he could remember, he and his companions were being loved for exactly what they were.

Laurie was going to be so pissed.

Herbert Lawrence sat alone in his shadowed bedroom, his old cushioned reading chair parked in front of the great circular window that opened out onto the Institute grounds. When he, Mary, and the children had first arrived on the property, he had chosen the room especially for that window, so he could look out over the haven he had built for what mankind was becoming.

Now, as the sun slowly set, he brooded and watched his rebellious students. A dethroned king, forgotten by his subjects.

Most of them were still camped out by the river like the Achaeans at Troy’s walls. Or maybe the Trojans themselves, about to fall on Greek swords without even the excuse of a wooden horse.

Or had that been Panoply?

“Herbert?”

He heard Mary’s voice from the door. Probably here to call him down to whatever meagre supper she had prepared. Normally, he admired that can-do spirit of hers, that spirit that had preserved her through the destruction of her city and family. That evening, he just wanted to be left alone.

“They haven’t come home.”

Mary Gillespie walked over to his side, putting a hand on her colleague’s shoulder. “Oh, I wouldn’t be too worried.”

“The shops would have closed hours ago.”

“Young people dawdle, we both know that…”

The old woman trailed off. She could see headlights worming through the trees. At least five sets of them. What looked like the shadows of trucks and automobiles.

Lawrence stood up from his chair treading even closer to the window. “What on Earth?”

Had Timothy Valour’s men arrived to take his children away early? Or had the torch and pitchfork-toting mob he had always feared finally come?

“Lawrence, look.”

Mary was pointing above the convoy. A silhouette of a girl flew above the vehicles like a guardian angel2, joined by what looked like a winged chair3.

The girl—Sadie they both knew—dipped down to unlatch the gate, letting the visitors drive through. As they parked, Lawrence managed to spot a police car among them.

He swallowed. What had Stratogale told the Northamites?

People started climbing out of their cars—men, women, and children—following Sadie down to the river.

Soon, her arch, amused voice was heard all throughout the Institute:

Good teachers of the New Human Institute, our food problem is solved! In exchange for cleaning up a pesky supervillain infestation, the good folk of Northam have agreed to supply us with free groceries for the next twelve months. In celebration, we’re having a barbecue. Feel free to join us, Laurie.

Lawrence shook his head in confusion. “What are these children playing at?”

No answer. Mary was already out the door. By the second flight of stairs, she was running.

She passed Therese Fletcher on the first floor landing.

“Mrs Gillespie, what’s—”

Mary almost shoved past the young teacher. She shot through the front door, hurrying down to the riverside.

Artume was already loading perishables into her dark dimension. Linus was setting up the girl, know-it-all men with beers in their hands bellowing conflicting advice and laughing.

She stopped when she saw Melusine with a broad-shouldered lad in a torn up suit. The Taylors’ eldest.

She remembered the last time she saw the boy. “Oh, God.”

But Eddie Taylor was shaking the nereid’s hand. “I’m sorry I called your son a boong. And for trying to peek at you.”

“You didn’t deserve what I did to you.”

Eddie looked her steadily in the eye. “No. I didn’t. I’m still sorry.”

Mrs Gillespie spotted a group of strange children splashing in the shallows, Maelstrom holding court like the prince of the sea, creating waterspouts and geysers to the laughter of the baselines.

Human children, playing with her students without fear.

David spotted the old woman, waving exuberantly and grinning. “Hi Mrs Gillespie!” He gestured around at the other children. “They’re from town!”

Mary felt tears run down her face.

For the first and last time in the Avon Valley, men and supermen broke bread. And it was good.    


1. Some people have suggested that The Birds was a metaphor for baseline extinction anxiety. None of them were Hitchcock.

2. It was in fact she who lifted them over the stretches of road destroyed by Hettie Shaw.

3. Enid Blyton’s wishing chair, specifically. Billy had begged.

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Chapter Forty-Four: This Machine Kills Supervillains

“Name?”

“Ah, Mrs Stamp, sir.”

Menagerie looked over his clipboard at the old woman standing before him. Her blue, floral mumu was almost the same colour as her hair. A “Mrs”, but no husband in sight. She practically had “widow” stamped on her forehead. Hopefully that meant a pension not split between two mouths, unless Mr. Stamp was a good-for-nothing or his wife was the sort to spoil their grandkids. Also, pearls.

He scribbled down her name. “Do you have any pets, Mrs Stamp?” He concluded the question with a smack of his lips.

The old lady attempted a watery smile, trying not to look at the wild dogs that flanked Menagerie. It always confused him when folks did that. Did they think the smile would appease him somehow? “I do, yes: a little pitbull. He’s a right feisty old—”

“Yes, I’m sure.” Menagerie resisted the urge to lecture the woman about the unethicality of dog-breeding and the genetic sturdiness of mutts. “What name does he answer to?”

He never asked “What’s their name?” Implying animals actually called themselves the sounds people cooed at them was an insult.

“Bigsby.”

Scratch. “And does Bigsby have a collar?”

The woman’s smile drooped. “He-he lost it. I haven’t had time to replace it.”

“That’s horribly irresponsible, ma’am. Didn’t you think about what might’ve happened if he got lost?”

“A little bit,” Mrs Stamp admitted. “Honestly this didn’t occur to me.”

Menagerie shook his head. “Dump your money and those pearls in the truck behind me. Does Bigsby have any distinguishing marks?”  

He was going to try and return the dog, of course. He wasn’t a monster.

As Mrs Stamp shuffled away, fifteen pounds and an heirloom necklace poorer, Menagerie looked out at the line that stretched the entire length of the street and beyond: townsfolk waiting to pay their tribute. Under the watchful eyes of the lorikeets and kookaburras he had perched on the roofs of the surrounding shops and restaurants, they were slowly shepherded by canine sentries patrolling the pavements. Men and women clutched wallets and purses, while some of their children even carried their money-boxes and piggy-banks. Good, Menagerie thought. Teach kids to cooperate with the friendly supervillain early, and it goes smoother for everyone.

Still, God, so many people to get through. “Next!”

A family of four walked up to Menagerie. The father looked like he thought he was the hero of the story. His wife looked like she wished he didn’t.      

“Any pets?”

“No,” the father grunted.

“But Daddy,” one of his sons protested, “Miss Jezebel!”

“Quiet, Harry.”

“You still have to pay either way, sir. Throwing your bloody cat under the bus won’t change that.”

“How did you know she’s a cat?” Harry asked.

“Because I remember your dad here screaming like a little girl when she jumped him.”

The man looked the supervillain dead in the domino mask.“You’ve got some nerve, you know, robbing decent, hardworking folks. Are demis too good for jobs?”

Menagerie didn’t know who annoyed him more: the odd attempted sycophant, or the folks who thought he needed reminding that he was committing a crime. “Mate, superpowers have been grounds for termination for three years1. So yes, we are.”

“Flying Man! Flying Man help us—”

One of Mengarie’s dogs clamped its jaws around the mother’s pantyhoused thigh. She screamed, despite the lack of any real pressure.

“You stupid, selfish bint,” Menagerie hissed in her face.

Her husband made to slug the supervillain, but Menagerie’s other dog bared its teeth and growled.

“Try anything and she’ll need a surgeon, mate. All the horrible things in the world, and you think the Flying Man’s going to give a shit about your pets? Or your money? When’s there’s babies drowning in China or some place. Get real.”

The dog released the woman’s leg.

“Now pay the toll and piss off.”

Half an hour of shakedowns later, a mass of pound notes and coins lurched through the air towards the truck. Menagerie’s comrade Fo-Fum floated alongside the haul, his right arm hooked around empty air like he was embracing a friend. As they approached, low booms echoed down the street. Patches of road cracked like glass.     

His voice boomed like a craggy giant’s, “Get out of the way!”

The Northamites scurried away in every direction, not even knowing what they were trying to keep clear off. A few found themselves knocked to the ground by nothing at all. Some tried catching stray notes and coins that dropped from the flying pile. It never occurred to them the Fearsome Three could just make them fork that over, too.

Fo-Fum and the money stopped in front of Menagerie, the former gingerly descending to the ground.

“Just hit the bank,” he said in his unamplified, cigarette-shredded voice as he scratched the ear of one of the guard-dogs. The money started shovelling itself into the truck-bed in great bushels. “What’s the take here so far?”

Menagerie shrugged, setting his clipboard on the edge of the truck. “Haven’t really been keeping count. Coming up on ten grand, I think?”

Fo-Fum whistled through his grey beard. “Bloody Nora. That’s more than I made in a year.”

Menagerie smiled. His high-school homeroom teacher—trying to impress upon his students the sheer size of mankind—had said that if someone could extract just a single pound from every person on Earth, they would be the richest man alive. Sure, Northam wasn’t exactly the world, but it was a start.

Fo-Fum looked around. “Where’s Chisel got to?”

“In the diner—ah, there she is now.”

The woman called Chisel walked out of the restaurant, sipping from a milkshake held in rough hands. Her polished grey concrete skin was powdered by a thin layer of dust—Menagerie and Fo-Fum had gathered that was how she sweated. The amethyst crystals that sprouted from her head and trailed down her neck glinted in the December sun. She would need to grind them down into something manageable again soon.

She nodded at the men in turn. “Pete, Barry.”

The pair shared a look. Menagerie shook his head at the stone lady. “Codenames, Chisel.”

“Right, right. But I’m sure first names won’t give us away.”

“Consistency is important if we want a reputation. Wouldn’t you rather not have to scare people so much first?”

Chisel rubbed her mane, pale violet dust coming away on her fingers. “…I would.”

“And better be safe than sorry. Me and Fo have secret identities to consider. We do want to retire someday.”

Chisel put a hand over her breast.

“Aww, Hettie,” said Fo-Fum. “The boss didn’t mean it that way.”

Menagerie shook his head at himself. “Shit, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. I understand.” Chisel eyed the pile of money still being fed into the truck. “Good haul, Fo.”

“Yeah, it is.” Fo-Fum pulled a packet of Winnie Blues from his jacket pocket. “Smoko, boss? Just while I get it all in the truck?”

Menagerie shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

Fo-Fum turned to the crowd of waiting supplicants “Alright, puny mortals!” he shouted, voice amplified again. “The Fearsome Three are taking a fifteen minute break! If any of you try anything stupid…”  Fo-Fum pounded his fist against his leather-wrapped palm. The echo rolled over the townsfolk like storm clouds.

Menagerie continued, “And if that doesn’t convince you, a lot of the dogs are getting hungry.” He jabbed a thumb at Chisel. “Maybe our lady-friend here could grind some bones to make their bread.”

Chisel didn’t look up from her milkshake.

The crowd cautioned, Menagerie and Fo-Fum both lit up, the latter offering their teammate a cigarette.

She shook her head. “Might as well suck air through a straw.” She sipped her milkshake. “I still don’t like my name. Chisels break stone. It’d be like calling you two ‘Gun’ or “Hatchet’2.”

“Well, too late to change it now,” said Menagerie. “Again, reputation’s no good if people don’t know who you are.”

“Yeah,” said Fo-Fum. “Bad enough we had to change our name when Primadonna ran off.”

Chisel shrugged. “She was a cow.”

Fo-Fum gave her a sideways look. “You broke her jaw.”

“Exactly. Let the Coven keep her. I heard she’s the Fox’s new moll.”

“Serves her right,” said Menagerie. “I mean…” He suddenly became aware of the eyes of Northam staring at the three of them, watching and waiting. He felt like he was on exhibition back at Perth Zoo. “…Did you two ever see your lives turning out like this?”

Peter Frum certainly hadn’t. Peter Frum couldn’t have expected to have been fired for being too good with the animals. Or for his boss to act like he was doing him a favour not calling the freak-finders while he was at it.

Although, his boss couldn’t have expected to have been trampled by Tricia the elephant, either3.   

Chisel shook her head, crystal grinding against stone. “Never. I always imagined me and Paul would’ve had another kid or two by now. Maybe have paid off the house. Grown old.” She looked at her concrete hands. “I don’t even know if I can do that anymore.”

Fo-Fum nodded. “I always thought being a supervillain would be more glamorous, you know? But we don’t even got a decent lair. Did you ever hear about Jack Jupiter sleepin’ in the back of a truck?

Menagerie waggled his eyebrows. “Tonight we’re sleeping on a pile of money, like Scrooge McDuck!”

“Still, it’d be nice. You remember Pemulwuy?4 That bloke had a lair carved right into Ayers Rock!5

Chisel tried to smile. Her lips always obeyed her slowly. “Cheer up, Fo. After this job maybe we can establish ourselves properly. Set up shop somewhere.”

“We should hit a zoo,” mused Menagerie. “Dogs are great and all, but variety is nice. And not having to scrounge the bush every job.”

He smiled to himself. Images of war-elephants and lions filled Menagerie’s head. And gorilla henchmen. With machine guns.

Fo-Fum sighed. “Me and the Crimson Comet are the same age ya know. If Ma hadn’t told me to go into construction…”

“…The hell is this?” Menagerie interrupted him, clutching his forehead.

Chisel grabbed her teammate’s shoulder. “What’s the matter?” She shook him. “Pete!”

Dozens, maybe hundreds of eyes and ears, and just as many vantage points. Muted glimpses of streets where the colour red and all its children were myths, but scent was the language of everything. Something zooming through them like an intruder in a row of paintings…

“There’s a bloody flying carpet.”

“What?”

Menagerie winced. Dogs went green and were suddenly somewhere else, if reappeared at all.  They were struck by fists and clubs or some new, unfamiliar pain. “There’s some kids riding on it. They’ve got these crazy guns and swords and shit—”

The supervillain felt teeth breaking against soft, youthful skin.

“—And a flying girl. Fuck, we’ve got supers.”

Chisel’s mouth was agape, revealing teeth like carefully arranged stone-chips. “Where did they come from?”

“Probably the New Human Institute,” said Fo-Fum.

His teammates both stared at him like he had personally invited the interlopers. “The New What Institute?” Menagerie asked.

“The New Human Institute,” answered Fo-Fum. “It’s this school for supers. Those little kids who danced in front of Parliament a while back live there. Sounded beautiful.”

Menagerie shouted, “And you didn’t think to tell us?”

Fo-Fum threw his hands up. It sounded like the wind was picking up. “Come on, that place is miles away. I figured if they were even around they’d be on our side.”

“Was the Crimson bloody Comet on our fucking side?”

“Boys, boys,” Chisel cooed. She was becoming aware of murmurs running through the crowd, peppered with rare, brave insults. “Not in front of the hostages.”

Menagerie sputtered and growled, before taking a deep breath. “Chisel, take one of the walkie-talkies and check these people out. Fo-Fum, I want you to stay here in case the naturals get ideas. Got it?”

Chisel and Fo-Fum both nodded.

Their leader fished a walkie-talkie from the truck, tossing it to the living statue. “Take this. I’ll give ya directions.”

Catching the little radio, Chisel set off.

The crowd parted for her. People stared. Others averted their eyes, or had them covered by their mothers and fathers.

The children stung the most.

Chisel couldn’t blame the locals for being scared of her, though she doubted that could be helped. She remembered how people had looked at her back in Broome when the scream first overtook her. The look on her family’s faces, when she stopped being her.

Once she was clear, Chisel began to run. She didn’t think of herself as having super-speed, exactly, but she could definitely build up a lot of momentum. As she weaved through the streets, she noticed a dingo keeping apace with her, and a little cockatiel gliding above them both: Menagerie’s eyes.

She kept having to vault over cats and dogs as they crossed the road and slipped between houses; over fences and under hedges. It was like watching the animals hike to the ark before the flood.    

Without stopping, Chisel asked her walkie-talkie, “What are you doing, Menagerie?”

“Consolidating our forces, honey. The supers are just sort of floating a couple a’ streets—shit!”

Chisel ground to a stop, her feet tearing up the road. In the distance, there was a sound like thunder laughing, and the flashing haze of a green sunset. It went on like that for two minutes, before the light died away and silence took its place, bar the distant sound of young voices.

Meangerie’s voice crackled shakily. “They—they’re all gone. Just gone…”

“Breathe, Pete, breathe. What are they doing now?”

“Wait a sec, I’m getting a bird over. Okay, they’ve landed. I think they’re heading for one of the houses. Number 7 it looks like.”

“I’m going to check it out.”

“Hettie… are you sure? Maybe we should cut our losses and get out now?”

Chisel thought about it. She pushed the PTT button again. “No. If we’re doing this, we might as well be good at it. And what kind of supervillain can’t deal with the other team?”

She waited for his answer.

A staticy sigh. “Alright. But please, be careful.”

“I’m made of stone, Pete. What could do they do?”

Cutting through to Gregory Street was easy enough. Chisel tore through gates and fences like they were made of spun sugar. She emerged onto the road just in time to see someone slipping through the door of Number 7, shutting it behind them.

“Shit, my bird’s gone—”

Chisel switched off the reciever.

She sprinted over. Through the red-painted wood, she could hear a young man saying:

“Today Jen, we’re superheroes.”

As ladylike as possible, Chisel battered the door down with one closed fist.

The boys and girls crowded behind it backed away, staring at her. She tried to think of what a proper supervillain would say:

“I hope for your sake that’s true, young man.”

Well, that was crap.

“Hi.”

The speaker was a little boy covered in tiger-striped fur, being pet nervously by a girl in torn jeans. A tail swayed behind his head.

Chisel had never seen a super as physically divergent as herself. She wanted to say something—an expression of solidarity, a question, anything—but the boy beat her to it.

“You’re like me.” He stepped toward, holding out a clawed hand. One of the others, a chiseled, golden haired teen tried to stop him, but the child brushed him off. “I’m Billy. Growltiger sometimes. What’s your name?”

Chisel couldn’t answer. Instead, she hissed into her walkie-talkie, “You didn’t tell me there were children!”

“I said they were kids!”

Kids are not children!” She looked back at the cat-boy, and the two other little kids now at his side. “Some of them aren’t even ten years old!”

“Almost,” said a fox-faced boy sourly.

“Not the time, Arnold,” said a tall, auburn haired girl with thick, dark eyebrows.

Chisel stared at her. “One of them’s pregnant! I’m not fighting a—”

Sadie Owens punched the stone woman square in the face. She sailed out the door, clear across the street. Glass shattered against Chisel’s back, before she landed in thick shag carpeting.

She groaned. She could feel cracks in her skin.

The pregnant girl floated into the new living room through the destroyed window, eyes cast down contemptuously at the prone supervillain.

“I stay cooped up on the freak-farm for months, and the one day I get to do some shopping, some arseholes come and wreck up the place!” She stopped just in front of Chisel. “What the fuck, lady?”

The smooth finish of Chisel’s skin broke apart, shifting and churning like broken brick in a cement mixer.

God forgive me.

She slammed her heel against the floor. A jagged grey fang bust out of the carpet, right under the flying girl’s chin.

Sadie shot through the ceiling, plaster dust and splinters raining down on Chisel.

She ran back outside, just as her opponent landed in the middle of the road. The impact punched a shallow crater in the asphalt.

“Are you alright?” Chisel called out instinctively.

Sadie sat up. Aside from some very mussed hair, she looked more annoyed than anything else. “This how you treat every pregnant lady you meet?”

“I’m sorry. But you started it.”

Did she really just say that? Was she twelve?

Sadie screamed. Rising from the ground like an angry ghost, she lunged at Chisel.

The supervillain doged and stamped her foot against the road. It reared up like a wave and wrapped around her assailant like a child in a sleeping bag. She struggled to keep aloft, before a shard of green lightning zapped her a few feet to the left.

“Thanks Arn!”

“No problem,” said Arnold, blowing on his finger like a gun.

Sadie was upon Chisel in a flash, striking her carved face with angry, inexpert, titanic blows. Cracks and fissures spread across her face.

She’s not going to stop until I do.

The road rippled up under Sadie’s feet, flinging her skywards.

Chisel knew she only had a moment. She ran towards Number 7, towards the children standing out front.

Arnold became fluorescent, but she was expecting that. The supervillain dodged a blast of lightning that stripped the road behind her naked.

Mabel was flicking frantically through her scrapbook. Billy screamed. More cracks opened in Chisel’s skin, but that didn’t stop her from scooping him up.

“Stay back!” she shouted, holding the boy close and glancing around wildly at his friends. “Just leave quietly, and we’ll all be fine!”

Billy struggled and squirmed. His silver mist plumed from his hands and flowed over his captors arms.

He screamed. It was like trying to taste fire.

“Let him go!” shouted Mabel. The astronaut in red stood behind her, aiming her gun at Chisel. “She’ll fire!”

“No she won’t,” retorted Chisel. “Not if she doesn’t want to hit the boy.” She looked at Arnold. “Same for you, boy.”

“She’s right,” the astronaut muttered out the corner of her mouth. “Bad shot.”

Billy was crying now. “Why are you doing this?” he sobbed. “We’re the same…”

“I’m a statue, you’re a tiger,” she snapped.

The world went green, and she was empty handed.

Arnold hugged Billy, glaring at Chisel. “I aimed for him, idiot.”

Linus hoisted his guitar. “Sorry about this, Ma’am.”

He strummed.

The notes hit Chisel like a dust storm. It was a dust storm. It blew away the world. When she could see again, the world was grey and wind-blown, like colour couldn’t cling to anything in the face of this front of sound.

The music pierced Chisel—no, Hettie. Chisel was a lie she kept telling herself, and lies withered when Linus sang.

He stood there, at the centre of it, spinning sound into gold and straining music from base air through his guitar strings. His voice was the only thing that had any colour.

Hettie tried to approach the young man, to embrace him or snap his neck she didn’t know.

Linus struck a power chord, and a thin, shining line shot from the soundboard and pierced Hettie through the heart.

It didn’t stop there. It branched and split, silver strings weaving through Bily and Mabel and all the other children, snaking inside the house to intwine the baselines, too.

Hettie felt them. Felt them all. Their fears, their memories. She felt the poison sun clawing at her back in a dead desert town. She felt hot, indifferent flesh invading her own. She felt alone on cold streets, abandoned by her (or was it his?) father.

And she felt lonely. Oh, God, so lonely. For so long.

She found Billy in the storm of notes. She didn’t try to speak. She didn’t need to.

How did you live like that? I got thirty-one years, you…

Betty was good. I miss her, but it’s over now.

Hettie felt herself flowing outwards, out of her. Her first kiss. Meeting Paul. Her first time. Pain. Real, longed for pain. The blood and slime in her daughter’s hair…

“Stop!” she shouted. “Give them back! Please, I need them! They’re all I have—”

The music died. The world became muddled and bearable again.

Hettie was on her knees, heaving as though she were trying to draw herself back inside. Bazza and the rest of the baselines staggered out of the house.

Jen was clinging to her brother’s side like a limpet. The man himself was rubbing his head. “Wild, man…”

Aleister was shaking. Eddie and Belinda were making out.

“Marry me,” Eddie said, tearing himself away from his girlfriend’s neck for just a moment.

“Kiss me.”

“I’m serious, the ring’s in my back pocket.”

“Ask me again once the demi-magic wears off.”

Aleister regarded Hettie warily. “Is she safe?”

She looked up at the lad, tears running down her face like rain down stone. Her brown eyes were the only organic part of her left. “I’m done, Al. You are Al, right?”

He nodded.

“I am sorry for that, Mrs Shaw,” Linus said. “I know it’s a bit… intense.”

Hettie shook her head. “No. I needed that. Put things in perspective.” She looked around the Institute students. “The things you kids have been through… who does that?”

“Arseholes,” said Sadie.

Hettie nodded. “You’re not wrong. Excuse me, Arnold? You’re the one with the lightning, right?”

“Yes?”

“Could you send me somewhere? Back to my family?”

Arnold searched his companions’ faces for approval. He got shrugs and nods.

“Yeah,” said Aleister. “Probably best you don’t stick around.”

To Arnold’s mild surprise, it didn’t take much to get his power to spark. Normally he’d at least have had to ask Hettie where her family were. Not this time. Not after what Linus did.

“Try not to be too hard on Pete and Barry. I know it’s a hard ask, but they’re desperate and stupid. Just like all of us.”

There was an electric cry, and Hettie Shaw was gone.

“I hope she finds them,” said Billy.

“So,” said Aleister. “What do we do now?”

Before anyone could answer, they heard a loud hocket of caws and shrieks. Birds were rising in the distance. Hundreds of them. Enough to fast forward the sky and darken the day. And they were heading right for Gregory Street.

Bazza gulped. “Anyone else remember that Tippi Hedren movie?”

Arnold went bright again. Billy prepared to scream, but Sadie held up a hand. “I’ll handle this.”

She floated gently up towards the sky, waiting for the flock to hit her. “Idiots,” she muttered to herself.

The birds about around Sadie, pale pinks, whites, and yellows blurring together until they resembled a solid shell around the girl—a conversation of whistles and beating rings. They were rejoicing. And grateful.

“One down, two to go.”


1. The result of a sweeping set of legislation passed after the Cuban Crisis, which made it nearly impossible for Australian superhumans to hold down jobs, rent or own property, or participate in any level of education and training.

2. Both would see use as superhero aliases in the 1990s.

3. Tricia escaped euthanasia by reason of demi-human interference, and in 2019 was the longest lived elephant in captivity.

4. An Aboriginal Australian supervillain named after the famous indigenous guerilla fighter.

5. A move which did not please the local Pitjantjatjara.

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Chapter Forty-Three: Five Go Mad in Northam

One small hurdle the Provisional New Human Institute Student Government ran into regarding Operation Woolies was deciding who would actually make the trek into town. Linus was an obvious pick, with his sunny good looks, trustworthy manner, and ability to calm an angry mob with folk-songs. For some reason, the boy himself insisted that an actual adult lead the way, and Alberto (as he insisted he be called) volunteered eagerly. This of course meant Françoise would be staying behind to keep an eye on things, which in turn meant:

“What do you mean I can’t go?” David whined. He plucked at the shirt he was wearing. “But I got dressed and everything!”

“You know,” said Alberto, “that’s not usually an accomplishment.”

Fran glared at the psychic, which shut him up quick. She put her hands on her son’s shoulders. “David, I’m just not comfortable with you going into town without me. Me and your Uncle Albert—”

Uncle Albert? Alberto thought loudly at Fran. That makes me sound like that old bugger from the Captain Marvel cartoons we were supposed to pretend wasn’t fiddling with Billy Batson.

Shush, you, Fran thought back. She shook her head. “—We discussed it, and we decided that things might already be tense enough in Northam without…” The nereid bit her lip.

Alberto finished for her, “Without bringing along a brown kid.”

David blinked. “What?”

Intra-human racism had always confused the boy—even more so than most people on the receiving end of it. The whole concept felt like a tepid dress rehearsal for the posthuman oppression Lawrence was always pontificating about.

Fran sighed. “Come on Davie, you know the sort of vile things the baselines hurl at Haunt on field-trips. You remember what that young man who came to spy on us called you?”

“You exploded that guy!”

Françoise shrugged. “I will admit, in retrospect that was a bit disportionate of me. But he called you that awful word before he exploded.”

David pouted. “You never let me do anything.”  

His mother folded her arms. “I let you run around naked, play on the bottom of rivers, and fight demigods all day. I don’t think the Flying Man’s mum would’ve let him get away with all that1.”

David huffed and turned on his feet, before disappearing in a puff of steam, his clothes falling in a heap like the Rapture had come and gone.

“Jesus,” said Alberto.

Françoise smiled at him. “Eh, he just woke up in a bratty mood, I think.” For some reason, she sounded pleased by that.

They were definitely taking Arnold. With him, they could buy as much food as gold and hunger would stretch, without having to worry about overburdening Mabel’s dragon on the way back. Decision made, Linus recruited both children to help break the news to Allison.

“…You don’t want me to come?”

“Allie,” Linus said, with the subtlest lilt of power to his voice, “we all love ya. Hell, you’re half the reason we’re eating something other than nougat tonight. But I think you’ve gotten a bit… rusty talking to norms.” On seeing her expression, he quickly continued, “It’s not your fault. You’ve been cooped up here a while now, and I know you don’t see—or hear—the world the same way most of us do.”

“That’s not—it’s not bad, is it?”

Linus kneeled till he was level with the little girl. “Nah. Just different. This isn’t forever. We just want to let people get used to boring folks like us before they meet the really interesting new humans.”         

Allison giggled.  

“Plus, someone needs to be queen while I’m gone,” said Mabel. She removed the painted tiara from her head, laying it on her friend’s brow. “All hail Allison Kinsey, Steward of Nova Australia.”

Allison saluted. “I will guard this land well!”

“Long live the Queen… also, that crown’s gonna disappear once we go, so, might wanna make your own.”

“I know.”

“I’m coming, too,” Sadie insisted. “It’s been ages since I’ve gotten to fly properly.”

Tiresias eyed the dark-haired girl’s baby-bump. “Well, you haven’t exactly been aerodynamic lately.”

Sadie flipped him the bird.

“Alright, I deserved that.”

“Whatever,” Sadie said. “I buffed all these gold bars and coins shiny2, why shouldn’t I get to come?”

“No, no, I agree,” replied Linus. “It’s just… if anyone asks, do ya want me to tell them we’re engaged?”

Sadie looked her friend right in the eye. Her irises were bird black. Normally that didn’t bother Linus. If anything, it was easier talking to her than either Lana or Mavis most days. Maybe because they didn’t share one or more children in common. Not today, though.

“If anyone asks, we tell them Mad Laurie is a creep. I’m not going to hide, Linus. Not like when the inspector came and Lawrence made Mabel trot our bloody portraits for him. Not like we’re the ones who did anything wrong.”

“I hear ya, Sadie, I hear ya.”

“Speaking of which,” Tiresias said, pointing between himself and Sadie, “is this going to be a problem?”

“Only if you keep talking, Bertie.”

“Fine, fine… Bertie?”

There was one last member of the expedition:

“Please, please, please, let me come,” Billy implored. The boy was on his knees, his hands clasped together in a cartoon of supplication he’d seen in storybooks. “I’ll be good, I promise!”

Linus sighed. “I’d like to take ya, Bill, but we don’t want to freak the normies out. It’s not fair, and it’s not your fault, but we don’t want you getting hurt.”

Billy jumped to his feet. “They don’t even have to see me, watch!”

Linus couldn’t; the tiger-boy had vanished.

Billy reappeared, staring at the older boy with what could only be called kitty-cat eyes. “Betty used to take me into town all the time invisible! I won’t bump into anyone, I swear!”

Lucius Owens was a steady sort of young man. Mature, sensible. Apollonian, you might even say.

He was, however, still very much a boy. And William St. George had powers even Lawrence couldn’t dream of.

“Aw, alright.”

Billy slammed into Linus. It was like if teddybears could hug back. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

And so, their fellow new humans waving them off, the six took to the sky on a great dragon. Her hide was armoured in charcoal scales, her beating wings bellying like ship-sails in the wind. They clung for dear life to the rough spurs that grew from her back, their laughter and screams lost in the roar before they reached their own ears.

All except for Sadie. She flew ahead, burgundy hair streaming behind her. Sometimes she looped back, swooping under and over the dragon or diving down to run her hands through the crowns of trees.

A few times, Alberto’s attention wandered from his terror to the mother of his daughter. He wondered if he’d ever see Ophelia soar like that3.

As he watched her, Sadie made a dead-stop in the air. The dragon almost crashed into her before Mabel reigned the beast back.

“What the hell, Sadie!” she tried shouting over the wind.

The flying girl pointed towards the road below.

They landed beside the road, Mabel sending the dragon back to the pulp-cover from whence she came.

Linus set down his bag of gold ingots. “What’s the matter, Sadie?”

“It’s the birds,” she said. “The ones in Northam. They aren’t… right.”

Arnold frowned. “What, are they sad or something?”

“…Yes, actually. They all feel really stressed out. And I’m not getting any clear pictures from them. It’s like trying to watch a muted TV set.”

Tiresias lit one of his clove cigarettes. “What do you think’s going on over there?”

“Maybe all the cats in town are having a party?” suggested Billy.

“The Physician’s trying out birdwatching?” Arnold added.

“Ah, I think we might be able to fill you in.”

The group all turned to find four bedraggled teenagers staggering through the red gravel that lined the road. The one in the lead was a black-haired girl in a ragged, persimmon sundress—a strip of which had been tied around her upper-arm, darkened brown by dried blood.

Trailing behind her were some familiar faces. Eddie Taylor stopped in his tracks, staring at them like he had run into the Devil at the crossroads. “Oh, God, it’s you lot.”

Well, Alberto thought, the memory knot’s clearly untangled.

The blond-afroed hippie strode forward towards the smaller children, pulling Arnold and Mabel into half-hug. “Everywhere! Fantasy!”

Mostly.    

Arnold winced at the smell. “Um, hi Bazza.”

“Didn’t think we’d see you again,” Mabel added with a carefully rationed breath.

Bazza laughed. “Same here mates!” He let go of the pair, offering his hand to Linus and Sadie. “Don’t believe we’ve met.”

Linus shook first. “Lucius. Or Linus, either works. Good to finally meet you, Bazza. Wish your visit had turned out better.”

“Me too, mate.”

Linus gestured at his companion. “This is Sadie.”

Bazza took in the young woman’s condition. Not sure what the tactful acknowledgement—if any—was, he settled on the exact wrong one:

“Hello! Congratulations on the baby.”

Sadie clenched her fist, before taking a deep breath. He doesn’t know, she reminded herself. How could he?

It wasn’t just the baby. Just looking at Bazza made Sadie feel stupid and guilty. She hadn’t personally attacked him and his buddies when they came to the Institute, but she’d certainly egged on some rainbow lorikeets4. She couldn’t even remember why she’d done it. She’d been so angry back then…

“…Hi.”       

Bazza finally caught sight of Billy. “Oh, my God… Crackbone Pete was right!” He ran over to the tiger-boy, looking him over like he was a work of art. “Christ, kid, you’re fantastic.”

“Thanks, mister!”

The young man glanced back at his mates. “Fellas, Belinda, come take a look at this kid!”

Billy waved shyly at them, but the other teenagers made no reply. Both Eddie and Al were muttering to themselves and plucking at their fingers like they were being attacked by horseflies.

“Eddie,” Belinda said, pulling on her boyfriend’s arm, “who are these people? What’s wrong?”

“I—no, that can’t—we just had a piss-up…”

Al was clawing at his palms. “If that happened, he’d be dead…”

Alberto sighed. Right. Better undo the knot before their brains boiled out their ears. He inserted himself between the two lads, placing a hand on the back of each of their necks. “It’s alright, boys, this will all make sense in a sec…”

Aleister and Eddie inhaled harshly. Then they screamed.

Al shoved Alberto away. “You bastards! How the hell haven’t you been rounded up yet?”

“You’re welcome.”

Eddie pointed a shaking finger at Arnold. “You—you…”

“Oh now you remember me?”

“Can someone please tell me what’s happening?” Belinda shouted over the commotion.

“Run, Belinda!” Eddie cried. “They’re from Mad Laurie’s freak-farm! They tried to kill us!”

What?”

“Don’t call my friends freaks!” Billy snapped, tail swishing.

Aleister added, “I bet they’re with the Fearsome Three!”

“The who?” asked Sadie.

Linus looked at her. “Did some of the kids sneak off?”

“I don’t think—”  

“Shut up!”

Alberto’s voice killed everyone else’s.

“Now,” he said, “Who the shit are the Fearsome Three?”

He already knew of course, but it needed to be explained for the future-blind.

Bazza took on the task. “…And so this Menagerie guy and his mates are making everyone in town hand over their money and jewellery and stuff, or he sics their pets on them! Or sics other people’s pets on their pets.”

“The crazy statue lady’s blocked off all the roads,” said Eddie. “We barely got away,  and that was only ‘cause we were on foot.”

“Our families are still in there,” added Belinda. “God knows what they’re doing to them.”

“Things like this don’t happen in Northam!” moaned Aleister. “This isn’t bloody Perth! There hasn’t been a supervillain up here for twenty years!”

“AU attacked us in September,” said Sadie.

Aleister’s heart tried to hide in his stomach.

Bazza groaned. “Aww, you’re kidding. You’re telling me I missed out on seeing AU?”

“Lucky you,” said Mabel.

Aleister stared reproachfully at the new humans. “What are you all doing out here?”

“We were going to buy food,” answered Linus.

Eddie folded his arms. “Yeah, sure mate.”

Arnold scowled. “Yeah, because nobody ever needs to eat.”

“Can we help?” asked Billy.

Everyone stared at the boy.

“I mean, it’s not nice your town’s getting picked on, and we really do need food. And aren’t superheroes supposed to fight supervillains?”

Bazza rubbed his neck. “That’s brave of you, little guy. But these are supervillains— the real deal.”

Mabel sniffed primly. “I mean, I guess if you’ve never seen a super…”

The flying carpet raced over the road, fragments of wheel-ground glass throwing back sunlight like the surface of a deep, dark river.

At Linus’ insistence, Mabel sat in the centre with Alberto—scrapbook open in her lap—trying to watch the curve of the road from between her comrades’ backs and guide the Persian rug in her strange, wordless manner.

She tapped Bazza on his shoulder. “How long until we hit the town?”

They were heading for the Finch family home. Bazza had assured Linus he could find him a weapon there. Linus hoped he kept it tuned.

The young hippie turned to look at the little girl, clutching a ray-gun. Despite looking like someone had inflated a Buck Rogers clipping into three dimensions, Bazza still felt metal and leather under his fingers5. “At this rate? Five minutes, tops.”

Linus heard the teen. “Arnold, light up!”

Arnold nodded, and became a sunspot’s child. Aleister resisted the urge to shuffle away from the glowing boy. Or to take a swing at him with his newly created barbarian’s club.      

Linus glanced over at Sadie, flying alongside them. The baseline lads had balked at the idea of her storming the town with them, but they’d shut up after seeing her smash a rock into dust against her bare belly.

“Try to take over the zoo bloke’s birds if he sets them on us!”

Sadie shook her head. “I’m not ‘taking them over’ I’m setting them free.”

“Uh, sure!”

“So, you ready for this?” Aleister asked Alberto.

The psychic peered out from the ball he’d curled up in. “Ready for what? I’m not doing anything till we actually find the arseholes. Cats and dogs ain’t my speciality, kid.”

“I mean, in general.”

Alberto grunted. Everything was going to plan so far, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. He wished he could take a swig from his hip flask.

“So,” Belinda said, scratching Billy behind the ear with one hand and gripping the Arcturian answer to a cattle prod in the other6, “this is probably incredibly rude, but are you sure Menagerie won’t be able to… you know.”

“I’m a person, miss… keep scratching.”

The road grew demented, bulged and warped: flash-frozen waves in a tarmacadam sea.

“Hold on tight!” Mabel cried. “We’re going up!”

The carpet crested over the ruined road, forcing its passengers’ insides into their backs like they were riding a drunk elevator.  

“Shit, shit, shit,” Alberto repeated to himself over and over, as though the curses would cushion his fall.

The carpet dove down into streets defined by grey brick houses and bric-a-brac littered lawns. And dogs. Lots and lots of dogs. Dingoes, house-pets, and their feral, hybrid descendants mingled as one on the sidewalks. And they were all watching the interlopers.

Bazza started shouting directions, “Right, left—no, my left!”

“Stop talking so fast!”

A black kelpie broke away from the other dogs, leaping onto the carpet. It growled and snapped at the riders, shoving itself into Alberto’s face.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck…”

Eddie punched the kelpie right off, sending it yelping down onto the road. “Bloody hell…”

A switch flipped. The walls of dogs bolted towards the carpet, trying to claw their way aboard.

Bazza fired his gun. Spears of broken ozone lanced through the crowd, the struck dogs swallowed up by the stampede. He kept shouting directions over the chorus of howls.

Sadie managed to divert a decent number of the dogs. She couldn’t risk fighting back—or so the baselines kept telling her—unless she wanted a second skin of dog hair and blood. Instead she let the animals drape themselves on her like a hundred furs, cracking their teeth against unbreakable skin.

“All these dogs better belong to saints!” she shouted, flinging off a terrier hanging from her face.

Billy screamed over and over, wincing as his voice flung dogs backwards like leaves in a storm, many with their ears bleeding. It confused him. Shouldn’t he hate dogs?

Alberto watched as Arnold’s lightning tendrils flicked dogs beyond the town, or trapped them behind the windows of houses flowing past. Pitbulls and whippish greyhounds kept slipping past the wall of powers and laser-blasts, only to be knocked back from Alberto’s face by Eddie’s fist or Belinda’s shock-stick.

He wished he was one of those generalist telekinetics Lawrence salivated over. “Squishy folks in the centre, people!”

Then a great dane hurled itself at his side. The world spun, and he slammed against the bitumen.

Alberto scrambled to his feet, looking around wildly. The carpet was already at the other end of the street.

Growls. The dogs were forming a ring around him. The lights behind their eyes were like sharp, predatory stars.

Alberto shrieked, running blindly towards a house with thoughts within their walls.

He hammered on the door. “For the love of God, let me in!”

A bright burst of fear and blinking suspicion. Even some hot, yellow hate. The door didn’t budge.

“Arseholes!”

He ran towards the house’s backgate, vaulting over it like he was ten years old again. It was an ordinary backyard, with Hills Hoist, a rusting swing set, and a half finished treehouse that appeared to be mostly exposed nails.

Alberto didn’t have time to catch his breath before a pack of border collies and kelpies forced their way over the fence.

“Shit!”

Alberto’s lizard brain weighed his options and sent him clambering up the Hills Hoist, the dogs snapping at his shoe-leather.

Why the shit did I want this?

There was the clatter of metal against metal, then the shriek of electricity as Eddie and Belinda battered the hounds with their stun batons.

“Arghhhhhhh!”

“Stay down, fuckers, stay down!”

Once all the dogs were, in fact, down—if twitching from the current running through them—the boy and girl grinned tiredly at each other.

Alberto jumped down from the clothes-line. “Hell of a girl you got there, Ed.”

“I—”

“Oh, he knows.” Belinda said, brushing the hair and sweat from her face.

The flying carpet glided over the house’s roof and descended to ground level.

“Hurry up and get back on!” Mabel cried.

“Tell me we’re not far from your place, Bazza,” Alberto said as he hopped back aboard.

“No, mate, next street over.”

“Good,” the psychic replied. He glared at Mabel. “Maybe don’t fly so low this time.”

By the time they were over Gregory Street, the road was lost under a mottled carpet of fur, empty eyes and snapping teeth.

“…This is gonna be problem,” Aleister said. “Unless your chimney’s bigger than I remember.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” said Arnold. “Hey, Sadie! I have an idea!”

The girl flew over and alighted on the carpet. “What?”

The little boy whispered in her ear.

Sadie smiled. “Heh, neat.”

She wrapped her arms under Arnold’s and swooped over the street. Like a bomber-plane piloted by Zeus, they rained down lime thunderbolts. Great swaths of dog were wiped from the Earth by forests of lighting, their barks and howls lost in the storm. Within minutes, the street was clear and silent. Whoever was still in their houses clearly felt it best to stay there.

Sadie and Arnold landed in the middle of the road, the boy shouting up, “Doooone!”

The carpet landed softly, disappearing from under the party. Bazza led the way to his home.

Aleister walked beside Arnold. “Um, we’re not getting those dogs back, are we?7

Arnold shrugged. “I like kitties.”

Bazza banged on his front door. “Mum? Dad? Jen? Is anyone in there?”

He saw a little eye on the other side of the peephole. The way it wobbled, it looked like its owner was standing on their toes. A small, muffled voice said, “Bazz?”

“Jen! You alright?”

“I—I guess.”

“Could you let me and my mates in?”

“Wha—what happened to the doggies? And the thunder?”

“Taken care of.”

The rasp and click of a chain and lock being undone, and the door opened.

A short-haired, brunette little girl hugged Bazza. She was about Arnold and Mabel’s age, with torn hand-me-down jeans and fresh scratches on her face. “You’re okay!”

Linus and the others stepped through into the foyer, locking the door again behind them. “Hey, Bazza, which room’s yours?”

“Third on the left down the hall,” Bazza said, stroking his sister’s hair.

Jennifer separated from her brother, looking at Mabel and Arnold. “So, who are you lot?”

“Uh…” Arnold wasn’t sure how to answer. He hadn’t spoken to a baseline child in months. It was like how he imagined Cro-Magnon kids felt when they went over to play at the Neanderthal camp8.

Linus emerged from Bazza’s room, carrying his guitar. “Today Jen, we’re superheroes.”

The front door ripped off its hinges, falling to the floor, revealing a stone woman with crystal hair. There was a walkie-talkie in her hand.

“I hope for your sake that’s true, young man.”


1. Joe had a strict 8:30 bedtime. His mother was not a woman to cross.

2. Many of the coins had even been engraved with the Institute’s Galapagos finch, or the Flying Man’s diamond. Some of these coins would later become caught in a three-way bidding war between numismatic, cult, and cape enthusiasts. A few are held by the Western Australian Museum.

3. Hopefully while not seven months pregnant.

4. The only reason she had escaped a thrashing was her invulnerable flesh and the child inside her.

5. It had taken ages for them to find a gun in Mabel’s portfolio that only stunned the villains and creatures she summoned.

6. Mabel suspected the artist traced it from a traffic light.

7. The mammalian population of the Moon increased quite dramatically that day.

8. Which, according to genetic evidence, was not uncommon.

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Chapter Forty-Two: The Gold Rush

“So,” said Bryant Cormey, “how do you think we should handle the kids?”

Tiresias sat at the head of the dining table, nursing a flute of white wine. “Glad you asked, Bryant.”

It was strange, Cormey thought, having to treat the esper like an authority—or at least an equal. He’d always had mixed feelings about Tiresias. On the one hand, he dearly believed espers would be the true germ of the coming race—an effortlessly cooperative and empathetic society. On the other hand, Tiresias.

He then remembered who he was thinking about, and desperately tried to un-think that entire last paragraph.

Cunt, Alberto thought, just loud enough for Cormey to hear him. He looked at Mrs Gillespie. “Mrs G, how’s the grocery situation?”

Mary’s expression was grave. “Not good, I’m afraid. Between poor Panoply and Basil, Eliza and the babies, and everything else going on, we haven’t exactly found time to go food shopping. Plus, we still need to replace the truck.”

Alberto shook his head, taking a sip from his flute. “Wrong on both counts.”

“…We’re not running out of food?”

“No—I mean—this can work to our advantage. We all remember Gandhi, right? His big hunger strikes?”

The teachers nodded.

“Well, his big mistake there was not making everyone else hungry.”

Therese raised her hand like she were one of her students. “Um, didn’t Gandhi win out in the end?”

“Well, he would’ve won faster if he did it my way.”

“What exactly are you suggesting, Tiresias?” Lawrence asked.

“These are little kids we’re talking about. They’ll fold as soon as the hunger pangs start.”

Bryant nodded. “Good point. It’s a shame this didn’t happen in the winter, really. The kids would all be huddled around the fireplace by now.”

“I reckon we take what’s left in the fridges and cupboards, bag it all up, and dump it in the quiet juice puddle. We ought to gather up Windshear’s snack caches, too.”

“Are we sure this is… humane?” Miss Fletcher asked. “I mean, these are growing boys and girls. And there’s also the”—for whatever reason, she whispered—“mothers to consider.”

“Again, little kids and teenagers. I doubt they’ve got the willpower of holy-men and suffragettes, you get me?” Tiresias countered.

“I guess so…”

Mary sighed. “I still think we should just talk to them.”

Tiresias took her hand. “I do too, Mrs G. This will just make it happen faster.”

“He has a point,” said Lawrence. “Maybe it’s natural that the children are straining our authority. I certainly did as a boy.”

“Isn’t that more of a teen thing?” asked Cormey.

Lawrence shrugged. “Posthuman abilities magnify many things, adolescent rebellion included, perhaps. Besides which, this was started by Metonymy and Artume. Teenagers.”

Cormey was drumming the tabletop. “One question: how do we feed ourselves?”

“I would hope adults in their prime could outlast children, Bryant.” Tiresias gulped the rest of his wine. “Besides, booze has plenty of calories”.

As the teachers dispersed into the hallway, Lawrence caught up with his former student. “What are the odds of this working out?” he muttered. “Can you tell me that?

“Hmm, seventy, eighty percent? I don’t know, I’m eyeballing it.”

Alberto smiled to himself.

Odds of the Fearsome Three coming to the Avon Valley, dead cert.

Bella “Windshear” Wilson flung the cupboards open, glaring angrily at the dust and emptiness she found within. “There was a packet of tim-tams here!”

Louise “Britomart” Michelson meanwhile was busy interrogating one of the kitchen’s red, frighteningly angular refrigerators. “All the leftover chicken’s gone, too!” She stamped her foot, cracking the dark wood. “Has someone been having midnight feasts?”

“You mean aside from everyone?” Tom “Haunt” Long asked mildly from the island bench.

“I bet it was the ‘Queen’,” Bella muttered. “Bet she scoffed our stashes, too.”

“Don’t be crappy, Bell. Mabel beat you fair and square.”

“And you only got to be queen because Allie wandered off,” Louise pointed out.

“You guys are bad friends sometimes, you know that?”

“We know,” said Tom.

Bella folded her arms, her tongue curled at the corner of her lip. “Maybe someone’s hidden all the food. So they can boss us.” She looked at Tom. “Could ya take a you-look?”

“Sure, sure.”

The boy’s eyes went white as he scanned around the Big House. He saw wireframe sketches of Miss Fletcher and Mr. Cormey pashing in the spare bedroom. He wasn’t sure whose taste to question. Mrs Gillespie was writing in her room. The old woman kept copious diaries of life at the Institute. As tempted as he’d been at times, Tom had never peeked.  

He tried very hard not to look at Basilisk’s room1.

Alberto was (honest to God) dancing in his room. Tom reminded himself to never forget that. Lawrence meanwhile was lounging in the library, idly flicking through an old hardback2. It was odd seeing him so unguarded.

Finally, he saw it:

“What the hell?”

The three children stood before the entrance of the ruined Quiet Room. Chunks of the marble walls were now dust and rubble, revealing sparking wires twined through shredded muscle. The whole chamber was wheezing and squeaking.        

The back wall had the largest gap. A misshapen heart the size of a well-grown child pumped sweet-smelling, fluorescent blue blood onto the still warm floor. All over the sacks of food that lay there.

Louise regarded them the way most humans do open flame. “Someone gonna pick them up?”

“Tom should,” said Bella. “You’re the biggest.”

Tom shook his head vigorously. “No way, man. I bet that stuff gives you cancer or something.”

“You were the one who found them!”

“Because you asked!”

“You shouldn’t worry, children. John Smith tells me null-fluid is completely non-toxic to earthly life.”

The trio turned to see Lawrence leaning by the Quiet Room, turning the bottle around his neck over and over in his hands.

Tom pinched the bridge of his nose. “Laurie, what are ya doing, mate?”

Lawrence straightened himself. “With the growing food shortage, and our present lack of transportation, I and the rest of the staff decided to store all the supplies somewhere safe.”

“…Covered in quiet juice,” said Louise.   

Lawrence smiled benignly. “You can’t deny there are some children who’d try to take advantage of the situation.”

Bella scowled. “You guys stole our snacks!”

“I think you’ll find that those were all paid for by me, Windshear. I figured with your newfound independence, you children would rather feed yourselves.”

The little girl growled. A cold wind began to pick up in the hallway.

With a flick of his wrist, Lawrence splashed his quiet juice on Bella.

The atmosphere coughed. The wind died. Its mistress wailed.  

“Get it off, get it off meeee!”

Louise and Tom fell upon their little friend, trying to comfort her without hesitation, despite the poison she was soaked in.

“It’s alright, baby,” Louise cooed. “It washes off I promise.”

Tom glared at Lawrence. “You’re a real dickhead, Bertie.”

“Language, Haunt.”

Tom shouted, “Blokes who make kids screw don’t get to tell me off for ‘language’!”

Lawrence was walking away by then. He’d always hated the idea of stripping the children of their powers, even on a temporary, punitive basis. And yet, part of him felt good.

The famine that fell over the Institute wasn’t a complete one. The adults may have successfully emptied the larders and Windshear’s caches, but they couldn’t touch the snacks and fizzy drinks squirreled away in Sheilah Brown’s darkness. And with Bran around, those stocks could be endlessly replenished.

Problem was, even small children can only stand so much chocolate.

As the day’s last light withered, a bright orange ribbon stretched across grey-blue, most of the children gathered around a new fire.

“Anyone want another Kit-Kat?” asked Sheilah.

Billy growled from where he was splayed on the grass, chocolate residue clinging to the fur around his lips. “No more…”

“I’m sick of lollies,” Arnold said, clutching a Barthe provided ice-pack to his head. He was also a bit sick of funny juice. “Especially the same lollies.”

The was one issue with the Sheila-Bran recycling scheme. Whenever Bran recreated a piece of candy, it was precisely identical. The exact same honeycomb, the exact same lumps and imperfections in the chocolate coating, everything. The sort of things you’d start notice if you ate it dozens of times. Which many of the children had.

Sheilah huffed. “It wouldn’t be so bad if you guys would stop finishing them.”

“Fucking Lawrence,” said Lana.

I don’t know, said Mavis. Just gives us more ammunition for when the inspector comes. Laurie’s not just a pervert, he’s a pervert who starves kids.

“Easier for you to say,” Lana replied. “You’re not eating for two anymore.” She realized what she had just said. Remembered Chant, Chorus, and that missing, nameless daughter. “I didn’t mean… sorry.”

I get ya.

“Maybe we could eat Bessie,” Rob Carroll (formerly Gwydion) said, trying to smile.

Everyone looked at the young teen.

“We’re not eating Bessie,” Linus said from the log he was sitting on.

“I was joking!” Rob cried. “Okay, what about the veggie garden?”

“No,” said David, very firmly. “It’s all we have left of Żywie.”

Rob rolled his eyes. David hardly seemed affected by the hunger or the monotonous diet. He wasn’t even sure if the Barthes needed to eat.

“Also,” said Mabel, “would we even be able to beat the pumpkins?”

“Whatever,” said Rob. “We still need some better nosh. I feel like my teeth are gonna rot in my head.”

“It’ll be alright,” David said. “The inspector will be here in five days. And mum’s in the river right now getting us fish.”

“But I don’t like fish,” Dawn Brown whined.

Her older sister sighed. “I’m sorry sweetie, but if you want something different, that’s what we have.”

“Maybe we could go grocery shopping,” Bran joked.

Nobody spoke. The only noise was the fire’s popping, crackling commentary.

“…Wait, could we?”

Murmurs rippled through the children. Linus was nodding. “I can’t see an issue. We’ve all been into town before, we’re sanctioned. Bit of a walk, but you know, supers.”

“I could make us a ride!” offered Mabel. Her voice was rattling with excitement.

“What would we pay with?” asked Arnold.

“Pay?” Troy Willes said. He was in his mechanical form. It felt hunger less. “Why should we pay them?” He got his feet, his eyes glowing bright. “People like them are the reason we’re stuck here! They pretty much gave us to Mad Laurie. We should just take the food.”

David folded his arms, glaring at Troy with sea-fog eyes. “I don’t think that means we should turn into super-Vikings. Especially with the inspector coming”

Troy remembered the calcio fiorentino game in the rain. He reverted to humanity, glancing down at his feet. “I guess.”

“Lawrence and the teachers all have cash stashed around the place,” said Tom. “We could take that.”

“No,” Sadie said.

Mavis looked at the flyer. Why not? They have it coming.

“It’s not that,” Sadie answered. “It’s just… this whole food business. It’s Laurie trying to show us we need him. That we can’t cope without him. Without his money.”

“Fair enough,” said Lana. “We still need something to pay with if we aren’t just knocking the town over.”

Allison looked up from the dandelion she had been toying with. “Ooh!”

Accordions.

She stretched the patch of grass she was sitting in till it touched the barn, before stepping through. Searching, she pulled a velvet pouch out from a pile of a hay.

With a crack, she returned to the gathering. “Linus, Linus, look at this!”

She opened the bag under the older boy’s nose. It was filled with pound notes and coins, all transmuted into solid gold.

Linus whispered, “Did Chen give you this?”

Allison flinched. She almost expected Lawrence to appear and smack her out again. “Uh huh.”

“Well, it’s definitely a start.”

Allison tilted her head. “What do you mean ‘a start’?” She threw her arms wide, like she was trying to draw in the whole school. “There’s gold everywhere.”

Linus plucked the girl up, hugging her and laughing. “God, Allie, you’re brilliant sometimes.” He looked around at all the gathered children. “Get some sleep everyone! We’re going mining tomorrow!”

Gold glinted in the sun. Four-armed, olive-skinned tharks stacked it in piles like Mayan pyramids. Children ran back and forth with their shirts full of bright metal. Occasionally, huge nodules of gold would explode from the earth like boulders from an erupting volcano, or emerge transparent like ghostly icebergs from the sea. Strains of “The Old Palmer Song3” in Linus’ perfect voice echoed across the landscape

All this, Lawrence watched from the end of his brass telescope, peering out from his bedroom window. “What on Earth are they up to?”

“It’s an offering,” Cormey said. “They’re going to give this gold to AU when he comes back.”

Mary scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Bryant. Chen doesn’t need small children to dig up gold for him.”

“Well, what are they doing then?”

Mary shook her head. She felt like part of a pack of school kids spying on another gang’s tree-fort. “I don’t know. Killing time, maybe? Children do strange things when they’re bored; these children especially.”

“Pass me the telescope?” Therese asked.

Lawrence did. The young science teacher scanned the landscape.

Stratogale, Britomart, and Talos sat together pulling apart lumps of gold like it was taffy. Once it was in enough pieces, they chucked it into Growltiger’s mirrored mist, which rained fine gold dust down into a bucket.

On the other side of the field, Myriad gnawed at a caramello bar while white bells of liquid gold hung in the air. Blazing salamanders crouched below them, stoking the gold with their hot, shimmering breath. Miss Fletcher could no more look directly at the scene than she could the naked sun.

As she lowered the telescope, she saw the bells move over to a set of large ceramic trays resting on the ground, pouring their contents—their entire substance, it seemed—into slots cut into the substance.

Therese grinned. “They’re refining the gold! Processing it with their powers!”

“It is certainly a triumph of posthuman ability,” admitted Lawrence. “Still, I would be more comfortable knowing what the point of all this is.”  

“Well, it’s still impressive.” She handed the telescope to Cormey. “Take a look, Bryant.”

By the time the civics teacher had the telescope to his eye, Maelstrom was standing by the trays, a personal storm cloud lurking above them both.

“I wouldn’t be standing so close to molten metal without my trousers on,” Cormey muttered.

As he watched, the water-sprite’s eyes went white, and the cloud became a wave, before billowing back into the air as steam. Cormey couldn’t hear the hiss at that distance, but imagination more than made up for it.

“My turn,” said Mary.

Maelstrom and Myriad were admiring their latest batch of gold bars when Elsewhere stalked up to them. He said… something to the other two, pointing wildly at a pile of raw gold Talos was hefting—before a sheet of green lightning snatched most of it from his arms.

A dozen perfect bars and ingots fell at Maelstrom and Myriad’s feet, Elsewhere just shaking his head.

Mary chuckled. “Too clever by half sometimes.”

Lawrence slipped out of the room. He couldn’t stand it, his colleagues treating all this like a sideshow. And yet, and yet… Pride was biting as his fears, too. His children were recreating a whole industry with just their imagination and force of will.

But imagination needed to be tempered.

He found Tiresias in his room. “What are they doing out there?”

The psychic looked up from one of Reverb’s old Woman’s Weeklys. “What? Oh, the gold thing? Yeah, they’re going shopping.”

“What?”

Tiresias spoke very slowly, like he was explaining things to a very slow child. “The kids are going to take the gold and go food shopping in Northam. Also, I’m going with them.”

Lawrence sputtered. “You—I—that defeats the whole point of this!”

Alberto raised an eyebrow. “Does it? I figured you wouldn’t want them leaving the Institute without someone you trust—or whatever it is we have—keeping an eye on them?”

“I suppose…”

Especially someone who might let it slip that the kids are trying to pay with cursed AU gold…”

“…Cursed?”

“Country rubes, Bertie. The way I see it, this little excursion is a great chance to remind the kids how hateful and shitty normal folks are.”

Lawrence nodded. “Ah, I see your point.”

Tiresias went on. “After that, there’s a decent chance they’ll decide a bucolic paradise and sex with eugenically perfected superwomen isn’t such a bad deal.”

Lawrence winced. He hated the way the esper talked. He made everything sound so base.

“Might be willing to play nice when the inspector comes. Have Mabel whip up some decoys for Stratie and Ex, and you won’t see the inside of your very own Quiet Room.”

Lawrence sighed. “Alright, Tiresias, I’ll allow this.”

Alberto snickered.

“—But for the love of God, be careful out there.”

“My hand to God.”

Alberto went back to his magazine as soon as the door shut behind Lawrence.

Sucker.

Belinda Waites looked at Eddie Taylor over their shared milkshake, their pink and green crazy straws pointed at them like microphones. “My, Mr. Taylor, you’re dressed to the nines. What’s the occasion?”

He really was. The electrician’s apprentice practically slept and showered in his work overalls, but today he was wearing the indigo suit he saved for christenings and Anzac Day. He even had pomade in his hair. Had he grown it out especially? Just for lunch at the Camel Stop Diner?

Eddie tugged at his lapels. “Can’t a bloke dress flash for a change?”

Belinda smiled slyly. “Not this bloke.”

“Slander! Slander I say! You’re not exactly looking casual over there, either.”

Belinda looked down at her orange sundress. She hoped her rouge wasn’t too obvious. “I always dress this way.” Her hand found his, her thumb massaging his wrist. “Come on, you’re planning something. Tell me.”

Eddie grinned. “Maybe I am.”

The diner door jangled open, Bazza striding through in all his tye-dye glory. He spotted his friend. “Ed! Belinda!” He marched over to their table and plonked himself down in a spare chair. “Either of your pets been acting odd today?”

Eddie shook his head. “What are you on about, Bazza?”

“Actually,” said Belinda, “my Guinea-pig was launching himself at the side of his cage this morning. We had to sticky-tape a little pillow to the bars.”

Bazza nodded. “My cat’s been yowling and scratching at everything all day. I thought it might just be heat, but is that the right time of year for that? Is there a time of year for that?”

Eddie groaned. “I swear to God, Bazz, one day I’m hanging you on my wall.”

Belinda laughed. “Aww, don’t be like that, we love Bazza.” She stood up. “Back in a sec, have to powder my nose. She leaned down and kissed Eddie on the cheek. “You keep thinking about whatever you’re planning.”

As soon as Belinda was out of earshot, Bazza asked eagerly, “You gonna pop the question?”

“I was until you started yammering on about your horny cat.”

“What’s that about Bazz’s cat?” Aleister Johnson asked as he sat down between his mates.

Eddie’s smile returned. “Hey Al. You on break?”

Al removed his white cap. “Am now.”

“Eddie’s about to propose.”

Aleister looked back and forth between the two. “Well, I hope you’re happy together.”

Eddie punched him in the arm, laughing. “Piss off!”

“Wait, seriously? You got the ring?”

“Yep! I’ll pay you back, man, swear to God.”

Aleister smiled. “We’re mates, if ya pay me back ya pay me back.” He also tried not to think about who that money had come from…

People in the diner were getting up from their seats, streaming out the door or pressing against the windows.

“What’s going on out there?” Al asked, even as his friends were heading outside.

There was an eight-wheeler truck parked in the middle of the road. In front of its backdoor stood two figures. One was a tall, gaunt, fair-haired man in a leopard-print longcoat and a stained purple undershirt. A similarly patterned domino mask hid his true identity from both total strangers4 and the very stupid. The other was what looked like a seven foot tall, concrete statue of a woman dressed in a torn bathing costume, face carved with a solemn, almost sad expression and garishly painted like a zebra-crossing. Her hair was a mane of crystals, like the inside of a geode.

They weren’t alone. A widely built man with a biker’s paunch wrapped in leather and blue-jeans hovered over them, bobbing in the air like a balloon straining to escape a child’s hand,  a thick beard billowing forth from a silver luchador mask.

Belinda emerged to join the lads. “Eddie, why’d you—oh.”

An army of cats and dogs surrounding the truck like a sea of fur. Most looked like wild, feral things, but among them…

“There’s the Colonel!” Eddie shouted, pointing to a black scotch terrier near the front of the animals. “They got my bloody dog!”

Bazza however was already walking over to the strange trio, a smile splashed across his face. “Woah, man, are you lot proper superheroes? Haven’t seen any of you since the Comet.” He offered the man in the longcoat a hand. “I’m Bazza. Bazza Finch”

The concrete woman sighed. It sounded like wind passing through a cave.

“Menagerie,” the man said, shaking. “Pleased to meet ya, Bazza.”

Menagerie it seemed was missing a few teeth. The perils of the superheroic life, Bazza supposed. He swore he had heard the name before somewhere…“So, any supervillains in the area?”

“You could say that.” He nodded up at the man in the luchador mask. “Fo-Fum?”

What felt like gigantic, sweaty fingers lifted Bazza into the air, knocking the breath out of his lungs. “Heavy, man,” he wheezed.

Menagerie cleared his throat, “People of Northam, your money or your life!”


1. They still needed to fix the hole in the floor.

2. Specifically, Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon.

3. Traditional Australian song originating during the gold rush.

4. Which, to be fair, is most people.

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Chapter Forty-One: The Sleeper Awakes

It didn’t happen all at once, waking up. First there were twilight half-dreams, where either he almost broke the surface, or the waking world snuck across the border of sleep. Washed out, overlit snapshots of his bedroom, or the old lady watching over him like a fretful gargoyle. Bright, technicolour repeats of childhood were contaminated by the feel of cold water at his lips, or pressure on his bladder.

Worst of all was when he managed to wake up completely… except for his body. He would lie there, his waking mind a panicked pearl of awareness wrapped in a living statue, while an orange clad witch crouched atop his chest, smothering his screams with long, sharp fingers.

But eventually, Alberto Moretti escaped his dreams.

He was woken by the sounds of his door slamming shut and fading giggling. The salt sting of stale sweat and piss clawed at his nostrils. Fresh, afternoon sunshine was pouring in through his bedroom window, revealing the beginnings of dust forming over every surface.

Alberto felt like his blood had turned to syrup. He tried to stretch, and winced at the protest of stiff bones and screaming skin. He felt under his singlet.

Fucking bedsores? How long—  

He couldn’t remember going to bed. That itself wasn’t so odd. If anything it was the norm. Except when that happened, he usually came to in his chair, or more occasionally on the roof, or even sometimes next to Françoise.

It was then Alberto noticed the hard lump of warm metal wedged between his thighs. He peeked under the duvet.

A bedpan. A goddamn bedpan. Why did they even own a bedpan?

Alberto managed to clamber out of bed, groaning as his ulcerated skin stretched over his ribcage. He thought for a moment that he’d have to suck it up and go see Eliza about it, but some muffled, insistent instinct told him that was a very bad idea.

He also realized how thirsty he was. And not even for wine. For the first time in years, he was parched for water. Quickly pulling on some pyjama bottoms, he stepped out into the hallway.

As Alberto made his way down through the Big House, the Institute’s psychic landscape opened back up in his head. It took a few tries to get a clear view—his third-eye was full of sand.

It was strange. On the grey sea of unconscious matter, a tiny convoy of aging ships floated in the shadow of a bright, young lighthouse. The adults were holed up together in a corner of the house, with the lone exception of Fran’s sky-blue signal. She was lost in the children’s constellation, girding the river like Orion’s belt. He could also swear the baseline lights were flickering, but trying to focus on any of it made Alberto’s head throb.

Water. He needed water.

The Institute’s mental topography wasn’t the only thing out of order. Alberto kept passing graffiti on the walls, drawn in crayon and texta or paint:

AU WAS RIGHT!

TALOS WAS HERE!

Someone had tried to clean them off. Except for one message:

BASIL LIVES!

Woozily, Alberto said, “Well that’s just a lie.”

The kitchens were a mess. Melted ice-cream stained the countertops; cupboards and pantries were flung open, their pots and pans scattered across the traffic-scratched wood floor, along with a newsagent’s worth of sweet wrappers. Alberto didn’t care, though. All that was on his mind was the sink.

Alberto stuck his head under the running tap, slurping from it greedily. He felt like he had been waterboarded by the time he had had his fill, but his headache was already fading. But that left space for a realization.   

His connections were gone. The strings connecting him to almost everyone at the Institute had rotted in his sleep. He wasn’t the boss of anyone anymore.

Alberto was rooted to the spot. His fight or flight response was having a seizure. His skeleton felt like it was trying to escape.

After a few seconds of that, though, he managed to get a hold of himself long enough to take stock. Judging by those bastard bedsores, he had to have been out for a few days, at least. And unless he was mistaken, he hadn’t been beaten to death in his sleep. So either everyone felt really forgiving regarding the years of mind control and Alberto’s night-time hobbies, or they didn’t know yet.

He could still salvage this. All he needed to do was give a lot of kids high-fives.

Alberto caught his reflection in the sink. Grimacing, he scratched at his cheeks. He had a beard. Not only that, but some little shit had drawn a monocle around his eye. He looked like his dad.

There was a point of light strobing through every colour of the rainbow (and more besides) in one of the bathrooms.

There she is.

Alberto sidled up to the bathroom door. The girl was definitely in there, and he could hear water running. His telepathy had recovered enough he could make out some of her surface thoughts:

Meanie Cormey… quiet juice….  

Alberto opened the door to find Allison Kinsey shaking her hands dry. She was bare chested, her face and torso covered in elaborate if childish mock-tribal paint. To the esper’s eyes, they clashed badly with the markings of her Socii. Maybe it was her attempt to replicate a tan. Whatever she had washed off herself had stained the water and soap-suds baby-blue.

“What the—”

Before Alberto could get another word out, Allison had him backed against the wall, a sharp stick poking against his Adam’s apple.

“The giant has awoken!”

Alberto gulped. The lights behind the girl’s eyes looked green and playful, but Alberto could never be sure with Allison. So many of her thoughts began in other people’s heads. Her mind was like those ransom notes assembled out of magazine clippings: far from impossible to read, but sometimes Alberto had to squint. He decided to play it safe, wait for an opportunity to touch her.

“Uh, sure.” The spearpoint lowered, a good sign. “How long was I out?”

Allison bit her lip. “Mmm, ‘bout a week?”

“Christ.” He pointed to his marker made monocle. “You do this?” he asked, trying and failing to keep the annoyance from leaking into his voice.

Allison nodded. “Yup.”

“You saw a fella in a week long coma, so you drew on his face… why?”

Allison shrugged. “Dunno. Wasn’t hurting anything.”

Sure

“So,” he scratched his face. “Can I shave this off?”

Allison drew her spear to her side, closing her eyes and nodding magnanimously. “You may. Then I have to present you to the Queen.”

Well, why not?

Allison mushed Alberto out of the house and through the grass; technically at spearpoint, but that ended up being her pointing it forward while walking five feet behind him. Not that Alberto thought she couldn’t mess him up badly from that distance. She had also insisted he preserve the monocle as much as possible.

As they walked, Allison absently explained goings on at Institute in that frustrating, jabbering way children do—talking as though you already knew everything they did:

“…So David was all ‘Rauugh, no more hitting!’ and that was when Haunt put him in the dirt…”

Alberto had a hard time believing Mealy of all people doing any of that, even after getting his eyes limed, but the snatches of memory Allison was throwing off bore it out.

“Wild.”

They passed a rose-quartz statue of a terrified, bearded man buried in the ground up to his shoulders.

“Who did that?” Alberto asked.

“Me and Lana. We started after the real thing dug himself out.”

“Is it just a bust, or did you do the whole Lawrence?”

“The whole Lawrence,” Allison answered proudly. “I know nobody but Haun—Tom can see the legs and stuff, but I’d feel weird knowing they weren’t there.”

Alberto found himself smiling. “Bet the old bastard didn’t think his statue would turn out like that.”

Allison giggled.

Alberto had half-expected the other children to have all devolved into painted savages like his “captor”. But most of the children playing by the river seemed as civilized as they ever were, if a bit grimy. After all, nobody was making them bathe. Linus perched on a raised chair like the one he had commandeered during the blackout, strumming his guitar and singing.

“In the summertime, when the weather is dry, you can stretch right up, and touch the sky1—hey Ti’s back!!”

Alberto was surprised by how happy Lucius looked to see him. It wasn’t even just him. A lot of the kids waved as the esper walked by. A few even ran up to say say hello, like Windshear:

“Hi, Ti!” The little girl staggered, only saved from falling on her face by a well timed gust of wind. She laughed. “I thought you were deaaaaaad!”

“He was asleep, Windy.”

Windy hiccuped. “Same thing but with breaks!” She sucked on her bottom lip, before toppling over onto the grass. Curling up, she decided to stay there. “I am the windy-queen…!”

Snores.

“…Is she drunk?”

“Yup,” said Allison. “She and Arn got into Laurie’s liquor cabinet while he was in the ground. They mixed it with cordial, called it ‘funny juice’ and started selling it.” She poked Windshear with a toe. “…And drinking it.”

Alberto spotted Arnold Barnes walking with Talos. The other boy was in his machine form, painted to the gills with flames, dragons and other monsters. He looked like a race-car with legs.

“Listen,” Arnold was slurring. “Captain Marvel could deafen… could definil… look, he could so beat up Marvelman.”

Talos’ synthesized voiced stuttered and buzzed like a broken record-player, elongating syllables and constantly alternating pitch2. “You’re ly-ly-lying ARNOLD. Captain Mar-Vell all fake magic, but Marvelman’s got ATOmic powers. That means he’s moreee real, so he would win!” The boy-robot’s yellow glass eyes were flickering like broken bug zappers.

Arnold frowned, swinging his arms wildly. “Okay, that’s it, you’re toa—”

There was a green flash, and there was suddenly a pit where the teleporter had been standing.

“I’m okay!”

For the first time, Alberto felt true kinship with his people. Plus, they weren’t pilfering his booze this time.

The queen as it turned out was Mabel. She reclined on a storybook throne, waited on by nymphs and centaurs while doves held a laurel crown above her head.

“I kinda thought you were never going to wake up.”

“Well, here I am. So, you’re the queen. How’d that happen?”

“I said I was the new queen and beat up anyone who said I wasn’t. Yesterday it was Windy. Before that, Allie I think.”

Alberto raised an eyebrow. “Windshear managed to beat Myriad?”

Mabel waved her hand. “Not really, she just kinda got bored and stopped saying she was queen. Not really a person kinda person.”

“Any reason she’s the only one done up with paint and all that?”

“I don’t know, Allie’s weird. I think she’s trying to be like David or something.”

“No arguing here… hey, speaking of Mealy—”

David.”   

“—David. You seen his mum anywhere?

William “Growltiger” St. George kicked and thrashed in the water, trying to keep his head above the river’s grasp.      

“Come on, Billy, you’re doing great!” David said, sitting cross-legged on top of the water.

Billy never should have told the other boy he couldn’t swim.

Françoise surfaced behind him. “You need a break, sweetie?”

Billy tried to nod without slipping under. A second later, a slab of ice floated up from under him. Instinctively, the boy shook the excess water out of his fur. “What am I doing wrong?”

“Dunno,” said David as he slipped under the river’s skin. “You move your arms and legs a lot.”

Billy supposed his friend was right. David and Fran’s stroke was very heavy on full-body undulations. Dolphin-like, in a way. Effortless. The mother and son insisted it was learnable by rootstock humans. A less charitable boy than Billy might’ve asked what business either of them thought they had teaching anyone how to swim.

“I guess. Least you and your mum don’t have fur being all draggy.”

Fran pulled herself onto the ice-platform beside Billy. “Oh, don’t be like that. You know what else have fur? Seals. They’re fantastic swimmers.” She smiled wistfully. “I used to race them when I was little.”

She spotted a man on the shore. Tiresias. Alberto. “Say, David. Why don’t you show Billy the old pirate ship the big kids sunk?”

“Sure!”

“But I want be able to breath.”

“David can make an air-bubble for you. Bit like Moses.”

Billy’s eyes went wide. “Wow.” As primly as possible, he then proceeded to divebomb back into the water. David dipped after him.

Fran smiled to herself. It wouldn’t help Billy learn to swim much, but hopefully it would remind him why he had wanted to.

She swam back to the riverbank. As she grew close, Alberto turned around.

“Are you going to explode me if I look at ya?”

Fran chuckled, which did little to assuage the psychic’s nerves. “Eh, nothing you haven’t seen before.” Despite that, when she stepped out of the water, ice-crystals hung off of her like a gown. “I mean, remember your swimming lessons?” A wry grin. “To start with, I mean.”

Christ, they’d been so young…

Françoise hugged him. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

Alberto was almost too taken aback to slip his hooks in. “Thanks. Glad you cared… please let go, this is hell on my bedsores.”

“Oh, sorry.”

Once free, Alberto sat down. “Things went a bit nuts while I was out, didn’t they?”

Françoise nodded, joining him on the ground. “Yeah. I think we were due for it.”

“Can’t say it isn’t satisfying to see. Bet the old man’s freaking out.”

Fran laughed. “He definitely is. I don’t think he’s left the house since the birthday party.”

“…Ophelia’s gone, isn’t she? Eliza took her.”

“…Yeah.”

It wasn’t really news to Alberto. Allison had mentioned what Eliza did like it was a footnote in the saga of David and Lawrence. Like his kid didn’t matter. Or he wouldn’t care. Even if Allison hadn’t had explained, Ophelia’s light was gone. A candle extinguished.

Fran put a hand on his shoulder. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for you and Sadie. For any of you.”

Of course she couldn’t, Alberto thought. Eliza hadn’t stolen her kid. Why hadn’t she? She’d taken all of Lawrence’s other pet projects. Was it some kind of favouritism? Eliza showing her contempt for him? He wouldn’t put it past her.

“I hope you see her again.”

“Me too.”

He really did: not only his daughter, but also that thieving, Nazi witch, tied to a burning stake.

Alberto groaned, his sores flaring up again.

“Want me to fix those?”

David was standing on the dried mud, Billy drying himself off with a towel behind him.

Alberto blinked. “You can do that?”

“If you like.”

Alberto folded his arms. “Alright, I’m game.”

“Okay. Take your shirt off.”

Alberto really hoped this wasn’t some weird revenge on David’s part.

The boy’s eyes went milky. Long fingers of water rose from the river, reaching towards Alberto. He resisted the urge to flinch as they lapped at his sides, only to grunt when they tore themselves away like a plaster made of thorns.

The pain left as soon as it came. It took the sores with it, leaving perfect, unblemished skin in their place.

Billy oohed.

“Jesus,” Alberto said. “How’d you even do that?”

David shrugged. “I turn water into people all the time. How’d you think I fix myself?”

Françoise looked in awe. “When did you figure that out?”

“While I was home.”

“Could you teach me?”

“Sure.”

“Hi David!” Allison called from a hill, skipping down. “Whatcha doing?”

“Teaching Billy how to swim.”

“You’re probably doing it wrong,” Allison said matter-a-factly. “Want me to try?”

Billy nodded slowly.

As David went to join the other children in the water, he looked back at Alberto. “I’m sorry, about Ophelia. I was kinda looking forward to being a big brother. I’ll miss her.”

“I know the feeling… still, thanks.”

Fran and Alberto sat together for some time, watching as the boys were subjected to Allison’s collected knowledge of both water and pedagogy.

“You know,” Fran said. “David could’ve been our son.”

“Didn’t you say that to Chen?”

“Well, he could’ve been Chen’s, too.” She smiled to herself. “God, what kinda kid would we have had?”

Alberto thought about it. “…Namor, the Sub-Mariner!”

They both laughed. In the distance, Linus started another song.

“Want to go get some funny juice?”

“I’d like that,” the psychic answered.

Alberto had one of the best times of his life that night. It scared the shit out of him.

“This is getting ridiculous,” Bryant Cormey said.

None of the other teachers sitting around the library table could disagree. Especially with the glowing blue bottles dangling around their necks.

“What the hell is the inspector going to think when he arrives?”

Herbert Lawrence was trying very hard not to think about that.

“I don’t think it’s that dire,’ Miss Fletcher said with the shaky optimism that betrays the truly terrified. “Sometimes kids get a bit feisty. We’re teachers, we’ve all seen this before.”

Bryant scowled. “Feisty? Therese, it’s like Lord of the Flies out there! Except instead of starting fires with a fat kid’s glasses, they set us on fire with their eyes!” He fingered his bottle-amulet. Unlike everyone else’s, it was only half full. “Myriad was harassing me today. Had to chuck some quiet-juice on her.”

Lawrence rubbed his temples. “Is that really what we’re calling it?”

“No more pouncey sounding than ‘null-fluid’, Laurie.”

Mrs Gillespie folded her hands diplomatically. “I feel like that was excessive.”

“She was baring her teeth at me!”

“She’s a nine year old girl, Bryant, not a dog.”

Bryant sniffed. “I think the difference gets a bit academic when the kid has nearly thirty superpowers. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in these children’s potential as much as anyone here. But they need to be tamed before they can be great.”

Therese rubbed her fingers. “Oh, I mean—isn’t that a bit… cynical?”

“Maybe, but so is history. Do you think our ancestors preferred toiling on farms to wandering through the forests? Breaking their bodies to grow food for kings and clerks? Of course they didn’t. But if those kings and clerks hadn’t reined them in, made them work against their impulses, we’d still be huddling in caves.”

Mary wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sure that’s the most—”

“I agree with Bryant,” Lawrence declared.

Everyone looked at the old man. Except Bryant. He just looked pleased with himself.

“It’s our job to mold the children into the future. To make them what we ought to  have been. If we give into this tantrum, or in any way let ourselves appear weak—”

Mary ran her hands through her hair. “Oh, Doctor, the children know we’re weak. They’ve seen through the curtain! They know there’s nothing we can do to them. We can’t smack them, and we can’t force them to do anything they don’t want. Even the blasted Quiet Room is out of the picture now!”

“Well,” interjected Therese, trying to be helpful. “We still have its… fuel?”

“If we have to walk around with bottles of tranquilizers around our necks,” Mary explained as patiently as possible, “I think we should reconsider our vocation.” She tugged at her bottle’s twine. “I wish you wouldn’t insist on us wearing these, Lawrence. It’s humiliating.”

“For everyone’s safety—”    

“The children won’t hurt me. I’d bet my life. And I don’t think this is a tantrum. It’s deeper than just moaning about eating their greens or going to bed when the sun’s still up. The kids are unhappy. And they’re only going to listen to us if they feel listened to as well.”

“Bloody ungrateful…” muttered Cormey. “After everything Lawrence has done for these kids, they go wild because we ask them to go along with a perfectly natural process. Would they rather be back in the asylums?”

Mary treated the young man to a proper schoolmarm glare. “Problems, Mr. Cormey, don’t stop being problems just because someone has it worse.”

The old lady’s words sparked in Cormey’s mind. “Actually, there’s an idea. We could always tell the children we have the asylums on dial. Hell, maybe that is the place for some of them. I mean, are all the children really that indispensable to the project?”

The room suddenly became a lot stuffier. Everyone keenly felt the sweat under their shirts.

“Absolutely not,” Lawrence rumbled. “Every one of those children is ‘the project’ in its entirety! There are no tiers. We do not grade members of our family. How could we even look them in the eye after making such a beastly threat?”

Besides, the DDHA wasn’t taking their calls anymore.

Cormey shrank like a flower in the shadow of a great oak. “Y—yes, Lawrence. I’m shouldn’t have even suggested it.”

Mary nodded. “Glad you realise that, Bryant.” She got up from her chair, not looking very hard at Cormey. “I’m going to fetch us some more tea.”

As Mary made her way to the kitchen (she really needed to tidy up in there, she reminded herself) she heard the front door clatter open and shut. A slurring, Italianate voice was singing:

“I am, you… we… you are Australiaaan…”

“Tiresias!”

Alberto found himself crushed against the old woman’s chest. “Oh, my boy, we were so worried. Are you alright? Did you speak to the children at all?”

Alberto tried not to breathe, lest his lungs impale themselves on his ribs. Mary hadn’t hugged him like that since he was twelve. He still reckoned the bruises had only just started fading.  

Lawrence and the other teachers were drawn out by the commotion. Soon Alberto was bombarded with questions: “Why didn’t you tell us you were awake?” “Did Eliza say anything to you?” “What are they plotting out there?”

“Ease up, ease up, I tell ya, but first…” The psychic shook Cormey’s hand. “Good to see ya, Bryant.”

Cormey was surprised. Usually he assumed Tiresias didn’t know he existed.

Alberto proceeded to kiss Miss Fletcher’s hand. “Incantato as always, Therese.”

The young woman blushed.

“Anyway, yes, I’m fine. The kids are fine, too. There’s daily political violence, Linus has written a bunch of protest songs3 (all bangers by the way), Maelstrom seems to have given up on clothes all together and taken up therapeutically drowning Growly, and half the children are drunk. Still, good day, really.”

Mary couldn’t quite process all that at once, so she went back to fussing over her ward. “How are those bedsores, love? I am so sorry, we should’ve turned you more, but with everything that was going on…”

The poor woman sounded so contrite. Alberto raised a hand, “It’s fine, Mrs. G. Mealy fixed me up anyway.”

Mary and Lawrence looked at each other, their eyes alight with scientific curiosity.

“Melusine talked about her father doing something similar,” Mary said, “but I’ve never seen it done.”

“Did her and Melusine display any other new powers?”

“All I know is they’re both good at mixing cocktails,” answered Alberto. “It’s been a long day. Lawrence, do you mind if we talk in private?”

“Of course,” Mary said. “It’s high time we retired for the night anyway.”

Alberto and Lawrence started up the stairs to his study. As soon as they were out of earshot, the young esper whispered, “The fuck have you gotten us into?”

“So, this is what made the Quiet Room work?”

Lawrence’s bottle sat on his desk next to the fruit-bowl, the blue fluid within still glowing even under his office’s bright yellow lights. Looking at it bugged Alberto. Somehow, it had less thought and wit than the average glass of water. It stirred up memories of his own stints in the Quiet Room: buried alive, crying in the dark…

“Yes,” said Lawrence. “Did John Smith ever tell you where he got this?”

“Nope. Or I wasn’t listening, take your pick.” Alberto generally tried not to notice the Physician as much as possible. The creature thought with every cell of his body, it was very disorientating.

Lawrence slipped into his lecturer mode. “Enlil, Tiresias. The world of your forebears. Every higher life form is psionically active4. The humans who were settled there had to become so just to keep up. A whole biosphere of creatures attempting to psychically subvert each other.

“There is one exception, though. An apex-predator, whose blood negates almost all of what we call powers. The Quiet Room has a heart that pumps the stuff. Myriad and Elsewhere didn’t manage to vandalise that at least. The effect is much weaker without the intact chamber, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Fascinating,” Alberto said flatly.

“While you were… frolicking outside, did you manage to touch any of the students? Melusine?”

The esper shrugged. “A fair few.”

“I’m sure you already know how… urgent our situation is.” A nervous, nigh-hysteric smile. “I can’t imagine it’s not clear from my thoughts. They’re coming for us, Tiresias. Coming to break our family apart. Help us.”

Alberto sat there, pondering. “Lawrence, get your gun.”

“…What?”

“I said, get your gun.”

Lawrence didn’t feel any force acting upon him. It wasn’t like there was anyone holding onto his arms. As steadily and smoothly as he would have poured himself a drink or picked up a pen, he pulled his desk-key from his pocket, unlocked the second drawer, and removed the Smith & Wesson Victory Model he kept there.

“What are you—”

“Load it. One bullet.”

Lawrence obeyed.

“Now put it against your temples.”

He did, with no hesitation.

“You know what it’s like, Lawrence? Being six years old, being used as long as you can remember, for reasons you don’t understand. And then, you’re taken from your home, your family, from everything you’ve ever known. And then you realise, the bloke who did it, he doesn’t even like you.”

Lawrence couldn’t scream. The best he could manage was an even, “Tiresias, you can’t possibly think—”

Alberto growled. “Don’t lie to me! I can see your heart, Laurie! How can you possibly think I didn’t know? Pull the trigger.”

Lawrence did. An empty, stomach-churning click.

“You never liked my powers. Which is a shame seeing as that’s pretty much all you see in us.” Alberto launched into his best pantomime of Lawrence, “Telepathy is only good for subverting and controlling others. It has no place in a mature posthuman society.”

“I never said that!” protested Lawrence. Without being told, he pulled the trigger again. Another click.

“You never said it out loud, but I lost count how many times you thought it.” He laughed. It sounded like weeping. “I was basically the prototype for Adam Sinclair, wasn’t I? But you had a use for me, didn’t you? When your perfect ones weren’t behaving like good little posthumans should, I brought them into line!”

“You helped them see past their biases. Their doubts.”

Alberto cackled. “Oh, my God. You actually believe yourself when you spew that bullshit! I should write to Psychology Today or something. They’d do a whole series on you. Pull the trigger.”

Lawrence’s fingers felt like they were breaking. Click.

“I’m still not sure how Ophelia happened. Not sure how that’s possible, but I don’t. Maybe you thought my powers would be more acceptable watered down with something pretty like talking to birds or flying. I’m glad she did happen, though. That girl, she’s something else.” A smile, warmer than usual, breaking into rage. “And you let the kraut take her away from me! Pull the trigger.”

The click brought Lawrence no relief. It just meant the bullet was rolling closer.

“That girl was the one part of me I liked, and she slipped right through your fingers. Christ, Laurie, three days without me, and you let everything fall apart.” He looked at the gun. “You know what, we should play fair. Point it at me.”

Lawrence aimed the pistol at Alberto’s heart.

“God, so many warring impulses. If you shoot me, you’re fucked, but at least you’re fucked with honesty. No more lies, no more doublethink. Simple, complete doom.”

“Tiresias, we don’t have to—”

“My name is not ‘Tiresias’, Laurie. Pull the trigger.”

Lawrence tried to close his eyes. He couldn’t. He squeezed.

Empty.

“Well, shit, I don’t know whose luck is worse here. Put the gun back.”

Lawrence knew what his student meant. He jabbed the barrel back against the side of his head.

“You know, I’ve never felt a mind die. The blackshirts always took the poor bastards out of my sight when they topped them. Frankly, I’ve never kept an ear out for it. Should be interesting.”

Tears were blurring Lawrence’s vision. Apparently mind control couldn’t stop those. “Alberto, please…”

“Pull the trigger.”

Lawrence smushed the banana against his hair.

“Wha-what…”

“You know what the sad thing is?” Alberto asked. “You know I can do this to you—for real—basically whenever I like. But I bet you’re still going to ask for my help. Beg for it even. Just for the slightest chance I can see us through this.”

Lawrence’s breath was like a storm forced through a wind tunnel. “…Could you? Could you save us?”

“Maybe. I can see the path forward. It’s not an easy one, Lawrence. It’ll cut at your ankles and lead you through dark forests.” He leaned forward. “But first, Lawrence, you’ll have to say please.”

Lawrence dropped the banana. “Please, Alberto. Please show me the way.”

Alberto stood up. “Fine.” As he headed for the door, he said, “Just so you know, that whole nightmare you just lived through? That’s basically what you’re asking me to do to all your ‘children’.”

Lawrence didn’t answer him.

Alberto headed for the spare bedroom. He didn’t want to have to deal with the bedpan or the sick scent permeating his room that night.

He’d lied, of course. In the storm of futures, the ones where the Institute outlived the year were so outlandish, they were in danger of being trampled by unicorns. But there were futures where he contained the situation—where he impressed the DDHA enough that they decided he was an asset. Realpolitik could forgive a lot. It had forgiven Eliza, after all.

Alberto honestly didn’t like the idea of screwing with the others. Not anymore at least. He liked them more than they probably knew. More than he had known till today. Definitely more than he did bloody Laurie.

But he liked his daughter more.


1. Over the years, the students and staff at the New Human Institute noticed that Linus’ “impromptu compositions” had a tendency to turn up years later on the radio.

2. When Troy Willes reverted to human form later that evening, he found his memory full of transcription errors.

3. Including such standards as “The Man on the Hill” and “I Don’t Know You From Adam.”

4. As well as some of the viruses. On Enlil, they say both sexual magnetism and bad luck are catching.

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Chapter Forty: Damnatio Memoriae, or, True November

It was Mary Gillespie who shook Lawrence awake.

“Lawrence!’

The old man stirred groggily, his nightcap draped over his face.

Mrs Gillespie shook him again, shouting “Laurie!”

He jerked awake, blinking at his colleague before smiling bashfully. “I’m sorry, my dear. Did I sleep through my alarm clock?”

Mary still had her hair-curlers in. She was also very pale. “Żywie’s gone.”

Lawrence squinted. “What? Where?”

“And she’s taken the babies.”

“…What?”

Therese Fletcher sat wrapped in a blanket at the bottom of the stairs, trying to clutch a mug of scotch coffee in trembling hands as she told the Institute’s staff and young parents what had happened in the night. “She was just rocking the new baby. I asked her if anything was the matter, and she just said she was sorry. I could smell booze on her breath, I think she was drunk.” She took a long, unsteady sip. “Then she grabbed me by the throat, like she was choking me! I couldn’t stay awake. I thought I was dying…”

“I think she did that to Artume as well,” Linus said, trying to keep his face very still while he looked down at his folded arms. “She was in her hammock when Laurie and Mary woke me up. She’d slept just a couple days ago.”

“Tiresias too, I’ll wager,” Bryant Cormey added from beside Miss Fletcher, his arm drawn protectively around her shoulders. “We couldn’t even wake him up.”

Maybe he’s… you know…  Reverb mimed swigging from a bottle.

Cormey shook his head. “I screamed in his ear. He’s completely out of it.”

Lawrence just stood there, trying to fit what his students and staff were saying into his reality. His Żywie, assaulting her fellow new humans, stealing their children…

Ex-Nihilo, on the other hand, did not just stand there. She pushed past everyone, yanked Therese to her feet, and shouted, “How could you let her take them!”

“I-I’m sorry,” Miss Fletcher sobbed. “I didn’t know…”

Bryant tried stepping between the woman and girl. “You’re being way out of line, young lady—”

Ex shoved him back, ghostly orbs circling her hands. “You don’t get to call me that when my bloody kid’s been taken.”

Stratogale put a hand on the other girl’s arm. “Lana, do you really think Miss Fletcher could’ve stopped Żywie? Or that any of us could have?”

Lana looked at her sister. Dried trails of tears streaked the other girl’s face. “No,” she sighed. “We couldn’t have.”

“What should we do, Lawrence?” Mary asked him. “The other children will be waking up soon. I can’t even begin to figure out how we’ll explain this…”

“Can we please hold off on that, Mary? At least for an hour? I need to call… someone. Valour, the police, I don’t know yet.”

Mary nodded. “Of course, sir.” Gently, she suggested, “Maybe you go think that over while I keep an eye on this lot?”

“That seems wise. I’ll get to it.”

Lawrence climbed the stairs to his study. He tried not to look at the founders portrait as he entered.

Almost half of us gone…

Lawrence stopped still when he saw the letter lying on top of his desk. He had no doubt who it was from. He regarded the envelope like it was a dark totem: a paper prison for evil spirits.

Lawrence approached it slowly, the way a man would a sleeping lion. He didn’t know what he thought he would find inside the envelope. Guilty madness over Panoply’s death? The manifesto of some new, secret ideology brought to the surface by this awful month? A murder-suicide note?

Instead, he found this:

Dear Laurie,

First, I must assure you the little ones will not be harmed. I do not know yet if I will be able to find anyone better equipped to look after the children, but I will care for them as long as they still need me.

It is a cruel thing I am doing, I know, taking them from their mothers and fathers like this. But they were the ones I had to save from you first.

A long time ago, when David (and yes, that is his name) was still just an idea, I asked how what we would be doing was different from my old masters had dreamed. You told me we would only be adding to the beauty and diversity of the next generation. That we did not destroy.

Except things didn’t turn out that way, did they? We have destroyed childhoods, and taken away the choices of our students. We shut out the world, and told the children this farm was all they had. You may say we didn’t coerce the girls we made mothers, or the boys we forced on them, but I’m not sure how you can believe that anymore. Even if we didn’t, they were children. How could they have said no?

We destroyed Adam Sinclair because he was an inconvenience. Because he separated you from the powers. But those children are precious and irreplaceable, even without their powers. Adam was precious. We are more than what we can do. I’m not sure when you forgot that. Maybe when you decided Hugo had to be a superman to be part of our family, no matter how much pain it caused him.

There’s still time, Lawrence. We can both still do the right thing. Stop the stirpiculture; turn yourself in; let the children be children; stop trying to make them the future you dream of. Maybe then, when all lights fade for us, we can go into the shadows without this on our shoulders.

If you love us, let us go.

Eliza.

Lawrence screwed up the note. He never wanted to look at it again. He reached for his phone, but he stopped just short.

What would happen if clumsy, human authorities caught up with Żywie? Policemen or soldiers pointing their guns in the faces of scared, new human infants. The thought made Lawrence shudder.

That somehow wasn’t the worst outcome. What if Żywie was captured? Interrogated?

Lawrence gripped the edge of his desk, breathing slowly.

No, the risk was too great.

“Have you called someone, Dr. Herbert?” Mrs Gillespie asked from the doorway.

Lawrence swallowed. Mary rarely used his title out of earshot of the children. “Yes. I gave the DDHA a message to pass along to Timothy. I can’t imagine the urgency escaped my voice.”

Mary nodded. “I hope he handles this gently. The police?”

Lawrence shook his head. “No. I decided that wasn’t  prudent. We don’t want a mob of scared Northamites trying to hunt down our Żywie.”

Mary inhaled. “The odd thing is, I can’t even be angry at her. What must be going through that poor girl’s head.”

“Hopefully, she’ll be able to tell us soon. Grief, maybe? We both know what too much death does to people.”

“Yes. I’ll go check on Tiresias. See to breakfast. We can’t let things fall apart.”

Once Mary Gillespie was out of sight and the door closed, Lawrence let go of the crumpled stationary he had been gripping. He hated lying to Mary more than anyone, but she would understand once it was all sorted out.

This was the right way to handle it, Lawrence was sure. Once Żywie had time to think about what she was doing, she would come home. There was no chance of her going to the authorities. Not with the part she had played in the stirpiculture, or Adam’s demise.  

It wasn’t the first time Herbert Lawrence underestimated Eliza Winter’s basic decency, but it would be the last.

“Why do you think she did it?”

Nobody in the barn had an answer for David. Last night, Żywie had seemed like one of the unchanging facts of the New Human Institute. Now, she was gone. Gone in a way somehow deeper and more frightening than even Basilisk. Basil had wanted to be gone from the world altogether. Żywie, it seemed, just wanted to be gone from the Institute. Away from all of them.

Except, not quite.

“Why did she take the babies?” Mabel wondered. A bedraggled magpie sat perched on her hair, trying fruitlessly to dry sodden wings. “I mean, what’s she doing with them?”

“Maybe they’re her… guns?”

The other four Watercolours all looked at Elsewhere. The attention made him squirm. “So, if the coppers catch up to her, she could make Ophelia clap and—yeah.”

“I guess,” Mabel said. “I just don’t get why she didn’t take anyone bigger. Like one of us…”

Growltiger broke the silence that followed. “I liked Żywie.”

David shot the other boy a questioning look.

He shrugged. “I just wanted to say, she was always really nice.”

Mabel nodded. “Yeah. I never knew my mum, but I think Żywie was nearly as good.”

“She made me strong.” Myriad added.

Nobody but David really got that. Arnold at least didn’t question it. He’d had years to get used to Allison saying things he didn’t understand.

“And her classes were fun,” Billy said, adding solemnly, “Even if she didn’t like Famous Five.”

David found himself giggling. “Oh, she hated those books.” He hopped to his feet, launching into an impressive mimicry of his English teacher. “Can you blame me? Those books hate independent girls and anyone from east of Sussex. And well…” He pointed grandly at himself. “Mich selber.”

The others laughed. David did, too. Then, for the first time since his eyes changed, he cried.

“I can’t believe we’re still doing this,” Melusine said as she watched Lawrence straighten his tie.

“This?” he replied, playfully waving the purple strip at the nereid. “I know it’s stuffy, but it’s tradition.”

Melusine shook her head in disbelief. “This party! After everything that’s happened!”

Lawrence frowned. “I know this month has been trying—”

Melusine shouted, “Trying? We’re in mourning! Żywie kidnapped some of our kids half a week ago! And you want us to celebrate?”

“And how will sulking fix that?”

“Tiresias hasn’t woken up in three days. He needs to see a doctor.”

“Mrs Gillespie is keeping him fed and hydrated. You really think human medicine can undo Żywie’s efforts?”

“We don’t know. It’d be better than just leaving him in his room and spooning him baby food!” Melusine’s voice grew quiet. “And the girls will be needing checkups. And a midwife, now that Żywie’s gone.”

Lawrence shook his head. “Too much of a risk. A midwife would ask questions.”

Melusine glared. Lawrence didn’t notice the contents of his liquor cabinet starting to bubble in their bottles. “And that’s more important than the girls? Or their babies?”

“Don’t be so melodramatic, Melusine. Żywie left our mothers in top shape. And women have been giving birth unassisted for thousands of years. Why, the ǃKung1—”

“We are not African bushmen, Lawrence.”

“If complications arise, we could have Haunt phase out the children. A posthuman solution to an age old problem. Much preferable to a caesarean, I should think.”

Melusine gave the incongruously empty space on the study wall a long, hard look. The portrait artist had completely botched her eyes. “You know, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s time to move on from the Institute.”

Lawrence’s fingers froze. “Are you sure that would be wise, Melusine?

Melusine very deliberately quirked her shoulders. “I’m sanctioned, and a citizen. I can go where I like.”

“And you would be willing to leave Maelstrom behind?”

Melusine blinked. For a second, her eyes were white. “David would be coming with me.”

“He’s as much our child as he is yours, Melusine.”

Françoise stalked towards the office door. “I’m his mother. And the only other person here with any claim to him is gone.”

She slammed the door behind her.

Lawrence sighed. He was counting out the seconds so he and Melusine wouldn’t run into each other on the stairs when his phone rang.

“New Human Institute, Dr. Herbert Lawrence speaking.”

Timothy Valour’s voice crackled over the line, “Hello, Lawrence.”

Lawrence’s breath caught in his chest, but he recovered fast. “Ah, good to hear from you, Tim. Is this about the inspection? Still on the 10th, correct?”

A breath hissed down hundreds of miles of wires. “No, it isn’t. Me and the wife had a visitor last night. Six of them, actually. Eliza dropped in.”

Lawrence couldn’t speak.

“We had a lot to talk about, Laurie. Some developments at your school I wasn’t made aware of. If half of what Eliza says is true… I’m not sure I have the words.”

“…Where is she? What have you done with her?”

“You”—the word was sharp, sudden, followed by a short silence as the man forced the calm back into his voice—“don’t get to ask that sort of question, Lawrence. Not anymore. Eliza is fine. She and the children are on their way somewhere quiet and safe. And far away from you.”

Even over the old phone-line, Lawrence couldn’t mistake the quaver in the old soldier’s voice. That shaky self-control that was probably more exhausting than running a marathon, and likely the only thing keeping Valour from throwing something, if he hadn’t already.

“You know, Lawrence, I always knew you were an odd bloke. But I also thought you cared about those kids. Loved them, even. This—it never even occurred to me you could think of this. All those kids I let you take on. I thought they were going somewhere better…”

“I—listen—I—”

“There it is!” Valour barked. “You can’t even deny it! I wanted to believe Eliza was lying. I didn’t know why she would make up something like this, but I still hoped. But those babies. Where else could they have come from? One of them flies, Lawrence, just like Sadie. The birds in our garden kept landing in her little hands…”

“It’s more than you understand, Tim—”

“I’ve listened to enough of your speeches, Lawrence. There’s nothing you can say that’ll make this alright. All these years, you’ve looked down on me for doing my best, while you molest your girls just to see what happens! Enough, Lawrence! The New Human Institute is done.” He spoke the school’s name like it had curdled in his throat.

“What?”

“You’re finished, Lawrence. The inspector will be assessing the students for transport to a new facility come New Year’s.  They will be cared for, trained humanely, and not treated like cattle by some old bastard with too much Wells on the brain. If you care at all for them, I suggest you don’t make it any more traumatic than you already have. Given what Eliza told me, I’m not sure what we’ll be doing with Moretti and your staff. You, you should be glad they’re phasing out hangings. I for one know that if I weren’t a civil servant, I’d be heading across myself. To see for myself or to shoot you, I don’t know. Thank God Eliza’s conscience woke up. Goodbye, Lawrence. I—I wish I had known your heart better.”

The long full stop of the disconnect tone.

Lawrence’s hand was shaking when he put the phone back on its reciever. Fumbling, he managed to open his liquor cabinet and pour a drink, drops of amber spilling onto the dark wood of his desk. Two full measures. Then another.

He gulped it down. Then, he put Timothy Valour’s call away, in the same dusty place he had already hidden Eliza, Tiresias, Adam Sinclair, and a hundred other things. He had a party to go to.

The November birthday party was waiting for Lawrence when he emerged grinning from the Big House. Children in intermediately formal outfits milled about white-sheeted snack tables overseen by Miss Fletcher and Mr. Cormey while Linus manned the barbecue. Mary Gillespie, saint that she was, was up in Tiresias’ room, watching over his sleeping form.

One table was heavy with presents. They weren’t so much gifts for the individual birthday celebrants as they were for the whole student body, but Lawrence stood by the ritual.

Behind that table stood three high backed chairs, in which sat Myriad, Maelstrom, and Artume: two newly minted nine year olds and a fifteen year old, plus the child growing within her.

There would have been four, if little Chorus was still here.

The birthday children were all dressed in white, like on the naming days, with flowers braided in their hair. Lawrence liked to think Graves would have been chuffed by that2.  

As he walked over to them, though, Lawrence couldn’t help but notice most of his students were still in poor spirits. They listlessly chewed junk-food and carried on grunted half-conversations amongst themselves.

He passed Windshear lying on her belly in the dirt, absently sending tiny dervishes sporting through the dust while Haunt’s blueprint floated lazily in still tides of earth. Britomart was using a chunk of brick as a stress-ball. Metonymy in particular looked very out of sorts, sitting all hunched in on himself. The only children who appeared to be making an effort were Ēōs and Growltiger, the former creating elaborate tunnels of light for the marbles that rained from the other’s silver cloud.

Frankly, Lawrence was disappointed in them. All the effort he and the other teachers had put in for today. And who knew if there would even be—no, he wouldn’t let Valour’s threats pollute things. Not today.  

The old man slapped Maelstrom on the shoulder, asking, “So, did you three feel any different when you woke up?”

Maelstrom shrugged, white petals shaking in his black locks. “My birthday was a week ago.”

“Two days before that,” Myriad added, before poking her tongue at Maelstrom. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Second of the month,” Artume said.

Lawrence frowned, but his smile reasserted itself quickly. “You know, we in the west are actually in the minority celebrating the passage of age on one’s actual birthday.”

The children didn’t respond.

Suppressing a mutter, Lawrence turned to the milquetoast crowd and cleared his throat.

No response. Lawrence did it again, louder.

It was less that the students and staff turned their attention to Lawrence and more they took the excuse to cease what little activity they were engaged in. Still, he launched into his speech:

“The most wonderful and tragic thing about childhood is its finity. With Maelstrom, I have at least had the privilege of watching his journey from the very beginning.”

The boy shuffled in his chair.

“As for Myriad, I have been less fortunate. I have known her for less than a year, and already she is growing up before my eyes.” He turned to address the two nine year olds directly. “In some cultures, ten marks the beginning of adulthood. In a way, for you two, this is your last year of true childhood.”

Myriad felt queasy.

“And you, Artume.” He took the teenager’s hand. “We don’t celebrate just a girl’s birthday, but a woman’s. A woman truly unique in the history of this world, helping make the next generation of her kind even more beautiful.” Still holding Artume’s hand, Lawrence looked back at the crowd and smiled indulgently. “Not without the help of our Metonymy of course.”

“No.”

The word was quiet, but in the hot summer silence, everyone heard it.

“…Pardon?” Lawrence asked.

Metonymy stood up. His eyes were welling, while his whole body shook like he was at the centre of a private earthquake. “Don’t talk like this is great! Sheilah’s pregnant.” He shouted, “Because I raped her!”

There were gasps. Ēōs looked questioningly at Growltiger. “What’s ‘rape’?”

The other child shrugged. He didn’t know either. Sounded bad, though.

There was no wind to blow the words way. They hovered in the air between Metonymy and Lawrence like tense wasps. No one dared speak.

Lawrence stammered. “I—you—”

He was interrupted by Artume pulling her hand back. “Bran, you didn’t rape me.” She walked over to his side, pulling him into a hug. “You’re my best mate. You’d never do something like that.”

Lawrence was relieved. Name-slip aside, at least Artume was talking sense.

She glared at him. “He raped us.”

Lawrence felt over two dozen pairs of eyes on him. The children, it seemed, were finally eager to hear him speak.

“I’ve never forced you children into anything,” he lied, trying to keep his voice as even as possible. “You’ve always had a choice.”             

“You don’t make it sound like a choice,” Myriad mumbled from her seat of honour. “That night in the nursery, you said ‘One day, your children will sleep here.’ And you didn’t say ‘if you want to have them.’”

“That—I will admit, I could have worded that better. But have I ever said you children had to take part in stirpiculture?”

“Laurie, mate, you didn’t have to.” Linus had abandoned his post at the barbecue. Lawrence could already smell the sausages and steaks burning. “Most of these kids were in the asylums before you came along. I was on the streets. I don’t even wanna talk about some of the others. We’d have done anything to not go back. To not disappoint ya.”

Lawrence looked at the young man. He didn’t look angry. If anything, he just looked sad. “Laurie, would you really have let it be if I said no? If Met or Gwydion said no?”

“…Of course I would.”

“Do you think you could still say that if I was singing? Really singing?”

The headmaster straightened himself. Clearly the children were losing perspective. “I can understand your feelings, Linus. But you boys can’t pretend you didn’t show some… enthusiasm for the job.”

Linus sighed.

“What?” said Bran. “You mean it felt good? Well, yeah, it kinda did. It kinda felt really good for one second. Sheilah is pretty and that’s just what happens. But that doesn’t mean you don’t feel rotten inside. It makes it worse.”

Artume’s grip around her friend tightened, but her eyes were still fixed on Lawrence. “You know, Bran, I think the married days are how he gets his jollies. Is it, Laurie? Do you think about us at night?”

Right. Lawrence stalked towards the drinks table, picking the silver ladle out from the punch-bowl. He never liked using metal, but this needed to be immediate.

He ran towards Bran and Sheilah, unable to contain a yell. The children braced themselves, still holding onto each other.

There was a blast of cold air, and the blow didn’t come.

David, bare and icy, stood between the man and his schoolmates, a small, carved hand holding onto Lawrence’s wrist.

“Knew he was going to do something dumb,” Allison said archly from her throne. “His song sounds like glass breaking.”

It took Lawrence a moment to realize who the girl was talking about.

David resumed flesh and blood, making his teacher stumble backwards, if only from surprise.

“No more,” the boy said, his voice calm and steady. “No more hitting. No more making us feel bad all the time. No more ” He looked around at the other children, asking, “You know what the really dumb thing is? The thing I should’ve realized ages ago?” He pointed at Lawrence, frowning with a kind of disdain the old man had before only seen from his mother. “He can only hurt us because we let him. He’s just a man. A mean, old man with a stick.”

Lawrence glanced towards Melusine, standing at the snack table between the human teachers. “Rein in your son.”

Françoise smiled, the way a lioness watching her cub stalk a gazelle might have. “I don’t know, Laurie. That sounds very old human.”

Therese looked wide-eyed at her. Cormey was glaring. “Mels, you aren’t seriously suggesting—”

Fran patted her and Cormey on their shoulders. “Come on, you two.” She began to lead them towards the Big House. “The three of us are going to have a glass of wine, and leave the children to sort this thing out with Laurie.” She looked back at him. “That seems like the posthuman way to go about it.”

Right, thought Lawrence. If Maelstrom’s mother won’t remind him…

He made to swing again, but the ground turned to air beneath him, and Lawrence was buried up to his shoulders like an angry Oxfordian mo‘ai.

Haunt was looming over him. “Huh. Twice in two months. Shit luck, innit’ Lawrence?”

“Haunt, I implore—”

He almost choked on the mouthful of dirt Haunt kicked in his face.

“It’s Tom, mate.” He knelt down, and began to talk loud enough everyone couldn’t help but hear him. “You know, Laurie, I’ve been thinking about ya lately. I’ve also been thinking about the mob up at Wandering. A lot in common, you and them.”

Lawrence spat out enough soil to retort, “Haunt—”

“Tom.”

“…My boy, you can’t possibly be comparing me to those racist, chauvinistic—”

“But I am, Lawrence! You’re all just a buncha old, rich whitefellas telling anyone who ain’t as old, rich, white, or fella as them what to do!” He leapt to his feat, asking his peers, “And how much sense does that make? We’re meant to be the next step in evolution! Supers! We’ve all read comics, haven’t we?”

A loud, raucous melody of “yeah!” and “yes!” in a dozen different pitches and rhythms.

“Does Superman have some old git telling him if he can go out with Lois Lane?”

No!3

“Does Captain Marvel need anyone’s4 permission to say his magic word?”

No!” interspersed with a few shouts of “SHAZAM!”

“Does Batman’s butler set his bedtime?”

“Actually,” Mabel chimed in, “Batman doesn’t have any superpowers.”

Haunt’s lip curled. “Doesn’t he? Well, does Wonder Woman let a man tell her what to do?”

The girls shouted the loudest. “No!

Satisfied, Haunt bent back down, hovering his index and pointer fingers just in front of Lawrence’s forehead. “You know, I could stir your brains around a bit. Don’t know if it’d kill ya, but you’d definitely not be you afterwards. Have to be an improvement.”

Lawrence remembered Eddie Taylor. “Ha—Tom—you can’t!”

Haunt’s fingers drifted closer to Lawrence’s skin. “I dunno, Laurie,” he said, almost soberly. “Couple of years ago I didn’t think I could walk through walls…”

Images of himself sprawled drooling in his office chair rushed past Lawrence’s eyes. Those were the pleasant ones. The other children had started shouting again, jeering:

“Do it!”

“Stir him up good!”

“Me and Windy can braid his beard!”

Lawrence screamed. Screamed until he thought his throat would bleed. He thrashed, trying to extricate himself from the heavy soil while he fruitlessly tried to sway his head out of the way.

The boy’s fingers brushed his skin and—

Haunt snatched his hand back. He was grinning. “Gotcha.”

Lawrence felt numb. He couldn’t even feel the tears he was weeping. He was now almost glad most of his body was buried out of sight. All that was left inside him was fear of the fear itself.  

And the children were all laughing. Maelstrom was laughing at this.

What Reverb said next barely registered after that:

You should do it for real.

All the children looked at the songstress. She looked more serious than death.

“No!” cried Billy. “That’s… baddie stuff.”

“Be real messy,” Haunt said absently.

Reverb’s voice was like lightning in cold water. I’m eighteen bloody years old, I have three babies! There are literal broodmares with less kids than me! And Laurie down there couldn’t even keep his favourite from stealing one! That sounds like baddie stuff to me!  

“Mavis, do we really wanna turn into murderers just to hurt Laurie?” Linus asked. “I mean, he’s already looking pretty miserable.”

“And he can’t hurt you guys anymore,” David pointed out. “What’s he gonna do?”

“I’d rather not prove some completely different set of dickheads right,” Stratogale added.

“The inspector’s coming in ten days,” David said. “If Lawrence is still around, we can tell him what he’s been doing. Then, he’ll be the one in trouble, and we won’t have done anything wrong.” He looked down at Lawrence. He was still in shock, with tear-cut paths winding through the grime on his face. “Okay, maybe a little. Still a lot less than him.” The boy smiled at the eldest students. “We’ll be free.”

Reverb regarded the water-sprite. There was an unfamiliar ease in the boy’s shoulders. As though, for once, he wasn’t expecting a blow or a lecture.

Fine. Reverb turned to Ex Nihilo. You alright with this, Lana?

“Sure,” she said. “Now we don’t have to dig a hole… do we have to pull Laurie out right now?”

“Nah,” David said. “He’s fine there.”

“What if the inspector tries to haul us back to the asylums?” asked Gwydion.

David shrugged. “They can try.” The boy bounded over to Mabel, taking her hand. “Me and Mabs are gonna go play in the river.” Briefly remembering his manners, he blinked at his friend. “If you’re up for it.”

Mabel smiled. “Sure, Dave.”

Most of the children followed David and Mabel, even Windshear. Not Allison, though. She tugged on Arnold’s arm.

“You wanna come smash up the Quiet Room?”

Arnold thought about it. Thought about Adam. “Sure,” he finally answered. Then he grinned. “Race you there!”

Allison slowed as they passed Lawrence. She was willing to forgo her massive lead.

The buried man looked at her, pleadingly.

There was a time, Allison recalled, when she was deathly afraid of a dark shape in the clearing beyond her bedroom window. It was like a great, shadowy octopus, lurking in the long grass. Eventually, her father had hoisted her under his arm, and dragged her kicking and screaming to confront the beast: a rotten tree trunk with its roots pointing towards the sky. She could never fear that old lump of wood after that.

She swung her foot towards Lawrence, laughing as he flinched.

You couldn’t blame him for that. He was only human. And she was not.     


1. The exclamation mark denotes a click consonant, similar to the one found in the name of the !Quell, a meta-species originating in the Eastern Spiral.

2. Back at Oxford, Lawrence and Robert Graves would often debate the involvement of superhumans in European myth.

3. To be fair, by the time Superman stories were put on hiatus in 1963, Superman likely would have swallowed kryptonite before taking Lois Lane out for dinner. And he had.

4. Aside from the wizard Shazam.

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Chapter Thirty-Nine: Heal Thyself!

It can’t be put off any longer. It’s time to talk about the night Adam Sinclair died1.

John Smith2 had laid the facts bare for us. He shouldn’t have needed to. Literal small children had already figured out the cause of the power-loss afflicting the Institute. You must understand, we were hopelessly naive about the source and intent of superpowers. The idea that a super could have powers that opposed all other supers was practically satanic to us.

Not only that, John had issued us an ultimatum: hand over Adam, or be exposed. It was strange. Usually, John seemed so disconnected from us, so willfully ignorant of anything human, but he always knew just enough to bend or destroy us.

You might think he was offering us a way out, if you knew nothing about the Physician. And Lawrence had his own solution:

“You’re asking too much, Lawrence!”

I was weeping. What Lawrence had just suggested to me, I never thought I’d hear it from his lips.

“It’s pure necessity, Żywie.”

“You promised me I’d never have to hurt anyone again!”

Lawrence sighed. He’d been crying, too. “I know, and I am so sorry. But this is nothing like at the camps. The Nazis, they were windmill chasers. They aimed you at enemies that only existed in their imaginations, at problems they created for themselves. But Adam—through no fault of his own—is a threat to your entire race.”

I moaned. “He’s just one boy…”

“Today he might be. But what if the Physician figures out how to replicate…” He hesitated, like Adam’s powers were a demon he hardly dared name. He settled on, “…his affliction. Imagine if every asylum and prison camp in the country—the whole world even—had some device or stunted homunculus to suppress posthuman gifts.”

He moved closer to me, till I could feel the breath behind his words. “There is a reason the cells of McClare and Roberts mostly house children, or those with the gentlest talents. If they could restrain all of you, I have no doubt they would move from containment to extermination.”

“…Nobody’s talking about extermination.”

Lawrence ran his hands down his face, as though he were struggling to explain something to a child who ought to know better. “Żywie, when you were a little girl, did they ever talk about it?”

“Even if you’re right, John isn’t stupid. You think he won’t figure out what happened if Adam…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.

“I know the Physician, Żywie. He’s not like us. He doesn’t hold grudges. He won’t be happy, but he wouldn’t throw you away for revenge.”

Lawrence wasn’t being logical. If the Institute was shut-down, the children would just go into DDHA custody. If anything, John would have had even easier access to them3. But panic and fear left no space for reason, or what little there was to be found at the Institute.

Lawrence made for the office door. “Come with me.”

“I won’t do it!”

“We’re not going to see Adam, Żywie.”

Instead, we went to Hugo’s room.

“Just got the kids down to sleep,” he told us with a battler’s smile. “Still, a good night kiss won’t do them any harm.”

I tread softly into the dark room, over to the bed. David and Allison were clinging to each other like little castaways in the sea. The boy I delivered and the girl I changed. Even in that dim light, David’s skin had a grey tone.

I briefly brushed my hand over them. They were both swimming in stress hormones. Not even their dreams were an escape.

“It’ll be alright. I promise.”

Lawrence and I bid Hugo goodnight, and left him to tend to his charges.

“You can see it, can’t you?” Lawrence asked me in the hallway. “Children like them, cut off from everything that makes them special, everything that could let them fight back, clutching one another in the dark as they wait for the gas or the bullet. If they are even allowed that comfort.”

“Please, leave me alone, Lawrence,” I said. “I need to prepare.”

Hate can only destroy. But so can love.

I made my way to the Lorikeet Dormitory, late enough that dawn was pushing against the night. I hadn’t believed in God for a long time, but I still felt watched.

When I opened the door, I immediately saw two things. First was that Sheilah Brown was asleep. That was helpful.

Second was that Adam was awake.

The boy looked towards me. “Żywie?”

I am two hundred years old. I have had to forget more than most people ever experience. There are whole years—decades even—I only remember in summary. I can’t recall my mother’s voice, or the faces of my brothers and sisters.

I remember Adam’s, face, though. Every freckle, the muddy green of his eyes. Those eyes were sore red then. He’d been crying. “Is something wrong?”

Is something else wrong, he meant. “Can’t sleep, Adam?”

He shook his head. “It’s—it’s hot.”

“Certainly is. Would you like to come for a walk with me?”

He nodded.

We walked along the river. It was still writhing, frothing white in the moonlight as it tried to crawl out of its bed. I noticed it grew more torrid as we passed. An old god’s rage for his daughter and grandson.

We both mostly kept silent. Sometimes Adam would tell me how this or that child was coping with the blackout, and I would nod or tell him he was a big help, all the while wondering how I could do what I thought needed to be done. I was worried the sun would rise over us and burn away my resolve. God, I wish it had.

But then Adam said something:

“I’m not stupid, you know.”

I stopped. “Of course you’re not stupid, Adam. Why would you say that?”

“I’m the one making everyone’s powers not work, aren’t I?”

“Yes.”

Sobs. “I knew it. Everyone’s powers came back on when I was in that room, and—and—” Adam’s tears overwhelmed him. He threw himself into my side, clinging tight. “They’re gonna be so mad…”

This at least was something I knew how to handle. So many homesick, lonely, scared children. “Shhh, shhh, they won’t be. I know you’re not doing it on purpose.”

“I’m trying to make it stop, but it’s… big. Too big to listen to me.”

“It’ll be alright, Adam.”

“How?”

“I’m going to fix this.”

“You promise?”

My fingers found his neck. “I promise.”

I put him to sleep first. Like a boat on a dark shore, I pushed him out onto a deep, black sea.

I carried Adam back to his hammock. I’d carried so many sleeping children to bed before, but this felt different. Adam felt different. No breath. No rush of blood beneath his skin or subtle movement of bones. Dead weight.

I was ten years old again. Half asleep and numb. An old sepulchre full of a dead woman’s bones.

Lawrence was pacing in his office, as I knew he would be.

“Is it done?”

“Yes. He felt no pain.”

He embraced me close. “I’m proud of you, Żywie.”

People have been making excuses for me for centuries. They say my childhood couldn’t have taught me right from wrong. They talk about the sway Lawrence must’ve had over me. They say I did it for my family.

I was a grown woman. I had seen where fanaticism like Lawrence’s led. I could kill and reshape life with a touch. I should have been able to stand up to an old man.

I have to thank Timothy Valour for the exile he found for me and the babies. Better than I deserved, after I told him about what Lawrence and I had done. Gove Peninsula, the Northern Territory. It was probably the wildest place left in all Australia, and so unlike Western Australia. In the NT, the air was so saturated with humidity, you felt like you were drowning in a warm sea. The beaches and waterways were haunted by box-jellyfish and crocodiles, and clouds of mozzies swarmed any exposed flesh that wasn’t soaked in insecticide4. Even the dirt was a different vintage up there, less red than back home. There were only two seasons in the NT: wet and dry; three if you counted the build up. The sun burned too hot for anything more nuanced.

I was technically on attachment with a mission to the Yirrkala people, at least until I got tired of the Anglican busybodies and set up shop myself. It was not a good time for the locals, though little of the last three hundred years has been. In 1963, while the world was panicking about broken bombs, much of their land had been handed over to the Nabalco mining corporation for exploitation. The Yirrkala had sent two petitions framed in painted bark to the government, asserting their ancient claim to the land. It was the first time the Australian Commonwealth even acknowledged an Aboriginal system of law, but it did them no good5. For impoverishment, confiscation of territory and children, and dehumanization in the eyes of the powers that be, there was nothing super to be done. But at least I could help close the health gap just a little.

It was a week or so before Christmas, in the late evening. I was sitting on my porch, nursing a cup of tea and reading We of the Never Never, when I heard Old Bev calling my name.

“Miss Winter, Miss Winter!”

The old woman came running out of the dark, her long floral dress whipping around her heels.

I shot out of my chair. Bev was one of the first locals I had met in Arnhem Land. She was about seventy years old—not even she knew her precise birthdate—had spent much of her youth in mission schools and cleaning up after white folks, and seen three of her grandchildren taken by the government. She did not frighten easily. “What’s the matter, Bev? Is someone hurt? Sick?”

She took me by the arm, pulling me down the front steps. “No.” She shook her head. “Not yet, I mean. There’s a crazy flying white fella down on the beach6.”

“Flying—you mean a super?”

Bev rolled her eyes, her stride quickening. “Yes!”

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“He’s your mob! You can tell him to clear off. Or least not make any trouble.”

“…You think I’m a super?”

Bev smirked at me. “You are a very bad fake-doctor.”

To be fair, neither was my only competition in that area. I reminded myself never to assume I was smarter than these people.

Bev led me down to the edge of the beach. I spotted him immediately.

I imagine none of you reading will remember a sky without him. The marshal of powers, the man of steel, the first utopian.

There, on the sands, stood the Flying Man.

Eliza crept slowly towards the Flying Man, leaving Old Bev to watch from the trees. She couldn’t imagine he didn’t already know they were there, but she was hardly going to stroll up to him, was she?

She was a little surprised. She had always assumed on some level that the Flying Man would be gigantic, like Ralph Rivers, but he was simply… tall. Quite tall, but just tall. He wasn’t even bulky. His body was beautifully put together, she could see that, but it was a very Greek kind of beautiful. For a moment, Eliza was unsettlingly reminded of old propaganda about the Aryan ideal. Except… his hair was so curly. Like gold ringlets. And were those white bell-bottoms he was wearing?

“Good evening, ma’am.”

Eliza froze mid-step, like she was a cat-burglar from a bad cartoon caught in the act.

The Flying Man didn’t appear perturbed by the healer’s behaviour. If anything, his attention seemed mostly devoted to the dark waves pawing at the shore, and the distant lights of some ship straddling the horizon.

“Uh, hello? The Flying Man, right?” The nickname sounded like an insult as soon as it left Eliza’s mouth. “I’m sorry—I mean… what do you like to be called?”

The Flying Man smiled, extending a hand. “Joe.”

Despite herself, Eliza found herself smiling. “Joe? Why?”

“It’s just my name. Well, one of them. The other one would make your teeth hurt, sorry.”

He sounded American, but… off7. Eliza took his hand and shook it. She wondered if her power would work on him. It couldn’t be that easy, could it?

“Eliza Winter, pleased to meet you. So, what brings you to Arnhem Land?” She looked about the beach. “There isn’t a supervillain around, is there? Tidal wave heading our way?” She wasn’t sure if she was joking.

The Flying Man (Eliza couldn’t think of him as “Joe”) shook his head. “Far as I know, you’re good. I just got done pulling a submarine out of the ocean,” he said it like it was nothing, “thought it was time for a break. And Australia is very tectonically stable.” He tapped his purple booted foot in the sand. “It’s nice not feeling the earth move so much under your feet, you know?”

Eliza did not in fact, know that.

The Flying Man squinted at her. “You a super?”

Eliza found herself blushing. “How do people keep figuring that out?”

The Flying Man shuffled his feet, fingering the hem of his cape. “Oh, sorry. I can see… a lot.”

Suddenly, Eliza thought he seemed a lot more like a Joe.

It also seemed he couldn’t help himself. “Something to do with biology?”

She nodded. “I heal. Other things, too, but that’s what it boils down to.”

Joe sat down in the sand. “You the doctor around here?”

Eliza joined him. “That I am.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

“…What?”

“People around here don’t have very much. A lot of folks with powers like yours would only heal millionaires—people who could pay your worth. It’s good seeing a super use their powers this way.”

“No.”

“Pardon?”

“You don’t know me. It’s all fake.”

And so, Eliza explained herself. She explained Danzig, the camps, Mengele, the Institute and stirrupculture. She even explained poor Adam Sinclair.

By the time she was done, Eliza was heaving against the Flying Man’s diamond, his wine-coloured cape around her shoulders. There were tears she hadn’t noticed running down her cheeks.

She looked up into the Flying Man’s moss green eyes. She had been expecting to find anger there, or disgust.

Instead, Joe just looked sad.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Because you’ve suffered. Terribly.”

Anger rose in Eliza. She clutched at the white fabric of the Flying Man’s stupid costume, growling, “Weren’t you listening? All those things I’ve done. The people I’ve hurt.”

“Tragic, yes. But it still only made you miserable.”

Eliza stood up, walking away from the man. “But that’s the thing! Ever since I left, since I arrived here… I’ve been happy! I’ve made friends! I like my work! Even looking after five bloody babies! I don’t deserve it.”

She felt a hand on her shoulder.

“I’ve made mistakes, too, Eliza. I’m not going to disrespect you or Adam or any of the others you’ve told me about by saying they’re the same as yours, but I know what it feels like. To want to crawl into some dark hole and never be happy again. But I’ll tell you what, that helps no one. You’re out here, making people’s lives better. That’s a damn sight better than you rotting in a cell somewhere.”

“A few good deeds don’t make up for a life.”

“But one sin—even a thousand of them—doesn’t erase the good.”

Gently, the Flying Man turned Eliza around to face him. “Eliza, you told me you expected to live a long time. Looking at you, I believe it. You know what immortality means? It means a lot of chances to screw up. My advice, Miss Winter: keep doing what you’re doing. Grab onto whatever happiness you can find. You’ll last longer if you do—help more people. And you deserve a bit of that for you’re own sake.”

Eliza looked at that earnest young man’s face. “I’ll try,” she finally said. “If you make me a promise.”

“Anything.”

“Go to the Institute. Help those children. I can’t trust the state to do it. Not after what I’ve seen. Timothy Valour is a good man, but he’s up against politics. And Lawrence—I don’t know what he’s capable of anymore. I thought, maybe, if I wasn’t there to clean up for him, he might step back a bit, but I don’t know.” She took his hand. “Those children deserve better Joe.”

“You didn’t have to ask.” He started walking towards the sea. “Keep your kettle filled, Eliza. I expect I’ll be back soon.”

“Joe,” Eliza said. “Before you go, could I ask you one thing?”

He looked back at the woman. “All ears.”

“…What’s that diamond on your chest mean? I’ve been wondering that for years.”

Joe’s eyes darted down at his insignia, then back up at Eliza. He laughed. “Absolutely nothing. I thought it looked neat.”

He took off, the flutter of his cape like the beating of wings.

“Thank you.”

He was too late.


1. If you have taken any decent course in superhuman history, you will recognize his name. Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard of the park dedicated to Adam’s memory in Nova Australia. I’ve never been. Feels disrespectful.
2. That was what the Physician called himself when I was a young woman. I will admit, he left me with an unfair impression of the squishies that sadly went uncorrected till our official first contact in 2008.
3. Looking back, I can only assume John spared us out of whimsy. Or boredom.
4. The NT was where I first experimented with mosquitos as a vector for inoculation.
5. The bark petitions still hang in the house of the former parliament.
6. Ski Beach, to be specific.
7. Canadian, as I would later find out.

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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 “stirpiculture” 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 engine 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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