All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Chapter Thirty: Mabel Henderson’s On the Case!

Cervantes once wrote, “Where there’s music there can be no evil.1

Conveniently, Linus had stopped playing.

Artume was whimpering, the red from her gashed hand mixing with the spilt cola as Met frantically tried to pry her other hand away to assess the damage. It wasn’t pretty. The portal had cut clear down to the bone. Myriad and Maelstrom were both screaming now, the boy lying prone beside a puddle of his own sick. Adam didn’t know what to do with himself. What could he do? He took a tentative half step forwards, before stopping, hand half raised, useless. Despite the general shouting and panic, Linus acted promptly. He grabbed a clean blanket from the closest hammock, pried Artume and Met’s fingers free and wrapped the linen tight around the wound.

“What happened?” he asked, forcing calm into his voice.

Metonymy answered for Artume. “The portal shut on her—”

Another scream, but muffled. Next to Haunt’s hammock, a pyjama clad leg kicked and twitched, stuck halfway out the wall as if the whole dormitory had been built around it.

Linus shook his head in disbelief. “What the fu—”

Britomart was running over to the leg, panicked. Falling to the floor, she reared her fist back. “Just hold still mate…”

Linus tried rushing over the girl. “Wait, Brit, don’t—”

She struck the wall around Haunt’s leg as hard as she could muster. Normally, that would’ve brought the whole dorm down on them. This time, though, a biting, alien sensation exploded in her knuckles. A sensation she had only ever felt across her back. A shocked, confused sob, and then Britomart was bawling.

Adam looked over to Linus. The teen was running his fingers through his hair, mouthing panicked obscenities to himself as he struggled to even count the theatres of trouble springing up around him. The younger boy made his decision. He straightened his back, put on a brave face, and strode over to Brit.

She was still looking at her hand like it had betrayed her, the grazes on her knuckles starting to bleed. Adam ignored her. Haunt needed his help.

He rested his hand on the wall a few inches away from the other child’s trapped leg. From somewhere within Adam, music was playing. It ran down his arm, the song vibrating through the lines of his palm, just off the beat of his own pulse.

He shoved the song forward, deep into the corrugated steel, and the wall fell away like salt in the rain.

Haunt was finally allowed to fall to the grass outside. Before he could scream from the jolt, Adam exhaled, and Heaven was on his breath. The other boy shuddered as his broken bone snapped back into place like a doll’s leg. Across the dorm, Artume’s cut closed.

Linus sighed. Myriad and Maelstrom were still weeping, and everyone was shaken, but at least the walls weren’t closing in anymore. Mostly because of the hole.  “You’re a lifesaver, Adam.”

The young man felt a small, insistent hand tugging at his singlet. Myriad was looking up at him, her eyes raw and far too hazel for that time of night.

Linus drew an arm around her. “It’s alright, Miri, the scary part’s over.”

The girl clung to her. “Linus?”

“…Yeah?”

“I can’t hear anyone.”

Somewhere, far away, a little boy opened his eyes. He was floating, but he couldn’t see the riverbed below him. He couldn’t even feel where the water touched earth or air.  All there was to see was green in every direction, sloping down into darkness, the sun a distant sliver above him.

And that salt in his mouth. He’d never tasted it before, but he knew it.

The boy began to weep, his tears lost in the sea.

Arms wrapped around him and held him close. Those arms were the currents themselves. He was home.

Mabel Henderson sat at the edge of the Avon River, watching it twist and turn in its bed: thin, watery tendrils reaching out from the normally flat surface and weakly slithering towards the Institute like primeval worms crawling out from the sea. Clawing, breaking.

It had been doing that since the blackout had started. A week in, it had lost its novelty. Instead, Mabel focused on sketching either her seventh or seven-hundredth lorikeet for the day. Laying down her pencil, she assessed her work.

It was a decent attempt. She had managed to emphasize the shoulders better, and she had finally figured out how to make the tail feathers not look like colourful knives.  

  Without thinking, she raised her hand, ready to see what her lorikeet looked like in three dimensions.

“Annoying, innit?”

Mabel closed her hand, gritting her teeth. “I wasn’t trying to use my powers.”

Adam smiled softly. “Everyone’s done it, you know.”

Mabel twisted to face the boy. All three of him. “Everyone besides you, you mean.”

“Not just me!” the triplicated Adam protested. Somehow, they still sounded like one boy. “Żywie and Basil still have theirs.”

She frowned. “Don’t talk about the powers like they’re gone.”

“Sorry. I mean, they can still use their powers, too. Oh, and Tiresias.”

Mabel scoffed, blowing a stray lock from in front of her eyes. “Does Tiresias even use his powers?”

Adam’s fingers throbbed. “I kinda hope not.”   

“Aren’t you kinda rubbing it in, walking around, being all three of you?”

Adam(s) scratched the back of his neck. “Lawrence wanted me to make sure everyone was coping. So, then I made these two,” all three of Adam gestured vaguely between themselves, before smiling bashfully, “and I don’t know how to make them go away. Maybe we need to decide who’s the real one first.”

“And your other powers?”

Adam wasn’t sure what the right answer there was, so he just lit his sun in his hand for a moment before snuffing it out again.

“Wizard,” Mabel said, her expression flat. “Absolutely wizard.”

The Adams awkwardly shuffled their feet, glancing at each other like they were trying to settle on a scapegoat. Eventually, one of them sat down besides the younger girl. “Mind if I look at that drawing?”

Mabel mutely passed him the paper.

Adam smoothed the drawing out against the air, nodding slowly. “This is good! The legs and all don’t sticky-out anymore.”

Mabel didn’t look at him. “Great.”

The boy nervously fiddled with his hands. “…You want more drawing help?

After a moment, Mabel deigned him eye contact. “…What sorta help?”

“Well, maybe you could draw me?”

A smile betrayed her. “Big-head.”

“Well, I mean, have you done any people?”

“No. Still on birdies.”

Adams threw his hands up. “Gotta start somewhere.”

“Fine,” she muttered, still refusing to look at him. “If it makes you shush, I’ll draw you. Just sit down over there or something.”

Adam grinned at that, and decided to tease the younger girl.

“Sure you don’t want it to be a nude?”

Adam had a lot to learn about girls. More to the point, he had a lot to learn about this girl. Mabel Henderson had been raised by a single father. In a mining town. And was best mates with Maelstrom.

“Sure,” she replied without hesitation. “Just chuck your shirt and stuff over in the grass somewhere and make sure I can see everything.”

“What?” Adam asked, eyes suddenly rather wide.

“You heard me,” Mabel gave the boy a wink. All three of him. It looked like she might have had dust in her eye.

“… Maybe clothes?” The lead Adam asked, his voice small.

Mabel only laughed at that.

“Yeah. Maybe clothes.”

The next few hours were as uneventful as one could expect during a wonder-outage. She sketched, they talked, she sketched again. So it went, on and on, stick figures becoming the skeletons of full sketches. By the time the model-Adam finally grew tired of sitting still, Mabel had stopped smiling. Her mouth was set in a hard line, her back hunched over around her pad as she worked, the pencil tip scratching slowly over the paper, texturing the scene as it passed.

“Wow,” said the Adam sitting next to her. “Nice one, Mabel. That last one even kinda looks like me.” He squinted.  “I think my hair’s more red than orange, though.”

“Says you.”

“And it’s not that curly.”

Mabel grinned. “Artistic license.”

“…What’s that mean?”

She shrugged. “Don’t know, Miri said it once. Well, shouted it.” A frown. “You checked on her and David today?”

The three Adams made a diverse assortment of sombre expressions. The one closest to Mabel looked down at the space between his legs. “Yeah. I have.”

Mabel dipped her head slightly, trying to get a better look at the older boy’s face. “Any better?”

Almost imperceptibly, Adam shook his head.

Mabel got to her feet, stretching and gathering up her things. “I’m gonna go see them… you mind walking with me?”

“Sure.”

The two (or perhaps four) made their way back up to the Institute, across grass mottled with green and brown. The calendar said there were still a few weeks of spring, but her work was done, and all that was really left was for summer to go out and change the signs.

The heat clawed at Mabel more than any summer she could remember, even in the deep desolation of Circle’s End. It wasn’t any hotter than usual, at least according to the grownups and thermometers she had consulted, but it felt less escapable. Windshear would be summoning no helpful breeze, and Melusine would not be making it rain. And the flies. Swarms of them settled on the Adams’ backs even as they walked. Mabel tried to remember if there was anyone with powers that warded off bugs.

No. There wasn’t. But what else was there to pay attention to?

Children milled around half-completed battlements of gold and limestone like a construction crew after the funding fell through. A few listlessly played soccer. Just soccer. Calcio fiorentino wasn’t meant for human beings.

Windshear staggered up to Mabel and the Adams, swaying between Haunt and Britomart, each supporting a shoulder.

“You alright, Windy?” asked the hindmost Adam.

The little girl glared at him. “No, why would I be okay? Nobody’s got powers, it’s stinking hot, Adam’s cheating, and I can barely walk!”

Mabel tilted her head. “Why’s that? Were you flying all this time?”

“She used her powers to make her sense of balance better,” Brit explained. “Guess she got used to it.”

Windshear half-heartedly elbowed the other girl. “I can still talk.” She looked back at Mabel and Adam. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten what everyone owe—” She slipped out of Britomart’s grip, but Haunt caught her around the chest.

“Maybe you should lie down,” he said.

“…I’m not doing it cuz you told me to.”

“We know, Windy, we know.”

Mabel watched as the three made their way to the Kookaburra dormitory. Haunt stopped dead in front of the door, regarded it oddly, exhaled, and threw it open.

The rest of the campus wasn’t much better. Linus sat on one of Ex Nihilo crystal thrones, trying to thin the malaise with his guitar. But all that came out of it was music, made of sound. Abalone and Talos were trying to coax Ophelia into clapping, hoping it would either dislodge whatever was blocking their powers or provide some distraction. She wasn’t biting, though. Nobody could decide if she lacked Tiresias’ exemption from the outage, or if she just knew the boys wanted her to use her ovation.

Either way, she took after her father.

As they walked, the Adams peeled off to attend to students in need. Fetching Stratogale a drink, finding a torch for Ēōs come nightfall. There was only one left at Mabel’s side by the time they reached the big house.

“You alright on your own from here?” he asked her as they stepped onto the veranda. “There’s a bunch of kids I think could use me.”

Mabel nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be good,” she answered, unsure if she was being truthful.

The inside of the main house was more crowded than usual. What good was sunshine and fresh-air when you couldn’t stir those things into light-tornados? Plus, without powers, the pumpkins had gone from being funny to being in charge. Board-games unexposed to open air since the Ottoman Empire had been dug out of forgotten cupboards. Gwydion and Snapdragon were making fumbling attempts to get Basilisk’s projector up and running.

Mabel couldn’t spare them much sympathy. They were just bored. There were worse things.

She climbed up the stairs, past Żywie pouring over eighteen years worth of notes in her office, past the muffled, nigh-hysteric phone conversation seeping out from under Lawrence’s study door.

“These children need you, Smith! God knows you owe them…”

“Phantasmagoria?”

Mabel almost didn’t notice Melusine curled up on the third story landing. The woman looked down at her with eyes like poorly varnished, painted glass. Her hair, usually artfully dishevelled, looked like a rat-king.  

“Oh, hi, Mels,” the girl stammered. “You alright there?”

Melusine rested her face against the handrail. “Comme ci comme ça2,” she said weakly. “Żywie gave me something to help me relax.”

Mabel winced. She could smell her teacher’s breath from the stairs. Rumour was that Melusine had never bothered learning to brush her teeth, instead letting the transition to water carry the plaque away. Evidently there was some truth to it.

“…She gave you what?”

“She put me in a headlock and made me relax. I feel like I should be angrier about that. But I was screaming a bit.”

Mabel nodded slowly. “We were running out of plates. Are Maelstrom and Miri still in Basil’s room?”

Melusine didn’t answer.

“Mels?”

“…Tell him I’m here, will you?”

Mabel hurried up past her teacher, patting her on the shoulder as she did. “Promise. It’ll get better, Mels, I’m sure it will.”

Basilisk was playing chess. So was Myriad, ostensibly, but Basil was making half her moves for her. For the most part, the little girl sat across from him, knees tucked up to her chest, glaring.

Basil paused in the middle of moving her rapidly eroding knight. “Just tell me what you want me to do, Miri.”

The door opened. “Can I come in?” asked Mabel.

Basil quickly forced a grin. “Course, Phantasma. Probably should ask before opening the door, but still.” He turned to look at his bed. “Maelstrom, Phantasmagoria’s here!”

In answer, Maelstrom curled tightly around some donated plushies3, making a sound that might have been a word.

His father’s smile faltered, but it held long enough for him to look back at Myriad. “Say hi to Phantasma, Miri.” He hated how patronizing he sounded.

She looked at the man for a long time, narrowing her eyes. “None of this is happening, stop talking.”

“Miri…”

Myriad shook her head. “You’re not real. Stop talking.” She blurred out of her chair over to the bed, burying her face in Maelstrom’s side and clutching the sides of her head.

Mabel made to approach her friends, but Basil stopped her. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, love.”

“…She’s really fast.”

Basilisk shrugged. “Pain can do that to people.” He rubbed his shoulder. “Hits harder than you’d think, too.”

“What do you think is wrong with them?”

Her teacher shook his head. “I don’t know. Myriad, I can get my head around. Poor girl’s been crippled and deafened all at once.”

Myriad let out a spiteful, half-hearted groan. “Don’t talk about me.”

“Sorry, sweetie. But David”—He didn’t even realize what name he was using—“I don’t know. None of the other born children are reacting like this. Miri—”

“I said don’t—”

David limply drew an arm around the girl, and she snuggled into him.

“She’s suffering, Phantasma. But she’s still here. She’s angry and hurting, but she’s here. David, I don’t know where he is.” There was a tremor in his voice. “Even Fran’s more with it. Maybe it’s because she’s older. But it’s like David’s been scooped out of himself. And all that’s left is this ache.”       

Basilisk slumped back into his chair. “It’s not fair.”

Mabel wasn’t sure she had ever heard a grownup say that. “What’s not fair?”

He rubbed his fingers together. “Do you know what I’m good for, Phantasma? I break things. I make everything I touch fall apart in my hands. I stink of burning metal, all day, everyday.” He pointed towards his son and his erstwhile assistant. “David and his mother? Allison? They make wonders. Hell, they are wonders—right down to their bones. Why do they get that taken away from them, and I still warp the bloody floorboards on hot days?”

“Because you don’t have powers,” Myriad muttered from the bed. “I tried playing your song once. Nothing happened because you’re not like us.”

“Miri!” Mabel cried.

Basil threw his hand up. “She’s hurting, Phantasma. And it’s nothing I didn’t already know.”

Mabel drew up Myriad’s chair. “…Why do you think Żywie and Tiresias still have their powers?”

Basil shrugged. “I’m guessing it’s an esper thing for Tiresias. Żywie… maybe the world just can’t bear being without her? I’d think this just didn’t affect grownups, but then there’s Adam to think about. I think I saw Ophelia floating in the nursery, too.”

“Yeah. What about Adam?”

The inquiry seemed to rouse Basil from his mood slightly. “No clue there. If I had to guess, it could be something here that hasn’t had time to affect him? God knows what AU got up to between those raids; maybe he left something here to drain your powers?” He frowned. “Not sure how much sense that makes. Chen didn’t seem like he was planning on leaving as soon as he did.”

Mabel’s eyes widened. “Basil?”

“Yes?”

“Has anyone left the Institute since the blackout?”

“…No.”

Mabel stood up sharply. She almost smiled. “I gotta go. Thanks for talking!” She started towards the door.

“Wait, Phantasma, what are you thinking?”

“It’s alright, I can handle it! Keep looking after David and Allie.”

Basil managed a smile as the door slammed shut. Smart girl, that Phantasma. No wonder his son liked her so much.

David made a low whimper. With a sigh, his father rose from his chair, and lay down on the bed beside him and Allison. He pulled them both in close. Allison fidgeted slightly, but soon went placid. David draped his arms over Basil’s chest.

“I know, I’m not much help,” he said softly, listening to his boy’s hoarse breath. “When have I ever been?”

Arnold and Billy sat in the cool dim of the barn. Partly because the shade was a relief, partly because the barn was theirs and Arnold wasn’t keen to let anyone forget that, but mostly because they were pretty sure the pumpkins couldn’t batter down the doors.

Every few minutes or so, Billy would make vague hand gestures, cupping them or snapping his fingers. He always seemed disappointed by the result.    

 Arnold looked at the other boy over his contraband G-Men issue. It was an especially rubbish one, where the cheerful jackboots and their pet super went up against a mad-scientist plotting to use a suspiciously American looking statue to transform all mankind into demi-humans. If there was any downside to this scheme, the writers forgot to mention it.

“Billy”—Neither boy saw much of a point in using their new human names without their powers—“if the blackout was over, don’t ‘cha think we’d have heard about it?”

Billy pouted, his tail beating the dirt behind him. “Someone has to notice it first.” He clenched his fist. “It doesn’t make sense. Me still looking like… me, you know?”

Arnold shrugged from the floor. “Maybe your fur and stuff isn’t because powers? Maybe it’s a coincidence?”

Billy crossed his arms. “That’s just silly.”

Arnold went back to his comic—reluctantly. He couldn’t blame Billy for being grumpy. At least he could theoretically walk down the street without being hassled. Not that Arnold was enjoying himself much, either.

It was odd, he thought. He hadn’t been a super for that long, not even a year. He could still remember life without powers. But it didn’t feel the same. It was like there was a hollow under his skin. Still, they were both doing better than David and Allie…

Light slithered into the barn, followed by Mabel slamming the door hard behind her. There was a disappointed hissing noise trailing off into the distance. “Bloody pumpkins,” she said to herself, before addressing the boys. “There you are,” she tossed a couple of water bottles in their general direction. “We’re going for a walk.”

“Umm,” Arnold panted as he half walked, half jogged after Mabel. “Why exactly are we going walking?”

“We’re doing an experiment,” she replied, not breaking her stride. The boys couldn’t help but be a little impressed. Unlike them, she had burdened herself with an overstuffed backpack. Supplies, she said.

“Don’t we need… chemicals or something for that?” Billy asked.

“Not that kind of experiment,” she answered, brusque but not harsh.

That didn’t do much to answer Billy’s question. “What sort of experiment, then?”

“I can’t tell you guys yet, because that might interfere with the experiment,” she rattled off, businesslike. “You’re the…” she dug in her memories of conversations with Lawrence and Miss Fletcher’s classes, “the control group!” That sounded about right.

“Great,” Arnold muttered. “I’m back at Roberts.”

Honestly, he couldn’t complain too much. The weather was nice, and better the spring-green bush than the terrified, morose boredom of the Institute. And whatever Mabel was up to, it had to be more fun than the G-Men.

Soon enough, they reached the river. It was still acting weird. Arnold didn’t like looking at it. The tendrils prying at the earth by the water’s edge reminded him of Maelstrom’s. Except David never had any trouble making the water move, and whatever this was, Arnold couldn’t help but think it was struggling. Mabel caught him gazing down at the water’s surface, and he felt a hand prod him in the shoulder.

“Hey,” she said, her voice small. “They’re gonna be okay, you know?”

“I know,” Arnold answered. “Still, weird.”

Billy crouched down to get a closer look at the troubled water. “Do you think this is a Mels and Mealy thing, or an Adam thing?” he asked. “How many powers does he have now?”

Mabel frowned. “You have a bunch of powers, too.”

The tiger-boy shrugged. “I wasn’t trying to be mean about it. But I have like three, and he has, what, fifty?”

“Fifteen,” Mabel said quietly, hoping she wouldn’t be heard.

Arnold was looking across to the river’s far-bank. “So, how do we get across? I can’t even see the stepping stones.”

“We walk,” Mabel answered with a shrug. “Shouldn’t be hard. I tried it when the water started being wibbly. Whatever it is, it’s making it thicker, like a sponge or something. We can probably just walk right over.”

Billy made a face. “That doesn’t sound safe.”

The girl smiled. “What are you worried about? Tigers can swim.”

Billy remembered what Haunt had told him. “And witches float.”

She slapped him on the back. “Damn right!”

Mabel stepped out onto the water first. At first, her feet sank into it and the wet sand as you would expect. But as she walked, and the river rose around her ankles, she managed to pull her feet out of it and step onto the surface, like she were extricating herself from a jelly mold. Soon, she was treading the river, watching it mold itself around her feet like a deep carpet.

“… This feels so weird.”

From the shoreline, Billy giggled, before running out after her, followed by a somewhat more dubious Arnold.

It was more a messy crossing than a hard one. Tendrils and blind, rogue wavelets would splash against them, or their feet would break through the wobbly, fragile surface. Arnold didn’t even want to think how it must have felt for the fish.

Eventually, they slogged their way onto dry land again, half drenched.

“We coulda just swimmed you know,” Arnold mumbled, ringing out his shirt while Billy tried to shake his fur dry.

“Nah,” Mabel said. “It would’ve been like trying to swim through fudge or something.”

“Or worms,” Billy agreed. “So now what?”

Mabel pulled the straps of her bag tight. “We walk.”

The bush was alive. Young insects buzzed and danced with dust motes, rushing to fit a whole life into the days and weeks they had to spare, dodging the magpies and kookaburras that shouted and snatched them out the air4.

As they walked, Arnold couldn’t help but spot scars from the great lad-hunt; the ones spring hadn’t managed to heal over. Scorch marks, shards of exotic crystal, the odd rotting doll being mined out by convoys of ants. Long, bare stretches that betrayed the ghosts of trees. It made Arnold feel queasy.

Maybe we deserve it.

“Are we allowed out here?” Billy asked, trying to resist the urge to lick himself.

Mabel shrugged. “Not really, I think. But it’s the kind of not-allowed that’s alright most of the time?”

“…Sure.”

The girl frowned at him.

“Just shush up and trust me on this, kay?” She grumbled. “Lawrence’ll be totally okay with it if I’m right. We might even get ice cream for dessert. For a month.”

“Promise it might help?”

“Promise.”

Arnold hesitated for a moment, then nodded.

“Okay. I’m in. You’re the smart one, right?”

“Yup,” she nodded. “Totally.”

They walked on for a while. It was getting late enough that Arnold and Billy both feared not being back in time for dinner, not that they could keep close track of time without watches. That late in the year, daylight stretched well into the evening. Made bedtime rather frustrating.

“Mabel?” Arnold asked.

“Yeah.”

“How do we know if the experiment doesn’t work?”

“When we circle the world and walk back onto the Institute.”

“Okay… why do you think Allie lets David near her like this and not me?”

“Like this?” she asked. “… Like what?”

“All sad and scared I mean. And angry. At everything. Except David.”

“Maybe you’re the friend she wants to be happy with?” Mabel tried, unable to make it sound like she believed it.

“She’s happy with David, too. All the time. Really, really happy. Kinda makes me wanna vomit happy. You see those two in the river? Weird.”    

“… Dunno,” she admitted. “Think it’s the same reason that David won’t be like that with me?”

“What? You two are so friends. Weren’t you his only friend for a while there?”

“I was,” Mabel said, kicking at a stone. “So why’s she the special one now?” She looked away, totally not drying her eyes.

“I know, right? I was her friend back when she was just the weird pale girl yammering about songs or whatever, I got her out of the asylums, and now it’s all ‘David, David, David!’,” he finished in a whining falsetto.

“… I wish he’d just be mean one time,” she mumbled. “Then I’d be allowed to be angry at him.”

“That’s what I don’t get!” Arnold nearly shouted. “They’re not even the same. David’s all nice till he hurts and Allie’s all…” He was almost glad for a second his friend was currently powerless. “She’s… not that?”

“It’s called being a bitch,” she sniffed. “Or a cow.”

“Mabel!” Billy cried.

“You can’t say stuff like that!” Arnold hissed. “…God’ll hear you.” Or his mother. Same thing, really.

“I don’t care! David’s too good for her!”

“Maybe that’s why he needs Allie?” Billy suggested.

Mabel looked at him. “What?”

“I mean, David’s nice, yeah, but does it ever make him happy?

Mabel dug her heel into the dirt. “…Not really.”

Billy nodded. “So he needs mean lessons. Or someone to be mean for him, I don’t know. Haunt could probably explain it better?”

“But what does Allie get out of it?” Arnold asked, glaring at the other boy.

He thought about it for a moment. “…Someone who’s okay with her being a meanie sometimes?”

“But that was me!” Arnold wailed. “Even when she was making fun of my stupid Bible lunch bags! Sometimes we were mean together! Like with Petey Binks!”

The other two just looked at him expectantly.

Arnold rolled his eyes. “He had a lazy eye and warts. And he smelled like hay all the time, it was weird. What I mean is, I didn’t care Allie wasn’t always nice.”

Billy quirked his shoulders. “Then maybe she just likes water.” He turned and started walking again, continuing, “I don’t think people like other people just because they can get something of them, anyway. Haunt likes me, I think, and all he gets out of me is gold and jewels.”

Mabel and Arnold exchanged a look. “Billy…” the girl said.

“I can make jokes too! And you two are whingeing about people having more than one friend, so shush!”

They trudged along, Billy taking the lead. But Arnold couldn’t let it rest. “It’s just—it’s lonely, you know? Allison’s the only person left I really, really know. I don’t know how much she really liked me, or if it was just my song, but it felt like she liked me.”

“I like you,” Mabel said, slowing her pace till she was beside Arnold.

“The way you like corned beef, I bet,” he grumbled.

She giggled. “No, not the way I like corned beef. That’s just okay. You’re sponge-cake.”

“…Sponge-cake?”

“Because you’re great! You were like, sixty-zillion of the reasons The Tempest turned out so good.”

“…A supervillain tried to kill us5.”

“Did you invite him? I’m serious, Arnold. Doing the play with you, it felt… different than with David. I mean, he had fun too, but you got it.”

“I still think we shoulda charged for tickets.”

Mabel slipped her hand in his. It didn’t feel half-bad there. “Next time, executive-producer.”

For some reason, Arnold stood a little bit straighter.

As they walked, Mabel seriously pondered when they ought to turn back. Part of her said “never”, even if they did get their powers back. Maybe even more so if they did. They could just keep walking, and leave Lawrence and the Institute and his married days behind. Find a Daddy Warbucks to adopt them, or failing that, a nice old couple, like Superman’s mum and dad6. Or Arnold’s folks. Did she have any uncles or aunties left?

It suddenly occurred to Mabel that if she did, they probably thought she was dead. Then she noticed Billy had stopped a few paces in front of them. The boy was shuddering slightly, like someone had poured ice-water down the back of his shirt.

“What’s up?” Mabel asked.

He said nothing. Instead he raised his hand, a perfect bulb of quicksilver blooming in his palm.

The other children sprinted to join him. It was like coming down the mountain into warm, thick air. A weight they didn’t even know was there had been lifted off both their shoulders.

Arnold was laughing, his voice crackling and popping with thunder. Billy was making it rain confetti from a mirrored stormcloud.

Mabel, meanwhile, reached into her backpack with that odd, sightless sight, into the scrapbook nestled within.

A lady astronaut with a fishbowl helmet appeared before her, frowning when she caught sight of the girl.  “Not this again.”

“Spacey!”

“My name is—” The star-woman grunted as the little girl slammed into her waist.

“I’ve missed you…”    

Reflexively, the astronaut stroked her tormentor’s hair.

“Is that what the experiment was for?” Arnold asked once he’d stopped scattering trees across the country.

Billy was fading in and out of visibility, but he did manage to get some words in. “You could’ve told us!”

Mabel let go of her summon. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up!”

Having gotten the pent-up lightning out of his system—and created a new clearing—Arnold glanced from his phosphorescent hands to where they had come from. Cautiously, he treaded back towards the Institute.

After a few steps, the light in his skin died. Then he jumped backwards, reigniting before his feet hit the ground again. “…Weird.”

Mabel looked at the astronaut.

“…What?”

The girl walked slowly past Arnold.

The astronaut gasped, disappearing in a puff of pastel dust.  

“Poor thing,” said Billy.

Mabel stepped back over what she was already thinking of as the Line. The astronaut resumed existence, panting. “God. That was even worse than normal.”

Both of Billy’s friends looked at him.

“…No.”

Mabel sat down in the dirt, rubbing her chin. “So it’s not something inside us,” she thought aloud. “It’s something around the Institute. What’s changed since—”

She vanished in a blast of green light.

Billy gawked at Arnold. If he was going to say something, he didn’t get it out before he joined his friend.

Alone, the lightning-clad boy looked toward the wrong side of the Line, and sighed.

Then he ran.      


1. Cervantes having lived and died well before the invention of Florence Foster Jenkins.

2. “So so.”

3. Including Miss Fluffers.

4. As dreary as the blackout was for the Avon Valley’s posthuman population, for the first time in over ten years, its birds knew freedom.

5. As Lawrence had insisted afterwards.

6. It wouldn’t be the first time Mabel Henderson found herself sobbing into Pa Kent’s lap.

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Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Reefs of Sound

“Why would I wanna start it there?” Mabel asked, frowning sidelong at the Institute’s newest member. “If I’m drawing the barn, shouldn’t I start with the door?”

“Nah,” Adam grinned, shuffling over to the younger girl, a drawing pad balanced on his lap. He pointed at the barn resting down the hill from them. “If you start drawing the door, then you’ll just have a door. Some weird rectangle thing like you get in kiddie drawings. If you go from the outside in, then you can kinda focus on the shapes a little more, you know?”

“Like this?”

“…No. Nothing like that.”

Scribbling. “This?”

“Better, but no.” The boy put a guiding hand over Mabel’s. “Take more time with it.”

A small, mostly involuntary smile. “Fine, fine.”

Adam, as Mabel had slowly begun to conclude, was pretty alright.

“Why’s it okay for him to teach you and not me?” Myriad asked sourly from the slab of rock she was lying on, sunning herself like a goanna.

Mabel huffed. “Because he actually knows how you learn to draw.”

Myriad muttered something age inappropriate. Beside her, David crossed his arms, pouting. “I could’ve helped, you know.”

“You power-cheat as well, Maelstrom.”

“Do not!”

Mabel put her hands on her hips. “Okay, teach me how to spray stuff with water so I feel them.”

Maelstrom and Myriad both looked at each other, rolled their eyes, and stalked off towards the big house, at first together, then seeming to peel off as they got close, David heading down to the river.

Mabel pulled her gaze back to the barn, scowling. An awful, mean part of herself had cheered a little at her friends’ spat at first. They were getting way too clingy. Maybe David would play with her more again. Now, though, there seemed to be peace between him and Allison. An uneasy peace, brokered by occupying forces.

But they were still so mad at everything.

Mabel practically gouged at the paper, snapping off the point of her purple pencil1.

She wasn’t even done swearing before Adam had his hands over the dropped pencil. The air shimmered, and the pencil leapt back into Mabel’s hand, fine and sharp once more.

She blinked a few times. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t, either.”    

“How many powers is that now?”

Adam had to think about it. “…Six. Seven counting rainbow breath, but I don’t even know what that one’s for.”

Mabel giggled. “Lawrence is going to take ages picking you a name.” For some reason, she really hoped he did.

“Probably.” Adam took Mabel’s hand again. “You know what your problem is? You always point the pencil straight down, like you’re gonna stab the drawing or something. Hold it at an angle when you shade.”

He steered her into scratching a gradient—iris to eggplant—across the page. So that was how you did that.

“See? Useful.”

Definitely alright.

It took Adam a while to really get Linus. The Institute’s first male student was a constant presence in The New Child, lauded by Lawrence for his cheerful, earnest manner—even has he bemoaned his continual insistence that his father was the god Apollo:

I’ve explained to the boy—gently, mind you—that the posthuman (probably the latest in a long line) who claims to be Apollo generally keeps to Greece. Oh, sure, more often than not, Linus nods and says “Yes, Lawrence,” like the good lad he is. But there’s always that smile. That secret smile children indulge us silly grown ups with.

Adam couldn’t help but be curious how a boy who claimed such a thing about himself kept the hot air from broiling his brains. First night they were both after-dinner dish-duty, he had sidled up to Linus, grown tall and golden past the The New Child’s epilogue.

“What’s up, new kid?” he asked. He grinned crookedly. “You aren’t thinking you’ll pass on all the work to me are ya?”

Adam laughed, flicking some suds at the the older boy. “Shut up! I just wanted to get to know you lot. I mean, I’m going to be here a while, right?”

He nodded thoughtfully. “You’re probably right about that, sorry to say.”

Adam shuffled his feet. “It’s alright. I mean, it seems nice? Even before I got here, Laurie’s book, you know?”

“Well, I’m an open book. What’s on ya mind?”

“…Howdidyougetyourpowers?”

Linus stopped  scouring the dried pasta sauce off his plate, tilting his head at Adam. “Whad’ya say, mate?”

“…How did you get your powers?”

Stupid, stupid Adam, he knows you read the book, idiot!

“Oh.” Linus went back to scrubbing. “Not much of a story there. My dad’s a god.”

His father could have been a banker or a glazier, if you missed the last word. There was no bragging in his tone. Maybe once, long ago, but not anymore.

“Which one?” Adam asked.

“Apollo. He does pretty much everything my uncle—half uncle, actually, granddad owned a bike—didn’t snatch up first. Prophecy, healing, light… music.” A smile like the sun. “You can probably guess where I take after him.”

“You ever meet him?”

“Few times. It’s been years, though.”

“What’s he like?” Adam wasn’t sure if the “he” needed a capital letter.

Linus shrugged. “You know what dads are like.”

Adam found it hard to believe this boy was a father three times over.

The other thing Adam couldn’t get his head around was Linus’ power. From what he had gleaned from The New Child, Linus’ gifts were more less covered under the umbrella of “being really, really, good at music.” And Adam reckoned if that qualified for the Institute, Lawrence would need to buy up all of Northam to have enough room.

At least, he didn’t get it till that first Friday night in Lorikeet dorm. Lights out had been called three hours ago, but Linus and Gwydion were only just ambling in. That was one of the perks of fatherhood: you got to stay up till 10:30.

Linus quickly threw himself onto his hammock. Almost as soon as it stopped swinging, Windshear was tiptoeing through the dark over to him.

“Linus,” the little girl trilled in his ear, whispering louder than she usually spoke, “play us a song.”  

All around him, Adam saw and heard his dorm mates sit up or murmur expectantly.

“Not tonight, Windy,” Linus groaned with the resignation of the already defeated. “Tired.”

“And he’s not that good anyway,” Haunt called out, raising laughter. “Well he isn’t!” Haunt often claimed to be immune to Linus’ music, or as he put it, “impervious to bullshit.”

Come ooooon,” Windshear whined. “It’s Friday, you can sleep in.”

Linus smacked his pillow into her face. “Fine. Just one, though, then you’re all going to let me sleep2.”

Linus reached for the Maton six-string leaning beside the hammock and started plucking at the strings. “Oh, yeah, I’ll tell tell ya something, I think you’ll understand…”

The notes streamed like rivers from Linus’ guitar; staining the moonwash crimson and gold; flashing with every soft strum of the boy’s fingers, quick as gum-leaves on the wind. He had started off singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” but that wasn’t what the other children heard.

Adam didn’t even notice when he started singing along. That was the thing with Linus’ songs. You couldn’t help being washed away by them. He was singing along with the older boy, reciting lyrics to a song he didn’t even know the words to, dancing with a complete lack of self consciousness he hadn’t known for years. Soon he realized he was crying. He wasn’t the only one. Most of the children were.  Not the weepy, screechy sort of crying, or the type where the lungs began to clench. The clean kind, where every tear gave air to some old hurt. Those pains circled the dorm, passing from child to child as freely as a tune, building up force until it was like a rip current flowed through each of their bodies.

Each was a part of the song. Maybe the space between notes that gave them definition. Windshear, still wondering after all these years how her brother hadn’t turned out super with her. Snapdragon, trying to shake the memory of those raw, seeping burns across his father’s face. Mabel, wondering if she should have burned instead of her own father. Fey of Femurs and Peter James dying all over again.

Adam glanced toward Myriad, moving with that perfect, almost grim grace, and followed a line through the air to Maelstrom, play-waltzing with Growltiger right across the other end of the dorm. A melancholic, resentful note still rang loud between the two children. You couldn’t lie when Linus sang, not even to yourself.

Haunt was still in his hammock, his teeth clenched with his arms wrapped tight around his legs, lest they betray him too. Adam felt something bitter tease at his soul; the face of a mother, only half remembered. Then he looked to Elsewhere, and felt confusion brushed with sadness; a note of longing. Elsewhere, for his part, was staring right at Maelstrom. Were it not for the honesty of the song, Adam might have laughed at him or worse. Maelstrom simply gave Arnold a sad smile.

Nobody sang the same words, but they were all the right ones. A dozen piping, out-of-key voices, a couple cracking with puberty, and all made and tuned for just this very song.

The song and the spell died down as Billy looked at Adam.

“… You killed her?” he asked, a small frown pulling at his features.

“She tried to hurt my Mum,” Adam replied. A soupy, endorphin thick exhaustion had settled on him, like he had been dancing for hours instead of minutes. “I’m not sorry… What does that say about me?”

 “Maybe you’re like a soldier?” Elsewhere suggested. “I know my dad’s killed people, and I’m not sure if he’s sorry. Or the same kind of sorry.”

For some reason, the idea hurt didn’t Adam as much as he thought it would. If he couldn’t be like the Crimson Comet, at least he could still be something besides a murderer.

The dorm caught its breath as the door swung open. The teachers usually ignored Linus’ after-hours singalongs, probably because they couldn’t bare to put a stop to them, but you never knew.

“Aww, did we miss a Linus thing?” Artume jeered as she stepped inside, her sister and Metonymy following behind her.

“Sure did,” Windshear answered dizzly.    

“The party kind or the weird touchy feely sort?” Metonymy asked.

“Weird touchy feely,” Haunt grumbled from between his knees. “Stay out of my head, Linus!”

“You gonna do another song?” Ēōs asked giddily.

Haunt shouted, “No!”

Linus through a hand up. “Alright, alright, I’ll tone it down a bit. Didn’t mean for it to come out so heavy anyway. Maybe you all needed to vent.”

“Why the fuck would anyone need that?”

Growltiger and Ēōs both let out an “ohhh” while Artume shot Haunt a look. “Don’t knock it,” she told him. “Linus sang that way after me and Metonymy’s married day. It kinda hurt, but things made more sense afterwards.”

“The married day made more sense,” Haunt specified flatly.

“Not that.” Metonymy weaved his hand into Artume’s. “Us. Being friends.”

Haunt looked around the dorm, trying to find a comrade in scorn. “You needed Linus magic to figure that out?”

Linus just smiled. “Happy to be of help.”

As promised, his next song was more sedate, and let the children stay in their own heads. Honestly, after the cathartic scouring of the last song, a simple (if strangely full sounding) rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was a relief.

For lack of anywhere else to sit, Artume and Metonymy settled down beside Adam on his hammock, watching Ēōs dance with Growltiger.

“So, Institute treating you good?” the girl asked Adam, making small talk.

Adam shrugged. “So far. Food’s nice.”

Metonymy nodded. “We really need to get Alberto to make dessert more.”

“Yeah, yeah…” Adam glanced at Artume. “So, what was your married day like?”

In the time it took the other children to face him, Linus had already slowed his tune, his lyrics becoming quieter. There was anger there, a note of hurt far more profound than Allison and David had contributed. Lucy, it seemed, was falling.

Lawrence hadn’t waited long to explain the Institute’s stirpiculture3 to the boy. As the old doctor had admitted, he used to leave it many months, till new students had adjusted to the school, and the neuroses of human society had faded somewhat.

“Cowardice on my part, dear boy. Unfair on the students, making them keep things from their brothers and sisters. Especially our brave young women.”

Adam had just sat there in the headmaster’s study, waiting for Lawrence to say something that would make sense of all this. He didn’t. “…How old do we start?”

At that, the old man’s upper lip twitched like he was speculating about the weather that week. “For girls, about fifteen. Fourteen if they’re early bloomers, but we try to play it safe. Boys, though, we can afford to start a little earlier. It’s funny, really. Girls might start down the path to womanhood younger, but boys may be men before them.” A chuckle  “Far away as it is, I look forward to seeing what you bring to the table, Adam. I mean, how often is it when a Naming is delayed because I’m spoiled for choice?”

The whole concept had itched at the boy ever since. Giggled, whispered rumours had told him enough about sex that he knew this arrangement would be scandalous back in Kalgoorlie, but he couldn’t quite remember why. Every objection he could think of felt fake, like Sister Scholastica trying to explain Original Sin for the fiftieth time. Sometimes it was felt like it was on the tip of his tongue, but he just couldn’t grasp it. Lawrence got to be be right by default, like the only horse at a race. Maybe the rules were just different for supers. If they could run around in costumes punching crooks, why not have babies sooner?

Artume was looking at Adam hard enough he worried she might leave bruises. “You want to know what a married day is like? Do you really?”

Metonymy squeezed her hand. “He’s not trying to be nasty, Arty.”

“I-I didn’t mean to.”

“I know you didn’t,” she said, firmly. “So I’m going to tell you.”

And so, in a voice like brittle iron, Artume explained the whole process. The wetness, the heat, that shuddering moment when sight abandoned her, the scratching. As she spoke, Linus’ song grew sharper, more jagged: Lucy in the impact crater with very bad acid.

Adam was white by the time she was finished, his fingers digging into the flannel of his pyjamas. Artume, for her part, was gripping Met’s hand like some sort of life buoy. A tiny part of Adam found that strange. How could he be a comfort to her, after all that?

There was a suspicion of guilt in Artume’s features. “Ah, sorry. Was that too much?”

Adam didn’t answer.

“Here, I’ll get you a drink.”

Blackness bled from the air, Artume plunging her hand into the wound in search of a Coke.

Adam closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure which emotion was deeper in his skull at that moment, shame or pity. He couldn’t look at the older girl after a story like that.

Artume found her coke, and began to pull it free, frosty cold from the chilled space of her dimension, when the portal growled. Her portals never growled. She flinched, and that reaction was the only reason she didn’t lose a finger when the gap snapped shut, shearing off a length of skin along the side of the girl’s palm.

For the first time in his life, Linus missed a beat. Then Artume screamed.


1. Adam had suggested purple over black for the darkness in the barn windows.

2. This had never worked before, and there was little reason to suspect it would now.

3. It is a matter of historical conjecture whether or not Herbert Lawrence borrowed this eugenic euphemism from the Christian perfectionist (and future silverware giant) Oneida Community of the mid-1800s. All that can be certain is that it was a ghastly portmanteau.

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Chapter Twenty-Eight: Adam and the New Humans

“Sooo…” Adam said from his seat between the two younger children, on a swing set built for a larger family than his. “… Wanna play chasey?”

“No,” said Myriad, echoed almost immediately by her companion. He knew their names (or at least their Lawrence approved ones) without having to ask. How could he not? They’d been all over the papers for a solid fortnight after their show at Parliament House, their miracles scratchily preserved in black and white. Even without that, Maelstrom had been in the New Child, if only as a baby in arms or sporting in a fishtank. Myriad, though, she had to be a later acquisition, whatever her eyes said.

It was embarrassing, to be honest. In the months he’d been trying to figure all of this stuff out, he’d taken to pretending to talk to them from time to time, just to bounce his frustrations somewhere other than inside of his own head. And sometimes to fight lava-pirates.

Adam was rapidly coming to prefer the ones in his head.

“… Lemonade?” he tried.

“No.”

Fine. If his mum and dad were going to banish him outside with his imaginary friends while they chatted with the book people, he was at least going to sate some curiosity. “Are you two brother and sister?”

“No!” the pair both shouted at him, though Adam thought he heard something… else in the boy’s voice.

“Cousins? It’s just—the eyes. Yeah.”

Maelstrom folded his arms, scowling. “She’s a power-snatcher. She’s just using mine.”

“Power copier,” Myriad clarified sourly. “And I’m actually using his mother’s. She’s much better.”    

“Right…” He sat there between them for a few more seconds, trying unsuccessfully not to fidget. “Did I do something wrong?”

Myriad simply huffed at that, but after a moment, Maelstrom let out a sigh.

“… No. Sorry. It’s Adam, right? Nice to meet you.” The smaller boy held out a hand, and Adam shook it, confused. “We’re not mad at you, I’m mad at her.”

“Why are you mad at her?” Adam asked.

“Cuz he’s a weenie,” Myriad huffed again. “A mean weenie who doesn’t listen.”

“Because she made things confusing,” Maelstrom answered softly, not looking at her. “And it hurt.”

“Did not!” Myriad retorted, her voice rising.

“Yeah, Allison,” he whispered. “Yeah, you did.”

Huh, so she did have a proper name.

Adam gazed between the silent pair for a long moment, then shook his head. Honestly, little kids were pretty stupid. It was times like these when he was thankful for all the life experience he held over their ilk.

“Was she trying to hurt you?” he asked.

Maelstrom didn’t reply at once, preferring instead to drop his eyes to the ground, scrapped clear of grass by a thousand sharp stops.

“…I dunno.”

“Have you asked?”

“N—no.”

“Well, maybe you should.”

“I wasn’t trying—”

Adam put a hand over the girl’s mouth. “You, shush.” He could feel spittle on his palm from the girl’s muffled sputtering. Who knew the girl Lawrence felt worth presenting to the whole nation could be such a brat.

Looking to Maelstrom, he said “Now, ask her if she was trying to hurt you.”

Maelstrom took a deep breath. “Were you trying to hurt me, Myriad?”

Adam nodded at Myriad, removing his hand from from her mouth. Frowning, she answered, “No, I wasn’t. I just thought it was weird that—”

“You promised not to talk about it!”

“And I haven’t! Why are you so mad at me when I’m doing what you—”

A hand over both their mouths, this time. Adam noted that Maelstrom protested far less. “Just—just don’t try explaining anything or complaining. Not while I’m stuck out here with you.” Bloody little kids—they hadn’t even done any tricks yet and he was already having to play mediator between the two. He looked right into Myriad’s copycat eyes. “Now, just say you’re sorry.”

The girl’s eyes narrowed. If Adam had any brothers and sisters, he would have known what was about to happen.

A sharp, crushing pain, and Adam jerked his his hand away. “Ow!”

Myriad lunged at Maelstrom, pulling him down into the dried mud and whaling on him over and over.

For a moment, David just lay there and took the blows. What else was he going to do? Hit Allie?

Then, he realized: Allie was hitting him.

Allison was hitting him.

Maelstrom screamed, managing to tumble on top of his friend and start clawing her face. Not that his advantage lasted long. He had never used his bare, human strength against another child, while Myriad fought with the ferocity of a dozen primary school bullies, poured into one bioengineered body.

Adam hovered around the scuffle like they were a pair of tussling cats, all sharp ends ready to close tight around any interloper. He wondered if he had stumbled onto something… tender.

Myriad was shouting now, a handful of Maelstrom’s hair in her fist. “Why. Are. You. Such. A. Wimp?”

Definitely.

The girl had her mouth open, ready to lash out some more, but Maelstrom’s fist caught her in the stomach, and whatever she’d been about to say was lost in a high pitched wheeze as the air was forced hard out of her lungs.

“I’m not!” he shouted. “I’m just nice!”

“And I’m not?”

“…No!”

“Grrh!” Another body-slam. Maelstrom swallowed a mouthful of dirt. He wondered if this was what being Veltha was like.

Adam was dimly aware of the rasp of a screen door sliding open somewhere far away.

“I know it might be hard to believe, Mrs. Sinclair, but our Alberto…”  Lawrence’s reassurances trailed off as he saw the ball of violence his favourite students had become.

“Children!” he barked, running over to the children to try and pry them apart like hateful magnets. “Stop this at once!”

The two ignored him, twisting in his arms as they scratched and kicked at each other. Lawrence could only be grateful they weren’t using their powers.

Like wolves fighting with their claws sheathed.

The old man looked plaintively at Tiresias, still standing in the doorway a few paces behind the gawking Sinclairs.

Help,” he mouthed, garnering only a wry grin from the psychic.

“Sure, Bertie. I’ll get riiiiight on that.”

Myriad was still screaming at her friend, “Why do you let people make you feel like this?”

Melusine barged past Tiresias and strode towards the scene, sending a flurry of panic through Lawrence. He had seen what she did to those who wronged her son. Even Alberto looked concerned.

Those concerns, as things turned out, were unfounded.

Françoise strode between the two like a ship through the seas, the children parting like waves crashing harmlessly off her hull. With a move Adam could not quite find the words to describe, she placed a hand on each of the fighting children’s heads and pulled them apart, tangled limbs and all.  Adam couldn’t quite fathom how she did it, only that she had.1 Then, she sat down between them.

“Now, Allison,” she said, “why are you and my droplet fighting?”

Allison didn’t seem quite able to look at the older woman in that moment, instead staring determinedly at her feet.

“… Cuz he’s a doop.”

“Am not!” David shot back past his mother. “You’re a meanie, and a bad-truth teller, and a-a… a bad friend!”

Adam watched, confused, as both Allison and the adults from the Institute stared at the little boy like he’d grown a new set of ears.

“… Did the kid just grow a spine?” Alberto asked, one eyebrow raised.

Françoise held up a hand towards Alberto, palm flat, and he wisely shut his mouth.

“Now, David,” she asked her son, either not noticing or ignoring Lawrence’s frown, “do you think Allison’s the kind of person who hurts people just because she wants to?”

“… Sometimes.”

Adam glanced at Allison, expecting her to object. She didn’t. She was still staring at her feet, her lip beginning to quiver.

“Well,” Fran replied, ruffling the boy’s hair. “I think we both know you’re a kind enough boy to forgive someone when they hurt you. Aren’t you?”

“… It was a lot of hurt.”

“Then I’m proud of you for standing up to her. But I want you both to remember that you’re still friends. I’ve seen you cuddling.”

The only reason Allison didn’t blush was that her face was already flushed from the fight.

“Do either of you want to lose that?”

Both children belatedly shook their heads.

“Good. Then you can talk this over with each other later. If you need a grown up to help you talk about it, then come see me. But right now, I’d like you both to give each other a hug, because you care about each other, and that’s what matters. Okay?”

After a few tense moments, Allison pushed herself up onto her feet, and shambled awkwardly across to her friend. Adam watched the two embrace, one eyebrow raising as David tried to stifle a sniffle. He shook his head. Kids were weird.

Once the blood and grime was rinsed off the children’s faces, and they’d been settled on the Sinclairs’ overstuffed lounge room sofa, Lawrence launched off into a tirade. Mrs Sinclair didn’t much see the point of it, after the Frenchwoman’s intercession, but she recognised the pattern well. How many times had she sorted out some misdeed of Adam’s, only to mention it to his father after he’d come home from work, and have him storm in and open up the whole wound anew.

David and Allison just sat there in their soiled Sunday best, one of Françoise’s arms over each of them, and let the old man’s words wash over them. Occasionally they’d flinch, like they’d been spat at by burning grease.

Adam, meanwhile, feeling that painful super-visibility of any child watching another be reprimanded, silently made note of every line he’d read in Lawrence’s book.

“You can’t afford to let yourselves succumb to this kind of pettiness. A human child who loses their temper might just strike their friend, but you…”

Page seventy-two.

“…You need to set an example…”

Too many to count.

“…And in front of strangers, too!”

Well, that was just universal, wasn’t it?

Mid-lecture, Lawrence turned away from the children to address Mr and Mrs Sinclair. “I swear, they aren’t usually so churlish.” Like a lot of proud guardians of gifted children, Dr. Lawrence seemed to expend a lot of words on insisting that their behaviour wasn’t typical of them.

Mr. Sinclair nodded awkwardly. “It’s alright, Doctor, really. I’m sure they’ve had a long drive.” A faint, pained smile. “We all know what children can be like on boring trips.”

Lawrence’s jaw grew tight, and his back very straight. He was no father, but he was close enough to one to recognise the taste of that silent, politeness-shrouded, and possibly imaginary judgment. “Please don’t try to defend them, Mr. Sinclair. They need to be better than other children, for all our sakes.”

Mrs Sinclair waved a hand, as though trying to disperse the argument like smoke. “We understand, Doctor Lawrence. But surely you came here to talk about our son, not your students?”

Lawrence collected himself: he was letting things get off track. “Yes, of course. My apologies.” He lowered himself onto one of the kitchen chairs that had been dragged out into the sitting area. “So, you say your son has not displayed any sign of extra normal ability since…”

“January,” Adam’s mother admitted.

Lawrence nodded thoughtfully. “But he did perform a superhuman feat in that time, correct?”

A reluctant nod, from both of Adam’s parents. He was starting to dislike being talked about like he wasn’t there.

“Could you tell us about the circumstances behind this manifestation?”

“It’s not something we try to think about, honestly,” Ernest said.

Alberto leaned forward in his chair, pointing between the two elder Sinclairs. “It was Boans, wasn’t it?” he said, his tone barely allowing any ambiguity. “Your kid was the one that killed that Fey of Femurs woman from the Coven.”

You could almost hear the dust drifting through the air. Allison and David both looked at Adam like he was somewhere between god and devil. And yet everyone else in the room seemed to be trying not to look at him, even as he felt more watched than ever.

Jenny Sinclair cast her eyes down towards the carpet. “He didn’t mean to,” she said quietly. “And it was the only way he could save me.”

Lawrence stood and moved to the woman’s side, resting a gloved hand on her shoulder. “I don’t think anyone here is doubting that, my girl,” he said. “The death of that girl was tragic, as any death is. But this one, I think, was chiefly a tragedy of her own making.” The old Oxfordian glanced over to Adam. “You wouldn’t be the first new human child to take a life in the early days of their powers, Adam, and far from the least justified in doing so.”

That was not in the book. Prose hangs around long enough for the author to think it through. Adam sighed. “It doesn’t matter, Doctor Lawrence. The power went away right after. I haven’t done or felt anything like it in months. I’m not like those two,” he said, pointing to the Institute children still gawking at him.

“But you have to be,” Allison piped up. “Your song doesn’t sound human.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “My song?”

Lawrence opened his mouth—  

“People make music only our Allison can hear, and it lets her learn things from them. Supers sound very interesting to her,” Fran explained. “Sorry, Laurie, but you would’ve just confused them more.”

“Well, what does my song sound like?”

The girl wrinkled her nose, tilting her head. “…Cludgy? Like whoever wrote it wanted to include all the instruments they knew? Spanish guitar, harmonica—it’s a mess, sorry.”

So I’m a crap super. Great.  “But my powers still went away. Maybe the song is like an appendix scar?”

Lawrence scratched his beard. “Perhaps it’s psychosomatic? I’ve heard cases of musicians and writers ‘losing their talent’ after traumatic events.”

Alberto stood up. “May I try something, Lawrence?”

The doctor looked surprised. “I don’t see why not, Alberto.” Quickly, he added, “If young Adam’s parents will permit it, of course.”

The boy in question looked at his parents, not sure what his eyes were asking them.

Jenny’s gaze narrowed on the young man like iron-sights. “You’re not going to hurt him, are you?”

Adam hadn’t even considered that possibility.

Alberto grinned. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” He pulled a tiny clay bird out from his pocket, setting it down on the coffee table.

Does he just walk around with that in his pocket?

“Burn it,” the man ordered.

Adam looked at the bird, then back at its owner, frowning. “I just told you all my powers went away.”

“Yeah, you’re lying,” Alberto replied casually. “Stop malingering, kid, and just blow up the damn bird.”

Ernest sputtered. “Don’t you go calling my son a liar—”

 Adam’s father was cut off by the esper throwing up a hand, still looking at his son. “I know he is.”

He strode towards the child, his feet devouring the space between them till they were close enough for him to jab his thumb into the Adam’s forehead. From there, Tiresias traced a pattern across the boy’s face, ignoring his squirming. “I can see it—under his skin…” He manually extended his captive’s arm outward, prying his hand open like a schoolboy trying to steal a smaller kid’s canteen change.

Adam tried to pull his arm back, but there was strength in those long, pale fingers. “I said I can’t!”

“Oh, come on,” the psychic growled in his ear. “You’ll bore a hole through a girl, but won’t even cremate a bloody clay bird? The hell is wrong with you?”

“Not won’t, can’t,” Adam half-whined. Why weren’t his parents making the weirdo lay off him? Even Dr. Lawrence looked more worried.

“You know what I think? I think you can do whatever it is you do whenever you damn well please. You’re just a coward.”

Tears started stinging Adam’s eyes. “Am not!”

Hot breath in his ear, alcoholic fumes forcing their way up his nose and bringing more tears with them. “Are too,” Tiresias hissed. “All that moaning in your head.” He launched into a childish falsetto. “Why didn’t the Flying Man save Peter? Why’d that bloody giant give him powers if that’s all he got out of it”

“How’d you—”

“You read Bertie’s book, kid. How do I think I knew that? But that was a good question, but you know what’s an even better one? Why couldn’t you have saved Peter?”

“I was asleep when they got him!”

“Wouldn’t have mattered if you weren’t. Because you’re afraid of rising up above the dross, aren’t you? Keep your head low and the freak-finders won’t bother ya, won’t they?” A crooked grin. “You’d have just stood there and watched them crack open that poor boy’s skull—”

“No!” The boy exploded out of his arms, sending the man into the wall like he had air for insides. “I would’ve done something!”

Adam felt it before he even realised what he’d done. Like his fingers were pressed against summer-warm glass. He looked down at his hands. A sun in each, like a binary star system.

“Woah…”

It was Alberto groaning, slumped at the foot of the wall like an abandoned coat, that brought the child back to the present. The suns winked back out.

“Oh. I’m sorry—sorry—”

The light changed. The whole room smelled the way clouds ought to feel. Even the pull of gravity felt like a friend. Fran, David and Allison shuddered as one, even as the children’s cuts and bruises mended themselves. Adam’s parents both sighed like they were breathing in a bouquet. Lawrence appeared to be in awe.

Alberto stood back up, smiling and cracking his neck, blood pouring from fresh wounds that were already beginning to close. “Christ, I feel like I’ve got the liver of a ten year old.”

The Sinclairs both frowned at him.

“Oh, lighten up.” He moved over to Adam, clasping a hand over his shoulder. “Sorry about all that, kid. Thought I needed to angry up the blood a bit.” He pointed at Lawrence. “See that old fart? His folks paid hundreds and hundreds of pounds for some eggheads to work him over into a psychiatrist, and he couldn’t have gotten that out of you in fifty sessions!”

Lawrence ignored the insult, turning to the Sinclairs. “So, shall we discuss enrolment?”

“… What?” Asked Ernest. “After a stunt like that? Are you f-” Alberto glanced sidelong at him, and the sentence seemed to fizzle out in his throat like a dying sparkler.

“There some kind of problem?” Tiresias asked, the corners of his lips tugging upwards in a small smile.

The Sinclairs seemed to struggle for words for a moment, Ernest shifting just a little in his seat, before:

“… No.” Jenny replied. “No problem. How soon can you take him?”

“…What are you doing to them?” Adam asked, the fear rising painfully in his gut. “Let them go. I swear. You stop it right now-” Alberto glanced at him, and he crumpled to the floor, fast asleep.

Alberto let his eyes wander around the room. David and Allison both staring at him, the girl accusing, the boy terrified. He looked at Lawrence, glaring disapprovingly at him, and at Mel, her head resting on her son’s shoulder. Always start with Mel.

Myriad opened her mouth to speak, but Tiresias wasn’t in a mood to humor her. Both children lay back in the couch, dead to the world.

Ernest jumped out of his seat, probably to fetch his gun or the like, but instead just fell forward onto the shag carpeting, his wife soon following.

“I wanted to at least try talking it through with them,” Lawrence growled. “It’s called common courtesy, Tiresias.”

“You did try talking to them,” he replied. “You did it badly, and I got bored. We’re just lucky the Sinclairs were polite enough to shake my hand. For their reward, they all get to remember something better happening instead. I’m sure Elsewhere’s folks would be happier if I had just done that when they all rolled up.”

Lawrence narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t something we should rely on.”

Alberto’s eyes flared. “Let me make one thing clear, old man—I’ve been pulling you out of the fire since the day we met. ” He poked at Adam’s father with his dress shoe. “While you reflect on that, I’ll be checking The Importance of Being Earnest over here’s beer fridge.”

As the psychic headed for the back door, Lawrence surveyed the sleepers in the lounge room. He didn’t think he had seen Myriad and Maelstrom so peaceful since AU’s return.

He just hoped the memory Tiresias wrote for them wasn’t too ridiculous.


1. The Complete Child Separation maneuver (CCS) is an ancient parenting trick passed down between mothers since the dawn of time.

 

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The New Humans, Chapter Twenty-Seven: The New Child

The Sinclairs never made it to Dunsborough. Not that they tried. They just got Mrs Sinclair’s arm splinted and fled from Perth as fast as their wheels would carry them, imagining DDHA cars and trucks lying in wait off every exit in the road.

News of the attack at Boans still beat them back to Kalgoorlie. The papers were quietly jubilant at the death of Fey of Femurs—always one of the more cruel and gruesome of the Coven—though much to Adam’s offense, they speculated her defeat was the final outcome of a turf-war among the city’s supervillains.

“I’m not a baddie!” he had protested when he first saw the headline, standing behind his father at the petrol station line.

His parents had just looked at him like he’d said a dirty word. When they finally made it home, they didn’t let their son out of their sight. The few neighbours who asked after him or the family’s unexpected return (or the plaster on Mrs Sinclair’s arm) were told they were driven back by Jenny taking a bad fall and Adam coming down with pneumonia. Adam tried protesting the situation exactly once, the lies especially. It was the first time his father had ever shouted at him. It had been a shock, to say the least. He’d looked to his mother for help across the dinner table, and she’d just stared back as the man beside her bellowed. He’d hidden in his room for hours, after that, doing his best to ignore the man’s awkward, stumbling apologies through the door. When the man came in and tried to hug him, he’d fought. He didn’t want to forgive.

Unlike at Boans, however, he couldn’t escape his father’s arms.

Ernest Sinclair felt his son’s struggles, and clung to him tighter still. There were tears in his eyes.

Adam was crying, too. His sun was gone, and that strange strength with it.

Not that that was the end of his parents’ fears. It seemed unlikely the DDHA would accept that their son’s superpowers cleared up overnight. The Sinclairs spent most of their holiday in their lounge room, one eye on the television and the other on the road out front, with the volume knob on the radio set just low enough that they would hear sirens three streets away.

Eventually, though, the holidays came to an end, and soon Mr and Mrs Sinclair ran out of plausible excuses for not sending Adam back to school.

He just barely managed to convince his mother to let him walk the two blocks over to North Kalgoorlie Primary. She still fussed over him all the way to the front door, though.

“You brushed your teeth, right?”

Adam made a face. “Yes1, Mum.”

“Packed your cricket gear?”

“Yep.”

“And have you got your pencils so they won’t rattle around the bag and get marks all over your new—”

“I’m fine, Mum!” her son whined, exasperated. “Just let me go, I’m gonna be late!” It was the first time he had ever complained of such a thing.

Jenny Sinclair relented. “Alright, alright. But you better not dawdle after all that fuss.”

Before her Adam could step out into the high summer morning, his mum put a hand on his shoulder. He was turning to complain when he saw the renewed fear in her eyes.

“I know you might be sad how things have turned out, Adam. I think I would have been to, if that had happened to me. But it really isn’t like how it goes in the cartoons.”

Adam was going to argue, to tell his mum she just didn’t know what it felt like. To ask what would happen if people like the Coven came to Kalgoorlie.

But she kept looking at him like that.

“Yeah,” he said, hollowly. “I know.”

He came in April.

Adam was lying awake in bed, as he often did these days, listening to his parents’ hushed conversation seeping through the thin plaster walls.

“You still look at him odd,” he thought he heard his father say.

 “And he still flinches when you speak too loud,” his mother replied. “There are some things we can’t help, love.”

  “Do you think he understands? You know, what he did?”

“He’s nine. I think he knows he killed someone, I just don’t think he’s aware of it. You know?”

Adam could suddenly smell barbecue. He remembered Fey of Femurs’ eyes. Had she known she was going to die then?

“You wouldn’t call him a murderer, would you? I know it was hard for my mum to look at dad when he came home from the War…”

“… No. I’d call him a little boy who wanted to help his mum. Do you think he knew what that power would do when he used it?”

A space that might have been a sigh. “I don’t know, Jenny. There aren’t exactly books on this sort of thing.” Unhappy laughter. “Cholic, puberty, and superpowers. I’ll tell you what, though, I’ve never heard of them just going away.”

“Then it was a miracle,” he heard his mother whisper, her voice only barely audible through the wall. “It happened, and it went away, and as long as no one ever finds out about it, then he’s safe, okay?”

If his father agreed, Adam did not hear it. What he did hear was a shout. It took him a second to realize it wasn’t coming from the kitchen, but outside.

“Are the Michelsons going at it again?” he heard his father say, hushed tones forgotten.

The boy rolled over and tugged at the cord of his window blind.

A war elephant was treading slowly down the road, its flesh (so to speak) completely hidden under plate upon plate of intricately carved golden armour, its silver inlay flashing back the pale yellow light of the street lamps2. Armed, shimmering skeletons flowed past it like the sea around a rock. Adam thought they looked like they were running late to audition for Jason and the Argonauts.    

At the head of the procession were two skeletons that would have been giants in life, carrying between them a banner of woven sunlight. In neat, Times New Roman, it bore the message:

PEOPLE OF KALGOORLIE, LAY DOWN YOUR ARMS, SURRENDER YOUR GOLD, AND YOU WILL NOT BE HARMED—AU

Despite this warning, some of Adam’s neighbours were in the street trying to fight the golden host—every man who lived even remotely near a gold-field imagined themselves defending home and family from AU at some point. Best case scenario, they drove off the strange, Oriental menace with their Australian grit. Worst case, they were knighted posthumously for their noble sacrifice.

What the men of Butterfly Street’s heroic fantasies didn’t account for was the horde’s indifference to their blows. It wasn’t that the golems were tough—they were made of gold, after all. But whenever a man managed to bend a clavicle or dent a skull, they sprung back into shape as readily as rubber. Their mortal strength could not overcome the beauty of AU’s weapons.

A few of the men had pushed and shoved their way to the centre of the mass and started hammering at the feet of the elephant, like puppies snapping at the heels of a St. Bernard, their wedding rings slipping off their fingers and melting into the behemoth’s side, tiny raindrops lost in the ocean.

Adam couldn’t help but giggle. Some villains, like the Coven, were cyclones. You lashed mattresses to your walls and boarded up the windows, praying all the while it would pass you over. Others, though, were great thunderstorms. You battened down the hatches, made yourself a hot drink, and listened to the world be a little more than it normally was.

When morning broke, Adam wasn’t sure which kind AU was.

The raid on Kalgoorlie left no casualties, bar a few broken bones and wounded egos.

And the local economy.

The gold-fields had been sucked dry of everything accessible from the surface without a year or more of new excavations, at least. Miners were laid off in droves, their newfound poverty trickling down to everyone in Kalgoorlie whose livelihoods depended on their comfort. The Sinclair Family Deli barely clung on. Their haberdasher aunt had to take an unwelcome early retirement.

And as Adam’s father kept reminding his son, they were the lucky ones.

Kalgoorlie never copped well with the Other. The mere presence of Indigenous was enough to stir up resentment in her white residents. But at least blackfellas bled when you shot them.

The paranoid hum the Flying Man had inspired two years earlier became a cacophony. DDHA posters multiplied around town like fungi. Beneath the usual graffitied calls to “castrate all niggers”, Adam kept seeing the post-scriptum “…castrating the demis is too good for them!3

 One morning, a girl from his class didn’t turn up to school. Nobody saw her again for over a month. When she returned, there was a dullness to her eyes. Neither Adam nor anyone else ever managed to get much information out of her, but the rumour in town was that someone had called the freak-finders on her after she made an unusually accurate guess as to the number of jellybeans in a jar.

Some claimed the DDHA received so many reports from Kalgoorlie, they stopped following up on any calls from the town. Maybe things might have turned out differently if they hadn’t.

One morning, when long after summer had succumbed to winter, Adam ran into the kitchen to find his mum and dad waiting around the honey oak table, scratched and scuffed by over a decade of domestics, each with a glass of something amber in front of them. Neither bid him good morning. His mother seemed to be trying to avoid looking at him

“Sit down, son,” his father ordered gently.

Adam obeyed. “Is something the matter?”

Mr. Sinclair nodded. “Do you know a boy named Peter James?”

Adam thought about it. “I think his little brother is in my class?”

Fingers rapping against wood. “Well, you might not be seeing him at school for a little while. Last night, there was—”

“Cut the shit, Ernest,” Jenny said, shocking both husband and son. “Last night, some of our neighbours got blind drunk at the York, decided the James boy was a demi4. They kicked down their door, dragged a fourteen year old out of his bed, and cracked his head open with a rock.” She drained her glass like they were sitting in the middle of a desert and got up from the table, stalking out the kitchen. Before she left, she turned back to Adam and said, “Never tell anyone.”

That day Adam learned how readily love and resentment flowed into each other.  He also learned that the men judged to be the ringleaders of the mob got off with a reduced sentence. As the defense argued:

“Asking an ordinary man to behave rationally in the aftermath of demi-human attack is like expecting a fish to react calmly to the hook dropped into their world.”

Nobody saw the Jameses again in Kalgoorlie after that.

Sunday School after that, Adam got canned. The old nun who ran it out of the chilly backroom of St. Mary’s Church was regaling the young Catholics of Kalgoorlie with the story of Lazarus.

“And that, children,” she said in a voice scorched by nearly a hundred outback summers, “proves just how merciful God really is.”

Adam raised his hand. “Excuse me, Sister?”

“Yes, Adam.”

“How was that merciful?”

Silence. Enough smartarses5 had passed through the class that everyone knew full well how these digressions played out.

Sister Scholastica6 smiled with tested patience. “Because Jesus was willing to preserve this one man from death, even though he had done nothing for him.”

“But he’s Jesus. He can do anything, right?”

The nun nodded.

“So it would have been dead easy for him to do.”

Sister Scholastica wasn’t sure whether it was more blasphemous to concede or object, so she took a third route. “The point of the story isn’t the ease of it, but the grace.”

“…Why did Jesus pick Lazarus?”

The Sister smiled wryly. “I think you’ll have to ask him that yourself, Adam.”

Laughter, though not from Adam. “Did nobody else deserve it more? Really, really nice people… little kids?”

Scholastica’s smile flattened. She silently prayed none of the other children chose that moment to—

The Carmichael girl piped up with, “Doggies?”

Shit. “It’s important to remember, children, that Christ will save us all from death, by giving us eternal life in Heaven. Lazarus was one way of showing us this.”

Adam was growing flushed. “So what, Jesus only went around doing miracles because he wanted to show off?”

The Sister scowled. Right. She’d given the serene teacher tact a try, now it was time to fall back on the bulwark of her vocation. “Do not blaspheme—”

Adam shouted over her. “Your lot are always telling us how great Jesus is and how he’s always looking out for everyone, but awful, bad things happen all the time, and you say it’s all part of the plan! But then sometimes he brings people back to life or cures their diseases or gives them food! Why do some people get saved and other people don’t? How does he choose?” Blood had rushed to the boy’s face by the end of his tirade, along with tears.

The nun gave him a canny look. “You sure you’re talkin’ about Jesus, son?”

Maybe Adam was imagining it, but afterwards he thought the whacks across his knuckles were a bit half-hearted.

God (or whoever) wasn’t the only one whose innaction Adam cursed. He was sure that if he had been there, he could have made the sun rise again in his hands. Been able to do something.

Like what, he kept asking himself, put holes in our neighbours?

He could do more than that, surely? He’d been strong, too, back in Boans, he knew that. But where had it all gone?  

And so, Adam became the youngest scholar of his own kind, if his kind they even were. Not daring to ask any adult, he first fuelled his studies with the most abundant resource he had: old comic books.

They were harder to find than he expected—most had been confiscated by antsy parents after the Cuban Crisis, with many of the survivors outright burned in an enthusiastic demonstration of panic after the gold raid7. Every issue was hard won by favours, swapped lunch treats, I.O.Us, and all the other coin the grey market of childhood rests upon.

All completely useless. Even forgiving the expected air of falseness, the comics for the most part concerned themselves little with the lived experience of superhumans. What it felt like being one, where their powers came from, and, most importantly, what might snuff them out.

To be fair to the medium, the boy did come across a fair few stories where the hero lost their powers. By the 1960s, they were nearly the only stories you could tell about Superman unless you relied on his patient, boundless sadism towards his loved ones. But Adam couldn’t recall being bathed by any weird space rays, and he doubted the jewelry department of Boans was hard up enough to resort to using gold kryptonite in their wedding rings.

So, with a heavy heart, Adam Sinclair resorted to checking his local public library. This too proved not to be the easy route he had hoped for. Much to his surprise, there wasn’t enough publically circulated scholarship on superpowers to justify its own shelf. It would have been even more surprising if he had known there was even less of it than before the Flying Man’s world debut, not that he risked asking the staff about it. Superheroes especially occupied an odd place in the literature, their wartime contributions acknowledged, but in the same tone of grudging haste as the Soviets.

Adam wasn’t a naturally bookish boy—he seldomly read anything less than fifty percent illustration when left to his own devices—but now he forced himself to be. He scoured over anything that even tangentially mentioned supers. Patchy newspaper archives; stray sentences in history books; dusty travelogues and biographies in half-formed English detailing chance, dreamlike encounters on lonely roads.

Most science books, it turned out, felt the need to bring up supers at least once, if only to acknowledge their eternal exception to the laws of physics. Almost every treatise on any mythological figure you might care to name included a sidebar on theorized superhuman inspirations8.

What he soon learned to avoid was anything put out by the DDHA. Especially Introduction to Demi-Human Neurology:       

It is the conclusion of the gathered evidence (Horatin et al, 1958; Reinhardt and Sumere, 1956; Puce, 1960) that demi-humans lack the same basic faculties of empathy and interpersonal awareness to pain that is possessed by their human counterparts. This is hypothesized to be the result of their neurological deviations rendering them incapable of developing to the same standard of experience as human beings, thus rendering them generally incapable of caring for their evolutionary kin.

It was all couched in words Adam hardly understood, but he knew when he was being insulted.

His parents, unable to perceive the patterns in their son’s reading, were glad to see it. Adam, however, felt ripped off. He was getting smarter for nothing. He was about to give up and… he didn’t know, divine the flights of birds for omens (and at least be done with Greek fairy tales forever) when he found the book.

It was sandwiched between two volumes of a new mother’s handbook. The only reason Adam was even looking in that section was a rumour he heard about a furred baby born down in Albany. A thick hardback bound in maroon leather, faded gold leaf finches rested below the legend:

The New Child: An Inquiry Into the Race to Come

Dr. Herbert Lawrence, Ph.D

Adam glanced around himself like he had suddenly stumbled onto The Killers. The only other souls in the library was the librarian bustling about the shelves and a mother reading to her toddlers, but it was still far too crowded for the boy’s liking.

He risked a look at the book in his hands. He had subjected himself to enough pulps in his studies to recognize the buzzwords, but this didn’t look like a pulp. It looked like a textbook.

It had to be a mistake. Some librarian got lazy and didn’t look too hard at the cover. It definitely didn’t look like anything the DDHA would put out. Slipping it into his hessian library bag, he trotted up to the counter and rung the boy.

“What have we got today? A Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls, Tanglewood Tales, The Greek Myths9…” A smile. “Will you be leaving us any books, Mr. Sinclair?”

“I try, ma’am.”

Adam didn’t know if you could steal a library book, but he was going to try.

He read The New Child the way older boys read dirty magazines: snatched pages in the bushes behind school and beneath his bed covers in the dead of night, the beam of an awkwardly balanced torch flickering across age-blotched paper like candlelight.

Herbert Lawrence, at least from what Adam could glean from the book, was one of those old baseline adventurers that hovered around the edge of superhumanity, like Tim Valour or Doc Savage10. The main difference was that while those sorts tended to spring from the military, or the East India Company, or the unorthodox educational schemes of their widowed scientist father, this one began as a psychology student at Oxford.

Dr. Lawrence wasted little time on his biography—just a couple cursory pages bashfully explaining his boyhood as the only son of a prominent Perthite gentleman, shipped off to boarding school to inoculate him with proper Anglo-Saxon values from their very source:

Thetis11 tried to burn the mortality out of her son in the fire of the hearth. The mothers and fathers of my crowd meanwhile send their boys to Eton to scour the colonial out of them. As silly and insecure as that is, for me, it worked all too well.

By the end of the first chapter, Lawrence was a fresh-faced psychiatrist returning to his native Australia in search of superhumans, or posthumans as he was calling them by page fifty. It skipped over how exactly the good doctor had come to this fascination, but then Adam had no idea why anyone wouldn’t be interested in superhumans.

It was page twenty-one that that gave the boy all the reason he needed to keep reading:

For the sake of his privacy, I will only refer to my first student by the nickname he went by at the Institute: AU.

Adam had to put down the book for a moment. The bloke who wrote this knew AU, had taught and took care of him for years. More shocking still, AU had been a kid.  

His parents told me their son was pulling the wedding rings off of passersby when he wasn’t a year old. Even with all I’ve learned—From John12, from Żywie, from all the posthumans I have ever known—I still can’t begin to guess the whys and hows of AU’s power. More things in Heaven and Earth and all that.

I can’t blame the boy for being willful at the start. Pulled from his home, dragged around the country by an old Englishman like a puppy on a tether; a life chopped up into hotel rooms and guest bedrooms. I can tell you, it took me some getting used to as well.

I can’t stress how glad I am we both pushed through it, though. I never had children of my own, nor a wife; not uncommon in academic circles, regretfully. So many men like me cut themselves off from the young, from women, from anyone remotely different from ourselves. It can have, I fear, a calcifying effect on the soul. Our personalities run the risk of becoming settled, fossilised.

That’s not to say that childishness was the only virtue in AU’s company. Even as a boy, he had a way of cutting to the point of things. Fond of a barb, for certain, but never I think entirely without kindness.

If AU ever reads this, I hope he understands I never meant for things to turn out the way they did.

Adam checked the book’s copyright: 1958. AU wouldn’t make his supervillainous debut for another six years. He felt vaguely cheated, not that the book didn’t offer other attractions:

I had never heard the word “superhero” when AU and I first encountered them. To my recollection, that term only started being bandied around in 1940 or so. Looking back, it feels strange it took so long for someone to come out and say it. For decades, we called men like the Crimson Comet “adventurers” or “masks” or even, God bless us, “mystery men”. Then two Jewish cartoon writers took the word from the tip of our tongues, and the dialogue became much less tortured, if very loaded.

It must have been 1936 when we first met Ralph Rivers13 I had been told of a  Sydneysider super calling himself Jack Jupiter—doubtless derived from his fascination with lightning strikes.

From that trivia, you good readers might already have surmised that Jack was what many laymen in their ignorance call “mad scientists” those posthumans whose gifts manifest as impossible insight into scientific theory and praxis. Historically these remarkable individuals have enjoyed a great deal of scorn and ostracization from regular folk, even more so than other posthumans; likely for the same reasons the public has been wary regarding scientific advances. So often I have seen such miracle workers14 caricatured as manic, bitter souls, smothered in layer upon layer of malicious ego.

Sadly, poor Jack very much lived up to the stereotype. I had managed to arrange an interview with the man at his workshop in Padstow, and the next thing AU and I knew, we were trussed up in a drafty warehouse, listening to Jupiter threaten the Lord Mayor over the phone with the detonation of every wireless set in the city.

“Jupiter,” I tried imploring him after he slammed the receiver down, “This is a dire waste of your powers.”

Protests. He had no powers, he insisted, just a scientist. A sadly common delusion among his breed, I’m afraid, but a child playing at Einstein would have produced more coherent equations; and been able to explain why the great bronzed spider he had curled up in the centre of the warehouse specifically needed a bolt of lightning from the actual sky to come to life.

I kept trying to get through to Jupiter, despite AU’s continual imploring for me to keep my peace (perhaps the wiser course of action, I will admit) which only resulted in that addled soul raising the offspring of a trident and a tesla coil to my throat.

I was fairly certain I was facing death, then. Part of me thought there was a fittingness in dying at the hands of my life’s study. The much larger part was screaming.

That was when the wall exploded.

Photos, or even those ghastly comics they put out, can never capture the weird, lurid glory of the Crimson Comet. The ridiculous red of his costume, still bright even with the layer brick-dust and drywall. And those great, gold-cast wings, scalding the air with their glow. The man was where giant met archangel. But most amazing of all was his face. Mechanical men were closing in around him on all sides, their eyes aglow with their master’s spite, and it was as if he didn’t know what fear was. In fact, I could swear he was smiling.

You’ve no doubt seen the newsreels, or the pictures. I don’t need to tell you how he fared against Jupiter’s machines.

If Adam had one bone to pick with this Herbert Lawrence, it was his clear disinterest in action.

In this book, I will say many things about the superheroic tradition. You might come away with the impression that I consider it a… maladaptive institution, or even a waste of posthuman potential. And you’d be right. But that’s not to say that many superheroes aren’t fine men or women. And none more so than Ralph Rivers.

Over the years, we grew quite familiar with each other. Even before the Institute, where he was always welcome, his humble flat was similarly open to me and AU.

It was Ralph, over a few pints at his local, AU safely stashed with his sister at home, who first told me about what John Smith would later call “the Asteria presentation”:

He was nine years old, when he became a posthuman, he told me. Asthmatic and runtish, his classmates smelt weakness the way our kind’s young are wont to. One day, they had him against the wall, and then:

“There was a man.”

I cannot tell you how many times I would hear those words, good readers. He was a giant, Rivers said, with stars for eyes, whom the night sky followed half the day too early. He tried warning his menacers of the giant, but they laughed it off, a half-simple boy trying to make them turn around.

“I thought he was God. Still not sure he wasn’t.”

And when the giant looked at him, he was filled with what felt like the Holy Ghost.

“Except I don’t think the Holy Ghost would’ve let me break Pete Jenkins’ jaw with a slap.”

So he wasn’t alone, Adam realized. No less than the Crimson Comet had seen the giant, had been changed the same way he had.

“I’m not proud of it, Lawrence. I think, in the end, these powers are for us to help people. Killing—I’m not going to say it never needs doin’—that’s a job for guns and bombs. A mystery man, they shouldn’t have to resort to that.”

We sent this man to war. God help us.

Oh. So that was why. He had failed. Taken the easy way out. Killed when he could have done anything—literally anything—else. The man with the stars in his eyes had found him wanting.

Adam closed the book, hurled it back under his bed, and finally started trying to forget his sun.

Spring had revived well by the Saturday morning Jenny Sinclair roused her son early.

“Did church change days?” he asked blearily.

“No, no, nothing like that” his mum answered, an anxious smile playing across her lips, “we have guests. They’re here for you.”

That was all she would tell him till he was up and presentable, and pushed, still on autopilot, into the kitchen.

Around the table, a large, bearded man in a green suit and tie sat waiting, flanked on either side by a beautifully carved blonde woman with eyes like shards of ultramarine, and a young man whom adolescence seemed to cling to like cobweb. Next to his uneasy looking father, meanwhile, were two sullen children, their eyes unmistakably those of the woman’s.

Like the sea in summer.

It was like hearing a word he had only seen written. “…Dr. Lawrence?”

As the doctor’s eyes widened at the recognition, the younger man to his right leapt up from his chair, strode over to the young Sinclair, and shook his hand, all smiles.

“Tiresias! Pleased to meet ya, Adam.”


1. But not well.

2. Perhaps reflecting the theatricality that afflicts most of his kind, AU was prone to building specialized “showcase pieces” for each of his gold raids. The fact the Kalgoorlie Elephant included silver—an element AU was known to have no special power over—shows the trouble he was willing to go to.

3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most calls made to the DDHA from Kalgoorlie concerned Aboriginal persons.

4. Peter James’s status as a demi-human would later be confirmed via autopsy by Dr. John Smith, a medical advisor for the DDHA. “Yep, link present and accounted for. Would’ve been easier to tell if they had left me more of his brain.”

5. Also known in one southwest church as “Kinseys”.

6. There were no known nun supervillains at the time. At the time.

7. Which was strange, as most of the comics burned were at least ostensibly opposed to supervillainy.

8. Despite the keen edge of Occam’s razor, suggesting a mythological hero or monster was simply a superhuman often earns one sideways looks in academia. As Dr. Bartholomew Finch, a prominent voice in superhuman studies put it, “When ya specialize in anything, whether you’re talkin’ medicine or history, you run the risk of putting everything a little interesting down to your own bugbear. Sometimes, sensory overload is caused by autism, not telepathy. And sometimes, our great, great-whatevers just had functioning imaginations… or they really pissed off Athena.”

9. By Robert Graves.

10. Adam was always a little foggy on whether Doc Savage was real or not.

11. She was interrupted at the last second by her frighted husband, and explaining your actions and getting on with it had not yet been invented. Others say Thetis dunked the infant Achilles in the River Styx, bar the heel by which she dangled him. This is generally considered apocryphal, as even forgetting that Achilles’ nigh-invulnerability was an invention of the poet Statius, the anecdote implies the notion of turning the baby around was beyond the goddess. 

12. Lawrence was too polite to not use the Physician’s proffered name in anything meant for public consumption.

13. The identity of the Crimson Comet was quietly revealed to the public in 1951. Given that the hero mostly worked in construction in his civilian life, this was not met with much fanfare.

14. Lawrence would always regret never finding a “mad scientist” for the New Human Institute, but such powers tended to escape the notice of the DDHA.

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Chapter Twenty-Six: The Most Startling Superhero of All!

Adam Sinclair sat by a rack of sundresses in the women’s fashion section of Boans Department Store, while his mother tried on what felt like every scrap of fabric in the place. Tea-towels included, probably.

Sinclair family holidays were never grand affairs. Every January, with more regularity than the seasons themselves, they would hitch up their Carapark toaster1 to the Holden and park themselves over in Dunsborough or Margaret River for about a fortnight. Maybe even Rottnest, if Mr. Sinclair’s bonus was good that year.

Pleasant enough, in Adam’s eyes, except that at the end of the Great Eastern Highway lay the city of Perth. This might not have been a problem, or likely even been a plus… if his mother hadn’t used their annual getaways to stock up on new clothes.

Adam was running his hands through the hems of some cheap floral blouses, bored out of his mind, when he noticed the hush spreading through the store. It started on the ground floor, and infected the shoppers who peered over the bannister to see what was the matter, only to quickly back as far away from the precipice as they could. The boy tried to get a look for himself, but his father had his hand on his shoulder, pulling him in close. In the sudden quiet, the boy could even make out the faint ching of one of the teller machines being opened.

There were voices. Young ones, full of merriment, echoing through the petrified store. The shoppers might as well have been especially lifelike mannequins.

Adam heard cabinets being opened, and another voice, this one plaintive and appeasing. Then a snap, almost lost in the screams.

Mr Sinclair’s arms tightened around his son.

Someone was coming up the escalator. Four someones, in fact. The youngest might have been seventeen, the oldest less than thirty. One, an ivory blonde girl in a fur boa that shared an unfortunate resemblance to a swollen caterpillar, rode on the bannister. Next to her was someone Adam recognized immediately:

“That’s the Fox—” His father clapped a hand over his mouth before he could finish. If the bespeckled, bored looking man in the too-big, orange zoot suit and matching wide-brimmed hat heard his name being used, he didn’t react. Too occupied with the pound notes he was counting, perhaps.

“We don’t have time for this,” he grumbled. “Still have three shops left on the rounds.”

“Aww, don’t be like that,” a boy further up the moving stairs called back. He looked around eighteen, maybe older: it was hard to tell given how short he was. He wore a leather vest covered with unfortunately identifiable stains, the cleanest thing on him the red neckerchief that lay untied around his neck. He had an arm around a somewhat older, dark-haired lady with a pageboy cut and a white flapper dress. As he smiled at her, his flat face, framed by shaggy, lank black hair, scrunched up briefly. “You’re always talking about getting our name out there.”

If the Coven still needed to get their name out by this point, then in all odds nothing would help. The cabal had shared dominion over the headlines with AU for well over a year now.  AU was definitely the more spectacular villain, but unlike him, they left bodies in their wake. When they made the papers, sometimes the Sinclairs wouldn’t even let their son look.

“We could call it a double date!” the woman in the flapper dress added.

The girl with the boa—Vixen, Adam wanted to say her name was—leaned in close to the Fox. “I want a new dress,” she cooed.

The Fox looked like he was considering pushing her off the escalator while he had the chance. “Fine,” he sighed, “but make it quick.”

Once upon the second floor, the Coven started circling towards women’s wear, wandering through motionless, terrified shoppers like a clutch of Gorgons. Now and then, the boy with the neckerchief would twig a nose or pull an ear, laughing whether their owners kept their composure or squeaked in fright.

The Fox rubbed his temples. “For God’s sake, Redcap.”  

Adam couldn’t decide if he was excited or terrified when the quartet stopped near him and his father. His mother, hopefully feeling the change in the air, hadn’t stepped out from her changing booth.

Pageboy spun a dress carousel, watching the resulting blur of colour thoughtfully. She raised a hand, snapping her fingers. “Attendant!”

Silence. A few more insistent fingersnaps. “Attendant!”

A Boans girl emerged from behind the perfume counter, picking her way towards the supervillainess. Adam thought she had to be the bravest woman in the whole world. “Y-yes… ma’am?”

Pageboy removed a few dresses from the rack. “Which of these do you think would look best on me?” Her question sounded casual, like she was asking her sister on a normal Saturday shopping trip.

“…That one,” the Boans girl said, pointing to a white gown broken up by blue, swooping wrens. She screwed her eyes shut, clearly expecting a trick.

The woman thought about it for a second. “Interesting choice. I’m already wearing white.”

“…But you’re gonna wear white again, surely?”

  The villain shrugged. “Fair cop.” She strode over to the row of changing rooms, and pulled aside one of their curtains.

Crouched low to the worn, well-trodden carpet, still in her underclothes, Mrs Sinclair stared up the other woman. Her eyes darted from the skull and crossbones tattoo on one shoulder to the skeletal hand clutching a heart on the other2 before settling on her bleached irises. “H-hello,” she stammered. Looking back, Adam could swear in the mirror behind her his mother was standing. Maybe it was the angle.

The tattooed woman smiled. “Recognised me, have you? Sorry to interrupt.”

From the linoleum walkway, Redcap and Vixen both laughed. The Fox just rolled his eyes. Their compatriot pointed back at the boy. “Don’t look too hard, Red. We all know how you like older women.”

He grinned. “Not that old.”

Turning back to Mrs. Sinclair, the villainess said, “Don’t worry, ma’am.” She uttered the last word like she was addressing a long mummified widow. “None of us mean you any trouble. That I know of.” She jabbed a thumb in the direction of the other Coven members. “My friends are their own people.”

The other woman smiled queasily. “I’m sure you don’t. I mean, all that stuff they print about you, it has to be lies—”

A grin. “Oh, it’s all true. But that’s business, just like all that stuff downstairs. Right now, I’m here to try on some dresses.” She raised her voice, addressing the whole store. “No different from any of you.” She quirked a shoulder, before adding at a more conversational volume “Well, I’m probably not paying for any of mine, to be honest.”

“Well how is that fair?” Redcap shouted. He glanced around at the other Covenanters, the Fox jerking back from him like he was infectious. “We don’t want these nice folks thinking we’re snobs, do we?” The young man ran towards the bannister, screaming “As of now, one time only, 100% percent off sale at Boans! Don’t bother the checkout lady on your way out, she’s nursing a broken arm!”

The Fox raised a hand. “No, no, absolutely not3.” His voice rang with an odd authority, like he was a septuagenarian judge handing down a doom, and not a twenty-something super-criminal of vague powers in a baggy suit. “Everyone is to remain in the store until ten minutes after I and my companions exit the premises. No one will remove anything from the store without paying—”

“No!” Redcap shouted. “You’re not going to spoil this for me!” He spun on his heels, pointing at a portly, bearded fellow trying to hide amongst a forest of trench coats. “You, garden gnome!”

The man gave up on his hiding place. “Yes?” he whimpered. No one held it against him, except, maybe, Redcap himself.

“Take something, and leave.”

The Fox sighed and pulled out a heavy, silver fob watch.

“I’m fine, really,” the object of Redcap’s attention said.

Redcap frowned while raising an eyebrow. “You won’t be if you don’t do as I say.”

As the unfortunate stood there and looked for something to shoplift, the white-eyed lady shot Mrs Sinclair a look of conspiratorial glee, as though sharing a joke only they of all the women in the world could hope to get.

Eventually, the fat man settled on one of the coats he had hoped would conceal him. Draping it over his left arm, he started making his way towards the escalator, glancing left and right at the other shoppers as he passed. His face looked apologetic, whether for leaving them to the Coven’s tender mercies, or for playing along with this mad child’s panto at all.

For a second, he made eye contact with Adam. The boy tried to nod encouragingly without moving his head.

As the man walked, he started to sweat. The perspiration was joined by tears. Then red started leaking into the saltwater.

As screams rose around him like a cresting wave, the man bled from every pore, blood spilling from his mouth like wine from a drunkard. Still, he kept walking, till he collapsed face down onto the escalator, the stairs carrying him away like a funeral barge.

“I love you,” Adam’s father whispered to him. “Me and your mum love you so much.”

The Fox looked disdainfully at the younger super. There was nothing like disgust in his eyes, Adam saw. Just the arrogant contempt of an older brother failing to be impressed. “And what was that for?” he asked, cooly.

Redcap grinned, saluting the other villain. “He didn’t do as you said, bossman.”

At the changing booths, his girlfriend asked Adam’s mother her name. Casually, as though the man she had just watched die had never been anything but an early, morbid Halloween decoration.

Shaking, she answered. “Jenny. Jennifer Sinclair.”

The woman extended a hand. “Fey,” she said. “Fey of Femurs4.”

The laughter that escaped Jenny was the kind you sometimes hear at funerals. There was a snap, and the laughter tapered off into a ragged scream.

“Mummy!”

It was then Adam saw him. Towering over Redcap, Vixen, and the Fox, there was a man.

Everything was all wrong. Wet bone was jutting from his mother’s arm. That poor man heaped at the bottom of the escalator was dead, all because he had done what those freaks had told him to. And didn’t Boans have a ceiling? And why was it night already?

The Coven had all turned to look at Adam. Fey of Femurs was wearing a smirk that spoke of angry, wounded pride. Adam was surprised. Did you really pick a name like that if you didn’t want people to laugh?

The bone-warper was saying something, but if any sound was coming out of her mouth, it didn’t reach Adam. Probably just a threat pretending to be a bad joke. What mattered to him right then was why the man with the starlit eyes wasn’t doing anything. Why wasn’t anyone stopping people like the Coven from going around doing whatever they wanted?

Adam stepped out from his father’s arms. It was surprisingly easy, like he was being held by a ghost.

“Ooh, we have a brave one here.”

The man made a shoving gesture. Adam followed suit.

“That’s not how you pray, kid.” Fey extended an arm, only to frown, seeming surprised to find her hand at the end of it.

Adam pushed his hands forward. For a second, he held the sun at his fingertips.

When the glare died away, you could see through Fey of Femurs’ chest. It didn’t bleed much. There was just the smell of charred meat. She blinked a few times, her mouth opening and shutting like a fish gasping for water, and then she fell.

“You little—” Someone knocked down Redcap before he could finish. The spell was broken; people were running for the exit, a few even leaping from the bannisters, some having to avoid the droplets running from the freshly melted hole in the store roof.

Adam wasn’t done yet, though. He ran at the prone Redcap, flipping him over and using one hand to pin him. The other was saved for punching him in the face.

“You. Hurt. My. Mum!”

His strikes were those of an angry amatuer. There shouldn’t have been any force behind them, yet every blow shattered a few more of Redcap’s teeth. One of them went through his cheek.

In a corner of men’s wear, the Fox was shouting into a makeup compact, a panicked Vixen hanging off his shoulder. “Super on the premises! Evac! Evac!”

Redcap winked away like a television being turned out, leaving Adam’s fist to crack into the floor. The solid wood gave way easily, while the lino covering it bent and wrapped around his hand.

The Fox followed not a second later, leaving Vixen clawing at the empty air. “Hey!” she shouted, realizing her predicament. “Heeeeeey!”

Adam felt hands around his waist lifting him up, holding him close to the chest of someone large. He pushed away, falling back to the floor. Someone yelled. His father.

He grabbed his son by the hand. His wife had her good hand wrapped around his forearm. “We have to go!”

They were gone before the DDHA arrived.  

It was evening when Alberto had the vision. He had been sitting in his room, enjoying a private, liquid desert while rereading his childhood copy of Cuore5 for at least the sixtieth time. It was one of the only possessions he had managed to hold onto when Lawrence and the others had snuck him out of Bovegno.

By all rights, he should have hated the story: a sappy, patronizing, thinly veiled morality tale of an Italy almost thankfully wiped away by the War. But nostalgia was a hell of a drug, and as a grown man, Alberto could appreciate the irony of the work of an avowed socialist being devoured by little wolf cubs across the country. Still, not the most thrilling of tales.

Maybe the vision had come to save him from the book. They were never dramatic, unless they involved fairly immediate threats to his person. It was more like the low whine of tinnitus, or the flashing of scales just beneath the surface of a deep, black lake.

He rolled his eyes: yet another sneak preview of a possible future student. He got those a lot; new enrollments sadly being the main delta of change around the Institute. Before the DDHA had almost put Alberto out of a job, these visions had been the main source of new supers for Bertie’s collection. The psychic let the old man think it was some kind of power-focused clairvoyance, which he seemed to believe, despite knowing full well his usual range. Thus Alberto was allowed to curate the combination of students that aggravated him the least. It was how he had gotten Windshear for bugging Maelstrom, Metonymy for restocking his favourite vintages, and—not to mention—Phantasmagoria for bugging Lawrence.   

Alberto wasn’t completely selfish, though. He had helped the Institute avoid some whoppers, too. Like the boy whose only power as far as he could tell was expelling porcupine like quills from his skin. And he thought he was tough! Or would have thought he was tough, Alberto wasn’t sure on the grammar. And then there was the girl who saw through all lies…

He shook his head, trying to dispel that never-memory. The esper didn’t particularly feel up to dealing with a new kid, but for want of anything better to do, he wandered down the hypothetical like a spelunker following a cave-line.

“Oh.” He grinned. Maybe he ought to give Lawrence a heads up after all.

When he felt like it.


1. So named due to their looking like the chrome appliances of a very chic giant.

2. This being before we started tattooing even our most milquetoast pop-stars.

3. The Fox would not have gotten as far as he had if hadn’t realized a protection racket required its targets to retain an income.

4. Fey of Femurs, mid-20th century Perthite supervillain. First known member of the Coven to be killed in action.

5. Or Heart.

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Chapter Twenty-Five: The Night Watch

It was the heat that woke Bran Davies his first night at the Institute. His mouth was dry, but his bed clothes were soaked with sweat. Less than six months earlier, when his family had first clambered off the Fairsky at Newcastle, the heat had been its own thrill. It was like all the Welsh summers he’d lived through in Dolgellau had been poorly staged recreations of the ones they put on down here.   

Now, though, he was getting sick of it. It was supposed to get cold at night, damn it. Why else would they have invented blankets?

Bran reached for the already drained glass on his bedside table. Dipping his fingertip into the thin skin of water still coating the bottom, he stirred up its past, feeling the cool wet rise over his knuckle.

The boy gulped down the new-old water greedily. He needed air—and to get rid of the first glass of water. He glanced around Wallaby dormitory. Nobody else seemed to be awake, and the only sounds were gentle breathing, the conversation of crickets, and the water-witch’s son’s quiet whimpers. For everyone else, the nightmares Bran had been warned of had either passed or not yet come. To his relief, moonlight had bleached the darkness from the dorm like a painting left in the sun. He had never coped well in the dark.     

When he wrenched himself from his hammock, Bran realized he wasn’t the only child out of bed. One of the hammocks was empty, and the door was ajar. He hoped this meant they had license to wander after bedtime. None of the teachers had said they didn’t. But then again, it wouldn’t be the first time in recent memory Bran had got it for breaking some unexplained, grown up rule.

His bladder left him no choice. He stepped out into the night.   

That business soon sorted, Bran took a moment to survey the New Human Institute. His new home, Dr. Lawrence had promised him.

It was funny, really, seeing it this way. Deserted, lit only by the cold, silvered light of a thousand distant, indifferent suns; their only competition the few lights still glowing in the windows of the great, manoral farmhouse and the cottage of that trembly science teacher.

Not even the same sky, he realized.

He was searching for the fabled Southern Cross when he heard the girl’s voice. “New boy?”

Bran startled, turning to find a girl standing behind him, a book held folded around her hand. She was a couple years older than him, blonde; he remembered her shooting him a smile a few times at dinner. It had helped, a little—made him feel more at home.

“Ah, yeah. You’re…”

“Artume,” she finished, frowning slightly. “Not Atrume, Artume.”

“Okay…”

She shook her head. “Sorry, sorry, lotta people get it wrong for some reason.”

The boy extended a hand. “I’m Bran.”

Artume laughed. “Don’t bother telling me your name. You’re not going to be using it long.”

“Oh, yeah, that. Not sure what I’m going to pick.”   

“We don’t get to pick.” The girl sat down in the grass. “Care to join me?”   

Bran took the suggestion. “Good book?” he asked. By the starlight, he could just make out its title: Children of the Atom. On its dust jacket, a boy and a girl stood huddled together with their backs to a baying, greyscale mob, their shadowed eyes empty of everything except hate and fear. The girl looked like she rather thought the boy ought to tear his attention away from whatever he was looking at and pay some mind to the crowd behind them.  

Artume glanced at the hardback as though she had forgotten she was holding it. “Hmm? Yeah, I guess. Lawrence told me to read it. Said it was ‘prophetic’.”

“What’s it about?”

“Buncha radioactive scientists have super-babies—boring ones, though, they’re all just really smart—and an old bloke gathers them all together at a special school because people don’t like them much.”

Bran snickered, raising a grin from Artume. “Yeah, I know, right? I think I liked More Than Human better. Least those kids had real powers.” She tilted her head. “You from England or something? You don’t sound Aussie.”

The boy scowled. “Wales.”

The girl’s smile brightened. “My grandmother was from Wales. Couldn’t sleep?”

“Too hot. What about you?”

She shrugged. “I don’t really sleep. Well, one night a week, but only a couple hours, tops. One of my powers, I think.”

“Isn’t that just insomnia?”

A giggle. “Maybe. Still, the grown-ups let me walk around at night when it’s warm.” She puffed out her chest. “Call me the night-watch. Want to see what else can I do?”

Bran nodded.

Beside Artume, the darkness pooled and thickened, flowing into itself like tar, until it had formed a ring of sorts, like a hole opening all the way to the centre of the Earth, lightless. Bran felt that if he dropped a coin into that abyss, he wouldn’t hear it hit the bottom; even if it had a bottom.

Artume plunged her hand into the rent, rifling through as if it was a purse, until she appeared to find whatever it was she was looking for. Some of the darkness came away as she pulled her hand out, spiralling and dispersing into the night air like unsettled fog. In her hand was a bottle of Coke, plated with frost.

“Lawrence says my power generates an other-dimensional pocket filled with a dense, non-refractive gas analogue that I manipulate via charged electromagnetic fields, accessible via localized temporal-spatial distortions.”

“…What does that even mean?”

No one knows. What I do know is that this bottle’s been in there for weeks and it’s still frosty. Maybe time goes slower in the dark or something.” She offered the cool drink to her new acquaintance.

Bran took the bottle gratefully, pulling off the cap with his teeth, only to jerk back as the liquid within frothed out the neck and flooded his nostrils, Artume laughing as he sputtered. Clever girl. Clever, evil girl.

Dropping the Coke, the boy glared at her, before snatching the cap off the ground. The unopened glass bottle coalesced beneath it, and—giving it a good shake for luck’s sake—he shoved it Artume’s face and opened it.

“Gaaah!”    

Bran was already up and running by the time his new friend gave chase.

“It’s going to be alright, Metonymy,” Basil said, resting a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “It’s only Artume. You’re friends. You’ll do fine.”

Bran took a deep breath, and genuinely tried to believe what the older man was saying. But he knew, somewhere deep down inside, that he was going to mess it all up. Why did it have to be Artume? Why couldn’t it be Reverb, or Ex? Someone who didn’t give him the time of day, who he could be pathetic with and not have it matter. Why’d it have to be Artume? He liked Artume! Heck, a little bit of him had been hoping he’d get to do one with her and he hated that bit of him right now.

“Hey, Met,” Basil said. “I appreciate you replacing my clothes, but you don’t have to do it five times.” Metonymy flinched, suddenly aware of the leather shirts strewn around his feet. Had he been doing it again? Damn it.

“… Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” his teacher said, his voice low and gentle. “Listen. You just go in there, you listen to what she tells you, and you’ll be fine. You’re not gonna hurt her, and she won’t think any less of you when it’s done.”

“… She’ll tell me?” Bran asked. “W-what to do?”

“If you ask her to,” Basil murmured. “Let her take the reins. Makes it easier to stay friends afterwards, okay? Trust me. I’ve talked a lot of kids through this.”

“… T-thanks. Thanks, Basil.”

“Don’t mention it. Now, go on. You’ve got this, kiddo.”

He turned towards the door, and felt a leather clad hand slap him lightly on the back. He didn’t look back, couldn’t bring himself to. He opened the door and stepped inside, his heart thumping in his chest like a brass drum.

“Hey, Met.”

“H-hey Artu-” Oh, God. She was naked. Why was she naked already? Metonymy considered turning out the lights, but that would be unfair. Darkness hid nothing from Artume, and surely she had worse to look at. And the part of him he hated wanted to keep looking. The part that was a mammal and not a boy. Or maybe it was nothing but boy.

“Kept me waiting, pal,” The girl said, smiling across the bedroom at him, a trace of sadness tugging at her cheek. “… You okay?”

“I… I think so.” Oh God. Oh God. No. She was so pretty and this was so wrong and God, why was it so hot all of a sudden? He felt a heat rushing to his face, a tightness in his chest… and his pants.

“Ah, there we go” Artume sighed, glancing down, her smile growing melancholy as she saw. “… So, you do like me, huh?” She laughed half-heartedly. “It probably sounds silly, but I was almost hoping you wouldn’t, you know?”

“… I’m sorry.” He mumbled, looking down towards the floor, ashamed. “… Y-you’re my friend—big sister, really, but… You’re still… still pretty… I’m sorry.”

For the longest time, she didn’t answer; then, finally:

“Yeah,” she muttered bitterly. “I’m sorry, too. Take your pants off. Let’s just do this.”

He hesitated for a moment, then reached down and began fumbling with the button of his shorts. He felt like scum. Why had he wanted this? Why had he wanted anything like this, and why was the awful, traitorous little thing between his legs still so damn ready?

The shorts fell to the floor around his ankles, his underpants following a moment later. He looked up at her, gazing across at his crotch dispassionately, and, in the weakest voice he’d ever heard, asked:

“Are—are we still gonna be friends a-after?” He felt his voice crack a little towards the end, the last words coming out a little choked. “I… I wanna still be friends… Please?”

He wasn’t sure how he’d been expecting her to respond to that, really, but it certainly wasn’t with tears.

“… I hope so,” she whispered. “I-I really do.” She lifted an arm to her face, and wiped the tears away with her wrist. “Heh,” She laughed wetly. “I’ve made this awful already, haven’t I?”

Bran laughed too at that. He didn’t know what else to do. He felt something wet on his cheeks.

“… Well,” she smiled. “We should fix that. C’mere.” She extended her hands, beckoning.

Hesitantly, the boy stepped forwards towards her, crossing the few short feet between them in just three or four strides. He found himself wishing he’d taken shorter steps. Then he was in front of her, and it was even harder not to look. Why’d she have to be so pretty?

“It’s okay, Met,” she whispered, her hands resting lightly on his shoulders. “It’s okay. Don’t be sad. Smile. You’re cute when you smile.” Then, she leaned in, and gave him a kiss.

It was confusing. All of it. What sort of cute did she mean? She was bigger than him. Why was he so sad, when was his body so excited? Why was he so excited? Her lips were so soft and warm. Why didn’t that help?

She pulled away, and gave him another smile, small and sad.

“Hey, wanna make a deal?” she asked.

“… What kinda deal?” He mumbled, forcing himself not to look away.

“… A way to stay friends, I think,” she replied. “You’re a boy. I’m a girl. We’ve both got… stuff. A-and… we both have… well, you’ve had dreams about girls, right?”

Bran nodded, a touch less ashamed. He’d had his first one a few months ago. Melusine. He wasn’t even original in his lust. He hadn’t been able to look Maelstrom in the eye for almost a week, and the boy had noticed; not that he wasn’t used to it.

“Well… what if we… we just explore?” Artume asked, her cheeks scarlet. “As friends. No judging.”

“… Promise?” He asked, not quite able to believe her.

“Yeah,” she whispered. “Honestly… I was… thinking of doing that with you anyway. Letting it be our thing, instead of theirs. I guess we lost that chance… But… you know… we could still make it ours?” She gave him another smile, shy and nervous; excited.

He’d have given anything to be able to believe it.

“… Okay.”

Metonymy sat waiting on Basilisk’s plastic wrapped bed, draped in a spare dressing gown, staring at the floor through the gap in his knees. Żywie was tending to Artume first, of course. Had to make sure that, well, he took. Metonymy was glad to be spared the possibility of a repeat performance, but that made him feel like even more of a monster.

He felt a gloved clad hand come to rest on his back, another holding a disposable cup in front of him, a wisp of steam rising from it. The boy didn’t move.

“Come on, boy,” Basil said, giving the boy a pat. “I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you think. You’re not the sort to hurt he—”

“It was awful,” Metonymy muttered, staring at the cup without raising a hand to it. “Not just for her. For me. I-I know she still likes me—and I still like her—but is it meant to be so… weird?” He glanced up at his teacher for a moment, saw the stony look in his eye, and quickly averted his gaze. “I mean, it felt… okay, I guess. But it was just so gross! Why is that supposed to be fun?”

Basilisk sighed. “First times are always a little disappointing, Met. And a lot of fun things kind of get spoiled when you make it into a job. You build this sort of thing up in your mind, and nothing’s going to live up to your expectations. Especially when you’re young.”

“Then why do we have to do it when we’re young?”

Before Basil could answer—if he even was going to answer—Lawrence stepped into the room, beaming proudly. He strode over and slapped Metonymy on the back “There’s the man of the hour!”

Funny, after all that, Metonymy felt younger than he had in years.

Despite the lack of reply, Lawrence kept going. “I have to say, you’re handling this with a lot more dignity than many others boys would, I expect.” He chuckled. “More than many have, in fact.” When Bran refused to look at him, he sighed. “Metonymy, you do understand the beauty of what we’re creating here, yes? Children who may grow to change the whole world some day. Can you imagine it, young man? A new human with Artume’s control of space, combined with your mastery over states and time? My boy, this is a great day. I think you’ll see that, when you meet your child.”

It was everything Bran could manage in that moment to sit still. He wondered, in the back of his mind, if he could push his power a little. Revert the old man to his own infancy. He pushed the thought from his mind.

“…Can you leave me alone, please?”

Artume, Metonymy, and Ēōs lay spread out under the evening stars, Artume mapping out the constellations for her younger sister. She’d performed this nighttime ritual many times over, to the point where Ēōs probably knew each constellation’s story better than the god who had placed it in the sky, but Artume still did it whenever the little girl asked—each time swearing it would be the last.

Personally, Metonymy always thought the matter of which stars connected which seemed fairly arbitrary. “You can make any shape you want with whatever stars you like,” he’d said more than a few times over the years. Oftentimes, he’d go on to prove his point by weaving the stars into absurd, vulgar arrangements: The Three Fleeing Idiots, or the Weeping Mealy, and almost every part of the human body.

At that point Ēōs, with her earnest brown eyes obscured by her sister’s golden hair, would glare at Metonymy and—without taking her reproachful gaze off the boy—tell her big sister to keep telling her about the real constellations.  

“…So Orion was this big old giant hunter that Linus’ auntie had a big crush on. Did you know that his name just means “piss” in Greek? No, really.”  

Ēōs did, in fact, know that, but she still giggled. “And he walked on water, didn’t he? Mealy got off so lucky…”

That first night at the Institute, when the chase had died down and Artume had mentioned having a sister at the Institute, Metonymy had incorrectly pictured twins. The five year age gap had taken him by surprise, though not so much as the fact that only Ēōs had been born with her powers.

“How’d you get yours?” he’d asked.

“There was a man.”

Metonymy had soon gotten used to that answer. Aside from a few outliers like Stratogale and Elsewhere, it was either that, or born blessed and cursing the dark. Dozens of books, all opened to the same page.

“So, Linus’ dad got jealous—gods are weird, don’t ask—so he sent this scorpion…”

Metonymy was pretty sure Artume didn’t hate him, not yet at least. Why would she still wake him up for this sorta thing if she did?

“Sheilah,” Ēōs rarely kept to the Namings after dark, “did Żywie tell you what the baby was going to be?”

In the dark, Sheilah blinked. It was still so easy to forget the married day had even happened. Her belly hadn’t started swelling, and the loathing for Metonymy she feared would rise in her had not come. She wasn’t even feeling sick yet. God knew she liked it that way.

But why shouldn’t Dawn be excited? She was going to be an auntie, and their friend was going to be the daddy. And one day, she would give the baby a cousin. Or a little brother or sister, she thought, remembering Stratogale.

“Yeah,” she said, “a boy.”

Dawn nuzzled against her side. “What do you think you’ll call it?”

Artume sighed. “We don’t get to pick.”

 

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Chapter Twenty-Four: Married Days

Mabel Henderson sat craned in the gentle shadow of her concealing copse of yarri and honeysuckle, drawing paper, crayons, and colour pencils spread out before her. She was scribbling away intensely, occasionally glancing up from her scratchings to study the grey breasted robin hopping around and spreading its wings photogenically in the dust. Its feathers had a painted sheen to them, and from certain angles appeared almost flat.

Mabel liked art. She liked looking at it, and she liked putting it to work for her. So when someone (she wanted to say Brit, or maybe Haunt was the culprit1) had told her how funny it was that she of of all people couldn’t even draw a realistic stick-figure2, she had taken it to heart. Why should she—Phantasmagoria herself—need rely on the imagination of others just to work her power?

And so, she had set herself to the task of learning how to draw, freeing herself from the yoke of artists and illustrators. Then, Mabel reasoned, she would be just shy of God Herself, and—more importantly—would open up a whole new world of staging opportunities for the Watercolours.

However, like a man who sits down and tries to teach himself himself Greek after growing up on The Odyssey, Mabel soon discovered that learning anything often ran counter to actually enjoying it. She couldn’t figure out how the people who did the covers of her pulps gave cityscapes of paint on flat paper such depth, or why her attempts to give her creations cheekbones always ended up looking like facial tumours, or why her birds ended up with far too much anatomy. She’d never realized how clumsy her fingers were.

Still, her father wouldn’t have given up, so neither would she.

Mabel had made some noise to Lawrence about hiring an art tutor, but the headmaster had shot down the idea.

“But why?” Mabel had whined. “You bring in all these teachers for Allie—”

Lawrence had given her a look.

“I mean, you get all these teachers for Myriad.”

A chuckle. “Phantasmagoria, Myriad only needs a single session with an expert to learn everything they have to teach her. I doubt you could manage that feat.” He had put a hand on her shoulder then. For a moment, she felt like her dad was talking to her. “If they kept coming back, my dear, they might notice something they wouldn’t understand.”     

With that disappointment under her belt, she then asked Basilisk for help, not that she had expected much technical insight from him. Pen and pencil hardly lasted long enough in his hands for anything like art. Still, the man had a way of making even admissions of ignorance seem insightful; plus, he could order her books.

Aside from that favour, her teacher did have one bit of practical advice:

“Draw from life, girl. That’s what everything I’ve ever read about art tells people to do to get good at it.”  

It seemed like a good idea to Mabel… at first. The problem she found was that life is often defined by movement. Other children, wallabies, and freshwater penguins alike wouldn’t stay still long enough for her to capture them into wax and oil. Stratogale wouldn’t even make her birds pose for her. It occurred to her that she could have started with trees, buildings, rocks or even the river, but that sounded boring.

It had all seemed hopeless, but then, an idea occurred to Mabel. She might not have the patience for drawing from life, but surely anyone who managed to get work as a professional artist did. It only followed that any of their work projected onto reality should count as life.

She started with animals, partly because she had the vague idea that you had to start with naked people, and she couldn’t find any pictures of those she wanted to make real.   

Mabel stood up from her work, studying her drawing. She thought it was an improvement over her previous efforts with the robin, but in her mind, there was only one true test of quality.

She focused on the pulses beneath her skin. They were always there: skeins of nameless pressure wrapped around her veins. Invisible spheres—that’s what it felt like, at least—slipped out from under her fingernails. She pushed them down into the drawing, like she was working air bubbles out of an IV line, letting them burst when they sank into the paper.

Mabel had never quite figured out how to describe the feeling of bringing an image to life. It was breathing into it and pulling it through all at once, like giving a drowning man mouth-to-mouth while hoisting them onto the boat. It always made Mabel feel warm. She liked to think it had something to do with her father. Better that than fire.

Her robin appeared beside its inspiration, sending it twittering frantically into the branches.

The bird was deformed, its creator’s attempt at perspective having cursed it with one wing much shorter than the other, and two supernumerary talons on its left foot. It turned its head in profile to look at its creator, a plea for oblivion in both black eyes.

Mabel tore up her drawing, blinking back tears of frustration, angry grawlixes flashing above her head. That was the other reason she hadn’t started with human subjects. At least animals didn’t yell at her when she got them wrong.

Even then, it was a small comfort. There was a unique frustration to Mabel’s workaround. A real bird was careless in its perfection; a fine drawing was proof that someone, somewhere was much better at art than her.  

“Whatcha doing, Phantasma?”

Mabel turned to find Myriad standing behind her, clothes over her shoulder, the blue in her eyes and water-darkened hair tell-tale signs of an adventure with David. She looked away sharply. It wasn’t the first time Mabel had seen the other girl in such a state, but context is everything. “Allie, your clothes?”

“Oh, sorry.” There was a low hiss, followed immediately by a thunderclap. When Mabel looked back, the other girl was dry and dressed, her hair damp and frizzy. She repeated her question. “So, what were you doing?’

Some powers make people so lazy. “Nothing much, just drawing practise.”

Myriad smiled. “So you can make whatever you want? Neat…” She looked around at nothing in particular, before blurting out “…Did David walk through here?” She knew he had, of course, but it was what you asked.

David had indeed passed Mabel, tears frozen to his cheeks even as steam rose off his skin. That wasn’t a new sight for his friend. What had been new was how he hadn’t answered her when she asked what was wrong. David had never hesitated to share his many hurts with the girl before.

At least, not till lately.

Mabel nodded. “Yeah. Didn’t say anything, though.”

“Okay.” She sat down beside Mabel’s pile of rejected drawings; the ones that had only offended her enough to be crumpled, instead of shredded. She smoothed one of the paper carcasses flat again. “This one’s pretty good,” she lied kindly.

Mabel sat down beside her, trying to make it look like she believed the compliment. “Thanks. Were you and David in the river?”

Myriad’s face brightened. “Yep! We had a pirate battle! Then we turned the boats into the monsters!” She giggled. “I melted his turtle. Underwater.”

Lately, it had dawned on Mabel that there were really two kinds of supers in the world. There were the ones like herself, or Arn, or even Billy: simple doers of extra-things. Special, maybe, but in the same way Elvis Presley or Anne Bancroft were special.

Then there were supers like the Barthes, and maybe the Flying Man. The ones who lived differently from everyone else. The ones who got to do things lesser supers like her never would. The ones who didn’t need to be scared of the things she was.

“Uh huh.”

“Maelstrom ever take you under the water?”

Mabel shook her head. “He tried once, in a bubble. I almost drowned.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.” Until now, it had been.

“Mabel?”

“Yeah?”

“You’ve known about the married days a while, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Since when?”

“Since I asked Żywie why the big girls were getting so fat.”

At least you weren’t too wrapped up in yourself to notice, a low, bitter voice in the back of Mabel’s head whispered.

Myriad frowned. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

Mabel suddenly felt very hot. “I-I thought about it. It’s just—I like you guys. I didn’t want you to get freaked out. Does Billy even know where babies come from?”

Myriad shook her head.

Mabel let out a half-laugh. “You’re the one explaining that to him, not me.”

“…It feels weird, don’t you think?” Myriad asked. “Just… knowing that’s… gonna happen, someday.”

“I guess so,” Mabel replied. “But is it that different from out there? Only weirdos don’t have kids when they grow up.”

“Lawrence doesn’t have any kids.”

“Not that we know about.”

Myriad giggled. “He has us.”

Mabel didn’t seem to see the humour. “He didn’t have to make us.”

“…Do you think it hurts?”

Mabel remembered the blood pooled between her mother’s legs. “…Your power has weird gaps, Allie.”

“Not that. The part that comes before.”

Mabel gave her a disgusted look. “Eww. I don’t wanna think about that!”

Myriad sighed. “Well, me neither. But it’s still there, isn’t it? It’s still gon-”

“I’m learning to draw!” Mabel overrode her loudly, almost angrily. “That’s what I’m doing today. I’m learning to draw so I can make my powers better and so that I don’t have to think about the gross, stupid grown up stuff we’re gonna have to do when we’re big! No! It’s not good. No, it’s not fair! It stinks! But it’s gonna happen, so stop making people miserable by bringing it up, stupid!”

Myriad opened her mouth, then closed it again. There wasn’t anything to say to that. It wasn’t as if she could say Mabel was thinking about it wrong, but there was something about the timbre of her song in that moment, something very sad.

“Is there other stuff that’s… just too sad for you to think about?”

Mabel didn’t answer that. Not with words, at least. Myriad didn’t even see the slap coming. All she knew was that a few moments later her cheeks were smarting, and Mabel was stomping off back to the Institute.

Haunt lazily flicked shillings through the east wall of the barn, peering through the solid timber as they landed in the hay. He had picked up the habit in the hope of either refining his power, or maybe just pinging one of the Watercolours in the side of the head. He’d stopped doing it while they were inside after a long lesson from Żywie on the physiological effects of a coin lodged in the brain, but it was still a good way to a warm, floating boredom.

“You really should give these a try,” Growltiger said from the patch of clover he was lying in, a thin hardback covering his face.

“Read what?” asked Haunt, as if he didn’t already know.

Billy missed the sarcasm. “The Famous Five!” He jumped to his feet, pausing only to gently place his book on the ground like it was his own newborn child. “They’re great! They go on adventures and solve mysteries, and-”

“And eat scones,” Haunt interjected, deadpan. “And frolic, and play around for ever and ever in a world where even the poor people are happy and the baddies never do more than tie them up.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Billy asked, sounding a little defensive.

“Tiger,” Haunt sighed. “Remember how we were attacked by a supervillain? Think he would’ve just tied us up?”

Growltiger thought on this for a moment, before: “… Yes,” he said finally. “Yes, I think he’d only have tied us up. Didn’t you think it was kinda weird how none of us got really hurt? We were fighting a supervillain.”

“Look,” Haunt groaned. “My point is, they’re silly. They’re kid books, and that’s fine, because you’re a kid. But they aren’t like real life.”

There was silence between them for a long while after that.

“… And what’s wrong with that?” Billy asked, his voice shaky. “What’s wrong with wanting to read about a world where everything’s nice and safe and okay?”

“…. Fine. Name one book, and I’ll read it, even though it’s gonna be crap.” Haunt finally deigned to look around at the other boy, waiting for him to give his single, stupid book recommendation.

Growltiger grinned, picking up his book off the grass. “That one! Five Go Off in a Caravan!” He handed it to Haunt. “It has circuses!”

Haunt looked down at the book’s bright, delicately etched cover, before making, a show of flicking to a random page. “You have to admit these books are corny, Growly. All that food! No wonder they’re always going on bloody adventures, otherwise they’d crush their bikes under them.”

Billy looked dejected. “Mabel likes them.”

Haunt groaned. “Why does it matter so much that I like this stuff? You read what you like—I don’t care.”

“… Can I ask you something?” Billy was staring at the ground, his lower lip trembling slightly.

Haunt sighed, bracing himself. “Fine.”

“How—” Billy swallowed. “When the other kids say things about you being…”

“A boong?” Haunt offered.

“Y-yeah,” the boy opened his mouth to elaborate, then closed it again. He did this twice.

“What?” Haunt asked with suppressed irritation.

“… Why does being different hurt?” The boy mumbled, breathing in a short, sharp breath through his nose that Haunt recognized all too well as a sniffle. “I thought the others would stop once I got my name, but they keep doing it! Even the ones who let me play with them call me stuff all the time.”

Haunt rolled his eyes, reaching down between his feet to toy with a stray root. “It just does, Bill. Always has, always will.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

Haunt sat him down. “Look, when someone acts like a dickhead at you, you don’t let them think it bothers you.”

“I don’t!” Billy cried. “I laugh at all their jokes, and that just makes them make more!”

“No,” set Haunt. “You don’t laugh with them. That’s more obvious than crying. You have to make them think it doesn’t bother you at all. Then you throw something back at them.”

“Like a rock?”

“No, not like—jokes, Tiger! Mean as you can make them. You remember when Abalone saw you coming out of the toilets?”

“Yeah?” Billy answered, wondering where the older boy was going with this. “He said I was supposed to use the litter-box.”

“Little shit,” Haunt said, with no particular venom. There was something Billy found thrilling about the other boy’s swearing. “Right, next time he says something stupid like that, you say something about him pissing the bed.”

“…Why?”

“Because he does.”

“No, I mean, why do I need to be nasty back?”

“Because they’ll never leave you alone if they think you’re soft.”

Billy thought about this. “But they still make jokes about you. And Basil sometimes, too. And Mealy—”

“Mealy is his own thing, Bill. And I didn’t say they would stop, because they won’t. Not forever. Sometimes, maybe, after a long time, they might forget you’re different long enough to let you be their friend.”

Growltiger collapsed back onto the grass, eyes cast down between his knees. “Is that really the best we get?”

“Fraid so, mate.”

“What are we talking about?” Myriad said, her wireframe form floating up from the earth like a spirit from Hades.

Haunt startled, jumping backwards. “Jesus—is that what it’s like on the other side of that?”

Billy giggled. “Yup.”

The pair watched as the girl’s features were sketched in. She tried to smile. “Guess so. Um, you two seen Maelstrom or Phantasma?”

Haunt frowned thoughtfully, finding his composure again. “Well, it’s been a couple years, so I figure I’ve seen those two a few times, yeah.”

Billy laughed as Myriad rolled her eyes. “I saw Mealy pacing around the garden,” he chimed in. “He was muttering a lot, and a bunch of the pumpkins exploded.” Earnestly, he added “Someone should remind him about pants.”

“I haven’t seen Phantasma since breakfast,” said Haunt. “I did see a dragon skulking around the bush ‘bout an hour ago—a very ugly dragon.”

“She’s learning how to draw,” explained Myriad. “Don’t be mean.”

Haunt hummed, whether in agreement or not Myriad couldn’t tell.

She tapped her foot a few times. “Ah, Haunt.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re eleven, right?”

Haunt shrugged. “Last time I checked. Żywie says I don’t get any older while I’m a ghost, so maybe knock a month or two off. Why?”

Myriad whistled slightly. “So, it can’t be long before your first married day?”

The boy’s lip twitched. “That’s still years away, Miri.” He was actually making eye contact with her.

“Not that many,” she replied. “Two or three, maybe.”

Haunt reminded himself that two or three years ago, Myriad was in kindergarten. “Why are you asking about married days anyway?”

“It’s just… it’s weird to think about, you know?” Her words started to run together. “And Mabel said it wasn’t fair and that it stinks and stuff and—”

Haunt threw a hand up, silently cursing God for making little kids. “I get it, I get it. What exactly do you want me to tell ya, Miri?”

Myriad lowered her head. “That it’s worth it? That it’s not that weird? And if it is, what do we do about it?”

Haunt patted the ground beside him. “Come sit down, Miri.”

“…I can stand.”

Haunt grinned. It never suited him. “Aww, come on, you need to be comfortable for this.”

“She—Miri should stand if she wants to.”

“Aww, don’t be silly, Bill. This is a historic moment. We’re gonna teach Myriad a lesson.”

Myriad was starting to see why Haunt had wanted to be part of The Tempest. With some trepidation, she sat down beside the boys.

Haunt leaned forward, his hands folded. “Hey, Miri, mind telling us what year Captain Cook landed at my great–great-whatever granddad’s back garden?”

“1770.”

“Nice, round number, innit? Can ya tell Billy here where the famous Tom Long lived before he came to the Institute?”

“…That Talos?”

Haunt’s bluster popped like a balloon. “Well, I guess we know what your power thinks isn’t worth knowing, huh.”

“Oh. Sorry… Tom?”

“It’s alright, Myriad,” Tom said. He sounded like he meant it. “Wandering, by the way. Wandering Mission. And no, that ain’t a containment centre. Not for demis, at least.”

A few disparate facts came together in Myriad’s head. “That’s one of the places they send half-caste kids, isn’t it?”

Haunt nodded. “Yep. To be honest, the freak-finders aren’t a new thing. They just started going after white kids sometimes.”      

“What does that have to do with married days?”

Tom tried not to let himself get angry at the girl. Edward Taylor knew what he was like when he got mad. “What I’m saying, Miri, is that I got taken off my parents and put in some awful kid-jail, just like you did.”

“Why’d they do that?” Billy asked. “Couldn’t they look after you?”

At least that distracted Tom from Myriad. He sighed. “Nah, Billy, they could. Dad was a”—it was only then that Haunt realized he couldn’t name his father’s profession—“boilerman.” That seemed like a plausible enough guess. It would explain the old fella’s overalls. “Never that much money around the house, but me and my brothers and sisters never starved or anything.”

“So why’d they take you?”

“Oh, lots of reasons. Not the nicest place, Wandering. The Christian Brothers weren’t very big on things likes maths, but they’d flog ya good if you didn’t act white enough. I mean, I was lucky, sort of. Dad was pretty Anglo, really, but some kids I knew there could barely English! And if you were a girl…” He shook his head. “No, not very nice. Do you two want to know what the secret of the world is? Grown ups, especially poms like Lawrence—”

“Lawrence is Australian,” Myriad pointed out.

“Yeah, but he wishes he was a pom.” Although, maybe an Aussie trying to be a Brit is better than a bunch of Brits coming over and saying they’re the real Aussies. “Point is, they always want something from you, or want to change you, or who knows what else. And you know what? As far as grown ups-in-charge go, Lawrence isn’t that bad. Yeah, he’s a weirdo who wants us to give him babies, but his tucker’s good, the company’s alright, and at least he likes us. More than I can say for the Christian Brothers. I mean, no one takes us away to do stuff to at night and sometimes we go months without anyone getting thrashed.” He stretched out in the grass, eyes closed like he was one moment of quiet away from a long, summer nap. “Way I see it, that ain’t a bad deal for a bit of lying back and thinking of Kuranda.”

Myriad looked at him. Even with his eyes shut, Haunt could tell his summation of the situation hadn’t satisfied her. That was the nice thing about X-ray vision. “That’s how you get through life, childlers,” he said. “You hitch yourself to the least awful bossman you can find, and hope he doesn’t bother you too much till you die.”

“That really what you think?” asked Myriad. “About the married days and all?”

“I don’t think about them that much,” Haunt lied. “Why don’t you go bug one of the big girls about it? They’re the ones dealing with this crap.”

“Fine, I will.”

As the girl huffed off towards the farmhouse, Haunt’s mind wandered down an old but ill-loved path. It was overgrown with thorns that bit at his ankles, but steep enough that the only way he could avoid tumbling head over heel was to keep walking.

Lawrence often said that, one day, every child alive would be posthuman. His predictions about such a world were close to open fantasy:

“Imagine it, children,” he had begged them one pitiless winter night, when the whole Institute (much smaller then) had taken their supper clustered around the parlour fire. “Everyone with a purpose, something they are uniquely born to. Generations of doctors like our Żywie, mending flesh with a touch; children like little Maelstrom pulling forests out from under the Sahara.”

Żywie and Maelstrom both shrank into the corner of their shared couch—Żywie perhaps because of her barrenness, and Maelstrom because that was just his way.

“Um, Laurie,” Britomart, not even six then, had interrupted. “What happens if one of the doctor kids want to be a firefighter?”

It was a good question, Haunt had thought, but there was another that dug at him. Lawrence never talked about the world between the one they lived in and the one he dreamed of. The one where supers ruled, but their predecessors were not yet a memory.

Tom could imagine it. The few, dwindling naturals—if that word still even made sense—herded onto the poorest country, the lands the supermen could find no better use for. For their own good, of course. Far kinder than forcing them to navigate a world that had no use for them. Maybe, in their kindness, the supermen would leave them labour they couldn’t bother themselves with. And when a lucky child among them manifested powers, they would of course be taken to be raised with their own kind. They would forget their parents soon enough; better a moment of grief than a life wasted among a dying race.

The consistency of history was almost a comfort to Thomas Long—he didn’t know what he’d do if things actually improved.

“Tom?”

“Yeah, Bill?”

“Who do you think I’ll have a married day with?”

“…Dunno, mate.” Awful choice of words. “Maybe Brit?”

He didn’t know who was served worse by that lie.

Ex-Nihilo lay on a bed of spider-silk, woven between the branches of the tallest trees she could find, a glass staircase spiraling around one of its trunks. It had taken her a while to figure out how to coax her protoplasm into adopting its substance, but like most everything else, it was still just a few chemicals in a line. She had fretted about huntsmen or even redbacks and funnel-webs smelling out the hammock and claiming it as a squat, but so far none had come. Maybe they knew a knock-off when they saw it.  

Hanging the thing up was more of a chore, but Gwydion had provided Ex-Nihilo one of his weird platforms. That boy had been doing everything in his power to please her and her sisters, ever since his first married day, and every kindness made them hate him a little more.

Still, it was a rare escape from the frantic joy of younger children, and slight relief from the first blows of summer. Ex-Nihilo had never much enjoyed the warm months, and the child inside her seemed to agree. It was like it was sweating inside her. She was a great, bloated whale, struggling through a syrupy, kettle-hot sea.

“Ex?”

The voice came from below her: high pitched, but slightly husky, too. Ex-Nihilo always thought it sounded like it was recovering from a coughing jag. “Myriad?”

The little girl’s voice was laced with wonder. “Is that you up there?”

“Who else would it be?”

“…Shelob?”

Myriad almost felt the teenage scowl wafting down from above her. “Ha. Ha.”

“Was only joking. Do ya mind if I come up and take a look?”

Ah, so this was it, Lana thought. The small ones had found her refuge already. Soon enough the hordes would be using it as a trampoline, or worse. Probably break their necks doing it, and then who would they blame? But if she told Myriad to buzz off, then no doubt she’d go and whine to Basil, or Laurie, and then she’d get told off for not behaving in the proper sisterly spirit.

“We all have a role to play in shaping the children, Ex-Nihilo,” Lawrence would say.

And some of us got double-cast. “Sure, I guess.”

She heard a thump, and the leaves above her rattled. A moment later, she saw Myriad scuttling up one of the anchor trees, her back against the bark, facing forward. She grinned, clearly proud of herself.

Lana couldn’t help but be impressed, but she also couldn’t help but feel unsettled by the sight. The child looked… insectile. Then again, surely insects would rather be able to see their legs when they climbed? “…There were stairs, you know.”

“More fun this way.” She launched herself from the tree trunk, landing beside Ex-Nihilo and sending the hammock swaying in the air for a few shuddering seconds.

The older girl gripped the silk tight. She found herself thinking back to the dead mother from The Secret Garden. At least with Żywie around, the kid wouldn’t be a hunchback3. Thankfully, as her perhaps too cursory research had suggested it would, the cloth held true. “Jesus, Miri.”

Myriad stretched out, looking up through the leafy canopy to the blue, unblemished sky above. She thought it was like what a crowded marina would look like from underwater, each leaf drifting around like the shadows of boats at anchor. “How long until your baby comes?”

Ex-Nihilo shrugged. “Couple of months.”

Myriad stared at the older girl’s belly. All that, from a couple of cells. An entire life—from beginning to end—from just that lump of flesh. “What’s it feel like?”

Ex-Nihilo looked at the little girl. If she had known in advance what Myriad was going to ask, she probably would have called her a mongrel and thrown her off the hammock, without a care whether or not she found a song or whatever that might cushion the impact. But as it was, all she saw was her own past: a gap on the canvas where the old image hadn’t quite been painted over yet. Herself, back when she and her sisters’ biggest concern was whether they’d go swimming that day; herself, back when Linus might as well have been a strangely shaped girl. Herself, back when she had wondered what Melusine’s baby would look like. Before the joy of curiosity had been ruined by the answer.

“They say it changes everything, sex,” Lana said. “As soon as they tell us what it even is, it’s all about how special it is, and how having it too early or too late or with the wrong bloke will ruin everything. But it didn’t change me.” She figured if there was any child she could be frank with, it was Myriad. “I mean, it was weird and sticky, and I’ve had a better time with my own fingers, but I didn’t feel anymore grown up or dirty or anything, least once I had a shower. And Linus was good about it.”

Better than Gwydion, at least. That awful, nervous mix of fear and shame and excitement. And he was so small.

“So it’s not so bad?”

Lana didn’t answer immediately. “What does change you? Being a mother. I don’t know if we’re ‘mums’, but we are mothers. You spend nearly a year with this kid growing inside you. There’s this heat. You feel it all the time, even when you’re asleep, really. Żywie told me once that having a baby changed the way your DNA worked a little, and I believe her. And even once it’s out, the kid’s still part you. Just this little piece of yourself that you’ll never get back, that’ll be walking around doing things even after you’re dead. And you hope it will be, because you love it. Babies are like drugs, Myriad. Every chemical in your body forces you to love them. It was weeks before I could even look at Spitfire without getting my blouse wet with milk.”

Myriad squirmed a little. “That doesn’t sound—”

“And you can hate them, too, right along with the love.”

“…Why?”

“Because they’re how they keep us where they want us.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. Men? God? Just Lawrence? I don’t know. But I can’t leave Spitfire, and nobody out there’s going to want to take in some little slut with weird powers and a baby that starts fires when he sneezes, so I guess I’m stuck here until him and the kid inside me are all grown up!”

Myriad had no response to that, except to take hold of Lana Firrens’ hand. It was shaking.

The two children stayed up there for quite some time.

Alberto crouched under the obstacle course’s metal slide, sand and the rubber of his thongs rubbing his feet raw, his daughter clinging happily to his side. He would have put an arm under her, but she seemed content levitating. The baby looked up at her father with large, sloe-blown eyes, crying “Gah!” before burying her face in his shirt.

The psychic smiled. He had to admit, even when she wasn’t blasting all nine of his senses, there was something about Ophelia’s presence that pleased him. Maybe it was just the brainwashing chemicals that prevented cavemen from clubbing the shrieking little shits that ate all their food to death, but he was glad she… glad she was, he supposed.

Shame this wasn’t a pleasure walk.

Allison had let go of Eliza’s song, the lights of her thoughts popping back into Alberto’s view the moment she had done so, dancing on the edge of his vision like afterimages. This was good. Now he had an idea of where she was and what she was thinking, and it didn’t seem like he was on her thoughts much.

On the other hand, now the girl had gone and turned herself into what he was sure Eliza’s old masters would have called the ubermensch, and he still had no hold on the girl’s mind. If she took on the witch’s powers again, who knew when he’d get another chance to sink his hooks in? And what might she find out in the meantime?

Still, he had plans. Two, to be exact. Plan one was to try and touch Allison before she decided to tweak her immune system to eat colds better or something. If he didn’t get to her in time for that, plan two was to have Ophelia clap, hope it made her let go of the song, and hope he himself recovered his wits before she did.

God, he hoped she was content with her biology.

Near as he could tell, she had spent the last hour and a bit playing and commiserating with Ex-Nihilo, blowing bubbles in the air that dried into gold and silver. It was all very sweet, he was sure.

He watched as the two girls stepped out from the treeline, like witches returning from a sabbat. The younger child hugged the older, trying her best to avoid the baby-bump, before they went off their separate ways.

Good, that should make things easier.

Once he was certain Myriad was out of sight of Ex-Nihilo, Alberto started walking towards the girl, his daughter floating in tow. There was no way she didn’t know they were there, but he hoped she would just assume he was sleeping off some of the Lamb’s Blood he kept for especially dreary afternoons. “Brainiac!” he called out, in his own non-branded form of cheerfulness.

The girl turned to look at the man. “Tiresias?” She spotted the flying baby. “Ophelia?”

The toddler laughed with her father. “How’d you guess? So, I hear you’ve been going around asking questions about the married days.”

Myriad kicked up some dirt, muttering “Yeah. I just want it to make sense. To sound okay.”

Tiresias looked thoughtful. “Hmm. Who’ve you asked so far?”

“Um,” Myriad wasn’t sure how seriously Tiresias took the names, so she erred on the side of Lawrence, “Phantasmagoria, Ex-Nihilo, and Haunt. Growltiger was there, too, but I wasn’t really asking him.”

“That’s a good cross-section, I suppose. Would you like a father’s perspective on the whole business?”

Myriad nodded. “That would be good.”

“My advice? Stop stirring up shit, Allison.”

“…What?”

Tiresias threw his arms up like he was holding up the sky. “Girl, did you think all this was free? That Mad Laurie pulled all you children out of the shitholes they had you in because he was just so bloody nice? That he feeds and clothes you and tolerates your endless fuckin’ dramas out of the kindness of his heart?”

“Ye-yes,” Myriad stuttered. “He said so.”  

A long, hoarse cackle, dangerously close to turning into a hiccup, cross-harmonized with an uncomprehending, joyous giggle. “Remember what Haunt told you, Allison? About grownups always wanting something from you?”

“How did you—”

“Don’t be slow, I know everything that goes on here. And he was being too kind. Nobody does anything if they aren’t going to get anything out of it.”  

“That’s not true!” Myriad protested. “People donate to charities and stuff.”

Tiresias smiled, coldly. “Charity is tax-deductible, dear. And all the worst millionaires and robber-barons give money to the poor, or build them schools and hospitals. Makes them feel better at night about being most of the reason they have so little to begin with. More importantly, it helps other people forget that, too. ”

Myriad still looked dubious. “What does Lawrence get out of us?”

He laughed again. “Why, that’s an easy one!” He grabbed Ophelia, spinning the child much to her delight. “Babies, love!” He let go of his daughter, letting her bob in the air like it was water, before gesturing to the empty air next to him. “Stratogale! Physical wonder!” He pointed at himself. “Tiresias! Mental marvel!” The psychic wagged Ophelia’s cheek fondly. “He’s like a little kid, isn’t he? Bashing blocks together to see what happens!”

His audience grimaced.

Tiresias frowned. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. You think I wanted to screw Sadie? She’s a kid! And there’s a perfectly good woman around…”

“…Wait, you and Melusine…”

He shrugged. “We were young. And bored. Still are, sometimes. But me and Stratogale? No joy in it. Just biology and friction.” Alberto saw an opportunity. “I don’t see why there even needs to be sex. You’d think Eliza could just turn whatever cells inside you she liked into seed”—a smile—“a whole school of Madonnas.”

“I guess…”

“Me? I reckon Lawrence prefers it physical. I’m sure he thinks it promotes communal bonds or something, but the old man would’ve been brought up on that Greek myth crap, Zeus laying with Leda and all that4. The man half-thinks we’re gods, why not have us act like it?”

“But-but is it right?”  

The man sighed. “Look, married days are crap, if you let yourself think about them that way, but they’re what needs to happen for that old pervert to get his wonder-babies. And that’s why he keeps you here. Why he keeps all of us. That’s why you’re allowed to play with your little puddle of a friend, and go to class, and not be scared, lonely and bored every minute of every day. Yeah, it’s disgusting, and Tim Valour would burn this place to the ground and salt the earth if he ever found out what was going on here. We’re all studs and broodmares, but that’s a small price to pay for what we’re getting. The old man’s a creep, but he’s given you a shred of your life back.” Before Myriad could react (which was saying something, after her personal renovations)  Tiresias was whispering in her ear. “So stop being so fucking precocious and asking questions that piss everyone off.”

Alberto straightened, beckoning Ophelia to him. “You’re eight years old, Allie. Just enjoy being hairless and only bleeding when someone pricks you as long as you can.”

As he walked away, the telepath felt the summer heat on the little girl’s face, and the grass beneath her bare feet, while her apprehension and disgust washed over him like floodwaters over parched, cracked ground.

Just for fun, he flexed her fingers. It was a small thing, nothing she wouldn’t have done herself, but it still filled him with relief.

He was safe.

He had to say, it felt good being Allison, at least physically. Maybe, someday, he’d finagle a way of getting her to give him a tune up, too.

He felt other things, too. Like the rage and betrayal that bubbled and flowed from David into Eliza’s twisted plants, till they burst from it. Maybe he had that boy wrong.

And as for the Eliza’s little secret, now, at last, he had leverage.


1. It was Haunt.

2. Haunt was of course joking, but there is actually a species native to the Magellanic Clouds, largely made of tubes of neon, that to human eyes resemble stick-figures—Mabel’s didn’t look like them, either.

3. He wasn’t a hunchback in the book, either, but nevermind that.

4. A common historical misconception.

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Chapter Twenty-Three: The Marvellous Reinvention of Allison Kinsey

“It’s not that different, is it?”

Elsewhere and Myriad lay in the loose hay that carpeted the barn loft, the missing planks in the ceiling striping their faces in light and shadow. They had spent much of their time alone together since their final initiation into the mysteries of the Institute.

Well, final thus far.

“My mum was only seventeen when she married Dad,” Elsewhere continued. “Wasn’t that long before Drew was born.”

Myriad was surprised Elsewhere had brought up his parents. Since joining the ranks of the abandoned, he had been steadfastly pretending that he was an orphan. “But they were married,” she said. “And nearly the same age.”

“Linus and the big girls are the same age,” her friend pointed out.

“Gwydion isn’t.”

“He’s what, fourteen? That’s nearly grown up.”

“Is it?”

“Well, Lawrence said it was.”

Silence.

“It’s Metonymy and Artume’s married day this weekend,” Myriad said. “Lawrence is going to announce it Friday.”

“Married day” was an emerging euphemism at the New Human Institute. It’s what they called the times the older children were paired off to produce offspring.

“I do wish it hadn’t caught on like it has,” Lawrence had confided to her. “Marriage is an artifact of my kind, Myriad. I should hope your race works out more sensible ways of giving order to love.”  

“How do you know that?” asked Elsewhere.

Myriad shrugged. “He told me.” 

“…Do you think you and me are going to have a married day?” Elsewhere asked. “You know, when we’re big?”

Myriad felt queasy. She didn’t know why. It wasn’t as though they were related. And Elsewhere was her friend. Would she rather it be with a boy she didn’t like as much?

Of course, chances were that was in her future, too. “Yeah. Probably.”

For a little while, the barn made more noise than either child.

“I’m sorry,” said Elsewhere.

“For what?”

“…I don’t know.”

She rolled over closer to the boy, squeezing his hand. “We’re still little. We won’t have to think about that for years if we don’t want.”

“Yeah.”

Myriad got to her feet, making her way to the edge of the loft. “I’m going outside. You coming?”

“Nah.”

For reasons not even Myriad could understand, Elsewhere’s answer came as a relief. With a few notes of Britomart’s song, she leapt to the ground and ventured out into the new New Human Institute.

In the days since AU’s attack, Lawrence had tried to marshal the students into restoring the Institute’s pastoral character. Their cooperation had been half-hearted at best. Many of the children, as it turned out, preferred the Post-Golden Age1 landscape—with its all new scars and curiosities. Down by the water gold nuggets were now as common as riverstone; trenches dug by ice and fire were already seeing service as forts and battlements; and of course, AU’s battle dead still held a silent watch. The students had taken to naming them like hedges: Ol’ Scatterclaws, G-Rex, and a whole host of others2.

She wandered through a game of tag, Abalone shouting a greeting as he ran past after Ēōs.

The destruction had given the children an unspoken licence to make their own alterations, too. Veltha had cut tunnels beneath the school, so that her fellow students could play in her dark underworld. Britomart and Talos had uprooted enough trees to construct a palisade, from which Windshear ruled as a bloody queen. In an unprecedented spate of cooperation, Ex-Nihilo and Growltiger had erected castles of limestone and emerald all throughout the grounds. As the girl watched, Tiresias plummeted from one of their roundels, and had to be carried to the sick-bay, over his woozy protests that he could just walk it off. Everywhere Myriad looked, the world was changing with its children.

Unlike a lot of young girls, Myriad had never fantasized much about motherhood. Involved too much babies for her taste. However, she had assumed she would one day be a mother. It was just how things went for girls, unless you wanted to be someone’s sad auntie.

She wondered what having a baby would feel like. Would she be able to hear its song from within her? Once it was born, would she be able to copy it, or the other way around? Would it even have her powers, or one of the many she had dipped her toes in?

Would it have her eyes, or David’s?

Not now. Not yet.   

As she walked, she played Żywie’s song, pushing through the unwelcome memories that came with the ghostly piano chords. She had tried to assume the healer’s powers a few times again since the Quiet Room. Not so much for any actual healing—she had Maelstrom and Talos’ songs for that— but rather to puzzle out the unease the woman’s abilities inspired in her. It couldn’t just be the piano, could it? Or that note? Surely she wasn’t that big of a wimp? The experiments hadn’t gone well. In truth, she hadn’t managed to hold onto her teacher’s tune for more than a few seconds before losing her nerve. This time, though, she was surprised to find the revulsion wasn’t there.

Well, if she had the song, why not dance to it?

Żywie had been busy. The woman had come up with a plethora of biological refinements, and she had used herself as a testbed for all them. And now, Myriad decided, it was time for her to share.  

Charles Darwin never uttered or put to paper the words “survival of the fittest”3, for the simple reason they aren’t true. Despite what generations of pulp writers might have told people, natural selection does not strive towards any higher plane; it only blindly prunes the inadequate. This is why human beings start to fall apart after less than a hundred years, while somewhere in the ocean drifts a brainless jellyfish older than that entire species.

If you want a truly exceptional creature, that takes craftsmanship.

Myriad smiled to herself. The changes she set in motion would take time, unless she wanted to starve to death on her feet. She would have to keep Żywie’s song playing for days—even in her sleep—but after all was said and done, she would be a little less baseline.

She ate like a horse that evening.

Alberto Moretti sung his way softly through Kookaburra Dormitory4, making the rounds. His ten phantom limbs lay asleep on either side of him, waiting for the psychic to renew his mark on them. As he passed each hammock, he laid a hand on its occupants, his fingerprint seeping into the children’s minds. Their dreams played in his head: wild collages of fear and fantasy, both hazier and more real than the waking world.

“Fran, mum and dad, Fran, forgot to put on pants to breakfast, known Kadath… Eliza?” The esper looked back up the row at Haunt. “Really?” Alberto continued his recitation. “Flying Man, spider-house—” He stopped, index finger resting on Britomart’s forehead. He looked down at the girl and grinned. “Maelstrom! You kept that well hidden, kid.”

It was an easy evening for the rounds; it was the one night of the week when Artume actually slept. It was a nightmare having to sneak around her all the time, and God knew that this would be a bad week to let things slip. Well, bad for Lawrence at least.

Long term behavioral modification was a funny old game. When Bertie had first decided he wasn’t above it after all, he had had the psychic take a rather heavy handed approach to things— some of the kids he’d practically turned into little robots. But the thing about the human mind is that if you meddle with too many parts too often, you start to see knock-on effects. Try to make Windshear wash her hands consistently, and you wake up one morning to find the girl crying as she scrubs her skin off.

He paused again when he reached Maelstrom, snuggled up with Tigger and Mabel.

Hmm… not tonight.  

Allison was sleeping alone that night. Good idea, Alberto thought. Might as well enjoy it while she could. He pinched a toe.

He couldn’t get any traction on her. It was like her skin was made of teflon. He focused on the little girl. There was nothing. No dreams, no lights sparking inside her head; nothing. If it weren’t for the steady rise and fall of her chest and the REM twitching of her eyes beneath their lids, the psychic would have thought she was dead. He had never seen such an impenetrable mind since—

That spill he took on Castle Greystone. That kraut bitch.

Alberto started hyperventilating. The girl had taken on Eliza’s song again. Why? What possible interest could flesh witchery have for an eight year old girl? Did she remember that morning after Chen came home? Or anything else? If she did, who had she told?

If Eliza knew, he was done for. If Fran knew, he would wish he was.

He felt the child’s forehead, hoping he was wrong, hoping he would find even a little purchase on Allison’s mind. Still, he found nothing. If anything, the girl felt feverish, though she seemed quite content.

It suddenly occurred to Alberto that he couldn’t remember Eliza ever coming down with so much as a cold.

He ran out of the dormitory, praying to a God he wished he didn’t believe in, a God he knew would never listen to him of all people. He remembered Allison remembering that evil Finnish gypsy’s note. The lines he knew she hadn’t read out for her cohort:

PS: Beware the one who holds the wires taut.

For months, Alberto had assumed that was him. Desperate for reassurance, he plunged into the storm of futures, and was relieved by what he saw. The Institute would be finished by Christmas, but he’d seen that coming since New Year’s. More importantly, in all but the most improbable tommorows—now that the Institute had weathered Chen—he persisted. The school might die, but the road stretched out long before him.

Alberto’s pace slowed to a walk as he forced himself to take a few long, grateful breaths. He started heading back towards the farmhouse. He had missed a few kids in his panic, but that didn’t worry him too greatly. Where he slacked off, he had full faith the bullshit Bertie had filled the children’s heads with would make up the difference.

He would be glad to be rid of this place.

Myriad woke up happy that Thursday morning. She’d never been a very loud smiler, but today she was. She actually sung in the showers, which got her a few loofahs lobbed into her stall. As she had done for the last three days, she dug into breakfast like a bear cub on the first day of Spring.

“You gearing up for a growth spurt?” Mrs Gillespie asked. Her tone was bemused, but she was a little concerned. Myriad wouldn’t have have been first of her girls to develop an unhealthy relationship with food after having things explained to her, although the usual tact was to starve themselves.

Myriad swallowed her mouthful of egg and bacon in one painful looking gulp. She beamed at the teacher, “Nah, that’s not till next year.”

Myriad was not joking. She managed to pocket a knife as everyone got up to head to class, shooting Maelstrom a knowing look that only got confusion in return.

Tiresias locked himself in his room. Nobody noticed.

The school day passed for Myriad in a blur of impatience and anticipation as she was passed from teacher to teacher, gophering stationery and textbooks and cups of tea from one end of the house to the other.

Once, when she was fetching the Institute’s copy of The Mystery of the Cathedrals5 from the library, she dropped Żywie’s song for Melusine’s. She went icy—just for a moment, like a photonegative flash—before picking up the healer’s tune again.

She smiled.

After what felt like a whole school week, Myriad was released from her duties. She ran out into the afternoon sun, following Maelstrom’s song down to the river. A set of green and blue shorts and T-shirt lay neatly folded on the bank. David’s song radiated from the river’s depths like the last orchestra in Atlantis, all glass harmonica and whalebone whistles.

Myriad took hold of it, then evaporated out of her clothes, her kit falling to the ground with an uncharacteristically weighty thud. She recondensed some ways out above the river, twisted in the air, and dropped into the water with a joyous splash.

She simply floated at first, unbothered by the chill river currents. Then she kicked downwards, air escaping out of the sides of her mouth in a plume of bubbles as she plunged, mermaid-like, past the point where bright, glassy green gave way to murky marine blue. She could have liquified, become one with the river itself. She had done it before with David, and it was always uniquely freeing, but right now, Myriad wanted to feel the cool, muted gravity of the water; to churn it with her feet and hear its quiet roar in her ears.

She flew over planes of river weeds, rippling sideways like grass in the wind, punctuated by broken bottles, lost shoes, and drowned toys. A pirate ship in miniature lay half-buried in the silt, its exposed prow long ago given up to moss and rot; fossilisation in reverse. David had shown it to Myriad the first time she had ventured underwater. When Linus and the oldest girls had been small, he told her, they had built the thing over a summer for the sole purpose of sinking it, just so they could say that the river had a sunken ship in it.

The boy was sitting in the middle of the riverbed. It was deep enough there to drown a careless child, but not so deep you couldn’t see the sun scattering across the surface.

Myriad gave her friend a small wave as she approached, nervous. They hadn’t really had a chance to talk alone since AU’s attack. It felt different now. David smiled as he caught sight of her, and she settled down next to him, sending up a small, silent explosion of dust and sand. He laced his fingers in hers, and they let the light rain down on them, shattered into yellows and greens, dappling their skin like they were sitting beneath a stained glass ceiling.

They sat together in companionable silence—not that they had much of a choice in the matter. Little silvered fish flitted in and out of sight.  

Myriad suddenly found herself hesitating. She didn’t know why. It was good news she had for him. Still, she didn’t want to surface quite yet, to have to crack and scrape her thoughts trying to shove them into words.

And then there was the all other stuff.

No. No thinking about weird, confusing things right now. Now was fun time. That was what time with David was meant for.

Then the idea struck, and she grinned. Why did the best ideas take so long to turn up?

She gave the boy’s hand a squeeze before letting go, kicking off from the riverbed. David had just enough time to look up questioningly at her, when he saw the pirate ship wrench itself from its unkempt grave, its struggles echoing and burbling through the water. It rose to meet Myriad’s bare feet just as the last of her ice-spun piratical accoutrements crystallized around her. She raised her newly made, translucent sword, and barked silent orders to an imaginary crew.  

David giggled, before melting away like a dream.

A few fathoms from Myriad’s revenant vessel, a phantasmal clipper manifested, its many sails fanning out like fins and dragonfly wings in the water. The body of the craft was long and thin, almost serpentine in its dimensions, with a suspiciously familiar looking young mermaid as its figurehead.

Myriad suddenly wished David’s powers came with a tail. She frowned at her own figurehead, the begrudging compromise between a unicorn and a dragon. A growling, boyish tiger grew over it.

The ghost of a proud Royal Navy captain appeared on the clipper’s deck, resplendent in the memory of his dress uniform. Unlike the pirate queen, this seaman had the loyalty of a full crew of spectral sailors.

The clipper’s cannons bombarded the diminutive galleon, a dozen tailless comets slamming into its hull, sending wood splinters sinking to the bottom of the river like pine needles.

Myriad lowered her sword sharply, imagining her grizzled sea-dogs returning fire. Which they did.

The cannonballs struck their target true, shattering David’s ship like a glass model. Myriad was cheering to herself when she saw the boat mend itself, like time flowing backwards.

A cannonball struck Myriad’s mast, sending it and her rotting, tattered sail floating off into the green.

Purely out of habit, she huffed. It was her own fault, she knew. Using a wooden boat for this was like picking black in chess. Down here, David was Jumpcut, Growltiger, Mabel and Elsewhere all in one.

But then, so was Myriad.

A pillar of ice grew from her ship’s wound, sprouting a sail that slipped in and out of visibility as the boat cut through the water, ramming into HMAS Triton.

And so it went. Every blow David inflicted on the NAS6 Anne Bonny, Myriad patched with ice: the ship of Theseus in real time. The old boat died in inches, surrendering to its own ghost.

And as the ships fought on, they forgot their shape, mutating as they regenerated. They became leviathans and giants, mountains and swords. For one brief, glorious moment, they were a whale and a squid, but neither child took note.

Eventually, Myriad bored of this distance combat, and swung across to David’s sea-turtle on a glittering rope7.  

Whatever changes his vessel had undergone, David’s own playing piece still looked the same. The officer and gentleman lunged at the little girl, and a frantic bout of sword-clashing ensued, the two fighters clinging tight to the turtle’s shell as Myriad’s box jellyfish ensnared her in its tentacles.

Myriad could barely keep apace, small as she was, with the captain’s flurry strikes and parries. She soon gave up on that, letting the blue fade from her eyes and the ice float off her skin, instead reaching for the songs drifting down from the world above. David watched, at first confused, then with an enraptured giggle, as a deep crimson phoenix rocketed from the girl’s hand. Blue tipped wings cast dancing, glimmering shadows all across their submarine battlefield and tinted the gloom with the bright, vibrant orange of fresh flame. The bird let out a soundless screech and streaked over the turtle, a shower of discarded feathers melting through its shell like Greek fire.

As he picked his way through the remains of the older students’ boat below, David grinned at the sheer novelty of underwater fire. It reminded him of his mother’s stories from the war. He focused his efforts on healing his turtle, deciding to just hold things together until Myriad ran out of air and called upon his power again. Four minutes later, the turtle was gone, and his friend still hadn’t swapped back.

Myriad saved the captain for last, waiting until the turtle had subsided back into the flow of the river before turning her firebird’s fury on its passenger. David was only half focused, too busy trying to figure out how Myriad was staying under so long without a breath to put up much of a fight, and thus the final battle between bird and swordsman was short lived. The phoenix smote its foe, the beating of its wings blowing the patch of silt where it stood into glass.

David was applauding when the two of them surfaced. “That was brilliant!” he shouted. “You, and the boats, and… and…” He hugged his friend. “Such a good idea.”

Myriad relaxed. She didn’t know what she had been worried about. David was going to love this.

The boy let go of her. “You held your breath a long time down there… right? That was a long time for people who aren’t me or Mum?”

She laughed. “Yeah, it was. Hey, got something to show you.”

“What is it?”

Myriad grinned as the blue returned to her eyes, and a rogue wave swept them both back towards the shore. Myriad waded excitedly out the water, David and a thin sliver of ice trailing behind her.

She ran up to her fallen clothes, fishing a piece of scrap paper from one of her short pockets. From where David stood, it appeared to be covered on either side with small, many-coloured shapes, with little notations he couldn’t discern next to each of them. The girl held the paper out like a matador’s muleta, whistled, and the ice-dart zoomed past David’s head, piercing the page and pinning it to a tree.

David golf clapped. Myriad’s eyes went hazel again. “That wasn’t what I was going to show you.” She pulled the knife from her other pocket.

David threw up his hands, stepping backwards. “Okay, okay! Sorry!”

Myriad realised how she looked, and lowered the knife. “Not for you,” she said, still smiling. “Well, sorta.” She handed David the knife, before backing away a few paces and putting her hands behind her back. “Throw it at me.”

David dropped the knife. “No!”

“Aww, come on, pretty please?” She darted over to her friend, plucking the knife of the ground and forcing it back into his hand in one fluid movement. David barely registered the motion. “You’ll probably miss anyway!”

David’s tone was offended as much it was pained. “And what if I don’t?”  

Myriad shrugged. “Then I’ll go icey, or bronze.”

“You might bleed to death before you change!”

She giggled again. “Since when were you so good at throwing knives? And people only die from getting stabbed right away in stories, ‘less it’s in the brain.”    

David fretted with the breakfast knife, scrapping it across his forearms.

“…You’re not going to hit me in the brain, David.” She dug her feet deeper into the dirt, closing her eyes. “I’m gonna stand here till you throw that knife at me.”

They stood in silence for a while, the quiet hiss of the river occasionally drowned out by the shrill cries of birds and children. David shuffled his feet, hoping the world would end right there and then, or that Ophelia would choose that moment to clap. Neither came to pass, not that he would have been able to tell them apart. Every once in a while, Myriad furtively opened an eye to check if her friend was any closer to throwing the bloody knife.

David screamed, hurling the knife gracelessly at the girl.

Myriad’s hand whipped in front of her face. She heard David let out a small gasp. She opened her eyes, confirming what the feel of smooth wood against her fingers already told her. She held the knife handle less than an inch from her nose, the blade pointed at her reluctant attacker. She laughed. “It worked!”

“Where’d you learn how to do that?” David asked, impressed. “The circus?”

“Nope!” She jumped backwards, springing off the tree where she had nailed her scrap of paper and landing on her feet behind David. “Didn’t get that from the circus, either.”

David whistled. “Who then? Was that Brit? Why weren’t you glowing?”

In lieu of an answer, Myriad led the boy by the hand over to the tree, tearing the paper roughly from its spike and handing it eagerly to her friend.

Much to David’s surprise, being able to read the diversely scribed lines of text next to the shapes only made their meaning less clear. Next to a blue triangle: “pain numbing”. A red shield: “heart rate”. A diamond split halfway between violet and sky-blue: “hysterical strength”

There were dozens upon dozens of others: “sleepy-time,” “stay-awake…”

“…Ovulation?” David asked, frowning.

“Girl-bleeding,” Myriad explained, unnecessarily. “That’s for later.”

“What is this for, Miri? Are you making up a board game or something?”

The girl bit her lip conspiratorially. “They’re ‘biofeedback triggers. They’re like…” If Myriad had been born maybe a decade or two later, the comparison to cheat codes would have been obvious. “It’s like I’ve laid down telephone lines inside me. The pictures, they’re like buttons, but imaginary—but real, too. They’re like shortcuts. All the stuff your body does without you thinking about it? You’re heart beating, breathing… other stuff? If I think about the right buttons hard enough, I can control those things. You ever hear those stories about mummies lifting cars off their kids? Not supers or anything, just normal people like Lawrence. They can do stuff like that because they’re too scared to care that it’ll break them.” She clenched her free hand into a fist and slammed it into the tree, leaving a shallow, splintery indentation in its wood. She quickly went clear and back before David realised how many bones she had broken with that stunt. “I can do stuff like that whenever I want now! And it doesn’t matter because now I heal so much better. Watch!”

Myriad calmly and unhesitatingly cut a gash along her palm. The knife was hardly more than a slightly serrated butter-spreader, so she had to dig a little into her flesh, but she had nothing if not conviction.

She found herself in David’s arms, the knife pressed uncomfortably between their chests. “Don’t,” he said, his voice choked with revulsion and what Myriad could have sworn was shame. Anger, too, but not at her. “I know it sounds scary, but it’s a long time away… we’ll be good, alright?” David hoped they were still wet enough that the tears weren’t obvious.

Myriad wrapped her arms around him, her blood staining his shoulder blade like okra. “It’s not that, David.” She backed out of the hug, the knife falling onto the dry mud, and held out her opened, slashed palm. “Look,” she said, “really look.”

David did look. The bleeding had stopped, and although it wasn’t a minute old, the wound was already scabbing over.

“It’ll be all better in ten minutes—no scar. I mean, I don’t really have scars since I met you, but still.” She hugged herself, grinning. “I feel so good, David. It’s—it’s like I was covered in mud before and I’ve just gotten out of the bath. Everything’s so clear now, my eyes, my ears, everything. I feel like I could run and run and run for hours and not get tired.”

“That good?”

“Better.” She wiggled her toes. “I could grow a tail, you know. Like a real mermaid. Scales are easy.

“Really?”

She giggled. “Yep. Gills, too. Not that I need them with you around.” She stepped in close to David, squeezing his hand. “We could walk back into the river, right now. Just swim until we get to the sea,” she whispered. “How have you not been in the ocean?”

That last remark had come in to her mind as a joke, in honesty, but by the time it had reached her mouth, she meant it.

“We could go find whales. I want to hear their songs. We wouldn’t have to worry about people, or being alone, or married days. It could just be us and the whales.”

For just a moment, David thought he was going to turn around and run into the water. The River Avon would carry him and Allison to Swan River, and then out to sea. He would know saltwater for the first time, and forget the taste of air. Maybe they would find his grandfather, and he would know what it was like to love someone else without it hurting.

Instead, he asked “How? How did you do all this? Whose power?”

“Żywie,” Myriad answered conspiratorially, a glint in her eyes like she was letting slip a friend’s secret crush. “She can do herself!”

“…What?” David said, his tone and expression flat.

“Żywie’s powers work on herself. No clue why she doesn’t tell people. Maybe she doesn’t want everyone bugging her for extra powers, I don’t—where are you going?” Myriad said as the boy stormed (or maybe gusted) off.

“All really neat, Miri,” David said as he marched back towards the Institute, his voice a little too controlled, even as his song ran discordant. “See you at dinner?”

“…Yeah, sure… I think it’s potato salad tonight.”

“Nice.”

Myriad knew better than to follow. She sat down against the trunk her long-suffering test tree, and wondered what exactly she had told her friend.   


1. Almost everyone agreed that the period after the Golden Age was in many ways preferable to the Golden Age itself, thus making it unique in the accounting of time.

2. A Whole Host of Others was very popular.

3. That dubious honour goes to philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer. People who use the aphorism in all sincerity are likely unaware of his fondness for trade unions and self-identification as a radical feminist.

4. Sister of the Wallaby and Lorikeet dormitories.

5. A well regarded textbook on modern architecture.

6. Nova Australian Ship. As much as Myriad tried to forget what the witch had show her, that could-be city park still found its way into her dreams.

7. It was connected to the same anchor point as Tarzan’s vines.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

There Was a Man

Joe Bell gently lifted the newborn off the dead woman. He hoped the boy hadn’t noticed her going so still. He was certainly crying like he had. He wrapped the baby in his jacket. God help him if he let the kid catch his death now.

He looked back down at the child’s mother. Could he have done something? Did he do something wrong? If he had ignored the woman’s plea to stay put; if he had dragged her bodily to his truck and booked it to the nearest country clinic, would the boy in his arms still have a mother?

Regardless of whether her end had come from his error or hers, the lady from the sky had trusted the trucker with her child, and that was as close to sacred as he could imagine anything being. Even more than she herself had been.

He couldn’t risk moving her body, not now. A baby could be explained away if they were stopped by someone; a dead woman, not so much.

“S-sorry,” he managed to get out as he turned to head back to the road, blinking back tears. He was grateful her eyes were closed.

A few hours later, Bell stood in the middle of his rented cabin at the Sandman Road Inn, trying to rock his unexpected travelling companion to sleep. Calling it a cabin was being generous. It was more of a tent made of drywall, left standing all year round. He worried that if it rained, the whole structure might be washed away. Still, he’d at least been able to shell out the extra dollar a night for a mattress, and he’d been able to give the baby a whore’s bath in the toilet block.

He was still just the “the boy”, or the “baby”. He didn’t know if he had the right to name him.

He wasn’t crying right then, but Joe still hoped he would sleep. There was something disquietingly aware in those moss green eyes. They followed his own, like he understood everything that had happened to him. Were his eyes even supposed to be green? He remembered someone telling him white babies were all born with blue eyes, unless they were Polacks.

Joe was fairly sure the baby was no Polack.

He was hoping sleep would delay hunger, too. He had no idea where to find milk powder at this hour. He had no idea if the kid even took milk. He might need moon dust for all he knew. It was yet another imponderable question about the child’s future, both near and beyond. Bell had already ruled out leaving him on an orphanage’s doorstep. Even if that didn’t feel like the coward’s way out, he couldn’t help but imagine it leading to the poor boy’s insides being spread out over some quack’s workbench.

Joe’s mother was dead, he had no sisters, and none of his brothers were married. There was his cousin Agnes, but that bridge was only held together by ash.

He could always bring up the boy himself. No, not even worth considering. What kind of father would he make—a bachelor trucker hauling cargo up and down the country all year round? What would he do, homeschool the kid in the truck’s cabin? What other option did he have?

The baby started wailing again, louder this time.

Joe sighed. “I know, buddy, I know.”

There was a knock on the door. Bell froze. Could it be the army, here to question him about that poor woman? Who could have seen him on that deserted spit of road? Or maybe it was the police come to take the baby? Why? Was there any law against a man going around with a kid?

The knocking grew more insistent.

Joe looked down at the screaming baby, forcing a smile he did not feel. “Looks like room service is here.”

If the increase in pitch was any indication, the boy did not appreciate the joke. He set him down on the mattress and opened the door, cursing the owners of this dive for not putting peepholes in their doors.

The man waiting on the other side looked like he had been the single recipient of all the Depression’s hardships. Poor fella couldn’t even afford shoes and pale flesh drooped around his mouth like a basset hound. His faded blue overalls were stained a sickly yellow by the road inn’s neon masthead. The tattered straw hat he wore was missing its top, gray hair poking out of it like wisps of mold. There was a dazed, sleepy expression in his eyes.

Joe decided this was probably a neighbour of the moment, here to complain about the crying. Uncharitable bastard.

He grinned embarrassedly. “Sorry, pal,” he said over the noise. “Wife stepped out for a bit of fresh air, and the baby’s pining. You know how it is.”

The man grinned back. Far too much. “You are lying,” he said cheerfully, barging his way past the trucker. Before Joe could stop him, he was standing over the baby. “That is some exquisite camouflage, I must say. I should take pointers.”

The baby’s cries ceased. An angry air hung between him and the intruder.

Joe grabbed the man’s arm. “Now look here—”

The man’s face exploded, something fast and sharp lacerating Bell’s chest and flinging him into the wall hard enough to crack it like eggshell.

The thing’s head now resembled an open blossom, a bone-tipped stamen undulating at the centre of its glistening petals of flesh. Dozens of lumps twitched beneath their skin, tearing open to reveal an array of china-blue eyes. “Sorry about that,” gurgled deep from within it. “The fauna here can get aggressive.”

Joe lay slumped behind them, trying to breathe through broken ribs. The cuts on his chest were burning like his own blood had turned to acid. Despite all this, he managed to get back to his feet and charge the monster. “You leave him—”

He was slammed against the ceiling this time, his attempt to brace himself earning him two sharp cracks from his legs. The creature let him drop back to the floor.

“For crying out—one second.”

The thing proceeded to drop all pretense. Joe heard a dry, almost hollow thump as the false man’s skin began to peel. Not splitting apart to reveal something, so much as literally peeling, like a piece of fruit being slowly stripped of its outer layer, the skin hanging like a loose sack from one end of it. What lay underneath made the trucker dry heave. It was like some kind of landborn coral—hundreds of interconnected, tumorous veins, the missing link between plant and animal, all pulsing and writhing and yet still surprisingly dry. His eyes parched just from looking at the thing, as if he were standing in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Then the thing began to move. It lacked what Bell would have called limbs, much the same way that it lacked a face, or anything else beyond that strange, protean mesh of tendrils, lined with those wretchedly human eyes. It could still move though, the openings between the tendrils elongating and thinning as it stretched itself, the mass almost folding towards him.

The cancer-worm loomed over Joe, hollowing out into a black tunnel of teeth and hooks.

I’m going to die, the trucker thought to himself. The pain of his broken legs was smothered by adrenaline, but that wasn’t helping him move any. This thing is going to kill me, and the kid… he’ll be lucky if he just gets eaten.

The beast lunged at him, only to halt just short of his face. Ichor dripped onto his forehead. It reared up again, emitting an awful, keening shriek, before falling upon him again. Still, no contact.

Was it toying with him? Joe was filled with rage, even stronger than the fear. Rage and shame and self-loathing. He’d failed. He couldn’t save that poor, fallen woman, and now he was going to let her son die, too—  

The ceiling vanished, leaving the room open to the sky. There was a man. He had stars for eyes and a cloak of night, and he towered over Joe and the worm.

No, the trucker realized. It wasn’t “a man.” The haze of fear and confusion evaporated, and all that was left was him, looking down at himself. The giant seemed to regard his other self with bemusement, but also pity. It was the most aggravating thing in the world.

“Just do it,” said Joe. “Whatever needs to be done, just get it over with.”

He became an exception in the laws of physics. An edge case in everything. He decided how the world reacted to his presence, and how he reacted to it. It was too much, he was too much. He needed to whittle it down to something he could use.  

Luckily, there was something to work with. It was both new and ancient. It was men in circus leotards smashing cars on boulders. It was angels ripping apart tanks in newsreels. It was Hercules holding up the sky. It was himself, beating back death with his bare fists.

Joe rose to look the monster in the maw. His feet did not touch the ground.

“Get out.”

He punched the thing right through the wall. Holding no delusion that would be enough to kill it, he shot out of the room after it. The sensation was exhilarating. He could move in any direction he wanted without the slightest effort. He didn’t move through the world, the world moved around him.

The thing had come to rest near the toilet bloc, and seemed to be abandoning its formless state for something more defined. Tendrils were knitting together into long, crustacean arms, with which it pulled a small, bronze cylinder out of the centre of its mass. It swung around to look at the incoming human projectile with two bulbous collections of eyes.

What looked like a miniature sun fired out of the cylinder, momentarily turning night into day. Joe swooped low to dodge it, letting the sphere sink into the earth like its older brother dipping below the sea.

He tackled the monster to the ground, laying into it with his fists. It hissed and churned beneath him, desperately searching for an arrangement of cells that would let it escape him. It grew mouths to bite him, but their teeth broke on his skin. New orifices spewed something that smelled faintly of sick, and made the grass beneath them sizzle. Barbed tendrils tried wrenching off the new superman to no avail.

Drunk with newfound might, Joe forgot his fear. How had this mewling, formless lump inspired such terror in him?

Then it ate him.

Maybe that wasn’t the right word. It didn’t chew him, and its digestive juices could do nothing to him, but Joe was engulfed by the thing all the same. It was a strange experience, being eaten by something that didn’t really have a mouth. The creature warped, its top and sides expanding around him like some sort of wave. He pulled back his fist with a growl, ready to beat and tear his way free of the thing, and surged forwards. The creature’s extended ends meshed together behind him, and everything was dark. He didn’t care. He started clawing. Then, it was gone. He was under the stars once more. No, among them. There was moisture in the air. He looked around himself, searching for his wayward foe, for the truck, the cabin. Anything. There was nothing to be seen, except steppes of clouds dusted by moonlight. He roared, aimless fury building up in him with nowhere to release.

Then he felt it. A touch on his mind, a caress from a hand the size of a mountain. It hurt, yet there was no malice there—only a plaintive fear.  He had never felt anything like it before, but still he recognized it immediately. The child’s cries matched his mother’s, it seemed. He turned towards the horizon, and sped forward through the empty sky.

The visitor congratulated itself on thinking to pack the micro-vortex. It might have been in real trouble otherwise.

What an odd night it was. First, after centuries of glacial pursuit, it’d managed to snare itself a gravid star-goddess… and it let itself be knocked out of the sky by a podunk Gatekeeper. The alien reminded itself to pay this world’s moon a visit if all went well.

A herd of the planet’s most successful wildlife had been spooked out of their hovels by the noise of their fight. Milk-heavy mothers with their mates and calfs holidaying in the shadow of their world’s latest geopolitical spat; vagabonds hauling foodstuffs and their kind’s latest approximations of technology across the continent; ashamed lovers in search of a safe place to rut.

They gawked and screamed, and one or two of them even fired primitive projectile weapons at the visitor, stinging it like insect bites. A few poison laden belches and envenomed darts took care of all that               

Peace restored, the visitor took a moment to work out its body again. Much as it valued its species’ hard-won morphological freedom, it liked having something to look at in a mirror.

An idea occurred.

It stepped through the broken wall of the cabin. The child was floating above the mattress, hugging his knees with a thumb jammed between his gums.  

Imitating the human nursing instinct even with no eyes on him, the visitor observed. Can’t say this creature isn’t method.

“It’s alright, little one.”

The infant turned towards the source of the voice. The speaker was a tall, queenly featured woman with cornsilk hair and lilac eyes, draped in a red, toothed gown, one eye over her left shoulder lazily watching the room.

The child so dearly wanted to believe it was her, but even so new he wasn’t that foolish. The woman was too pale, and he could never imagine his mother smiling so cruelly. More importantly, when he touched her mind, it felt like claws being scraped across stone.

The imposter approached him. “I’m not going to hurt you child. That thing with your mother? An accident, mostly, blame my aim. I just wanted to show you two off to some colleagues of mine. I mean, what do you really have to look forward to here?”

It risked putting its hands around the baby, pulling him close. “Good boy. Now let’s get a move on.”

As the visitor stepped over the bodies it had felled, it pondered the way forward. It considered swallowing the star-god for safekeeping, but decided that wouldn’t be necessary. Not when he was being so cooperative. Then there was getting back to the ship. The visitor could sprout a perfectly serviceable pair of wings if it wanted, but that would require leaving behind a great deal of biomass and knowledge. And it had already been left so ignorant by the crash…

Instead, it headed for where the humans kept their vehicles. It went for one of the larger cargo-haulers, deciding that having a bit of weight to throw around might prove useful on the road. The key was easy enough to bypass, one of its elegant fingers elongating and flattening to replicate its grooves. Luckily, the nervous system it had borrowed from that farmer had some experience with these vehicles.

“We’re on our way,” it said brightly to the child in passenger seat as the engine roared to life.

They drove for some time. The young star-god wondered what had happened to Joe. Did he still live? If he did, would he ever be able to find him? And if he did, what good would it do?

He sensed something bright and angry and familiar high above them.

Joe Bell stared down at his truck as it chased its own headlights. God damn it, he could actually see through it if he squinted hard enough, like his gaze was turning metal into glass. He’d been relieved for a second when he first spotted it, and saw the child’s mother driving. Her resurrection would only be the third most miraculous thing he’d witnessed that night. But then he felt the waves of despair coming off the boy.   

He had to get the kid out of there, but what other tricks did the creature have up its sleeve?

Focus on the fuel tank, a small, insistent voice told him. It was like his conscience was putting on an accent.  

What good would that do? Joe wondered.

Just do it.

Joe frowned at the tank on the underside of the cab. There was a spark, and the black sludge turned into liquid sunshine. A fraction of a moment later, the truck exploded.

“Shit-shit-shit-shit-shiiiiit!” Bell screamed as he plunged towards the fireball. He ripped the door off the burning cabin, dreading what he’d find inside.

What he found was the creature slumped smouldering on the wheel. Next to it, the boy sat dressed in ash, embers glowing in his hair, kicking his legs quite happily.

Joe smiled, reaching into the cabin for the child.

He almost fell out of the air. Just managing to catch himself, he attempted to reorient. His vision was swimming. He could barely feel the heat of the fire, but he was sweating as if he did. The wounds on his chest were still burning.

He looked down his blood soaked shirt. The flesh around the cuts was puckered and inflamed, leaking green pus. The veins of his chest looked like they were clogged with soot.

The baby looked at Joe questioningly.

He smiled back at him. “Come on, kid. Let’s go find somewhere for you to rest your head.”

Sarah Allworth was jolted from her dream about Adolf Hitler and the mountain of peeled bananas by the sharp knocking coming from downstairs. She rolled over in bed to try and rouse her husband. She whispered, “Jonah,” a shake, “Jonah!”

He groaned, “What is it, sweetheart?” still half-convinced he was asking Katharine Hepburn.

Another round of knocking.

“That!”

Jonah looked at the alarm clock. In the darkness, he couldn’t make out any numbers, but he could make out words: too bloody early.

“Why on Earth would anybody be knocking on our door at this kind of hour?” his wife asked.

“Don’t know,” he replaced blearily. “Very polite burglars?”

Sarah frowned. “Not funny. We should go down and tell them to clear off.”

“Wouldn’t that just be giving them what they want?”

More knocking, more demanding this time.

“Whoever it is clearly aren’t going to let us get any sleep till we do.”

The couple made their way to the threshold. Just in case, Mr. Allworth brought his softball bat. He opened the door.

A sweat drenched, bloodied young man fell through, but did not hit the ground. Good thing, too. His legs were bent at the most unnatural angles. In his arms was an ashen baby boy.

“What on—”

The man shoved the baby into Mrs Allworth’s arms. “Please, take him,” he panted. “Please-I-I can’t keep going. Flew for hours. Don’t even know what country I’m in… is it night time again?” He grabbed Mr Allworth. “If that thing comes here, you light it on fire. It won’t stop moving if you don’t—”

He couldn’t speak anymore. Time broke down for Joe Bell. There was the sensation of being carried, of being in the back of a moving car. The woman, still holding the child, kept asking him his name. As if that mattered.

A country clinic, lights being flicked on. Needles breaking against his skin. Someone mercifully holding an ether rag under his nose.

It’s alright. You did your best.

He had, hadn’t he?

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Strange Things on the Side of the Road

Joe Bell’s weary eighteen-wheeler trundled down a Montana backroad that had yet to be troubled by the New Deal, and so continued its leisurely slide back into nature unimpeded. Every few feet, a pothole would launch him a fraction of an inch off his seat.

Bell was in two minds about the potholes. On the one hand, they kept him awake like not even the bennies could. On the other, he was pretty sure all this jostling was grinding his spine away at both ends. To think he’d gone into trucking because of what the mines had done to his dad…

He hoped to God his cargo was faring alright. He didn’t want to think about how the trainees at Camp Corthins would react to a trailer full of broken radio parts and busted tires. He was even less eager to find out what the base’s men would do if he presented them with a crate of whiskey soaked glass shards. Not when they’d paid him half up front.

It wasn’t really smuggling, was it? It wasn’t like he was a fifth columnist, on his way to trade military intelligence to a U-boat captain in exchange for future control of Great Falls. Why shouldn’t the troops be able to enjoy a stiff drink while they guarded America against the Nazi menace? If anything, he was doing his patriotic duty.

He sipped his coffee, lukewarm and spiced with Marlboro ashes. The road lay long ahead of him, twilight spreading a pale blanket over the grass that lapped hungrily along the edges of the asphalt and the distant, tiny towns whose lights competed with the first stars. Through the radio, a crackly but luckier 1942 spilled into the smoky cabin. A 1942 where the biggest concern facing the people of Wistful Vista was Fibber McGee clearly being a compulsive liar1.

Joe didn’t begrudge them their fun. Someone had to have a good time out there. Otherwise, what was even the point of all this?

The world shook with a sound like the moon falling out of the sky. Joe slammed the truck’s brakes, the lurch sending the wheel into his solar plexus and knocking all the wind out of him.

Is it the Japs, he thought as he caught his breath. The Germans? This far inland?

Once he had recovered, Bell opened the door and jumped down from the cabin. He wasn’t sure whether or not it was wise, or even if he should stay on the road at all. But the idea of being blown up and not even knowing what had done it scared him more than the blowing up itself.

He found no bombers, zeppelins, or missiles up there in the evening sky. Did people even use zeppelins for that anymore?2 Joe didn’t know and didn’t care. What he did care about was the plume of smoke rising from under the horizon.

No, not smoke: a heat mirage, twisting and spiraling up into the air like vapourised glass. The winter stars behind it shone in colours Joe didn’t have names for, distorted and magnified like reflections in raindrops.

There was one star in particular that drew his eye. It was violet, and far larger than any of its sisters, a diminutive night-sun. It took Joe a few seconds to realize that it was getting bigger. And the ground was starting to vibrate beneath his feet…

The star screamed over his head, sending him ducking as it slammed into the field behind him, sending up earthen wings of dirt and bedrock.

It had come to rest by the time Bell dared take his face off the road. He could see it, whatever it was, glowing softly at the end of the channel it had cut into the earth: a hot coal spat from the hearth of Heaven.

His first thought was some new wonder-bomb. After that, he wasn’t so sure. If it was going to explode, it seemed to be taking its sweet time. And why would the Germans or whoever waste a wunderwaffe on an empty stretch of road? It wasn’t even the highway. Were they aiming at him? The absurd notion almost flattered him.

It then occurred to Joe Bell that, if that thing really was some cutting edge piece of enemy ordinance, it might net him a reward.   

He fished a flashlight out of the truck’s glove box—along with his revolver. Even if there hadn’t been a war on, it never hurt to be prepared on lonely country roads.

The first thing Bell noticed as he walked along the trench was the lack of heat coming off it. He didn’t know much about comets or the like, but he would have expected its impact zone to be red hot. For how cool this gash in the landscape was, it could have been made a million years earlier.

The ground was glassy, waves of multicoloured silica fading from red to purple to blue. Joe found himself recalling that broadcast of War of the Worlds four years past3.

He slowed as he approached the glow. He could almost make out a shape in it—lots of shapes, in fact—but whenever he tried looking directly at it, his head started throbbing.

The glow started to fade. Or maybe it started to take shape, resolving itself as it dimmed, taking a form he could almost see, almost recognize.

He raised his gun.

The glow died away completely, and he was left looking at a regal-featured young woman, bereft of all clothing, lying prone on the ground. The woman was also very, very pregnant, to the point where it looked like she wouldn’t be for very long.

Joe dropped the revolver. For the first time in his life, he felt the sense of awe that his Sunday school teachers had tried so earnestly to impart in him when he was a boy.

Breathing rapidly, the woman dug grooves into the hard, glossy ground with her finger. She stared pleadingly at the trucker with wet, purple eyes. Then she said words which shattered the air between them and sent shards of pain through Joe’s teeth. Words that were never meant to be heard by creatures with ears. They were in no language Joe had ever heard in his life, but that didn’t stop him from knowing exactly what they meant:

Help us.”

The goddess had approached the Milky Way slowly. She wasn’t in any rush—it had only been a few hundred millennia since she had left for the Great Filament. There, she had reacquainted herself with kin she had not spoken with since the universe was less than half its present size, sharing the songs and sorrows of a thousand civilizations both nascent and venerable.

She had done other things, too, both more and less comprehensible to lower toposophic beings.   

Centuries of moments passed as she felt the intergalactic void grow thick with hydrogen, dust, and lonely stars.

She was home, or on the fringes of it at least. She made a beeline for the nearest blue supergiant, lagging only slightly behind the light thrown off by her own titanic form. Even at those speeds, swimming through that layer of Creation, it still took her the better part of an age. She could have used any one of the loopholes in casualty her kind had opened at the beginning of all things, but time didn’t bother her much. She used the years to ponder all she had learned of at the gathering. A rogue star had been recaptured by the gravitational pull of its mother-galaxy. The species that had in the meantime evolved on one of its satellites underwent a centuries long nervous breakdown as the night sky slowly opened a hundred thousand accusing eyes. Another race had harnessed their newfound knowledge of genomics to rid themselves of self-awareness, their entire people slipping into an eternal, preconscious dream.

She wondered if there was a lesson in either story, but her attention was diverted back to the blue giant. She poured herself into the sun, until her substance was nigh impossible to separate from its plasma.

A moment later, two hundred light-years away, the goddess streamed from a blitzar like a ribbon of woven light.

Stars have long memories, stretching all the way back to when the whole cosmos could fit on a pinhead with space to spare. For the privileged few who know how to spark their reminscience, they become a superhighways of swollen, decrepit giants, branching off into the back roads of their younger, more vital siblings.

On a small, rocky world juggled between two points of light, drought plagued a dwindling, precarious tribe. They were a newly emerged mutant strain of their kind, blessed and cursed with that compound of fragility and hunger that most often gives rise to intelligence. They prayed in their pagan manner to the sky for rain.

The goddess idly stirred some molecules in their atmosphere, and the rain poured down.

She cultivated life the way a child throws starfish back into the sea. Crews of asteroid battered starships wondered at how their atmospheres didn’t evaporate out into open space. Scientists on dying planets awoke with strange, mad ideas in their heads. Organic molecules were gently coaxed into forming simple amino acid chains in the oceans of virgin worlds.

Eventually, she found herself in the domain of a typical enough yellow dwarf. Its one life-bearing world was faintly familiar. There was a name, from a cousin’s borrowed recollection.

Earth. Yes, that was it. The homeworld of an unremarkable oxygen-nitrogen breathing species known as man. Her relatives (as well as some less discriminating slavers) had spread them all around the Local Group of galaxies. She was mildly surprised that the original population had persisted so long.

She fell into a casual orbit over the planet. She noted the Gatehouse on its one moon, a green mote in Selene’s eye. Her grandfather had been so keen on that project. As a courtesy, she dumped a few million childhoods4 worth of data into its quiet, sullen computers. The Gatekeeper signalled his thanks.

Turning her gaze back to the planet below, the goddess took stock of what the Earthmen had gotten up to since her cousin checked in on them.

The human race had made a respectable go at civilization, all things considered. Her cousin’s memories spoke to a thinly-peopled race with only rudimentary stonework to their name, decimated by volcanic eruptions and the occasional mass abduction to other worlds. Now they numbered in the billions, and had settled virtually every habitable patch of land on their planet, while building up a material culture fuelled chiefly by the burning of ancient concentrations of life, with some early but determined experiments into the breakdown of matter.

There were all the usual vices of civilization—the tribalism, the short-sightedness, the hunger—no more or less than any other species the goddess knew of. She wished them the best, which coming from her had some weight.

She was about to pull away from the planet when she spotted something that shouldn’t have been there. All across the globe were scattered pockets of miracles. Men becoming comets, women channeling lightning and revenge itself; a young girl healing the sick and the lame.

This in and of itself was not unexpected. Like all inhabited worlds of a certain age, the Earth had its share of gods and other numinous beings. Except, she could see that many of the miracles were not their handiwork. Not even most of them.

They were hers.

It was undeniable. She could see herself in so many of them. Her hopes and nostalgia, her loves and heartbreaks, even passing fancies she’d thought when this sun was still forming in its stellar nursery.

For the first time since she and everything else was young, the goddess was afraid.

A spear lanced into her. Sour, unfamiliar notes of pain rang out across her entire being, hot and bright like a kugelblitz. Searching wildly for the source of the attack, she glimpsed the stars parting, a dark disk slipping out from between them. A lattice of spacetime tethered it to the spear.

Through layers of metal and flesh, she saw its pilot, and its intentions for her.  

The pain infiltrated her past and colonized all her futures. Through the haze of it, she wondered how the vessel could have escaped her perception. How long had it been following her?

The Gatehouse fired off a relativistic volley, striking the ship and sending it spinning down into the blue expanse spread out below them.

The spear tore out of the goddess. She saw moments of her life stream out of the wound. Weakly, she thanked the Gatekeeper for his aid, however late it was.

She made an attempt to escape the Earth’s gravity well, to bathe her wounds and burn away the poison spreading through her in the sun. It was no use. She knew that at best she would die in the abyss between worlds.

Her child would too.

She did her best to insulate the unborn godling from the blight, and let the Earth embrace her.

The goddess fell. For the first time in aeons, she felt the whisper of an atmosphere envelop her. She sifted through the history and present of the world rapidly rising to meet her, trying to figure out what visage would least provoke the natives. A native of one of their northerly continents, she decided. Male would have been ideal, but there was the Law of Similarity to consider. It would have been inconvenient in her present circumstances as well.

She hardly felt it when she smacked into the planet—not on top of everything else.

As soon as she had lungs, the goddess gasped. Time. She had never experienced it like this. A river driving her unceasingly downstream. The future—what little of it was left—was cut off completely, and the past existed only in memory. And the pain. Her new nerves felt it so keenly.

She felt her child move within her, and it brought her focus. The pain didn’t matter. She need only endure it for so long.

A native creature was towering over her, cloaked in shadow, starlight reflected in his eyes. The horror of it was paralyzing. All that consciousness sunken into one perversely centralized, fragile mass. How did it live, dependant on so many immutable, easily disrupted structures? What kind of life was she leaving her child, shackled to such a form?

Help us.”

The creature—a male, she noticed—flinched at the sound of the True Speech. Still, he knelt down by her side.

“…Jesus, lady,” he said, his voice rougher than any she could have produced even if she’d tried. “What even is help to you? I can get you to a doctor, I think.”   

She saw the lights playing behind his eyes. They were tinged amber by awe and that instinctive fear of things divine, but he did want to help her, she could see clear as anything.

With a grip that could have reduced corundum to dust, she took hold of the man’s hand. “No,” she said in his tongue. “Just stay here. Please.”

The man nodded mutely.

He held her hand through the entire birth, even as her grip almost crushed his hand. Naively, she realized, she had expected the experience to mirror her other children’s births. Those had been intellectual exercises more than anything else. This, though, was nothing but instinct, and pain, and blood. Every now and then, the man told her to push, as if she had any other choice. Strange little thing, he was.  

She heard her son’s cries as he tasted air for the first time. The man caught him before he hit the glassified soil. Not that it would have done him any harm if he had.

The man, wearing a smile beaten out of anxiety and relief, handed the goddess her son.

She studied the wet, wailing thing in her arms. Near as she could tell, the child’s vessel resembled a perfectly formed juvenile male of the species. Good, she thought. That would make things easier for him.

He was so warm.

With a fingernail, she cut his cord.

She let her head fall back. The sun had set completely by then, and the stars were out in force. The goddess had never seen them from this vantage point: their light bent and lensed by gravity, obscured by thousands of feet of oxygen and nitrogen. And yet, she was glad she had gotten to see them this way.

The river was washing her out into a dark, endless sea. She had held out hope that shunting off so much of herself might preserve her from the spear’s poison. That she could stay with her child. She had at least ensured that he could stay, though. She saw her place in the paradox, and decided to fulfill it. It was only polite. “I bequeath you…” She smiled tiredly. “…I bequeath you… me.”  

With the minutes she had left, she let herself savour the feel of her son’s breath breath against her skin as the lights above her started to dim.

She was aware of the man’s hand in hers. To her relief, touch was the last to go.  


1. A 1942 where all Amos Jones and Andy Brown had to worry about was people realizing they were both white.

2. As it happened, Joe Bell was born into one of the rare, blessed clusters of timelines where airships were a passing fad.

3. Despite the stories that would emerge later, nobody in Joe’s neighbourhood that he knew of had mistaken the program for a real news broadcast. Sometimes, he wished they had.

4. Unit of measurement commonly used among higher toposophic beings to refer to a sum of knowledge and experience equal to that acquired over the course of an average sophontic childhood.

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