Category Archives: Book One: The Cold Peace

The first volume of “The New Humans”

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Quiet Room

For a few moments, nobody said anything. The only sounds to be heard were Tiresias’ moans of pain, a red line soaking through his wizard robe like he was the wrong answer, and the winding down of Baby Julie’s tears. Quite appropriately, she had already forgotten what had made her so upset. Green match flames danced on the tips of her little fingers.

Everyone in the barn was looking at the infant in her mother’s arms. Except for Fred Barnes. He was looking at Drew. “Son, why didn’t ya tell us?”

He scratched the back of his neck, before admitting, shamefaced “Me and Sophia didn’t know how you would take us. I think, in the back of my head, I thought you and Mum… yeah.”

The couple expected rage and indignation, but all they got from the elder Barnes was a look of total and complete heartbreak. “I’m sorry you were ever able to get that into your head.”

Arnold had yet to figure what exactly he had watched, but he knew he felt just a little less alone in the world.

Żywie was trying to tend to Tiresias’ injury, but he was weakly scrambling away from her. “Keep her away!” he almost screamed. “Don’t let her touch me!”

Lawrence was already back on his feet, his face corpse-pale. His hands were shaking, the right still coated in gold. There was something off in his song, too. It sounded rushed.

“Are you alright, sir?” Allison asked, forgetting herself.

“Myriad, how did he know your old name?”

The current of attention suddenly shifted to the girl. Gravity remembered her ice-ring. “I-I snuck out. After the thing with the big kids. I found AU, and we talked—”

Her world went white, and she was sprawled in the hay. Her first thought was that Ophelia had clapped again. Then she felt herself being pulled to her feet by her hair. She screamed.

“You ungrateful cow!” Another blow across her face with his gold-encrusted hand. “I take you out of that hole! I feed you all the knowledge mankind has to—”

Angela, Basil, and Drew pried Lawrence off the little girl.

“That’s enough, Laurie!” Basilisk shouted, grappling against the old man’s struggles.

Angela managed to get off a glare at the South African. “Is this how he treats children?”

Dazed, Allison wandered over to Eliza. “Żywie… my me hurts.”

Before the healer could do anything, Lawrence broke free of his human restraints. Ineffectively brushing of his suit, he said “Fine. If she’s too good for a thrashing, then it’s the Quiet Room for her.”

Allison felt herself being roughly pulled along by the wrist. People were shouting things behind her, but right then she couldn’t fit the words together in her head. Wet, cold grass changed to wood and then to carpet beneath her bare feet.

Self-awareness only returned when she was shoved into a dark, bare room; one she hadn’t seen the inside of her entire time at the school. The walls looked like black marble, the veins and fissures of grey and white only accentuating the darkness they ran through. She turned to look at Lawrence looming in the doorway. “What—”

“The Quiet Room, Myriad,” he said, his voice toneless and businesslike. “The Physician set it up for us. Supposed to cut posthumans off from their powers. A bit hit and miss, but it seems to work well with links.” He started sliding door shut. “I think an overnight stay is more than appropriate, don’t you?”

The door closed with a sound like an airlock sealing, a thin line of light around its frame going dark like a path in sand being blown away.

Pitch-black silence. Complete and utter silence. Unheard of silence: like everyone and everything in the world had died the moment the door shut. Including Allison. She couldn’t even hear her own song.

Her breathing quickened. Soon she was hammering on the door, shouting after her teacher. “Lawrence! Something’s wrong!” She slid down against the door till she was sitting on the floor. “I can’t hear anything.”  

No response. It didn’t sound like there was even any place for the sound to go. It was as if the confines of her universe had collapsed to a few square feet. In some ways it had.

The memory of David’s song was already fading from Allison’s mind, hastened away by fear and the stabbing pain in her left eye and both her hands. Her ice-dress was falling apart, melting into the too-warm stone of the floor. The room was an oven, and the feeling of water on her skin made it worse. The darkness was thickening, weighing down on the little girl like the deepest, hottest ocean, as though the water droplets were contaminating the black. She thought she could hear the sea gurgling in her ears.

Except it wasn’t. Without the songs, there was nothing to drown out the breath of the world.

All the Barnes bar Arnold sat in Lawrence’s study. After their youngest member banished AU—and Lawrence had dragged Allison off to God knows where—her uncle had been hurried to bed with all the other children, and Basil and Żywie were left the Sisyphean task of settling dozens of scared, confused children down to sleep. Angela hoped the two teachers were braced for nightmares and wet beds. The good doctor had then begged them join him in his office, to discuss what had brought them to his school. The Barnes had hoped Mrs. Gillespie, or even Melusine or Miss Fletcher might join them, but instead they got Tiresias, standing in the corner like a sad wizard’s coat rack.

Lawrence had poured everyone a tumbler of scotch, but nobody was touching them—except Tiresias. Lawrence was tapping his fingers on his desk. “You seem to know a lot about us, Mr. and Mrs Barnes.”

“Is that a problem?” Fred asked tersely.

Lawrence graced them with a sad smile. “I wish it wasn’t, Mr. Barnes, but you and your family should know how much hate there is for children like your son. You’ll understand why we value our privacy.”

Sophia looked long and hard at the old man. She looked down at her daughter, squirming in her arms, then back at him. “Excuse me, Doctor,” she said. “I think there’s bigger things we should be talking about.”

Lawrence raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”

“Where you dragged Allison springs to mind,” said Angela.

Lawrence waved his recently freed hand. “I’ve put Myriad in the Quiet Room to think about her actions for the night. She’ll be let out in the morning, I assure you.”

“That doesn’t tell us anything,” Sophie retorted. “What is the Quiet Room? You said you were keeping her in it overnight? Does it have a bed… a toilet?”

“Young lady, how I discipline my students is my—”

Discipline?” She looked at her husband and in-laws in disbelief. “You punched a little girl in the side of the head! With a metal fist! Twice! ”

Lawrence nodded with some contrition. “That was regrettable. Children should associate a caretaker’s hand with affection, not punishment.”

Sophia shook her head. “For God’s sake! She could have blood on the brain or something!”

“Our Żywie will see to her. Now, I have to ask, how did you know my staff’s names?”

“He wrote home to us, like every boy away at school,” Angela answered, her tone final. “And I don’t think you understand what that looked like, Doctor.”

“The fact of the matter is, Mrs Barnes, Myriad is one of my students, and how I choose to handle her is my business.”

“We’ve known that little girl a lot longer than you have,” said Fred. “And I bloody well hope we’d be asking these questions even if we didn’t!”

“And then there’s the things Chen said,” continued his wife. “You didn’t seem very surprised by them.”

Lawrence narrowed his eyes at the couple. “AU would have said anything to get you on his side.”

“I don’t think I was crucial to his plans.”

“The man had clearly lost his mind.”

“A lot of my mates have lost their minds at one point or another,” said Fred. “There was usually a reason.”

“And what set him off after he gave up?” Drew added.

“Clearly he wanted to get closer to me.”

Angela scoffed. “You were buried to your neck in the ground, with molten metal ready to pour down onto your head. He was plenty close to you.”

“Baseless accusations.”

Drew scowled. “I think I’d be a mite more worked up if someone accused me of molesting my kids.”

Lawrence just stared at them.

“And then there’s the girls,” Fred said. “I mean, when I first spotted them, I sort of just assumed one of the older lads was a real bounder. But all three of them? At once?”

“We can discuss these questions after we’ve resolved the matter at hand. When did you start receiving—”

Fred slammed his fist down on the desk. “We’re not talking about the notes!”

Lawrence started. “Now look here. I didn’t want to be so blunt, but your presence here has been nothing but disruptive, even forgiving you hitchhiker. You’ve dredged up old emotions in the children, and set Elsewhere’s adjustment back by months at the very least!”

“His name is Arnold!” bellowed his father.

Lawrence leaned back in his chair, sighing. “Listen, I’m usually not in the position to offer it, but it is only fair that parents receive some compensation for letting their children go. I do not extend this offer often, but Żywie’s regenerative capabilities are second to none. If you promise to leave us in peace, and have Elsewhere swear not to send anymore of these letters, you can return home fully intact.”

Imagination and the English language both failed Frederick Barnes. He spat in Lawrence’s face.

The headmaster removed a handkerchief from his front pocket and wiped away the sputum. “I’ll take that as a no, then.”

Angela headed towards the door, her family following close behind her.

“Leaving, are we?” asked Lawrence.

Angela stopped briefly. “That we are, Doctor Lawrence. And we’re taking our son.”

“Are you now?”

“And the little girl, too!” insisted Sophia.

“Very well. Do you want any of my other students while you’re at it?” He tilted his head towards the esper. “You up for a trip down south, Tiresias?”   

The psychic shrugged.

“We’ll ruddy well take all of them if we have to,” said Fred.

Tiresias stepped around Lawrence’s desk, placing himself between the Barnes and the door.

Fred wheeled up to the man. “You can stay.”

Tiresias placed two fingers on the veteran’s forehead and pushed him backward a few inches. Immediately, Angela went to slap the man, but he caught her arm, which went limp in his grip. The telepath was stronger than he looked.

“Let’s not go doing anything stupid,” he sighed. He moved closer to Sophie and Julia. “Cute kid you have there.” He pulled the ring of keys he used to bait Ophelia from his pocket, jangling them.

Julia giggled, there was a whoosh, and Tiresias’ hand was empty. He closed his palm. “I really should have thought that through. Mind if I hold her?”

Sophia went stiff. “I-I guess.”

Drew gaped at her, but said nothing as Tiresias took the baby into his arms. Julia didn’t seem to mind, though, gurgling happily up at the man.

Tiresias grinned. “It’s a shame, really.”

“What is?” Sophia asked.

“Well, there’s the sanctioning laws to think about. And there have to be eyes on your family now. These things run in the blood.” He traced a shape with his fingertip on the baby’s forehead.

“They-they wouldn’t,” Sophia stammered. “She isn’t even weaned.”

“They would, I’m sorry to say,” said Lawrence. “I’ve seen some of the asylum crèches. I wouldn’t say they meet the standards of our nursery. Love and care are things I doubt you can economise, but the DDHA gives it their all.”

“Fuck you.”

There was no room left for surprise in Angela’s family, but Lawrence did blink.

“I was merely making an observation, Mrs Barnes.”

“You know exactly what you’re doing!” she spat. “If you’re going to be a brute, at least be honest with yourself!”      

“I assure you, if someone reported your granddaughter, as is their legal duty—”   

“If you reported her!” Angela screamed. “Stop wheedling about it and say it!”

Lawrence shrugged. “Well, one must render unto Caesar…”

Mrs Barnes tried to think of a scriptural rebuttal, then realized the futility of it. Sophia was struggling to hold back tears by now. “You really would, wouldn’t you? Tear a baby out of her mother’s arms?”   

“That would be a job for the soldiers, my dear.” He slid some Institute stationary across the desk. “Leave. Tonight, before the boy wakes up.”

“And you’re expecting us to write what?” Fred said, looking like he was struggling beneath loop upon loop of chains.

“That there is to be no more letter-smuggling, to you or anyone else. I shudder to think of the ‘services’ he might have been providing the other children.”

“And why would we do that?” Fred growled.

“The DDHA?” suggested Tiresias, still gently rocking Julia. “You could say they’re keeping tabs on you. It’s probably even true. I can’t imagine them being alright with note-passing.”

Lawrence glanced at his student and nodded. “That works.”

Angela stood there in the middle of the room for a long while, trying to figure out some way out of their situation. She ran the maths of grabbing Arnold—and Allison, if they could manage it—and legging it. There was no way it could turn out well either for them or the children, not when they were running from a rich man with government connections and a small army of supers. Sophia was weeping now. So was Drew.

Angela walked back to the desk, and picked up the pen. “I should have let Chen get on with it.”

Lawrence watched the Barnes filter out of his office with a touch of regret. Remarkable woman, he thought as Angela slammed the door behind her. He might have tried to hire her on, if there weren’t the attachment issues with Elsewhere to consider, or that husband of hers. Still, he had her genes.

“Is your conscience ever tested, Tiresias? By the things we must do for your kind?”

The psychic broke out a cold, pale smile. “Mine would, sir, were it human.” He headed out the door himself. “Night,” he called back.

Lawrence finally took a hard gulp of his whiskey. The Barnes girl had been almost on point about one thing. He had miscalculated his approach to his newest students.

It would be rectified.

It was impossible for Allison to know when or if she slept in the Quiet Room. There was no light either way, and dreams wandered back and forth as they pleased. Sometimes, she thought she heard snatches of music, but found nothing except her own shallow breathing. Other times, she swore she could hear Elsa laughing at her in the dark.

Then there were moments when the darkness flickered, revealing a barren, arctic landscape, peopled by faceless men with bloodless hands. She was almost grateful when the dark returned.

She no longer feared the thing that breathed in the dark. There was a familiarity to it, and it was the closest thing she had to proof that life still existed.

Please talk to me.

Allison was beyond tears. They’d all been cried hours before. In all that time, she hadn’t moved from the door. She had this idea that, as soon as she could no longer feel that crease in the wall, she would never be able to find it again.

There was a click. A tinny, weary voice filled the room. “Allison, we really need to push on here.”

The girl looked up from the slightly more textured darkness of her knees. “…Dr. Carter?” She had almost forgotten that colourless tormenter’s name.  

Another click, and a sigh. “Don’t be cheeky, Allison. My voice isn’t that hard to place.”

It really would have been, if not for that unmistakable blend of boredom and numb fear.

“Sorry s-sir,” she said tentatively. “Um, why are you here?”

“You know full well why both us are here, young girl. You’re being tested.”

Oh. That explained some things. She was still at McClare. The Institute—Lawrence, the Watercolours, AU and everything else—must’ve been a long daydream. She managed to find new tears at the thought of David and the others not being real, but just managed to choke them down.

There were still a few questions, like the silence, or where her clothes had gone. Was that why the room was so dark? And why did her head hurt so much?

“You’re gonna make me play a piano I can’t see, aren’t you?” she moaned.

“…No,” said Dr. Carter, sounding baffled. “What would be the point?”

There was a point, she wondered to herself. “So what’s the test?”

There was a long time before the next click. “Isn’t it obvious? How do you get out this room?”

“I don’t know!” she whined.

“Well, there is a first for everything,” the doctor said dryly. “At least try to work it out.”

She gave it a try. What else was there to do?

Pick the lock?

There was no lock.

Start a fire so they have to let me out?

Chancy, and what did she even have to burn?

Talk Dr. Carter into letting me go?

It hadn’t worked the first five times.

Break my head open on the walls?

Barring the pain, she could find no flaw in that plan.

Click. “Look,” said Dr. Carter, clearly frustrated. “I’m just going to tell you the answer so I can go home, hmm? You sit there and wait for the grown ups to decide to let you out. Again.”

A blade of light split the darkness. It terrified Allison, driving her to the other end of the room, curling in on herself. “Stop-please-don’t-you’re hurting her!”

“Myriad?” Żywie said, running over to her. She tried to coax the girl from her fetal position. “Shh, it’s all over. Let me get a look at you.”

Allison unfurled slowly, Żywie wincing when she saw the ugly, purple bruise that dominated the right side of her face. Her knuckles were raw and bloody.

More importantly, though, the songs were playing again, warming the air and making her feel a real person again. The pain was still there, but the songs offered relief from that, too. She reached out for the nearest one:

Piano.    

She knew herself, inside and out. Pulses sparked between nerve-endings; blood pumped fast and angry in her veins; cells divided and died off as her body went about the business of living and growing up. And it was all awaiting her orders.

She quieted the pain in her head and knuckles, ordering the cuts and scrapes to close, without the half measures of scabs and scar tissue. Someone who was watching closely—which Żywie very much was—would have seen the colour in her bruise begin to visibly fade.

Myriad locked eyes with the healer. “It works on yourself?” she whispered.

“…Yes,” she admitted.

“But then how are you—”

“We’ll talk about that later, little one. Let’s not linger in this room.” She removed her cloak, wrapping it around the little girl. The healer looked almost indecent in Myriad’s eyes, standing there in her plain blue slacks and white frilled blouse, no different from any mere natural woman.

She led Myriad through the hallways by the hand, her cape trailing after the child like a bridal train. “Lawrence wants to talk to you, Elsewhere, and Billy— ” she sighed, “—Growltiger, I mean.” She felt Myriad’s hand tighten around her fingers. She looked down at the girl. “Last night was… out of line. But I swear to you, child, that isn’t Lawrence. We all were under a lot of stress, and I’ll be right there with you.”

Myriad nodded mutely, wondering why Lawrence wanted to speak to Billy as well. Did he do something she didn’t know about?

The boys were waiting for them at the threshold in their pyjamas. They made Billy look like a refugee from an especially twee picture book, but that was hard to avoid in the best of circumstances. He had his arm around Elsewhere’s shoulder, trying to comfort without treading on his pride or pricking his skin with his claws. Going by the frosted panes in the front door, the sun hadn’t even risen yet.

Elsewhere hugged Myriad as soon as she was in range, soon joined by Billy. They clung together for some time.

“You were in the Quiet Room?” Billy asked.

“Yeah.”

“Was it bad?”

“Yeah. Where’s your mummy and daddy and all them?”

“They’re-they’re gone.” Myriad could hear anger diffusing her friend’s sorrow. “Didn’t even say goodbye.” The weeping returned in earnest. “They said I’m not allowed to send them notes anymore, and that they won’t read them even if I do!” The hug was the only reason he didn’t hit something. “I hate them!”

Żywie shushed him, pulling the boy into her arms. “No you don’t. This was nothing to do with you. Your family was only thinking about your little niece. We’ll set up a more secure way for you and your parents to talk, I promise.”

She hated lying to the children.

The four of them ventured out into the morning, still so dark it could have been midnight, all the bleariness banished from their bones by curiosity.

“You get to wear Zy’s cape?” Billy enthused as they trod through the cool grass. “So cool.”

Żywie smiled, savouring it as long as she could. “You want a cloak, Growly?” Much as she still contested the Naming, she couldn’t deny it made the child happy. “I’m more than willing to share.”

That prospect kept Billy well and truly distracted till they reached the nursery.

Lawrence was waiting for them inside. He was sitting in a wooden chair, gently rocking Chorus’ cradle. He wasn’t alone: Reverb, Stratogale, and Ex-Nihilo were milling about the place—looking out the windows, or studying their nails, or watching the babies sleep. Anything except look at the three newest students.

Lawrence saw how Myriad flinched at the sight of him. “It’s alright, child, you’ve had your lashes. That’s not what you’re here for. You too, Elsewhere.”

“You’re-you’re not gonna hit me? Because of the notes?”

Lawrence shook his head. “I believe, given how that turned out for you, that the crime is its own punishment in this instance.”

Elsewhere was about to break back down, but he felt Żywie’s steadying hands on his shoulders. “Don’t draw this out, Lawrence. We’re all very tired.”’

“You’re very right, old girl.” Lawrence rose from his chair. “I’m afraid, children, that we haven’t been completely open with you three. We’re always careful about the timing of this conversation with new students.”

“The big girls are pregnant, aren’t they?” said Myriad.

The nursery scoffed bitterly.

Really? You didn’t know? That big magic brain of yours, and you didn’t know?

“She’s a little girl, Reverb,” sighed Stratogale.

She has eyes! She saw us packing on the pounds for months, and it never occurred to her that we might be expecting? Where did she think the babies came from?

Myriad’s fingers were sore. “The asylums…”

Lawrence shook his head. “Maybe someday, if they acquire an infant that needs to be here. But this crop”—he swept an arm over the line of cots—“all born here, at the Institute.”

Billy quirked. He was still somewhat unclear on how babies came about, but he knew that this wasn’t how it usually went. “…Were they by accident?”

“Not at all, Growltiger,” Lawrence said, smiling.

Myriad stuttered, eyes darting between the older girls. “But-but they’re kids.”

“Baseline cultures, I find, have interesting ideas about where the borders of childhood and maturity lie.” A chuckle. “Oh, we argue back and forth about it: ‘Is a woman eighteen or twenty-one?’ and all that. But the truth is, a well-fed girl-child in the right conditions may be fertile at eleven, and be able to safely deliver a child not a year later.”

Żywie shot the older man a look.

Acknowledging it with a nod, Lawrence clarified, “Of course, we don’t cut it that fine here at the Institute. Your average Australian girl is more than ready to have a baby at fourteen or fifteen. The hardships of underage pregnancy are all matters of social condemnation and a lack of support for the mothers. Obviously, neither of those are problems here. These babies are growing up with the love of dozens of brothers and sisters, and just as many parents. And as for complications in the pregnancies themselves, well, Żywie’s on the job.”

The healer said nothing, just as she had the night of the caning.

There was something wrong with the situation that Elsewhere couldn’t find words for. He settled on his mother’s all-purpose objection:

“Lawrence… this doesn’t sound very Christian.”

Lawrence laughed. “Oh, boy, I very much admire your mother—owe her my life, I’d wager—but she definitely clings to some very quaint ideas.”

Elsewhere remembered he was supposed to be hating his mother. “Oh.”

There was one thing Myriad didn’t quite understand yet. “Um, who’re the daddies?”

“Chant, Chorus, and Spitfire were all fathered by Linus,” answered Lawrence. “The advantage of being the first adolescent boy on campus.”

I still don’t know how you and Linus got a firework baby, Reverb said, addressing Ex-Nihilo.

“The mysteries your kind still throw us,” Lawrence said wistfully. “All the children our young ladies are carrying at the moment have Gwydion for a father. Should produce interesting results.”

“What about Ophelia?” asked Myriad.

“Tiresias,” Stratogale declared flatly. “My daughter’s father was Tiresias.”

Myriad tried to imagine that. She was far too successful. “But he’s—”

Lawrence cut her off. “I know what it must look like on first glance, but I had to talk Tiresias into it. Yes, the age-gap is there, but it’s not as though they’re married. Just making the next generation a little finer. And you’ve seen the boy with Ophelia. Fatherhood—much as I wish to avoid such exclusive attachments—brings out the best in him.” Another chuckle. “Make of that what you will.”

“Um, excuse me, sir?”

“Not sir, Growltiger, ‘Lawrence’.”

“Sorry. Lawrence, why do we need babies?”

Lawrence’s smile faded. With little ceremony, he pulled off both his gloves.

His hands were as hairless as a child’s, the skin crisscrossed with countless faint, white scars, and ridges where it had split, only to lose its way as it healed.

Even Billy realized what he was looking at. Myriad was horrified. Couldn’t Żywie have healed those burns?

Of course she could have.

“I have seen men burn a child like you. Ordinary men. Fathers and shopkeepers. Kind men.” He laughed at his youthful ignorance. “The human race is a cancerous old miser, who’s only clinging to life to deny his children their inheritance. My kind isn’t going to hand your race what you deserve until they realize how inevitable you truly are. Numbers sure aren’t going to work against that.” A mystical cast fell over his features. “And if you children are capable of such wonders spontaneously, imagine what we would gain by breeding for miracles.”

Myriad said, “Does this mean… one day… we’ll…”  

Lawrence tried not to look at Growltiger. “Yes, one day your own children will sleep in this nursery.”

Eliza clapped her hands. “Well, now that that’s over and done with, I think it’s time for you children to head back to bed. I think we could all use a few more hours sleep.”

She started to usher the younger children out the door, but Myriad ducked out from under her arms. “Ah, Żywie, could I ask Lawrence one more thing?”

“You never need permission to ask me anything, Myriad,” said Lawrence.

Eliza hoped to God the girl wasn’t going to ask the question she knew she would.

Myriad took a deep breath. “When I’m big, who do think I’ll… have them with?”

Lawrence’s eyes lit up. Finally, a forward thinking young girl. “Well, first of all, I’m not forcing monogmany on your kind, so you can look forward to plenty of interesting combinations.  If we’re talking about first couplings, I’ve been speculating on the possibilities of you and Maelstrom, seeing how well you two get on.”

“…Okay.”

When Myriad awoke, milky, washed out blue light flooded the dormitory, the kind of early morning gleam that couldn’t decide if it was moonlight or sunlight. For a few happy seconds, she couldn’t recall anything of the last night. She snuggled into Billy’s fur and pulled Elsewhere in closer.

Then she remembered why they had sought each other’s comfort.

Someone was singing; quietly, hardly above a whisper. She glanced towards its source, trying to move her head as little as possible.

Garibaldi fu ferito, fu ferito ad una gamba…” Tiresias was making his way up the row of hammocks. As he passed each one, he briefly touched its occupants. It didn’t seem to matter where—the forehead, a hand, a foot—so long as there was bare skin. His pace was casual, almost cheerful. Sometimes, he even skipped.  

Garibaldi che comanda, che comanda il battaglion…

Myriad screwed her eyes shut as he drew nearer. She felt the hammock sway lightly, before her fringe was parted by Tiresias dragging his finger across her brow.

She kept her eyes closed until she heard the clatter of the door shutting. She sat up, looking around the dorm.

Her lips moved of their own will. “I know you’re awake, Allison1.”


1. The old woman with a young face pulls a cigarette out of her Dunhill packet, its artful packaging long since replaced by plain grey cardboard and grim pictures of too-small infants warrened with tubes. With a well practised gesture, she lights it with a match. She never could get the hang of those stubby, modern lighters, she says. I ask how she of all people can justify such a habit to herself. “Better carcinogens have tried and failed,” she tells me. “I suppose you’re going to ask the question? All you hungry journalists do. My answer drifts with the decades, but right now, I think it was the night when Chen came home, when I started to realize the Institute was a cult.

             -“The New Humans: A Biographical History” edited by Dr. Bartholomew Finch

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Chapter Twenty-One: The Battle of Avon Valley

Once outside, Myriad traded Haunt’s song for Britomart’s. Cardea’s portals would have been faster—instantaneous, even—but it wasn’t conducive to scouting, as she kept telling herself.

She started to run, leaving a faint comet-trail of chilled, glinting air and frozen grass.

AU’s song was distant, echoing from somewhere across the river like a parade a few streets away. A smart move, Myriad thought. If you were going to attack the Institute, you definitely wanted to keep as far away from Melusine as possible.

Or her.

She raced past the teachers’ cottages and the obstacle course, preparing to make a running leap over the water, when she caught sight of something shiny by the nursery.

She came to a stop near instantly, her movements completely silent.

Something was peering through one of the windows of the tiny demountable: an eight-foot tall shōgun, resplendent in was she hoped was purely ceremonial gold armour.

Myriad hated herself for whining about the babies being brought to the play. Her eyes went cerulian, as she called up Maelstrom’s song. The shōgun was solid, without a drop of water to its name.  “AU!” the girl called. “Can you hear me?”

The shōgun turned slowly to look at her, its sculpted face fixed in a predatory grin like the Devil’s funeral mask. There was a sword at his side, the blade nothing more than plain steel. Myriad wondered how AU expected to do anything with it. Then again, the thing did have hands. It started to walk towards Myriad, and she flared with Elsewhere’s borrowed light.

This seemed to stop the golem in its tracks. Neat, “Times New Roman” etchings formed on its chestplate:

MY NAME IS CHEN, ALLISON     

“Oh. Sorry.” Myriad’s aura extinguished, only to reignite as she remembered who she was apologising to. “Don’t call me that.”

The etchings smoothed out, before being replaced by a new message:

  IT’S YOUR NAME

Myriad glared up into the shōgun’s dark, empty eye sockets. “Not for you.”

The etchings faded again. The automaton just stood there, with only the dusk noises and the gentle, far off flow of the river disturbing the silence. Now that it was up close, Myriad could see that the shōgun’s armour was not a uniform gold. The great horned helmet looked more like Corinthian bronze, while the facemask might have been something like electrum. Some of the plates were tinged russet or lime.

Curious, Myriad took on his song. Almost immediately, she gasped. She could feel it, all of it. Chen must have been here for weeks, months, even. Since the carnival, she realized. Far beneath her, stretching out for dozens, if not hundreds of feet in every direction, was a vast pool of warmth. She recognized it instinctively as gold, a veritable dragon’s hoard, like fresh candle wax beneath her fingers, filling a rough, ovoid disc under the entire Institute. She tried prodding a section of the substance, and she felt it move under her will. Had she been able to see through solid matter at the time, she would have seen a clear indentation in the mass, some twenty-five feet deep in the ground below. Somehow she could see herself standing in the tall spring grass, and pitch darkness, and tree branches silhouetted against the sky—

Myriad shook her head, trying to shove the reflected images to the back of her mind.        

The shōgun was lukewarm compared the reservoir: less yielding, almost chalky to the touch. The sword was—as she’d first guessed—cold and inert, with only a thin vein of white heat running through its base, imperfect substance.

He’s using alloys, Myriad realized. Toughening up the gold with other metals. How long did it take him to not to rip it all apart?

“You do know that samurai aren’t Chinese, right?” she said, if only to distract herself from how thoroughly AU had claimed the territory.

Somewhere not too far away, the shōgun’s master shrugged:

I’M AUSTRALIAN, ALLISON

Again, the words dissolved and reformed:

I TOLD YOU TO RUN

Myriad remembered Canberra, her entire life before the Institute or even McClare: small and limited, breathing empty, songless air. “This is my home,” she said. “I can’t leave.” She prayed he didn’t ask if she told anyone about him.

IT WAS MY HOME TOO, ONCE

Needlessly, the shōgun looked back at the nursery.

THERE ARE BABIES HERE?

“Yes. Why do you care?”

WHERE DO YOU THINK THEY CAME FROM?

“MYRIAD!” bellowed Lawrence. “GET AWAY FROM HIM!”

The old headmaster was barreling down the slope, Mrs Barnes, Melusine, and Tiresias (still in Lawrence’s hastily bespeckled and dyed dressing gown) hurrying alongside him.

“What are you doing out here?” cried Angela. “What would your mother think if anything happened to you?” She glared right at the shōgun. “And you!” she hissed. “You lied to us!”

The living statue actually shrunk back slightly:

NOTHING PERSONAL, MRS BARNES. GLAD YOU GOT TO SEE YOUR SON

“It’s not him,” Allison said. “AU’s doing”—concepts like astral projection, scrying, and the laws of similarity and contagion presented themselves from her dusty collection of second hand knowledge—“Mels stuff.”

“She’s right,” Melusine confirmed. “That thing’s a golem.” Evenly, she added “Hello, Chen.”

G’DAY, FRAN

The shōgun leaned to its left, to better see Tiresias trying to find shelter from its gaze behind Lawrence’s back.

DON’T THINK I’VE FORGOTTEN ABOUT YOU, YOU PUTRID LITTLE MONGREL. AND WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING ON YOUR CHIN?

The psychic pulled off his cotton ball wizard beard, whimpering.  

Lawrence sniffed. The discovery that AU was not in fact standing less than a foot away from his newest favourite had—without much good cause—restored a measure of his self-possession. “I can’t say I’m impressed with your ethnography, AU,” he said with the air of a lecturer about to demolish a bad thesis defense.

“I already told him about that,” Myriad said, her voice shaking with nervousness.

“Good girl. Can’t say I’m surprised, either by this pageantry or your very presence here. You’ve been lurking on the edge of Tiresias’ foresight for nearly a year now.”

“Shut up, Bertie!”

“Oh, Tiresias, you were pals for years, he must have guessed as much.”

Myriad’s guilt managed to both lessen and intensify at once.

“I’m just wondering what took you so long to make your move. Couldn’t work up the nerve? I wouldn’t be shocked.”

FUCK YOU, LAWRENCE

If Allison had been within range, Mrs Barnes would have covered her eyes. “There is a little girl standing right next to you!”

The profanity cleared itself:

THE LADY IS RIGHT. I’M NOT HERE TO DO ANYTHING TO ALLISON, OR ANY OF THE OTHER KIDS. I’M HERE FOR YOU AND THE PISSANT

Tiresias shot Lawrence a desperate look. He didn’t notice.

“Chen, you haven’t done anything yet that can’t be sorted out,” Mrs Barnes said. “Come out from wherever you’re hiding, and you and Doctor Lawrence can talk about what on God’s green Earth happened between you two.”

Before Lawrence could object to this strange women making plans on his behalf, a new message appeared on the shōgun’s chest:

I AM SORRY, MRS BARNES. FOR EVERYTHING.

AU’s proxy made a grand, sweeping gesture towards the barn. Angela, Lawrence, Melusine and Myriad all looked in that direction, expectant fear written on their faces.

Tiresias took off in a run.

Golden poles erupted from the ground around around the remaining three adults, a roof forming membrane-like over their heads, before they were knocked off their feet by a thick, square slab of metallic yellow forcing its way out of the earth beneath them.  

The shōgun threw its arms around Myriad. There was a flash of green, and a second later the Gatehouse had a new statue, but not before the newly formed cage launched itself into the air, its captives slamming into the bars and each other as it lurched and shook.

Melusine poured through through the bars, evaporating before she splashed down onto the grass. She saw Myriad trying to line her index finger up with the cage, her fingernail glowing green.

“Don’t!” Melusine’s voice vibrated as she wafted over to the girl’s side, condensing into ice. “If you hit the cage, the fall might break their necks.”

Myriad shouted “What do we do then?”

Sprinting madly back towards the pair, Tiresias answered with a scream. “RUUUUUUN!”

Behind the psychic, the earth was churning, grass roots twisting and tearing apart as beasts of shifting gold dug their way out into the open air. Everywhere they looked, there were more of them—dirt and dust tarnished gargoyles, enormous glittering crabs, and what looked like the fossils of gods—half tearing, half melting their way through the Institute’s grounds. Briefly reclaiming AU’s song, Myriad gaped at what her new senses were telling her. The gold beneath the Institute was draining, the huge bubble slowly but surely being drawn to the surface.

Tiresias crouched behind Myriad, clutching her shoulders. “Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit…”

AU’s shining horde began advancing upon them, soundless but for the soft squelching of ground underfoot.

Melusine was grateful she presently lacked both internal organs and fear hormones. “I think you might want to play Cardea’s song, Miri.”

The girl nodded sharply.

Accordions.

She reached out her arms, probing for catches in the air. Finding purchase, she pulled open a hole in the world.

The three of them stepped through the rent into the barn. Immediately, they were crowded by a press of relieved students and staff.  

“Allie!”

Before she could process the dissonance of Elsewhere using her old name, Myriad found herself caught in a hug between him and Maelstrom.

“We thought AU had kidnapped you!” the water-sprite wailed, holding his friend tight. She wondered if the concept of her sneaking off had even crossed his mind. “Then we saw those monsters come out of the ground, and I thought… and I thought—” He broke down into tears.

Assured of Myriad’s safety, Arnold retreated from the hug, counting the adults who had followed after Myriad. “Where’s Mum?”

“I’m sorry, kid,” Tiresias said between heavy breaths as he collapsed onto a hay bale. “AU snatched her and Bertie.”

“He-he what?” asked Arnold, realizing the esper wasn’t telling some cruel, ill-timed joke.

Myriad answered for him, her voice quavering. “He put them in this floating cage thing and took them across the river. I can still hear their songs—barely.” She wrapped her arms around herself, a chill rising inside her. “I was going to try and zap them out, but they could have fallen…”

Before she could get another word out, Arnold started shouting. “You didn’t even try? You just stood there and let a bloody supervillain take my mummy?” His stormcloud eyes were flushed with tears, lightning playing under his skin and clothes.

As is often the case with young children, Arnold’s tears were contagious. “I’m sorry,” Myriad mewled. “I didn’t know what to do.”

“Didn’t know what to do?” Arnold repeated back scornfully. “You’re Myriad! You’re supposed to be smart!”

Myriad sniffled, beginning to cry in earnest. She had no response to that. There was a little voice in the back of her mind, some little bit of stolen insight, telling her that Arnold wasn’t really angry at her, but she wasn’t listening to it, because here he was, shouting at her. Around them, the others began to follow suit, as children are wont do do when emotion peaks, some of the smaller ones began to cry, then the older.

“W-what are we supposed to do now?” asked Stratogale, a mixture of confusion and shock written across her face. As one, the children looked to Żywie, but she was silent, seeming no less lost as them.

“I’ll kill him!” Fred was rabid, white with rage and prescient grief. “Spit on that cunt’s heart!”

“You’ll have to get in line,” Drew growled quietly. Stood next to his father, his anger seemed restrained. At least, once his wife had physically prevented him from storming out the barn doors, ready to fight his way single handedly through the things marching outside. “Lying, bastard chink.”

The children’s panic rose like flood water around their necks. The already grim reality of their situation was filtered and distorted through dozens of frightened mouths. AU had killed Lawrence and Elsewhere’s mother in front of Myriad’s eyes. She, Melusine and Tiresias had traded the two of them to AU in exchange for a paltry few more hours of life. The goldsmith would settle for nothing less than the death of every child, man, and woman at the Institute.

In the middle of it all, the emeritus sorcerer Prospero—now clean shaven but still clad in the finery of his former office—sat atop his throne of stale hay, numb from fear.

Numb was the word. Somehow, even with his once-friend waiting at the edge of the world to do… something to him, all Tiresias could think about was the noise. He felt as if the wailing and shouting had replaced the air itself, until he could take it no longer:

“SHUT UP!”

The barn went silent but for Fred and Drew’s stream of threats to AU’s life and person. Even those died in their throats when they became aware of the quiet that had settled over the building.

“Thank you.” The psychic strode over to Arnold, cupping the boy’s chin in long, slender fingers. “Look, boy, I’m sorry about your mother, but AU said he was here for me and Bertie.” Darkly, he added, “Whatever he’s going to do, your mama’s not going to get the worst of it.”

Back to being flesh, Melusine said, “Easy for you to say.” The contempt in her voice was unmistakable. “Anyone with eyes could see you had warning. Not that you deigned to share…”

“I had two seconds. The right now is way harder to get a fix on than the future. Too many decisions being made at once.”

“How convenient.”

“Stop this, now,” Mary Gillespie said, her voice low and even, as she tried to comfort Snapdragon and Windshear in her arms. “We have to worry about the children, not place the blame. Just a tip, though; usually the kidnapper is to blame.” She looked up towards the hayloft. “Mr. Cormey, can you tell us anything about what’s happening out there?”

The civics teacher had his face pressed against the second story window. “There’s a gang of skeletons waving their swords up at me. They don’t seem to be coming any closer, though.”

Myriad wiped her tears off the back of her arm.“He’s trying to keep us cooped up scared in here. Like chickens,” she said, her voice hard and steady. “He’s an idiot.”

“Seems like a smart strategy where I’m standing,” muttered Tiresias.

“Maybe if we were human,” Myriad retorted, looking around at her fellow students. The secret doom that had been hanging above them all had come crashing down, but like the thrashing that winter past, it had burned up all her fear and dread in one terrible burst. All that was left was anger. “If we were the old kind of human, AU would be a scary supervillain who could squash as all like bugs. But if we were new humans, he’d just be some loser trying to scare us with soft, stupid toys. Which are we?”

There were a few quiet, half-hearted answers: the kind Lawrence’s rhetorical questions received on cold mornings when most of the children were only physically out of bed.

“She asked you a question!” Mabel shouted from the loft.

Another round of murmured, grudging responses.

Mabel screamed. “Old or new?”

“New!” more of the students called back, with a touch more enthusiasm.

“Do you know why there are superheroes?” Myriad asked the crowd. Without waiting for an answer, she went on. “Because the only thing that can handle one of us is one of us!”

There were cheers of agreement.

“Do you know why AU waited so long to come here? Why he’s been going after miners and bankers for years?” She put her hands on her hips. “He’s afraid of picking on someone his own size.”

One of the children did not laugh.

“Miri,” said Haunt, his tone almost apologetic, “we’re not all like you and Brit and Maelstrom.”

David was surprised and vaguely flattered to hear himself used as an example of whatever Haunt was talking about.

Myriad tilted her head. “What do mean? We’re all new humans.”

“Yeah, but you’re… newer? Most of us, we’re like twigs compared to you.”

In brazen defiance of the hay that surrounded him, Tiresias lit a cigarette. “My old papa used to have a saying.” He was smiling as he exhaled. “A bundle of sticks does not break.”  

“He’s right,” Myriad agreed. “It doesn’t matter if we’re not all indestructible, if we cover—”

“No.”

The students all looked toward the dissenting voice. It was Basilisk, standing resolute in front of the barn doors, as if any force on Earth could have kept those children inside longer than they wanted to be.

The children protested, of course, but mostly went quiet when Myriad spoke, letting her carry their collective voice as she did their powers. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“I mean that we’re not going to let you kids get killed fighting our battles for us.”

Myriad wasn’t sure Basil was even looking at her. His gaze seemed fixed on a space just behind the girl. She turned her head slightly, spotting David trying to shelter in the shadow of the loft. She looked back at his father. “We’re not going to get killed,” she said.

The teacher rubbed his temples. “Miri, very few people think they’re gonna get killed in advance.”

“But we can do this,” Mabel whined. “Stop treating us like normal little kids!”

“It’s my job, Mabel.”

The use of her real name took some of the wind out of Mabel’s sail, but Myriad kept going: “Lawrence is always saying we’re meant to be better than the old kind of person. No other animal needs grownups to protect them for years and years.”

Elsewhere glowed like a bed of burning lime. “I’m going to put AU in the sun,” he declared flatly.

“No you’re not,” his father cut in, with all the considerable authority he could pour into his voice. “The man’s right, Arnold. A battlezone is no place for kids. I never wanted that for you.” He looked at Myriad. “Allie, how did you find AU?”

“I followed his song.”

That told Fred nothing, but it sufficed. “Could you do it again?”

“Yes…”

“That magic or whatever it is you used to get back here, could you use it to open a—I think the word is portal? Yeah, that. Could you open one up behind AU? Or under him, even?”

Myriad nodded.

“Right. Then it’s obvious what we’re gonna do. Allison will open a portal to Chen, and I’ll break his neck.”

The last five words were said with no special emphasis. It wasn’t so much a threat as a simple declaration of intent. He could have said he and the supervillain were going to play cards in the exact same tone.  

Myriad suddenly found it hard to look directly at the veteran, while both his sons couldn’t help but stare. No more threats from them, Fred noticed. Not now they realized how easy it could be.

Basilisk rounded on him. “Using the children as murder weapons is not an improvement!”

“I’m not suggesting that!” Fred growled. “I’m suggesting we use me as a murder weapon. I’m not a child. I know exactly what that means. I’m just asking Allie to give me a lift.”

“You mean making her an accomplice!”

“Well what do you think we should do? Sit here and let your mate gild my wife to death!”

Myriad took a deep breath. “We’re not baselines, Mr. Barnes. We won’t have to kill him,” she said, with the total conviction only known by fanatics and the young.

Fred wondered for a moment if superheroes—real and fictional—refrained from using lethal force against their enemies less out of any moral principle, and more for bragging rights.

Basilisk leaned against the doors, running his hands down his face. “This isn’t how things are supposed to go. We’re supposed to be the ones protecting you children.”

Melusine cleaved herself from the crowd. “You think I won’t be out there with them?” For the first time in longer than Basilisk dared to remember, she smiled kindly at him. “If Chen harms one hair on our boy, I’ll burst his eyes in their sockets.”

Before Basil could figure out how to respond to that, Żywie stepped forward as well:

“I’m going out there too.”

“I’m not,” said Tiresias.

“We guessed as much.”

Basilisk shook his head. “Gold doesn’t have biology, Eliza.”

There were some whispers among the children about the teacher’s choice of name.

“I know,” she said. “I’m not a fighter, Hugo. I’m a healer.”

Hoarse, joyless laughter. “What? You think Chen is just going to let you wander around fixing scrapes and bruises?”

“Rules of engagement—you don’t fire on medics.”

“And what if he does?”

“And what if one of the children is hurt, and I’m not there for them?”

Basilisk didn’t have a rebuttal. He did have a question, though. It was a question he’d asked himself every day for nearly twenty years. “And what do I do? What’s my job while my son fights?”

“You look after the girls,” Fred said. “I know we’ve lost the war on this, but I’ll be damned before we let them go out there.”

“You’re going to let the boys fight but not us?” Myriad fumed, along with a great number of the other female students.

Fred sighed. “Not you. Them.” He pointed at the cluster of teenagers, specifically at Stratogale, flanked by Reverb and Ex-Nihilo, all three of them looking none-too-pleased at being the centre of attention. “Not in their condition.”

Myriad tilted her head. “What, because they’re fat?”

An air of discomfort descended over everyone, besides Myriad, Elsewhere, and Growltiger, who were merely confused.

“No,” said Fred. “I mean—not like that…”

Stratogale spared him. “He’s right, Miri. It’s better us three stay in here. We’d just slow the rest of you down.”

Speak for yourself, the air said, in the mostly unadorned voice of a teenage girl. I’m not missing out!

“Reverb,” Ex-Nihilo said. “Everything you could do out there, you can do in here. You can be… I don’t know, sonic artillery?”

Reverb crossed her arms. Fine, the world huffed.

Under her breath, Myriad muttered “If you’re gonna be cowards, I guess…”

Mary Gillespie watched the preparations for battle, observing Myriad move from student to student, confidently dispensing orders and advice:

“—Just put some holes in the field so the others can get shots out. Wait, you didn’t know you could do that? How long have you had powers?” She turned away from the faintly embarrassed Abalone. “Jumpcut, go to the garden and open the vegetable pen. I don’t care that the watermelons bite, just get Phantasma to make you a bodyguard. Automata! Try stealing some of the monsters out there. AU will probably take them back in a few seconds, but it’ll throw him off. Ex-Nihilo, Growltiger, start making her some soldiers. Same for you, Phantasma-”

There was none of the hushed terror Mary remembered from her students in the Blitz—the sound of held breaths and children being betrayed by their own tears. Here and now, they ran back and forth amongst themselves, discussing strategy and power synergies at an almost giddy pitch, while Myriad stomped around playing the young general. If she didn’t know better, the old woman would have assumed they were getting set to play that bastardization of football Tiresias had got them hooked on. She could feel a little of the same impish, almost wicked excitement that had charged the air like static the day those poor boys paid the Institute a visit.  

Part of the old woman—the selfish part of herself, she suspected, that cared more about the teaching than the taught—wanted someone to cry, or try to back out of the fight. Anything that might indicate they truly understood what they were getting into. But then, if they did, would they be able to follow through with it?   

Eventually, there were no more preparations to be made. A few last minute protests from Basil and Mr. Barnes had gone unheeded, as both men had expected.

A half hour later, they heard what sounded like the pumpkins trying to eat the aureate beasts outside—or whatever could possibly be mistaken for that.

Jumpcut appeared in front of Myriad, panting. She didn’t flinch at the thunderclap.

“Had to… let them chase me…” He inhaled sharply. “The spacewoman got eaten.” He sounded more broken up about that than he probably should have been.

“Great,” said Mabel. “She’s not going to let me hear the end of that.”  

Myriad nodded curtly. “Go rest with the big girls, Jump, you’ve done your job.” She turned to address the mass of students. “Places, everyone! Mabel! Start us off with something shooty!”

“Waaaay ahead of you.”

It began with a garrison of bumpy, garishly chrome red and blue pepper potts. They hovered awkwardly above the manticores and gargoyles prancing menacingly in front of the barn, tipping back and forth as if they had never dreamt of finding themselves anywhere above ground level, and were certain they would soon crash their way back.   

In a reflex inherited from their master, the creatures below looked up at the things.

EXTERMINATE!

Before any of their targets could react, the pepper potts swooped down on them like very clumsy birds of prey, raining down bright, whining death from their egg whisks as they filled the air with their staccato exultations.

The barn doors exploded open, a platoon of terracotta soldiers surging out into the low evening sunlight—their bodies roughly carved from silver and jade. They were reinforced by glossy, photorealistic gladiators, armed with blades forged from something undoubtedly harder than gold.

And finally, there came the children, crying war. The impervious led the charge: bronze, ice, inertia, and song. They waded into the fray, Talos tearing apart ghouls and goblins like they were made of modeling clay.

Billy was running full tilt through a pack of boar-headed samurai, a mirrored shield raised in front of him. Whenever the chimeras slammed against it, they exploded into fine white powder.

Hey, kid, behind you!

Billy swung around to find a dully glinting, segmented serpent looming over him. The boy leapt at it, managing to knock the thing to the ground and pin it under his reflective disk. A second later, he fell onto the grass as the snake melted into a puddle of pure fresh water.

Keep your ears open, Tigger!

The voice in Billy’s head sounded like his own thoughts, if a touch more… Italianate. He went invisible, something Myriad had promised would work on the golems. “Tiresias? Is that you?”

Got it in one. Decided to help coordinate this mess. It’s like commuting, but not. Plus, the cripple might stop giving me those dirty looks. Haunt and Veltha, bless their little hearts, are digging up some of the big gold modules. Would be helpful if they could actually get rid of them. Now mush.

Billy saluted the air, grinning. “Yes, sir!” He started running in what he knew was Veltha and Haunt’s general direction, as instinctively as a bird knows which way south lies. Remaining unobservable, he smiled to himself. As bad and serious as all of this was, Billy couldn’t help but enjoy himself. For the first time, he truly felt like Growltiger.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Abalone’s aqueous dome, ringed with meurtrières for some of the Institute’s more fragile students to attack out of. A saffron Cerberus was bearing down on them. Billy roared at it, striking it like a bullet through glass.

Maybe a bit like, Jericho, too.

Down by the river, a diminutive ice sculpture of a boy stood against the bulk of the oncoming horde. His features were as delicate as any one might find, and yet there was something fearsome there. The golden horrors rushed him en masse, but he did not flinch, his face set and unmoving as he raised a neptunian trident of flowing water above his head. Before he got the chance to use his weapon, however, the ground around him erupted, not with gold, but geysers bearing a fury beyond anything seen before on Earth—at least by people who had never met Françoise Barthe. It was like watching a dam break vertically, a trench carving itself seven spears deep into bedrock around the ice-child. What monsters weren’t swallowed whole were shredded by riptides and hails of ice. The boy glared at the typhoon swirling around him. Why could she never let him take care of himself?

He stood in thought for a moment, before taking up his power once more. His eyes glowed a pure Cherenkov blue as he began drawing down cloudwater into his trident. It swelled to twice his size, before tripling and quadrupling in volume. He didn’t stop until it was the size of a trolley car, before snap freezing it into a solid spike of frosted ice, held above his head with both hands. It was almost comical, a translucent little boy carrying this mass a few hundred times his size as if he were Atlas’ son. Then he threw it, and it wasn’t so cute anymore. It shot through his mother’s barrier and plowed through a contingent of imps and gargoyles with the speed and force of a derailed train, before exploding with a violence to shake the very pillars of God’s throne. For a single moment, all was still, before the shards began to fall as snow.

An approving round of thunder rolled over the Institute. If the statue could have smiled, he would have.

The children held no delusion that defeating AU’s army would defeat him. Breaking the villain’s toys did nothing to loosen his grip on their substance. Even as they rended and shattered the things, their fragments nipped and bit at their heels, or melded back together into new, terrible forms. The only ones that did not return in such a fashion were those sent far afield by Elsewhere’s light, or transmuted back to plainer substances by Growltiger. The only way they were going to push back this gold tide was to cut it off at its source.

The strains of Juditha triumphans rang out across the land. That was Linus’ major contribution to the battle effort: every note and lyric of the strident, ghostly oratorio was warping probability in favour of the defenders and stoking some fires in their guts.

Not that Myriad needed it. A storm was raging within and without her, light flowing through her veins like rivers of burning magnesium while tendrils of lightning lashed and spat at anything Chen was stupid enough to let get close to her. Every flick of her wrist made someone, somewhere quite rich.

She wondered why Chen was still bothering sending his creatures at her and Elsewhere. Surely they would have been better deployed against kids who couldn’t just will them away with a glance. David may have been powerful to these things, but her and Elsewhere were indomitable. She quietly wondered if his father was watching.

The things AU was throwing at Myriad were artless by the standards he’d shown—barely more than cubes or pyramids floating aggressively in her direction. She hoped this meant he was getting desperate.

She was dispatching a particularly angry trapezoid when she glimpsed letters on one of its faces:

YOU DON’T—

It was in Paraguay before she could read the whole message, but then a rectangle wandered into view:

FOR YOUR OWN—

That one got sent to Harvey.

TIRESIAS IS—

She worked up enough of a storm to translocate everything within fifty square feet of her. He was still trying to talk to her, after everything he’d done? Like he wasn’t trying to trick everyone into thinking he’d kill them all if they stepped out of line?

Like he might not still do it?

Cornets.

Taking advantage of the breathing room she had won herself, Myriad took on AU’s song. She searched through a world of burnished, yellow reflections, smiling to herself when she most of them were being beaten out of shape by her friends. Once or twice, she thought she saw Veltha swimming through the dark undersoil.

Soon enough, she found AU. Judging from the angle, she was looking out from a piece of gold stuck to his arm. He was wearing what looked like a Grecian helmet, only made of pure gold, thus offering his skull slightly more protection than his own skin. Much like with the shōgun, he had armoured his whole body with an assortment of gold alloys.

He hates being called AU, but he dresses like that? Idiot.

AU pacing back and forth in front of his old teacher, who Myriad could see had been buried up to his neck in the dirt. A thin strip of gold had been plastered over Lawrence mouth, like a chocolate wrapper had been blown into his face by the wind. He was sweating, too, though it was hard to tell if it was due to fear, or the globe of molten metal that hung burning in the air above the old Oxfordian, as though his former student had plucked the evening sun out of the sky.  

In the grand and storied tradition of his kind, AU was ranting. “You know, I’d compare you to old Mr. Hitler, Bertie, but at least he had some follow through.”

That raised some stifled, trapped screams from Lawrence, obviously enraged.

“My husband fought the Nazis, Mr. Liu,” Angela said, evenly. “I wouldn’t be using them as a cheap insult in front of either us, if I were you.”

Through the backplate of AU’s armour, Myriad could see that Mrs Barnes was being kept in relatively honourable captivity, having been set down at the edge of the bush clearing with no cage or shackles to speak of.

What she did have, though, were two golden spikes spinning wickedly fast in front of both her eyes like the world’s most expensive, but also most useless drill bits. But only mostly useless…      

Myriad let out a frightened yelp, which was more than Angela Barnes did. The only sign from the woman that she was in any predicament was how she blinked just a little too often.  

Chen stopped pacing dead in front of Lawrence, the tips of his leather work boots perilously close to the old man’s nose. He turned his head to look at his hostage. “I’m sorry, Mrs Barnes.”

Angela sighed despairingly. “You keep saying that, but you still do these things.”

“Your husband’s a soldier, ma’am. I’d have thought you’d know a man sometimes has to do things he regrets. He bent down to look Lawrence in the eye, grinning savagely. “And some things he doesn’t. All those mad ideas of yours, those grand designs, the plans you could barely admit to yourself, and all you’ve ever really wanted to do is play schoolmaster on your bloody farm till the day they stick you under it!” His eyes flicked down to where the ground met Lawrence’s neck. He laughed bitterly. “Well, we’re nearly there!”

Myriad let go of AU’s song, but not before flinging away a cluster of shining spiders that were trying to creep up on her. She hoped that gave him a fright.

Shiiiiiiiiiiit, said her hijacked inner monologue.

Tiresias’ self-assumed role as mission control had mostly devolved into spectatorship by then. Occasionally, the children could faintly taste stale popcorn on their lips.

“Tiresias,” Myriad said aloud. “Tell everyone to stop mucking around and get down to the river. I’m getting sick of this.”

Will do, General Munchkin. Remember, I’ll be with you all the way. Unless Chen squashes you all like bugs, then I’ll be far away in the barn.

It was by definition impossible for Myriad to ignore the psychic, but she did her best.

She started back down the Institute’s gentle slope. All around her, ghouls and beasts cautiously closed in on her, only to wink out of sight before they could raise whatever limbs their maker had granted them against her, like she was a human bug-zapper.  

It really was the most efficient way of dealing with them, Myriad knew. But right then, that wasn’t enough. She needed to break things, to see them shatter and burn and crumble by her own hands.

She started to dance, swaying to music only she could hear, the beat of it thrumming deep in her mind, each song stretched thin by fear and adrenaline, fraying at her, like a symphony orchestra gone out of sync with itself. She opened her mouth, wanting to express the pain of it somehow. She screamed, but it wasn’t enough, the sound scarcely even relieving the pounding at the inside of her skull.

For the first time in her short life, Myriad wanted to know what silence sounded like.

Even Tiresias had gone silent in her thoughts. Where was he? Was he still watching? Had he shut himself off from the clawing behind her eyes? She felt tears beginning to trail slowly down her cheeks, and she dug deep, looking for some way to put the cacophony outside of herself again. The answer came to her from a strange source. In Canberra, when she had been set the task of taking on the repertoire of everyone of note within a hundred leagues, one of the men who had judged himself worthy of preservation had been an opera singer, as close to a soprano as an intact man could be. She started to sing a song she hadn’t known she knew, one that gave voice to the rage and fear and chaos. It helped, a little, but it wasn’t enough. She needed to make it louder, harsher. She searched the songs saturating the air for something that would suffice, and came across Billy. He was scared, he was joyous, and he was powerful. It would do, she decided.

Power chords.

She wove his power into her song, and watched through the blur of her own tears as her every note began to tear the enemies at her front asunder, carving chaos into earth and metal and tree. Soon enough, she began to hear other young voices join her. It was discordant, barely vocal. None of her companions knew the words, let alone the tune. Instead, they brought their own turmoil to the song, their own fear and joy. Linus, son of Apollo Musagetes, walked in their midst, tying their music together, keeping them whole just long enough for it to matter. Many of them cried, but none faltered. It was their song, in the end, on which the battle turned. It united them, in a way, as they danced destruction across the landscape, until they finally came to the river.

She felt Elsewhere’s hand curl around hers, and she gripped back, hard. “Can you still hear Mummy’s song, Allie?” he whispered.

She made herself let go. “Don’t call me that.”

“But it’s your name.”

“I need to be Myriad right now… your mom’s fine.”

Actually, she needed to be Maelstrom. She found his strain of the Institute’s song and plucked at it. The river froze over, trapping gold leviathans and kraken like the remnants of some extinct mineral ecosystem.

And so the children walked across the petrified wavelets, led by the sum of their parts.  

He had seemed like such a nice boy, Angela thought.

Now, with AU’s damnable needles hovering in front of her eyes, she was thinking about reconsidering her initial assessment of the man. The spikes followed even the slightest movement of her head like two eager wasps. She had lost count of how many times she had run through the Lord’s Prayer in her head.

“Stop that,” AU snapped at her, interrupting a fresh round of threats and accusations at Lawrence. “You’ll stab yourself on the things.”

Mrs Barnes was relieved, honestly. For the past fifteen minutes she’d had to sit in the dirt listening to Chen rant and rave about the countless injustices and indignities of the NHI and Herbert Lawrence in particular, and she was frankly getting sick of it. The villain’s tirades had an unsteady quality to them, something Angela partly blamed on the tinnies he had in the van. He seemed to constantly forget whether he was addressing both her and Lawrence, or pretending he was alone with one of them.

Still, if the nearing sound of children laughing and screaming was any indication, it would be over soon enough. “Wouldn’t want that,” she said mildly, glaring at the spikes as if she had a choice.

“No, I wouldn’t—” He trailed off, his eyes widening. That had been happening quite a bit. He turned back to the buried headmaster. “One of the worms just got tackled by Roy of the fucking Rovers!” He kicked some dirt in the man’s face. “That one wasn’t on my list. See, I thought at first Tiresias was just trying to screw with my head, or maybe the Coven were full of shit, but you’ve been poaching, haven’t you?” He nodded at his own deduction, smiling without humour. “Wouldn’t be surprised if the Fox has been straight up selling you kids, too. That explains Allison, too, doesn’t it? I thought from the nickname—yes, Bertie, nickname—that she’d clone herself or something, but no”—shrill laughter—“A power-mimic!” He wiped non-existent tears from his eyes. “Christ, that must’ve been like Christmas, Easter, and one of them Jew holidays all come at once for you!”

Mrs Barnes wasn’t sure whether suggesting Passover would please the man, or provoke him.

He looked back at her, his expression devoid of any mock joviality or cruel jest. “Do you want to know something, Mrs Barnes? Lawrence here will tell you how much he hates the times we live in, how he wishes the Flying Man hadn’t thrown our kind in front of a judgemental human race. But that’s a crock of shit. You know what he really hated? The days when us demis were obscure curiosities that nobody but him wanted to look too hard at.” He rested his boot on the man’s crown. “He was thrilled when the only alternative our parents had to giving us to him became the white vans. Because the only thing he cares about is the park bench he thinks the coming race is going to dedicate to him.” He lowered his head, a tremble working its way into his voice. “Not me, or Allison, or your boy.”

Angela studied the supervillain carefully. She noticed that Chen no longer seemed to be applying any force to Lawrence’s head. The children were getting closer, she knew. By now, she could almost make out individual voices, even over the sounds of battle. She fancied she could hear her son.

“…Why haven’t you killed him yet?”

Lawrence stared at the woman, while AU took his boot off of him, a curiously similar shock to both of their expressions. “What?” the goldsmith asked.

“You’ve gone to all this trouble, and you have him right there, why isn’t he dead yet?”

“I—”

“I’m surprised you buried him like that, actually. You can’t get at the fingers or the”—she cleared her throat—“family jewels. If torture is all you want out of him, most things you can do to the head will kill a man quick smart. And you haven’t even broken his nose.”

Chen shook his head in bewilderment. “Who thinks like that?”

“Wicked, vengeful supervillains,” Angela answered. “Also, anyone who has ever had children, taught children, or been a child.” She crossed her arms, grateful for that freedom of movement, at least. “I assume at least one of those things applies to you? Also, have you killed any of the children?” She asked that last question like she was inquiring about the weather.

“No! I don’t kill kids!”

“You don’t kill police, either, so I’ve heard. Or miners. I imagine that must take some effort, given your vocation, and what you think you’re going to do to your teacher.”

Lawrence dearly wished this madwoman would stop giving Chen ideas.

“That was different,” stammered AU. “They hadn’t done nothing to me.”

“And what did Dr. Lawrence do to you? You’ve gone on and on about how vain he is and how he never really loved any of you, but what did he do to deserve all this?”

Lawrence noticed that Mrs Barnes didn’t seem to be looking at Chen, but right at him, as though looking for some invisible mark on his countenance.

AU stood tall. “Do you know who I was, Mrs Barnes, before I was AU?” He gestured at his bespoke armour, before pointing down at Lawrence. “Did the papers with my mugshot tell you what he took from me?”

“Can’t say I remember. I try not to fixate on crime.”

“I had a job I liked,” he growled. “I had my mum and dad in a house in Toorak, my brothers and sisters at university.” Tears began to pool in the corner of his eyes. “Even a girl whose father cared more that I had money than what colour I was.” He started to shout. “But Bertie here had clout with the DDHA, and just couldn’t stand that his first student wasn’t playing along with his little master race fantasy! That I wouldn’t fuck my little sister so he could have another doll to play with.”

If the accusation shocked Angela Barnes, she hid it well. She was still staring at Lawrence. “I can see why that might upset you.”

AU was screaming now. “So he sent her to come bring me back. Told the DDHA I was planning on robbing the fucking National Bank.” He grabbed a handful of soil, glorifying it into gold dust. “Nothing gets past the freak-finders!” He dumped the gold on top of Lawrence’s head as though it were still dirt. “I guess he got what he wanted. All that work, and I still ended up a freak with a stupid bloody name.”

Angela took it all in. “Chen,” she said, gently. “I’m about to get up.”

“No…”

“Then I’m going to walk over to you, and we’re going to sort this all out.”

“The spikes will—”

“Will do me no harm, because I don’t think you’re a killer. I don’t think you really want to be, either.”

AU tried to pour some rage into his voice. “You stay down, or I’ll skewer your brain!” It sounded more plaintive than threatening.

Lawrence watched the woman get to her feet, with a calmness of movement even he would have thought impossible.

“Get down!”

She started walking towards him.

“I’m warning you!” he shouted, even as the needles retreated from Mrs Barnes with every step.

She brushed the spikes from in front of her face, knocking them out of the air. “I’m sorry, Chen.”

If any human woman is worthy of mothering a posthuman, Lawrence thought, it’s this one.

“Stop it—I’ll—” His warnings were cut off by Mrs Barnes’ embrace. Then, all he could do was weep.

“There, there,” she said. Comforting haunted men was not something she was a novice at. “It’s over and done with.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“I know.”

“I… we were going to be better than this.”

“I know.”

The golden gag fell from Lawrence’s mouth. “Good show, old girl,” he said. “Good—” the blessedly cooled and solidified lump of gold bounced off the top of his head.

The trees behind the three of them suddenly and explosively exited the solar system.

KILL HIM—KILL HIM—KILL HIM!” Arnold screamed, his voice crackling with power, leaves and dust motes all around him being scattered across the universe.

His mother threw a hand up, pulling away from Chen so he could see her face. “No, Arnold,” she said in a quiet voice that was somehow louder than the thunder. “It’s okay now. Chen isn’t going to hurt anyone.”

Chen turned to look at the storm-child, throwing his arms up. “Unconditional surrender.”

The glow did not fade, but the anger did. “Oh.”

Figured his mother would sort it all out. She always did.

Allison emerged from behind him. The school-theatre princess garb was gone, replaced by a shift woven from delicate ice crystals, like she had been dressed in diamonds. Her eyes glowed like blue coals, and her chestnut hair was laden with frost, but her skin showed no sign of cold. A Saturnian ring orbited the girl. An ammo belt, Angela assumed. “What’s happening? All the monsters stopped moving.

Arnold, she thought, look like an angel. Not the dove winged cherubs or smiling, all-loving mother substitutes that dwelled in the theology of greeting cards, but the angels Ezekiel had born witness to: all burning and fury. He turned to his friend. “Mummy says AU is surrendering… so does he.”

Chen nodded, tiredly.

It was strange, Angela thought, seeing her son and a girl she had known for the better part of her life altered so. She could almost feel Paul’s breath in her ear as he whispered “We will not all sleep, but we will be changed.”

They will be changed, she silently corrected him. Whatever becomes of us, they have been changed.

“…That’s good, I guess,” said Allison. “Should I make a portal?”

“No,” said Angela, correctly guessing at the mechanics of the child’s powers and the nature of her “dress”. “I think Chen could use the walk.”

He made no complaint.

An odd mood of funerary festiveness hung over the procession back to the barn. Many of the children had started singing again, over a dozen tired, satisfied songs lazily coexisting in the cool night air.

Beneath the orange waning moon and the brazen country stars, the grounds of the New Human Institute had been made new. Great, golden beasts littered the landscape, finally allowed to sleep by their father. Tiny lakes and moats dotted the fields. The children stepped over the broken remnants of Automata’s army, ready and waiting for a renewed enemy assault, no matter how many pieces they were in. Mabel’s air-force had been allowed to drift over Northam, their harsh metallic shrieks and calls for genocide wafting down from the skies into the dreams of all the baseline boys and girls, while the Melchester Rovers would persist long enough to challenge the local pick-up footy club to a match the following afternoon.

Chen felt a little like those vanquished barbarian kings they used to drag before Roman emperors. He knew his old friends probably weren’t going to have him strangled. The situation was much worse. They were probably going to be kind to him.

He watched Eliza gently shepherding Lawrence while his concussion sorted itself out. Dirt was still pouring from his sleeves and trouser-legs as he staggered forward, the green of his suit hidden completely by a layer of damp soil. It was as though the very concept of Englishness had been reclaimed by nature. The pair of them were being shadowed by Françoise’s son, along with pudgy girl Chen didn’t recognize from the Coven’s dossier. He still wondered where Lawrence got these unaccountables…

“To think,” Fran said, acting as Chen’s minder, “he could have been your son.”

Chen made a noise that might have been a chuckle. “Honestly, Mels, I think the boy’s better off with Basil for a dad, assuming he didn’t inherit that skin condition of his. Maybe if my temper passed him over…”

Fran seemed to take pause with that, only to find herself nodding. “You have a point,” she said. “I can’t see old Hugo pulling a stunt like this.” She smiled at the other superhuman. “It is good to see you again, Chen, it really is. I don’t know if that says more about you or me.”

His stomach knotted with guilt. “You too.”

As they walked, many of the children approached Chen and his guard, full of questions and gloating and grandiose displays of their powers, like they were trying to intimidate and earn his favour at the same time. It almost charmed him.

He wished Linus would speak to him. He couldn’t believe how tall that boy had gotten. He also wondered why the girls weren’t out here with the other students. He couldn’t imagine Mavis wanting to miss out on something like this.

Mrs Barnes was a little ways ahead of them, Arnold and Allison’s hands in hers. The girl was clearly familiar with the woman, or at least unhesitant in seeking comfort from her. Her aunt, maybe? His luck, Chen, thought, that’d he’d kidnapped someone close to that powerhouse of a little girl.

Allison slipped away from the other two, running over to Chen’s side. Looking up at him, she asked “What do you think’s going to happen now?”

Chen shrugged. “I suppose Bertie and the others will see their way to handing me over to the freak-finders.”

“You don’t know that,” said Fran.

“I don’t, but that’s how it’s going to happen. Shouldn’t be too hard for the DDHA to manage me.” He tried to smile. “I bet some of the guards will be glad to leave their wedding rings at home.”

“We could keep you,” Allison suggested cheerfully. “Fighting your things was kind of fun. Like practise. I almost figured… something out. About how the songs fit together, I think.”

He decided not to ask. “And what if someone from the department swings by?”

The girl considered the problem. “We could hide you in the barn.”

Chen looked down into those jeweled, counterfeit eyes. How easy it was to forget how young they were. “Yeah. Maybe.”

Would that be so bad? What kind of future could he hope for otherwise? Prison, most likely, or a life spent cowering in the margins of society, waiting for the pin to drop. If he was being realistic, that was probably how things would have turned out even if he hadn’t done the things he’d done, or couldn’t do the things he could do. At the very least, looking after these children was the closest thing he’d get to kids of his own, now that Renee was gone.

The triumph eventually reached the barn, Alberto and some man—a natural going from how he stood—that Chen didn’t recognize opened the doors for them. The falling night had driven the Institute’s non-combatants to light candles and lanterns from the barn’s storm-kit, their illumination bolstered by phosphorescent stones littered around the floor. Lana’s work, Chen assumed.

In an act of exquisite cruelty, Mary actually hugged him. In his kindness, Hugo did not.

Angela’s eldest son and daughter-in-law embraced her in turn, sobbing as she waved the whole ordeal off like she had slipped at the shops, before falling into her husband’s arms and kissing him in a way that made it horribly clear to Arnold that his mother had not produced him through parthenogenesis.

Hugo was saying kind, regretful things, but Chen couldn’t hear him.

Even after ten years, and the waves of candlelight and shadow washing over them, he recognized the girls. Mavis, Lana, and Sadie.

Swollen. Gravid. Pregnant.

AU felt nothing, except the vambraces of his armour heatlessly remolding to deadly points.

He lunged at Lawrence.

“Pimp!” he screamed at Lawrence, knocking him onto the floor and pinning him. “Kiddy-fiddler! Nazi piece of shit!”

He tried plunging his left arm-spike into the headmaster’s throat, and was stopped an inch short. Even with age, the old man was still strong, but the gold was spreading over his gloved hand like mold. Somewhere far away, a baby started crying.

Out the corner of his eye, AU saw Alberto rushing over to their side, only to earn himself a deep, ragged gash across his chest.

“Kill you next—”

Chen was burned to nothing by cold, green flames, and the darkness became complete. He hit his head on something hard. Crumpling onto the coldly smooth, tacky floor, he tried to figure out where Lawrence and the light had gone.

Is this Hell, he asked himself as he groped around the darkness. No, Hell doesn’t have soft towels.

Returning painfully to his feet, he found a lightswitch, the sudden blaring glow burning his eyes like the sun itself.

He was in a closet, with most of the floor space taken up by a wicker bassinet. He stood stock-still, listening for any of the sounds of a lived-in house. He was met by empty silence. Inching the closet door open with the kind of caution that usually produced more noise than just slamming it open, he crept out into a darkened hallway. Finding a room he guessed hopefully didn’t face any road this house might be located on, he switched the lights on.

They revealed a slightly dingy child’s bedroom, whose small bed he collapsed gratefully onto.  On a chest of drawers, he spotted a small framed photograph: Angela Barnes, sitting smiling on a picnic blanket, a tiny boy who could have been no one else’s son in her lap.

See you soon, Arn.

He couldn’t linger in this house long, not if he didn’t want people noticing the shiny Chinaman squatting in the neighbour’s home. Or worse, to still be here when the Barnes returned. He found the kitchen, made himself a sandwich, and removed his armour. It represented a considerable sacrifice of resources, but it had to be done. Packing it away into the pantry, he pinned a note to the door.

—For all your troubles, Mr. and Mrs B.    

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Chapter Twenty: Now My Charms Are All O’erthrown

It was September of 1965. To the great displeasure of Aleister Johnson, the Beatles’ reign at the top of the charts was entering its fifth week, with “Help” and “I’m Down” continuing to sit at number one, a stranglehold that would not be broken until the next month by Normie Rowe and his covers of “Que, Sera, Sera” and “Shakin’ All Over”. Across the sea, in what many Australians still called “the mother country”, King George VI once more lies on the brink of death, and soon children all throughout the Commonwealth will stumble over the lyrics of “God Save the Queen.”1

Earlier that month, an attack on the city of Jammu by the 12th Infantry Division of the Pakistan Army was cut short by the Flying Man calmly and orderly depositing the over four-thousand strong invasion force in the city of Islamabad. As he usually did when he intervened in military engagements, he seemed more disappointed than anything else.

Perhaps he would have been more pleased by the small cultural milestone being made at the New Human Institute. After months of preparation, the first all-posthuman production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest was being staged in the barn.

It had taken Mabel (director) and Elsewhere (executive and regular producer) longer than they had expected to line up all the pieces. They had a shallow, mostly disinterested talent pool, a play with frankly not nearly as many juicy parts as, say, Macbeth2, and the teachers and staff had adopted a very hands-off approach towards the whole business. As great as that was for things like creative freedom, it didn’t leave either child much recourse for maintaining order.

In spite of all this, the two of them had eventually managed to cajole, bribe, or threaten enough of their schoolmates to form a cast and crew, and now, every member of the Institute, young and old, had gathered to bear witness to the fruits of their labours.

Ariel wafted around Ferdinand as he led him through pastel sands and delicately brushworked palms swaying in an imperceptible wind, the vaporous edges of his person stirred and troubled by the young prince’s tail.

“Full fathom five thy father lies,” the spirit sang in a voice like a thousand fingers rubbing crystal. The fog that made up its form gave the suggestion of a young child, its gender impossible to determine. “Of his bones are coral made.Those are pearls that were his eyes…”

Every ebb and flow of the air threatened to scatter the spectre, but somehow it kept itself together, shifting and swirling around a pale blue glow, rainbows hanging in the mist it left in its wake.

“I think Mels is crying,” Mabel whispered to Elsewhere, her tone caught between sympathy and pride.

A few rows down, tears were, indeed trailing their way down Melusine’s face as she watched her son, her attention rapt. A couple seats down from her, Basilisk leant forward in his special chair, almost unblinking, shoving popcorn into his mouth with a spoon, his face bathed in the light of Ēōs’ free floating stage-lamps3. Despite Mabel’s prompting, Elsewhere did not seem to notice. He was too busy staring at their Ariel. He only took any notice of the girl when she stuck her fingers between his ribs, harder than was perhaps fair. He let out a quiet squeak, then looked at her, hurt. In response, she merely tutted at him.

The one advantage the The Tempest’s relatively milquetoast cast of characters offered the Watercolours and their Orchestra was that it barely mattered who they got to play them. Talos (over Maelstrom’s muttered complaints) had landed the role of Alonso purely on the strength of his mechanical mode’s perfect memory. Elsewhere had been very particular about the casting of Ariel. Mabel, though, was more concerned with the main lead.

“The ditty does remember my drowned father. This is no mortal business, nor no sound. That the earth owes. I hear it now above me.” His line completed, Prince Ferdinand smiled his friendly vampire grin, rocking slightly on his heels with his hands behind his back.

When Growltiger had expressed an interest in the production, Mabel had strongly considered recasting Caliban, but the boy’s lip had wobbled every time she brought it up, and Linus had threatened the children with musical numbers if he wasn’t allowed to play the monster. She had struggled for some time trying to come up for a use for the newest student, until Elsewhere had realized the subversive potential4 of casting him as the lead. As it turned out, Billy was an atrocious actor, but in a manner that only seemed natural and proper for a seven year old. Even Lawrence seemed charmed by his sheer joy at managing to remember his dialogue.

Mabel noticed. “I think Lawrence likes it!” she hissed excitedly to her producer. “Christmas matinee, Macbeth, for sure.”

“Isn’t that more a Halloween story? Witches and all?”

Mabel grinned wickedly. “Christmas, Halloween, they both have vampires.”

It took Elsewhere a moment to catch on. “…Wouldn’t that be Easter?”

“Spoilsport.”

Mum would have smacked us for that.

Prince Ferdinand emerged from the darkness behind the stage5, a log over his back. “There be some sports are painful, and their labor, elight in them sets off. Some kinds of bases are nobly underground.”

Mabel put her face in her palms, praying no one noticed.

“And most poor matters point to rich ends,” he finished, as though he didn’t understand half of what he was saying. He set the log down on a stack of its fellows, wiping his furred brow with pantomime exhaustion… then kept wiping for a few extra seconds while he struggled to remember his next line. Then he went on, stumbling through an interminable celebration of his ladylove until she finally made her appearance:

“Alas now, pray you, work not so hard,” Miranda said with the passion and conviction of every wannabe dramatist between Harvey and Avon Valley. She moved towards the prince, ready to comfort her love.

Myriad was honestly wasted on Miranda. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she performed with much more poise and self possession than any of her young castmates, her every half sung phrase and subtle gesture completely on point… until she actually reached her costar. Then whatever preternatural maturity gripped her evaporated, leaving two eight year olds in costumes knocked together out of spare curtains and bedsheets, trying not to giggle as they attempted to ape adolsecent affection, his fur tickling her cheek as his tail swished behind him.

You could only hope they enjoyed the moment, for the prince’s courtiers were even then conspiring against their liege with the dread Caliban: a conspicuously short, dark skinned Neapolitan butler6 and an ember-eyed jester trying not to laugh as a teenager slathered in homemade troll makeup leapt and pranced around them, hissing Elizabethan dialogue at them in a voice his director had described as being “like black jellybeans.” Every one of his grand, exuberant gesticulations was accompanied by a musical sting.

“That boy is having far too much fun,” Mrs. Gillespie opined, trying to hide a smile.

Lawrence grinned at her in the gloom. “Oh, don’t fret, Mary. Everyone loves being the villain once in a while.”

Mary’s smile sharpened. “Know this from experience, Doctor?”

“Yes, actually. Eton. A few of us got our hands on a bottle of the divinity master’s sherry, and we decided to do The Merchant of Venice. I was Shylock.” His expression glazed over with nostalgia. “We made a couple of third-formers be Portia and Jessica. Poor lads couldn’t say no.”  

  Mary chuckled, as much at Snapdragon silently begging Linus to tone down the mugging long enough for him to get a line out as the anecdote. “I think we were right not to recreate fagging here7.”

The play proceeded in much the same vein as it had begun, more the unrestrained cavorting of children than a serious production—a marginally more formalized game of pretend—broken up by occasional the special effect and attempts by some of the more actorly among them to do the piece justice. Through it all, Lawrence watched with grandfatherly contentment, marred only by the occasional niggle when the children did particularly severe insult to the bard’s work.

Not that Lawrence’s opinion of their efforts entered much into Mabel and Elsewhere’s thinking. It was theirs—that was all that mattered.

And sometimes, it really did all come together. Ariel manifesting himself to the king and his men: a living storm, all noise and fury; proving folly any human pretense of power.

And then there was their Prospero.

“Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling, of their afflictions,” the spindly old wizard with the young face demanded of the mist that pooled around the hem of his far too voluminous dressing gown, cotton ball beard shaking violently from his chin. “And shall not myself, one of their kind, that relish all as sharply passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?”

The real fun of Shakespeare is seeing how much you can change without altering a word. Here, Prospero came across less as a grand, magical tyrant, and more of a gone to seed company founder whose business had grown quite beyond anything he had ever imagined while he wasn’t looking—kept on by his cannier subordinates out of sentimentality and branding consideration. The sort of man whose grinning face would adorn the labels of mustard bottles for generations after his death. That’s not to say there wasn’t any danger to him. Sometimes, in between rounds of golf and shuttlecock, even the most irrelevant corporate figurehead might feel the need to remind themselves that they still had some power…

The casting of Prospero ended up being Mabel and Elsewhere’s most difficult creative decision. Both children agreed that the wizard needed to be something special. At the very least, he ought to be taller than his castmates. With Gwydion proving militantly uninterested in the production, and Linus already thoroughly committed to the role of Caliban, the Watercolours had once again found themselves short of options. Myriad had suggested one of the older girls be Prospera, but that was quickly dismissed as the kind of smart that was likely to get them slapped. Maelstrom had also tentatively floated the idea of asking Lawrence to play the Duke of Milan, but that seemed like the preteen amatuer theatrics equivelent of having your father be your date for the school formal.

Then, only a fortnight before their self-imposed opening date, salvation staggered into the barn.

“Really?” Elsewhere had asked, warily. “You want to be in the play?”

“Don’t tell me what I want to do!” Tiresias had slurred at the boy, almost losing his footing from the distraction. His cheeks were flushed with an odd hexagonal pattern. According to the Physician via Myriad, it was a throwback to whatever Enlilian tourist had introduced esper genes into his bloodline8.

“…I wasn’t.”

“Whatever. Not like there’s anything else to do around here.” He pointed with drooping menace at the casting table. “Let me be the wizard-man, or I’ll…” He tried to find an appropriate threat in the wine fumes. “…Bite you.”

None of the Watercolours saw the harm in saying yes to the psychic. Truthfully, they hadn’t even expected him to remember he had wanted in on the production by dinnertime. But, much to everyone’s frankly ambivalent surprise, Tiresias not only persisted with his theatrical ambitions, he threw himself into the role. There had been some fretting over whether this constituted a breach of their pledge not to involve any grownups, but they decided that the difference between them and Tiresias was merely one of chronology.

They had no luck with convincing him he didn’t need to put on the pommy accent.

“Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel,” Prospero ordered, the child-spirit already coiling away into the darkness as he spoke. The sorcerer sat hunched in his throne now, only one of the orbiting stage-lamps still shining down him, its brothers glowing dimly like dying suns. “—I’ll break my staff, bury it certain fathoms fathoms beneath the earth.” His smile was manic, his eyes darting all around him, as though checking if God or Lucifer or any power between them were watching. “And deeper than did ever plummet sound, I’ll drown my book.”

“He’s so lying,” Mabel commented in hushed tones.

“What? Why?” Elsewhere asked.

“Who’s going to give up magic powers? Especially someone who did the kinda stuff Prospero did…” An ugly memory crawled out from its crevice. “Would Elsa?”

“Ugh, don’t remind me.”

“Still, would you?”

“…I don’t know.”

If there was one thing about The Tempest that disappointed Mabel and Elsewhere, it was that the one witch in the story didn’t even appear onstage. If there was another thing, it was that there wasn’t really a big liberation scene for Ariel. Prospero merely promises to release the spirit after just one more favour or two. Definitely a big mistake on Shakespeare’s part, the eight and the nine year old both thought.

Still, they had worked out a bit of staging they were both proud of. At the end, when the wizard sent Ariel ahead to calm the seas and stiffen the winds for Miranda and Ferdinand’s journey back to Italy, Prospero once again gave his assurance that—with the completion of this final task—the spirit would finally has his freedom.

The words thrummed through Ariel’s aqueous form like ripples or musical notes. With a rafter-rattling blast of thunder, the fog forgot his shape, spilling over the stage before sinking into the dirt floor, revealing a mahogany skinned little boy in a shift woven from ice crystals. He looked like he could have been one of the island’s long-gone natives. The boy wiggled his toes a little, clearly relieved to have them back, before shooting a worried look over at Prospero, as though fearful that the wizard might change his mind. The old warlock nodded back at him with an air of self-satisfied magnanimity. Returning the gesture with some hesitation, the former spirit took the prince and his love by the hand, and lead them out of the story. Miranda looked afraid, almost queasy. Understandable, for a girl leaving behind everything all she knew—

“AU!” Myriad screamed, wrenching her hand from David’s. “AU’s here!”

The collective hush of the audience was pure enough that the creak of the barn door was clearly audible when Mrs. Barnes stepped inside.

The entirety of the Institute turned in their seats to get a look at the interloper. The almost too-thin woman looked like she had dressed for church. Her hair looked like it was for a funeral. Examining the crowd, and then the children still onstage in their homespun finery, Myriad looking pale and panicked, Angela’s brow furrowed with genuine disappointment. “Did we miss the play?”

Elsewhere slowly rose from his chair, uncertain whether or not he was even allowed to. “M-Mummy?”

“Arnold!” The name escaped Angela like a cry of pain.

Arnold. It took the better part of a second for the name to register with the boy, like he was being called by a half-forgotten nickname. Then he was running down the aisles, wondering how he had managed to keep a straight face being called “Elsewhere” for so long. It was silly. Like a game of pirates that had managed to last for months.

Angela Barnes barely managed to stay on her feet when her son collided with her.

“I-I-did-you got my—” Arnold gave up on coherent speech, burying his face in his mother’s dress.

“Shhhhh. That can all wait.”

It was only then that Arnold remembered everyone else in the barn, the warring murmurs and loud, questioning shouting of his schoolmates suddenly audible to him. He wondered how the other students would cope with him of all people getting his mum back, with how they treated David. Then he remembered those poor, human boys from Northam. What the other children did to them. What he had done to them. Lightning flashed beneath the skin of his knuckles.   

Except, nobody sounded upset. In fact, if any one sound dominated the din of the barn, it was cheering. Children crowded around the mother and son, trying to make their questions heard over everyone else’s, or just bask like sun-starved flowers in the presence of a flesh and blood mother. It didn’t matter whose they were. Parents coming to the New Human Institute was like finding fairies in the middle of Perth: who gave a damn who they were for?

Arnold didn’t appreciate the attention. Everyone crowding him and his mum, asking stupid questions about how she got there, or even if she was just part of the play. Worse were the endless congratulations. Did they think he might’ve missed how great this was?

Windshear and a couple of the other smaller children tried going for a hug, before finding themselves teleported to the back of the crowd.

Angela gazed reproachfully down at her son. “Arnold…”

The boy suddenly felt very childish. What was he worried about? That his mum might decide to trade him in? Gently, he stepped out of his mother’s embrace, turning to face the throng of other children. “Guys,” he said, “this is my mum.”

Mrs Barnes had steeled herself for a lot of things on her journey to the Institute. A horde of tiny, love-hungry superhumans was not one of them. They fell upon her like locusts. She just barely managed to resist hitting any of them.

Arnold was laughing at the sight when he felt something ram into the back of his legs. He didn’t know why his father’s rib-crushing hug surprised him as much as it did. How likely was it that he would pass on the trip?

He felt his father’s rough, day old stubble against his cheek.“Jesus, boy, you’ve grown…”

Arnold had heard the tone in his father’s voice before, when his mother had just managed to drag him screaming out of some reawoken wartime horror. It was a kind of gasping, raw relief that stung almost as much as the despair. It made the boy shake.

A young man in a collared shirt and olive and brown striped trousers wandered into the area of Arnold’s view that wasn’t taken up by his father’s shirt, a dishwater blonde holding a pudgy baby in a sunbonnet in tow. He beamed when he caught sight of the boy. “Oi, Arnie!”

“…Drew?”

He hadn’t recognized his eldest brother at first. Drew had already left home when Arnold was born, and one way or another had always kept himself too busy to visit much. He and Frank had always seemed felt like beloved cousins than true brothers—semi-mythical figures whose life and adventures were only attestable in ancient oral tradition. He clambered off his father’s chair. “Who’s the lady?”

Drew’s grin widened, pulling the woman and baby in close. “Hey, that’s my wife you’re talking about!”

Somehow, that made Arnold feel old by proxy.

The woman waved awkwardly at him. “Hi! It’s Sophie. Drew’s told me so much about you.” Under the circumstances, the junior Mrs Barnes couldn’t help but think the introduction was a little inadequate. She held out the baby, cooing, “Say g’day to your uncle, Jules.”

That hit Arnold like a dozen birthdays.

Drew pointed towards the back of the barn. “Christ almighty, that’s some good makeup. How do you get the tail to move? Fishing wire?” He smiled waggishly at Arnold. “That your little girlfriend up there?”

Arnold’s gaze darted around in the direction his brother had pointed, his eyes landing on Maelstrom, before shifting to Allison beside him, still trying to make herself heard over the racket. He went a bright, deep red, and did not respond.

Maelstrom—suspecting that this intermission might last the rest of the play—stepped off the stage, made his way sheepishly over to Arnold and his father, occasionally reducing himself to mist to slip through gaps in the crowd. He passed Mrs Barnes, who, having extricated herself from the mob of boys and girls vying for her attention, had struck up a one sided conversation with a still halfway bewildered Żywie:

“—Is there a Bible in your library? I know I can’t expect you to make him read it, but I would be a lot more comfortable if I knew there was one on hand…”

Maelstrom approached the two Barnes like a rabbit sniffing at a dead fox. Thanks to Żywie, David was used to a degree of photogenic refinement in the people around him. Even Lawrence and Mrs Gillespie shared in some of the benefit. Mr. Barnes had none of that. He was like a large, half finished sandstone sculpture, all chipped and windworn. He reminded the boy a little of Timothy Valour, albeit much more unreconstructed. He struggled to find any evidence of this man in Arnold—unless the tied off stumps were why the boy’s legs were so skinny.

Fred beamed when he spotted the child, revealing many slightly crooked teeth. “You must be David!” he shouted at a Lawrence-like decibel. He clasped the boy’s arm in both hands, shaking it vigorously. “You weren’t joking about the eyes, were you Arnold? Did you end up playing the ghost?”

The blush returned to Arnold’s cheeks. “It was a spirit, Dad…”

David was stunned. It was the first time a stranger had ever addressed him by the name his mother gave him. It was like the man had seen his secret self. He cautioned an uneasy smile. “It’s good to meet you, Fred.”

David remembered too late the attitude most outsider grownups held about first names, but Fred Barnes didn’t appear offended by the lapse in manners. He chuckled, quirking his head towards his son and said “I didn’t think he’d be so casual.” In fact, the general impression Fred had gleaned from his son’s notes was of a boy terrified of adults. “I like it.”

A shriek rang out from the stage, loud and distorted enough to kill and devour all other sound in the barn, making everyone in earshot feel like their bones were aging inside them; a thousand angry ghosts, all shrieking just out of sync with each other:  

AUISHEREAUISHERELISTENTOMEAUIS—     

“CALM DOWN, CHILD!” Somehow, Lawrence managed to make himself heard over Allison’s cacophony.

The howling died down.   

“Allison Kinsey,” Mrs Barnes said, rubbing her temples. “Never do that again while I’m alive.”

All of the babies, and even a few older students (and Therese Fletcher) had burst into tears from the shock. Allison’s eyes were wet, too, her breaths short and shallow.

“Now tell us, Myriad,” Lawrence said, slowly, “what do you mean ‘AU is here’?”

Fred Barnes looked at the headmaster, surprised he would use that silly nickname when the girl was so obviously distressed.

Indignation mixed with the fear in Allison’s face. “What I just said. AU. Is. Here. I can hear him, just barely.”  

Angela glanced around the crowd. “Has anyone seen where Chen got to?”

The erstwhile wizard Prospero blanched. “Chen?”

Drew tried to process the realization dawning in him. “…He broke off from us when he got here. Said he wanted to look around the old place.”

“Oh, God,” said Żywie, flatly. “Oh, God.”

Lawrence roared, “You brought AU to my school?”

“We didn’t know!” Mr. Barnes shouted back.

Lawrence stormed over towards the other man, leaning down to eye level. “I sent out pictures! They ran in every newspaper in the country for weeks!”   

“Pardon us for having better things to do with our lives than memorize the faces of your supervillain students!”

Lawrence raised a closed hand, drawing it back for a strike. Fred saw, and didn’t even flinch.  Before he had a chance to do anything, however, Angela stepped between them.

“We’re sorry, we should have realized. He just told us he was a student coming back for a visit.”

“If he was a student, why wouldn’t he be here?”

Angela blinked. “He was a grown man.”

“Why are we standing around talking?” Allison whined. “AU’s out there and he’s going to do something. We need to go get him!”

“No, we don’t,” said Basilisk. “That’s for the grownups to handle. All you kids need to stay safe and together till this is resolved.”

“But-but—”

“Mr. Basil’s right, Allie,” Angela said.

Basilisk nodded, then paused. “…How’d you know my name?”

“Lucky guess.”

“Oh.”

Mrs Barnes reflexively started laying a plan of action. “The most responsible, most killable adults should stay here and look after the children. Sorry, love, but I wouldn’t want you going out there even if you had four legs.” She looked around at the oldest new humans. “Have any of you ever heard of Chen ever killing anyone?”

“…No,” admitted Melusine. As far as she knew, Chen was the only one of the original students, besides Basil, who hadn’t taken a human life.

“Then one of you might be able to talk him down. I’m sure everyone here would rather avoid a fight.”

A few children tried to voice their objections to that, but those evaporated quickly under the combined sternness of Żywie and Angela. The older students seemed to be to keeping their distance from the Barnes. Arnold wondered if they were out of practise dealing with regular grownups.

Allison watched the adults discuss the situation, calmly, for the most part—like someone had just spotted a rabid dog on the property and not the country’s most infamous posthuman criminal. Angela and the teachers were weighing the pros and cons of marching the children back up to the farmhouse9. Lawrence and Tiresias had retreated into their own hushed argument in a shadowed corner of the barn.

She felt Billy hugging her from behind, his chin unwelcomely tickling her neck. “It’ll be alright, Miri,” he tried assuring her, only to find himself a few feet back from her in a burst of greenish light. Myriad ignored him, even as his lip began to wobble. Arnold, glaring at her behind her back, moved to comfort him.

The girl walked over to one of the wooden walls, glaring at it determinedly.

Xylophones.

And the wall became a door.


1. On October the 3rd, just prior to midnight, the King was administered lethal doses of cocaine and morphine, so news of his death would appear in the morning papers, rather than the less appropriate evening journals.

2. They might have had an easier time of it if Basilisk had gotten around to showing the children Forbidden Planet.

3. The Watercolours had considered a number of lighting options. Lawrence had vetoed taking off the barn roof for reasons of rain and general practicality, candles were deemed a fire hazard, and setting up a generator and electric lights seemed excessive. One plan Elsewhere had come close to implementing was for Stratogale to lift Cardea high enough into the air that clouds wouldn’t be a concern, and then open a portal above the stage. It was at this point that Myriad suggested having Ēōs make light.

4. “Nobody else would do it!”

5. A black curtain or bedsheet would have like done the job just as well as a wall of dark, liquid smoke, but Artume had wanted something to do.

6. Mabel had worked herself into a fit trying to justify to herself how an Aboriginal boy somehow ending up in the household of the king of Naples, despite Haunt repeatedly telling her not to worry about it: this wasn’t even the first time someone had tried passing him off as Italian.

7. Fagging: The practise of British boarding schools granting upperclassman massive amounts of authority over younger students in exchange for theoretical responsibility for their wellbeing. It is worth noting that World War 1 was waged in large part by boarding school graduates.

8. Amongst the nations and tribes of Enlil, there is no surer sign of poor breeding than non-geometric capillaries.

9. The big argument “against” was of course opening them up to attack. The argument “for” was of course proximity to tea. Also, biscuits.

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Chapter Nineteen: Wake in Fright

There was a woman.

But first, there was pain, and hot, heavy darkness. Or did the woman come before that? Memories are never remembered the same way twice. Details are lost, or exaggerated, or sometimes even completely invented. Sometimes, they lack even a sense of priority. Frederick Barnes couldn’t recall the precise words with which he proposed to his wife, but he could recite verbatim the argument they had that night about the merits of beef over pork sausages. Thermopylae was a blur, but the army rations he had been forced to subsist on as a private were never far from his tongue.

He never remembered the blast, but the dream he had afterwards followed him to his grave.

It was one of those dreams that cross-pollinated with memory, only a faint seam separating waking reality and unmoored imagination.

He was fairly sure he was still awake when he heard the poor bugger moaning two bunks down from him. Corporal Barnes’ first guess was that one of his men was suffering through the aftereffects of a bad ration pack, or something they picked up from a poorly chosen local prostitute. He listened for a moment—until he was sure it wasn’t the kind of moaning that meant said hypothetical woman was in the tent with them—before hissing at whoever was making that noise to take it to the med-tent. Except, he then realized, they were already in the med-tent. And there was a tube in his arm.

It was clean. At least, Fred hoped to God it was clean. You had to hand it to the medics: they knew how to extend their supplies. The needle in his arm had likely already been in at least a dozen men, hopefully with a couple dunks in alcohol in between. Maybe it was an odd thing to fixate on, but it was his vein, goddamnit. And it was better than just laying there doing nothing.

No, wrong problem. He was in the med-tent. Why was he in the med-tent? He needed to check himself over, assess the damage.

He couldn’t find any frostbite, and all his fingers were present and accounted for. He couldn’t feel anything foreign in his body besides the IV. It and some bandages on his arms and legs were the only sign that he even needed to be there.

But then he looked at his legs. They were half as long as they should have been.

Corporal Barnes’ breathing grew fast and heavy. No, that couldn’t be right. He could still feel his feet. He could even wiggle his toes. Then he remembered something a mate from Greece once told him:

“They stay with you, you know,” the former Lieutenant Benson had said, a pint of bitter in his left hand. He had favoured his right hand before Thermopylae. “My knuckles still itch, sometimes.”

Barnes tried to rip away the sheets and see what had been done to him, but he couldn’t even raise his arms. Whatever foul stuff that tube was pumping into him, it felt as though God had His finger pressed down on him. He called out for a doctor, his wife, someone—anyone—whose legs he could get better use out of. No answer.

Then, for the first time since the War—even then still the definitive article1—Frederick Barnes wept. This was a nightmare, like the ones where word got to him of Angela falling ill, or the boys being knocked down by a car. It had to be.

“Nobody will hear you, Corporal.”

The voice came from the foot of Fred’s bed. Its owner was a young woman, or at least Fred guessed as much. She was child-slight, but her eyes, he thought, contained the depth of years. With her coal black hair and round cheeks, along with the maroon hanbok she wore, she looked like she spent most of her time living inside a Nork propaganda poster; the kind that made Barnes grateful he never learned Korean. There was something else strange about her, too. No, with everything behind her. It was as if the tent and the pallets and the wounded who occupied them had all been replaced by a photo or painted backdrop of themselves. The scent of peaches replaced blood and disinfectant.

“Sorry about that,” she said, her voice as clean and pure as a mountain lake. Though she looked like a local (and an out of date one at that), her English would have put the King’s own to shame. “I took us off the spokes so we could speak without interruption.”

A woman, standing in the snow, watching men killing each other like a stranger watching children at play.  A moment’s confusion, then a return to the sounds of gunfire and panic. Tackling the woman to the ground, shielding her from the bullets, the world exploding…

Frederick Barnes glanced down. This woman still had her knees. Lucky bitch.

“You shoved me into the dirt,” the lady said, concealing her umbrage poorly. “Why?”

Fred looked at her, wondering if this strange woman was simple as well as inexplicable. “…You were standing in the middle of an active firezone. What else was I supposed to do?”

 The lady looked at him for a moment, obviously puzzled, until an understanding seemed to dawn on her. “You thought you were protecting me?” she asked, a strange sort of smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, before breaking out in laughter. “That is adorable, it really is. This probably isn’t what you want to hear right now, but… I am quite certain none of your weapons could do me harm. Nonetheless, I do appreciate the attempt.”

“Are you fucked in the head, woman?” Fred asked, bitterness edging into his words. “I don’t care if you’re a child, a soldier, or some bint who’s never seen a gun in her life, a bullet to the head kills everyone all the same.” The tears were threatening to return. “I lost a part of myself saving you from that, and you had better fucking understand it.”

The woman’s smile faded, she glanced down towards one of her hands, resting a few inches away from one of the bandage wrapped stumps of his legs.

“You people are so fragile,” she murmured. “Why do you toss yourselves at one another like that? What could possibly be worth all that pain?”

For a moment, Fred was stumped. It wasn’t that he couldn’t have formed an answer, more that this clueless bitch had just utterly sidestepped the issue of her own blame for his present state.

“… Bunch of reasons,” he replied eventually. “Sometimes because we want to make the world better. Sometimes because we want more of it. Sometimes to protect people, like I did for you… I’m starting to regret that.”

“I would,” she said. “I would definitely regret trying to save me. You lost something important, and I would have come to no harm either way.”

“Woman, do you know what a rifle—” She interrupted before he could finish.

“A projectile weapon. A compressed kinetic reaction is used to force a metal slug towards a target, usually fatally…. One of those might have caused me harm…. I see…. You really were saving me… Thank you.”

Again, Fred didn’t know how to react to that. After a moment, he groaned, and decided to let whatever this woman was rest for the moment.

“What in the blazes were you even doing there in the first place, hmm? What kind of fool wanders out into the middle of a goddamned firing line?”

“I didn’t,” she answered shortly, almost terse. “Your firing line wandered into me. I was watching you people fight on the doorstep of my home. Can you blame me for taking a look? Or for staying put? I was as threatened by you as I am by the squirrels who rut and fight for dominance in the branches of my trees. Did you really expect me to flee from mere men when I could have ended the fight with a mere thought?”

Fred’s eyes narrowed. “If you could have helped, what didn’t you do something?”

“In whose favour?” the woman asked. “Should I have let you and your people claim victory over mine?”

“We’re fighting for your people, lady—”

“It is a travesty when brothers take up arms against each other.” Her tone became very sour. “Especially when cowards too afraid to fight their own battles set them against one another.”

Fred’s confusion gave way to rage. “You think I wanted to be here?” he shouted. “Or wherever the fuck they’ve put my legs! I sure as hell didn’t ask for another tour!” The tears took hold of him once more. “I haven’t seen my wife in ten years! My boys don’t know me!  And now I’m coming home to them half the man I was, and I’m going to be nothing but a burden! I don’t know why we’re here! I don’t know why we were fighting in your meadow, and I sure as shit don’t know why I bothered to try and save a stupid bint like you!”

It went on like that for a while, the corporal cursing out the Crown, the Japanese, the reds, and himself with equal ferocity, the apparition watching him all the while, not uttering a word.

When his despaired ravings subsided to a prolonged, inarticulate moan, the woman asked mildly, “Can I speak again?”

“Do whatever you like, lady. Not like I can walk away.”

She scowled. “You’re fortunate—”        

“If you even think of saying that again. I don’t care if you’re a woman, or a super or what, I’ll put your teeth out.”

“…That I don’t flay the skin from your bones.”

Fred let out a dry, quiet chuckle. “That’s better.”

The lady continued. “Today, however, I will grant you a reprieve.” She smiled. Fred wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. “Moreover, since it would seem that I was in some small level of danger when you tried to save me, I believe I shall offer you a boon.”

Fred’s response was as immediate as it was predictable. “Give me back my legs.”

“I’m afraid that is beyond my powers.”

“Fuck off, you’re clearly magic.”

“But not that kind of magic. And over a dozen people have seen you like this. What do you think they’ll think if they come back to find your legs have grown back? They would probably shove you into a silly costume2 and airdrop you in the middle of P’yŏngyang. Also, please, mind your tongue in my presence. You don’t want to go through the rest of your life only able to say ‘gosh’ when you’re upset, do you? Actually, don’t answer that.”

“Then I want my family to be comfortable. Not like I’m going to be of much use to them like this. Give my Ange the winning lotto numbers from now to the year 2000.” Actually, when Fred thought about it, that probably wouldn’t work. Angela abhorred gambling. Made him wonder why she married a soldier sometimes. “Or have her find a heap of gold under the sink, whatever you need to do.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so quick to write yourself off like that, Corporal.” The lady tilted her head, then nodded slowly. “I do think you’re on the right track with that idea, although I think you’re thinking too materially. So many men build up a fortune only to see it squandered by their children. Your wife is raising more prudent sons than that—”

“Is she?” Fred cut in morosely. “I wouldn’t know.”

The woman continued, a touch tersely, “…But then what about your grandchildren, and their children after that?” She grinned. “I’m not going to make the Barnes rich today, Frederick Barnes, I’m going to make you and your kin rich as long as there are Barnes. And if I do this right, that might be as long as there are men.”

Fred found the woman’s tone of voice worrying. There was kindness—or something like it—in there, but also a certain, excitable lilt. He could have sworn he’d heard something like it in the double-bill of Frankenstein and Dracula he had taken Angela to right before he shipped out. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“What did one of you white devils call it?” Fred flinched when the ghost, or super, or witch, or whatever she was snapped her fingers, expecting something to appear, or disappear, or change, but it seemed she really was just trying to jog her memory. “Oh, yes, natural selection.”

She stood up from the bed. She was much taller than Barnes had initially thought, almost titanic in stature. She pulled a black feather quill from… somewhere, already wet. “I am sorry about this, but this will hurt more than what put you here.”

Before Fred could inquire or protest, the lady leaned forward and started writing something on his brow. It felt like being dabbed with flaming kerosene. He screamed with all he was, thrashing and trying to jerk his head out from under the creature’s awful pen, but she had him pinned impossibly fast with her free hand. She wasn’t cutting his skin, so much as gouging something into his very being.

“Oh, hold still, will you?”

After what could’ve been anywhere between half a minute and all the moments the universe had left to its name, the woman lifted her quill and straightened herself, appearing to admire her work. “There, that should do just fine.”

The pain had ceased as quickly as it had started, but the shock and mere memory of it had Corporal Barnes shaking and gasping. “What did you do to me?”

The lady slowly began to walk away from the bed. “I have assured that your descendants will always have what they need at hand, and what might harm them at bay—if they know what’s good for them.”

“Is that a threat?” Fred called after her.

“No, just the plain facts of it. Oh, and I’m afraid my blessing isn’t quite retroactive. If you want immediate results, you’d better… make some descendants when you get home.”

“You really think Angela would still want me like this?”

The woman’s words lingered in the air after she departed. “Oh, Frederick Barnes, surely you picked a better wife than that.”

Frederick Barnes was wearing deep tracks in the threadbare carpet outside the master bedroom. He was also ensuring that his house would not need fumigating for the next thousand years. Inside the bedroom, his wife was screaming over the midwife’s somewhat unnecessary exhortations to push.

The Barnes’ third child had not been expected, to say the least. It had been just about sixteen years since their last pregnancy—and while that had been more a matter of geography than anything else, Angela was inching into her forties. However, they didn’t own a television, and certain kinds of entertainment were far cheaper than replacing the wireless would have been.

“They’re gonna be fine, Dad,” Fred’s youngest son Frank reassured him, as he attempted to keep up with his father’s wheeled pacing. With his elder brother Drew already off at university, it had fallen to him to keep his father supplied with beer and Longbeach cigarettes through the whole ordeal of his mother’s labour. “You heard what the doctor said, they couldn’t find anything wrong on the x-ray.”

“Oh, that makes me feel a lot better,” snapped Fred. “They blasted my wife with radiation, and they think everything’s alright!”

Frank forced a grin. Even after seven years, he still found it difficult at times dealing with his father, especially when he got into one of his moods. “What, you’re worried the baby will come out flying or something?”

“Bloody comics!” Fred roared. “Don’t joke about that!”

Frank threw his hands up like he was warding off an angry spirit. “Sorry, sorry, forget I said anything. But Mum will be fine, Dad.”

Fred grumbled some borderline obscenities. He probably wouldn’t be sure things were going to be fine until the baby had at least graduated high school. The doctor had explained the risks of having a child at Angela’s age. Sure, he had prefaced every warning with repeated assurances that the baby would most likely be fine, but they stuck in Fred’s head much less than the possibility that it might come out a mongoloid. Fucking laugh if it doesn’t have any legs, he thought to himself ruefully, lighting his tenth Longbeach of the afternoon.

Even if their newest child came into the world without issue, what then? Until their boys were nine and eleven, Angela had raised them entirely on her own, a widow in practise if not in name. Fred had missed their tenderest years, and his homecoming had shattered the life and routine their mother had worked so hard to carve out for them. He was a dream that had strayed into the light of day. The tales she had raised them on, of their father fighting for King and Country, his boys never far from his thoughts, had given way to a sad, unwelcome epilogue. Even after seven years, he wasn’t sure they wouldn’t rather have the story back.

But this baby, he was in it for the long haul. No one would be calling Fred Barnes away to fight for freedom and democracy or God knew what else. For the first time in his life, there would be nothing keeping him from his child. He almost wished there was.

And there was also that… woman’s promise to consider. Fred had mostly convinced herself that she was a nothing more dream—certainly the seven years since had shown no sign of supernatural luck—but she had said something about descendants…

It was a quick labour, as those went. Fred and his son heard one last sharp tapered cry of pain and exertion, and then a new, thin voice, making its first shrill cry into the heavy summer air. The attending midwife’s proclamation of the newborn’s sex could be clearly heard through the door.

Fred had missed out on both his prior children’s births. The second he’d been on a whole other continent. But he had seen enough battles to know which direction a high risk operation was taking. As far as he could hear, the atmosphere in the bedroom was one of relieved celebration. The midwife was making jokes about how many digits the child owned, while Angela told her to knock it off and just give her the bloody baby. That was practically sailor-talk coming from her3.

Fred breathed a little easier.

The door opened. “Mr. Barnes, you have a—”

“Yes I heard, a son!” barked Fred. “Just let me by!”

He gestured madly at her, his chair in danger of toppling from the sheer violence of the motion. She backed to the side, and he wasted no time in making his way to his wife’s side, half wheeling, half being pushed by his son. Her hair was plastered to her face with sweat, the child already in her arms. “Looks like you managed three for three.”

Fred chuckled abashedly. “I wouldn’t have minded, you know that.”

Angela looked down into her new son’s face. Like most infants who’d just vented their outrage at their change in circumstances, he was looking up at his mother with complete, uncomprehending curiosity. She allowed herself a small, weary smile. “It’s funny, I can’t help feeling a little ticked off after all that, but I can’t stop looking at him.”

“Was it like that with me and Drew?” asked Frank.

Angela nodded. “Maybe worse. Wasn’t as used to it.” She looked at her husband. “Not that I’ll ever get used to it, even if I have a thousand more of these.”

Fred grinned, a rare and treasured occurrence these days. “Well, there’s steps I can take so you don’t have to.”   

 “Not in front of the midwife!” Angela rebuked Fred in the tone of voice that only made it funnier for him.

“What? You think she doesn’t know how he got here?” It was then Fred seemed to fully notice his new son for the first time. “…Do ya mind if I hold him?”

Angela handed the baby to him without hesitation, before allowing herself to slip off into hard won sleep.

It was the first time Fred had ever held a baby. The absurdity of it almost made him laugh. He, a forty-four year old father of three, and only now was he able to hold his own son like that.

He jiggled the boy slightly in his arms, and felt a surprising surge of joy at the light coo of sound that followed. Not joy, yet, nothing so complex; but acknowledgement, engagement with him. He felt a shock of something, a force that racked through him like a physical thing, jolting his very bones and leaving him feeling stronger, like iron. He had a purpose again.

“No matter what happens, boy,” he murmured, gazing into the newborn’s eyes. “I will always be there for you. You get that, little soldier? Always. That’s a promise.”

The baby tried to bite Fred’s finger, the gums of his tiny mouth pressing against the tip of the digit as some buried instinct drove him to chew without any of the tools required.

Fred laughed. “You little shit.”

Angela Barnes stood at her kitchen counter, assembling cornbeef sandwiches with almost frenzied efficiency. Out front of the house, her husband was hard at work fixing up the Kombi bus their eldest son and his young wife had driven halfway across the country. It needed to be in top condition by tomorrow morning. They were heading up to see their Arnold, and Hell would freeze over before they frittered away any money on servo station food.

She shot a glance out of the kitchen window to see how the boys were getting along, then shook her head with a barely audible snort. Fred had taken charge, as he always did, and was putting their boy through his paces, a full grown man running from end to end of the vehicle at his father’s shouted commands from beneath the chassis. Of course, Fred’s bellowing rarely had anything to do with anger: it was simply how he chose to relay information to most other males. Well, besides Arnold; he hardly even raised his voice with the boy. She allowed herself a smile. Her husband was almost too sweet with that child.

“So much for radicalism,” Sophia Barnes said from the chipped green enamel dining table. A book lay open in front of her. “Don’t make things easy on the Man… unless the Man is his dad.”

“Damn straight,” replied Angela, neither pausing nor looking up from her task. “How’s the book so far?”

Busy nursing his wife through a bout of rheumatic fever, Frank hadn’t been able to make the journey back to Harvey for the great Barnes expedition to the New Human Institute. However, dutiful son that he was, he had managed to scrounge up a copy of The New Child: a treatise written by the man he was fairly certain was Arnold’s new head teacher.

Sophia Barnes hummed thoughtfully. Angela and Fred had both been surprised, perhaps more than they should have been, when their eldest son went full counterculture after university; hitting the road and tooling around the country with a rotating cast of other dissatisfied young adults. Fred had taken it somewhat personally—and loudly—but Angela figured they had raised Drew well enough that he wasn’t likely to get himself into any great trouble. Aside from marriage, as it turned out. That had taken her by surprise, she would admit. But Drew and the new Mrs Barnes had assured her they were actually, legally married, inside a Catholic church, which Angela figured was all she could really ask for. She’d probably preferred her son got married at a witch’s sabbath than an Anglican church4.      

“Well, I know one thing for certain: this Dr. Lawrence bloke really loves new humans.”

“New humans?”

“His word for demi—sorry, supers.” She cleared her throat, readying herself to channel the author. “ ‘It is my view, after many years of exploration, research, and my decades spent within their company, that these new humans could, if given the chance, ameliorate the scars left upon our cultures by their more mundane ancestors. Many among our race fear giving them this chance, and that is understandable. They are, by definition, a change, and change can be intimidating; but it must, as is the way of evolution, be embraced, where it can.’ ”

“…I see.”

“At least you know he’s treating Arnold well?”

“True, true.”

There was a wail from the other end of the house.

Sophie stood up from her chair. “Sounds like Julie’s up,” she declared, with the desperate jauntiness of a new mother yet to figure out which pitches meant her child was hungry, tired, or dying.

“Do you want me to see to her?”

“Thank you, Mrs. Barnes, but I can handle it,” Sophie replied as she hurried down the hall past her mother-in-law.

“…You can call me Angela, you know.”

She went back to her sandwiches. If there was one blessing in Angela’s life, it was that there was always plenty of work to distract her.

God, that poor girl. Was she ever so on edge when her boys were small?

Probably. Almost definitely. But at least Sophia wouldn’t have to go it alone. Whatever Angela thought about the path Drew had taken, she trusted him to take care of his family.   

For a moment, she tried wrapping her head around the idea of a grandchild. It was an odd fit in her mind, a nagging sense that she was still a tad young for anyone to be calling her “grandma”, especially when she still had a little boy of her own, somewhere out there.

She was glad Arnold would at least get to see his niece.

Despite the winter cold, and the unfortunate lack of heating in the kitchen, Angela began to feel oppressively hot. Feverish, even. Another hot flash. As was her way, she tried pushing through it, even as the sensation spread from her face to the rest of body. Eventually, though, pragmatism reminded her she would likely get more work done if she just swallowed her pride and had a rest.

Rather than head for the couch or her bed, Angela made her way to the tiny bedroom next to the laundry. Separated from the washer and dryer only by thin drywall, it was often the warmest spot in the whole house; and so, Fred and Angela had given it to Arnold.

Aside from dust, nothing had been removed from the room since Arnold himself. Still the same battered shelves holding his brother’s hand-me-downs, as well as what Angela suspected was pillage gained from his powers. A children’s treasury containing a simplified rendition of The Odyssey Angela had been reading to him lay closed on his bedside table. She had left school to work at fourteen after her father’s stroke, but she had made an effort to at least instill a respect for the written word in her sons.

As she had done an honestly embarrassing number of times that year, she lay on her son’s bed, folding her long legs close to her chest. It had been of more comfort in the summer, when the sunlight pouring through the bedroom window had made the bed almost feel slept in.

She wished she hadn’t made his bed that morning.

Angela had never thought the Change would bother her as much as it was. She had been expecting it for years. When she had gotten in the family way with Arnold, she had initially assumed that was it. She certainly had no desire to provide Julie with a younger uncle or aunt. She had had her season, and she was very content with the harvest—despite what she may have occasionally implied to Drew or Arnold.

There was the problem. If she still had Arnold where she could see him, if her family was still together—if only in spirit rather than geography—menopause wouldn’t even have been a blip on Angela’s radar. As things were, it was as if nature felt the need to hammer it in that her baby was gone.

As Julia’s cries gave way to contented gurgles, the sickly heat within Angela gave way to chill. She really should have let Drew and Sophie put the baby in Arnold’s room, instead of the bloody linen closet. It just felt too much like replacing him…

“You alright, Ange?” asked Fred from the doorway.

“What do you think?”

“Sorry, love. I mean, are you hanging in there?”

Angela rolled over to look at her husband. “We’re gonna see our son again, Fred. I should be feeling better.”

Fred wheeled over to beside the bed. “Nerves? I don’t know. Maybe you’re trying to work though all the leftover bullshit so Arnold doesn’t have to deal with it. Wouldn’t want his mum and dad crying over him in front of his new mates, would he?”

Angela just sighed and turned back to face the window. She didn’t even chastise Fred for his language; never a good sign.

With hard-won ease, he shifted himself onto the bed, wrapping an arm around his wife. With how barrel chested he still was, the only reason there was even enough room for the both of them was that Angela’s genes had yet to realize the Irish Potato Famine was no longer a concern. With his free hand, he reached for the cigar tin resting on top of the treasury.

“I still don’t know what the hell he’s on about in half of these,” he said as he flicked the lid open with his thumb.

The note that had appeared in the butchers had only been the first in a miraculous, one-sided correspondence by the youngest Barnes, written on seemingly anything he had on hand: finch-stamped office stationery, lined pages clearly ripped from a school workbook; even a few strips of papery bark. Despite all of Angela’s efforts, Arnold had turned out to be something of a gossip. In the corners, she had written the dates they had appeared. You certainly couldn’t date them by any improvement in Arnold’s penmanship.

“Look at this one: ‘Maelstrom and Allie back from their trip. Brought home a tiger!’ I mean, is the tiger an actual tiger? Or is it like how he used to call the cat a ‘tiger’?”

“Still want to know where that thing got to,” grumbled Angela, her head resting against Fred’s beard. “And I think the tiger is that Growltiger boy he mentioned.”

“What, you think he’s classmates with a talking tiger?”

She shrugged. “Why not?”

“What do you think is the deal with the names, anyway? Is he writing in code?”

“I think it’s a game, dear.” Angela fished a note out of the tin. “Did I show you this one?”

The Barnes lay there for nearly an hour, going over the out-of-context fragments Arnold had felt like sharing with them of his new life:

So, turns out Mealy has a secret old human name. Everyone tells me everything last…

…Windshear thinks she gets to collect the Billy-tax!

…Some kids got in big trouble for playing Hunt the Hippie…

…Reverb is getting so fat.

…Basil’s a little better. It’s still weird David doesn’t hug him or anything. He’s so nice to everyone else. Maybe he just doesn’t like it? David’s hugs can make you feel weird sometimes…

“He mentions that Mealy-David boy a lot,” commented Fred.

“Long as he has a friend,” Angela said as she clambered over her husband’s form. The little reminder of her son’s present happiness had buoyed her spirits considerably, but with that came the determination to attend to matters she had been putting off. “I’m going to pop over to the Kinseys’ place.”

“Still doing that are ya?” Fred replied, squinting at a exceptionally illegible note, trying to decide if this Tiresias person was one of the old guard of new humans Arnold sometimes mentioned, or an exceptionally large student who kept getting into the liquor cabinet.

“Have to.” Just to niggle her husband, she added, “It’s my Christian duty.”

Drina lay half-curled on her living room’s turquoise sofa, “Waltzing Matilda”5 blaring from the turntable in the corner. She wondered how many more times she could play that record before the needle wore it down to nothing, its substance reduced to pure sound.

When Allison had first been taken from her, Drina had felt like a parent bereaved, burdened further with the horrific certainty that her child was in no better place. Now, everything felt reversed. She was a shade in some gloomy underworld, trying to guess at what her daughter was up to in the sunlit country.

Drina was dimly aware of Angela Barnes bustling around her house, and could neither remember nor bring herself to care whether or not she had invited her in. Some small, unimportant part of herself was telling the other woman where they kept the broom and the coffee grounds.  

“I’m sorry, Mrs Barnes,” Drina finally asked as a cup of Moccona dark as interstellar space was placed in front of her, “but why exactly are you here?”

“Because your house is in desperate need of a tidy-up, Mrs Kinsey,” Angela said as she got back to wiping down the other woman’s kitchen counter. She was trying very hard to keep her tone gentle, and so merely came across as brusque. “And there’s something I need to speak with you and your husband about. Any idea when he’ll be home?”

Drina shrugged. “Not really. Jack’s been working late a lot.” Or drowning our daughter at the Harvey Hotel, she silently added, not altogether bitterly. God knows she wished she was allowed inside the pub right then. “What is it you want to say? If it’s worth coming over and doing my dishes, surely it’s worth repeating yourself.”

Angela looked at the newspaper clipping affixed to the Kinsey’s startlingly sleek refrigerator, Allison and the boy called Maelstrom grinning photogenically from the rough, grainy paper. Above their pictures was what Parliament had officially dubbed the Green Palace, and what everyone else was calling the Treehouse6; alien yet familiar all at once. “Drina, did Allison send you a note?”

Before she could answer, two dull thumps echoed in quick succession from the front room.

“They told me I had to go…” Jack Kinsey froze when he saw Angela.

She, for her part, just folded her arms. “Evening, Mr. Kinsey.”

“Hello-Angela.”

Drina gave her husband an odd look. Meanwhile, Jack started to… tremor. Angela thought he was having some kind of episode, until she realized he was shaking his head.

She blinked. Oh, he thinks I’m here to—  

Angela Barnes had not told her husband what Jack Kinsey had done, mostly because she was fairly sure Fred would kill him for it, and she wasn’t certain she would try very hard to stop him. She herself had put off speaking to the Kinseys for very similar reasons.

It had its temptations, just telling Drina, right there and then. Lord knew she must have hungered for someone to blame. Maybe Jack hadn’t reported their daughter, but he had brought the DDHA down on her head all the same. Angela could leave him alone—alone and hated—with just a few words.

But that would leave Drina alone, too. Angela at least had Fred and Drew and Frank; even that baby sleeping in her son’s crib. Who did Drina have, apart from ashes and unmarked graves half a world away? Surely a half man like Kinsey was better than no one?

Barely managing to swallow her hate, Angela looked back down at Drina. “You were saying, Mrs Kinsey?”

“…Yes, we got a note.”

“Drina—”

“Oh, why lie, Jack? It’s not like Allie can get reported twice.”

“Could I see it?” This time, Angela did manage to sound gentle.  

Drina fetched the note from some hiding place Angela was not privy to, handing it to her like she was trusting the butcher with the relic of a saint.

Dear Mum and Dad. I’m okay. I have powers, but I’m okay. This scientist (I guess) took me and Arnold to live with a lot of other kids like us, and it’s really nice. We’re making a lot of friends and doing a play and there’s songs.

So many songs.

My  —Allison.     

“She used to mention songs a fair whack, when she was small,” Jack said. “Never was sure what she meant. Stopped when she was five, I think.”

“The Flying Man,” Angela said. “Smart girl you have, Kinsey.”

“Why are you here, Mrs Barnes?”

Angela took a deep breath. “We know where the kids are.”

As she expected, she was assaulted by an overlapping barrage of wheres and hows before she could get another word out. “Alright, alright! Let me finish!” she snapped. It was enough to quiet the Kinseys for a moment. “Anyway, our son sent us a note, too. I’d wager he sent your daughter’s note for her, if she couldn’t do it herself.”

“He’s a good boy,” Jack interjected. Once again, Drina looked at him funny.

Angela gritted her teeth. “I know he is, Jack. He was also a little more firm on the geography than your Allison. Said the school—I think that’s the right word for it—was in the hills up near Northam. Frank—you remember Frank?—turned out to have a friend working for the DDHA, God forgive him, and he told us about the fella who runs this school, Doctor Lawrence Herbert. Calls it the ‘New Human Institute’. It’s been there since the War, thereabouts.”

“Which war?” asked Drina.

Angela sighed. Sometimes Korea and World War Two blurred together for her. “Korea, I think. So after the Flying Man went and bungled everything up, Doctor Lawrence managed to get this deal with the DDHA. He kept all the children he had at the Institute, and they let him take in some of the children they sent to those awful asylums: ours included.” She lowered her head. “God bless him for it.”

That out of the way, she proceeded to explain everything she had read or heard regarding Herbert Lawrence, his extremely optimistic view of superhumanity included.

“Thank you for telling us all this, Angela,” Drina said eventually, smiling, faintly, for the first time in weeks. “Just knowing where Allison is makes it easier to get on.”

“Bare minimum of decency, Drina,” the butcher said, cooly. “Also not the only reason I came over. Me and the family are heading up to see Arnold tomorrow, and we think you should come along.” Her inner budgeter compelled her to add, “We’d both save on petrol money.”

Jack and Drina looked at one another, before the former glanced back at Angela and said, “That… might not be wise.”

“…Why not? Is it a work thing? Because if it is: really, Jack? If you need to sort out time off—”

“It’s-it’s not that.”

“Then what is it?” Angela asked dubiously.

“If this Lawrence bloke is right—even about half the stuff you say he says—maybe we’re not… I guess worthy is the only word for it?”

Angela’s eyes narrowed. “Children are supposed to be better than their parents, Jack. That’s how you know you’re doing your job!”

“It’s just… Allison’s was never much of a happy kid. I mean, she smiled and played well enough with other children, but aside from Arnold”—he cringed slightly—“she never seemed to connect with anything. And you know Arnold didn’t have all that many friends, either.” He shook his head slowly. “Maybe this wasn’t the right place for children like them. And even if it was, they’re at that school because the government wants them there. You think they’re just going to let you take Arnold home?”

Angela tilted her head. “When did I say I was going to try taking him out of that school?”

Drina said, “But, you—”

“Look, I know Fred and I might not be able to teach Arnold everything a boy like him needs to know. I never gave much thought to boarding school—always thought it was for people with too much money who didn’t like their children much—but it sounds like both our kids are happy enough there. But if I have to let another person look after my boy, I’m not gonna rest till I’ve looked them in the eye myself!”

Drina looked down at her hands. “…I don’t think I could bare leaving that place without my Allie. Not yet.”

Jack straightened slightly. When he spoke, his tone was less quavering. “Thank you for offering, Mrs. Barnes, but I don’t think either of us are ready for that yet. If you see her, send her our love.”

Angela Barnes usually appeared to be at least slightly irritated with something or other at any given moment. Now, she just seemed sad. Almost like she had been in the butcher’s, that stupid, awful day. “Your daughter’s a good girl, Kinseys,” she said. “Don’t think she hasn’t been in my prayers, too. I just worry what she might think if we turn up one day, and you don’t.” She turned to leave. “I hope you find your way back to her, eventually.”

She heard the weeping start before the door closed behind her.

When the Barnes had arrived in Northam, it had quickly dawned on them that—for all their recently expanded knowledge of the place—they were still fairly vague as to where exactly the New Human Institute was. The New Child hadn’t been very specific—lest it attract gawkers, claimed the author. Drew had suggested simply driving along the dirt roads that led out into the surrounding countryside until they found the school, but that had been shot down for reasons of wanting to see Arnold before he graduated.

Eventually, it was decided that the men and the women would split up into two parties, to better infiltrate their respective spheres of society. Drew and Fred had headed off to interrogate the patrons of Duke’s Inn, while Sophia and Angela—baby in tow—had gotten their hair done.

The latter approach proved much more productive.

“They kept asking me and dad if we were doctors or lawyers or something,” Drew said as the family took lunch in a corner booth at the Camel Stop Diner. “Apparently they’ve been getting some real high-rollers coming through here lately: all heading to the Institute.”

“Scientists, politicians, even a few gold medalists, they say,” Fred continued.

“Maybe they’re going there to teach?” suggested Sophia, wincing a little as Julia tugged on a stray strand of sandy hair.

Drew shook his head. “Don’t think so. They always turn back up at the pub a day or two later. Could be lecturers, I suppose.”

“If they are,” mused Fred, “this Lawrence must have serious amounts of dosh.”

“That he does,” a voice coming from behind Mr. Barnes said, laconically. The grinning face of a thirty-something Asian man in an Akubra hat. “Would I be wrong in thinking you’re heading for the New Human Institute?”

“Yes. Our son’s a student,” Angela said with no trace of hesitation or shame. “Why do you ask?”

The man’s grin dimmed. “You promise not to go wild if I tell you something?”

“Boy, I was an Anzac for twelve years and two shooting wars, and my son has superpowers, nothing you could say will make me ‘go wild’.”

Oh, if only, old fella, the man thought to himself. “Well, in that case, I was actually a student at the Institute. Graduated, I suppose you could say, about nine years back.”

The Barnes looked back and forth at one another, clearly surprised, but little more than that. “What do you do?” asked Sophie.

“If that isn’t like asking a woman her age,” added her husband.

The man shrugged. “I move things with my mind. Nothing special, really. I’d show you, but not with all these straights around.” He stood up from his seat, moving next to the Barnes’ table. “Chen Li,” he said, extending his hand for anyone who wished to take it, which as it turned out meant Angela. “Pleased to meet you all.”

The Barnes quickly introduced themselves, making room on one of the seats for Chen.

“You lot know the way to the Institute?” he asked, jovially.

“Almost,” answered Fred. “One young bloke tried giving us directions, but it was like the words kept falling back down his throat.”

“To be fair,” said Drew, “that kid sounded like he’d smoked a whole forest of… something.”

Chen clapped his hands together. “Tell ya what, I’m itching to visit the old alma mater, but getting a ride to the Institute around here is like hitching a ride to Castle Dracula. If you take me along, I’ll make sure you get to the school in time for tea.”

The Barnes deliberated for a moment. “Seems fair,” Fred declared, nodding his head slightly.

Chen Li beamed. “Thanks a ton mates, real good of you all. Mind swinging by my room when you’ve finished your meal? Ah, good.” He stood back up. “I’m just heading outside for a fag. I prefer to spoil the fresh air while I smoke. Don’t rush your lunch on my account.

In truth, Chen had put things off as long as he could. The Coven had come through with that student list four days ago7—hopefully that was the last thing he’d ever need from that crew—and he had been slowly moving his gold reserves under the Institute’s grounds for weeks. Either he did this now, or he’d sit above Duke’s Inn twiddling his thumbs and agonising over the morality of it forever.

Lighting up a Dunhill, he looked through the diner window at the Barnes. God help those poor bastards, he thought. God help me, too.


1. It made conversation between the more senior troops confusing at times.

2. Said the woman in the medieval hanbok.

3. Angela Barnes’ aversion to coarse language was rarely a disadvantage for her. She could make any word four letters when she wanted.

4. Elsa Lieronen’s career as a marriage celebrant was short lived.

5. Twelve years later, when Australia decided to drop “God Save the Queen” as the national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda” was a popular choice for a replacement. The fact that so many Australians felt a song about a man stealing and eating someone else’s sheep before drowning himself embodied their nation might say some things.

6. Political cartoonists would draw ministers fighting over it for decades to come.

7. He paid his weight in gold for it. Literally. They weighed him.

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Chapter Eighteen: Full Fathom Five Thy Father Dwells

It was a rare night when children’s screams did not break the silence of the NHI dormitories. For so many young posthumans, nightmares were the price they paid for working dreams. Some cried out for their mothers—even if they knew in their bones that they didn’t want them. In their sleep, they clung to their memories, holding tight to pillows, stuffed animals, and even each other in hope of comfort. At any other school, such unhidden need would likely have been a cause for teasing or outright bullying, but every child at the Institute knew that longing. And so, when a student woke to find another clinging to them, common courtesy was to simply hug them back, and never speak of it when morning came. Some nights, especially in deep winter, when you could feel the chill pressing against the windows and seeping in beneath the door, half the hammocks in the dorms went unoccupied.

Myriad in particular found company helpful in warding off her night terrors. Elsewhere usually didn’t mind cuddling, but sometimes his self consciousness would rear up from the depths like the Devil Whale, and suddenly they were both too old for it. Growltiger was always amenable, and had the advantage of basically being living, humanoid plush—but that also meant that half the time someone had already called him for the night. Windshear and Elsewhere were both trying to convince him to charge for it.

Fortunately for Myriad, she always had Maelstrom. Apart, perhaps, from Elsewhere, she had never been so effortlessly comfortable with another child. Maybe it was because they both knew what it was like to be water: shapeless and mercurial, lacking any permanence or definition beyond the wordless, intuitive collaboration they shared as they passed particles and concepts between themselves, shaping the world both inside and around them, masters of one narrow yet vast element of creation. Twin minds sharing one utterly singular experience.

It also might have been because Maelstrom was nice.

The night held foes for him, too; poisonous fish circling the boy in the dark, waiting for blood. And tonight, they got it. He wept and shook, caught somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. Myriad tried to comfort him, much as his terror threatened to overwhelm her in turn:

“It-it’s okay, David. I’m here.”

He looked right past her—his eyes wild and gleaming—at a man with a cold, pale smile. He was always there, watching and listening. There was no escaping him, for David. He was inside him, threaded through his entire being. He let out a long, ragged scream. A few glasses of water fell and shattered.

Even by the generous standards of the Institute, this was getting a bit much. Each dorm was left to one of the older teenagers to police, who, in compensation for having to share a room with around a dozen small children, wielded almost dictatorial power within. That evening, the den-mother of David and Myriad’s dorm was Reverb, who had the advantage of not even needing to get out of bed to complain to someone.  

A few minutes later, Żywie slipped into the dorm, a blanket wrapped protectively around her like her much missed cloak1, along with a hard lash of wind that struck the children nearest to the door right in the face. Britomart and Reverb both irritably pointed towards Myriad’s hammock.

Standing over the two children in her purple brocade nightgown and cap, Myriad thought the healer looked even more sorcerous than usual. She placed her hands gently on Maelstrom’s shoulders. “Shh, shh, everything is alright, David.”

It was the first time Myriad had ever heard an adult use her friend’s human name, and whether by its own power or with the help of some biological witchery from Żywie (a sudden surge of cortisol, perhaps?), it seemed to rouse the boy from his haze.

“Ah-yeah-ahh,” he whimpered.

With surprising ease, Żywie lifted David out of the hammock and set him lightly on his feet, wrapping her blanket around him and pulling him close. Giving up your blanket to a Barthe is a pointless gesture to be sure, but that wouldn’t stop her from feeling like a monster if she didn’t. She smiled, wearily but kindly. “There’s a good boy. How about we go see your mother, hmm?”

She felt him nod against her side.

Before leaving, Żywie looked back down at Myriad. “You are very good to him.” She reached a hand down towards the girl’s face. For a terrible moment, she thought the woman was going to force sleep onto her, but all she did was brush her hair aside. “Very good.”

The moment teacher and student shut the door behind them as they ventured out into the cold night and howling wind, some of the still-awake students started grumbling.  

“Suck up.”

“Teacher’s pet.”  

“Mummy’s boy.”

Beneath the contempt, there was a clear note of envy. Myriad mused that perhaps that was the real reason Lawrence insisted David call his mother by name. If she were the only child in the world with a mother to comfort her, she doubted she would be very popular with her peers either.

The thought brought with it uninvited memories of every little kindness her mother ever did for her. All the small, unremarked on gestures of love that Allison hardly even noticed at the time, repeating over and over in her head. And with them came everything else she had lost. Clutching Miss Fluffers2, her Institute provided teddy bear, she cried herself to sleep.

“You know I don’t approve of this sort of coddling.”

“He was upsetting the other children. I cannot see the harm in letting her see him.”

“A boy his age shouldn’t need his mother to coddle him asleep.”

A sigh. “He is eight years old, Laurie.”

It was never a good idea to argue too hard with Żywie when she was in one of her crusading moods. “Fine,” he said, waving her off. “But this stops come New Year’s.”

Françoise sat in bed reading Heroes of the Outback—the mildly disappointing result of one journalist’s dogged but unfruitful survey of Australia’s superheroic community3—when she heard the knock at her door. Frowning to herself at the interruption, she got up and opened the door to find Eliza standing on the other side, her son clinging to the other woman like a limpet, his face vacant.

“He was having trouble sleeping, and I thought you might, if it wasn’t any trouble—”

“No, no, of course not.” Françoise managed to swallow the instinctual swell of spite and resentment that always rose within her when she saw someone else comforting her child. She knew it was an ugly and useless emotion, and that David’s life would have been poorer without the healer. She opened her arms. “Come here, darling.”

The boy detached from Eliza, burying his face in his mother’s stomach. So hidden, his tears flowed anew.

“Thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do.” She bent down. “Good night, David.”

The boy gave no response save his continued weeping, not that Eliza needed one anyway. She left the mother to console her son.     

Françoise had always been of two minds about the healer. She had a certain high-minded busybodyness about her. She was the spiritual descendant of the sort of Victorian moralist who preached the beginnings of women’s lib while warning the young about the evils of billiards and yellow-back novels. Françoise suspected the undeniable humanitarian potential of Eliza’s gift had deeply ingrained a sense of righteous burden in the woman, which she hid poorly.

Still, it made her kind.

Françoise drew David deeper into her room. When she first moved in, still very much a child herself, she had decorated her personal space with contrarian stubbornness. Françoise had tolerated no trace of the nautical in her room: painting the walls in deep forest greens and browns, trying to play to her tan rather than her oceanic aesthetic. Back then, she had kept a corner of the room perpetually covered in a laminate liner, for when she and Hugo would play board games. This had ceased to be an issue in her teen years, her control over her element maturing to the point that she had been able to simply scoop up her friend’s secretions as they were formed. It had never been relevant in adulthood. By then they had realized how irreconcilable their differences really were.

In her calmer moments with her son, Mel enjoyed the way he blended with the earthy color scheme of the room. While to her, it was an affectation, some way of distancing herself from the gravity her power held in the minds of others, David, for his part, actually seemed to fit the forest. If she was the ocean, then perhaps David was a brook, or a babbling forest stream. Her musings were cut short when the boy pulled himself tighter against her chest, the wet trails of his tears leaving slight imprints on her nightgown.

She fell backwards onto her bed, still holding her son. “Oh, David, sweetheart,” she sighed, switching to Occitan. “What’s the matter? You can tell me” she pleaded.

David looked up at her like a rabbit poking its head out of the warren, before weakly shaking his head. “I-I don’t remember. I-it feels like it’s there, but every time I look for it, it moves away again.” He said in broken, strangely accented Meridional French. He screwed his eyes shut. “It hurts. My eyes. Every time, my eyes.”

Françoise stroked his hair resignedly. This was the most information than she had ever gotten out of her son during these fits. She was sure he was covering for those little bastards Lawrence made him call his brothers and sisters. He was too good for that pack of monsters. Some day, so help her God, she’d make them cry every tear they had wrung out of her David, pour them down their throats and—  

No, that wouldn’t help. It never helped. But it was so easy to ride that rage. It was an unbroken stallion, so confident and ceaseless in its charge that you could almost pretend you were the one driving it forward. It was, she thought, her father’s other legacy to her.

Mourning her own helplessness, the nereid’s eyes fell on Heroes of the Outback, left open on top of the duvet like a resting moth. Embossed on its sherbert orange cover was the silhouette of a powerfully built, winged man, standing arms akimbo. It was a figure every Australian, even one terminally disinterested in the affairs of superheroes, would recognise.

The Americans may have Superman, Françoise thought. But at least the Aussies’ fella is real.   

“Have I ever told you about the Crimson Comet, David?”

“Yes.” The question was pure ritual, as was David’s answer. Françoise had told her son about that faded hero so many times, the story had paved a garden path in his mind; a safe and well trodden journey through an imagined past, in some ways more vivid and real than his present.

“Well, no harm telling you again. It must have been 44’, during the Liberation. And those wings he always had strapped to his back?” She smiled. “He wasn’t quite sure where one of them had gotten to when we met.”

The Crimson Comet stumbled through the bushes, his one functioning hand clenched against the wound in his side. Flecks of shrapnel were scattered throughout his shredded flesh and shattered ribs. He had a sinking feeling that if he saw just how badly he was injured, the sight would undo him. So he kept his eyes levelled at the ground in front of him, away from the hot, wet mess of pain that was his chest. He took a step, and felt something detach from his torso, only to smack into his knee. Shrapnel? A shard of rib?

“Don’t look. Don’t look.”

The Comet’s lurid red bodysuit had mostly been burned away above the waist, revealing the sturdy leather harness that held in place his intricately wrought, burnished gold pair of wings. The right one had been blown nearly completely off, its broken skeleton of wires and circuitry sparking uselessly next to its twin. Now and then, the relatively intact wing would glow as though freshly lifted from the forge, and the Comet would lurch forward wildly with all the speed and force of his namesake, only for his newfound momentum to die as quickly as it came, the wing’s light flickering and dying, sending him sprawling into the dirt more often than not.

His vision greyed and blurred with every breath, like he was wandering in and out of a film reel. Ralph Rivers wasn’t used to pain by any means. The last time he truly experienced it, he’d been just shy of ten years old, weedy and asthmatic—cowering before a cohort of bigger, meaner boys while wondering how they weren’t noticing the giant with stars in its eyes looming over them. That had been such a long time ago. Before the war, before the Crimson Comet, before even his first boyfriend (if that was even the right word for the two of them). Now, suddenly and viciously reminded of the human condition, he had no idea how the rest of them coped.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Rivers was meant to help the Yanks clear the Germans out of Ayoutre: an obscure Provencal village, if not just an extended family distributed amongst a few thatched medieval farmhouses, which Alexander Patch4 had explained was logistically priceless for reasons he did not and would never understand.  

The job was straightforward enough. Inspire hope in the people of Provence, strike the fear of God into some Nazis, draw fire away from the less puncture-proof members of the U.S infantry unit he was attached to; all that Jack Churchill stuff, if with sadly less longbows and bagpipes.

And at first, that was how things played out. The Crimson Comet had led the charge into the village, letting the Krauts empty a lead mine’s worth of ammo into his chest. The Axis, as he had discovered, were not too dissimilar in their habits to bank robbers, racketeers, and fifth columnists: they all never seemed to get it through their heads that, if their first, fifth, or seventy-third shots failed to accomplish anything, their seventy-fourth wasn’t likely to do much better. It was almost depressing, though at least nobody had tried throwing their empty sidearms at him.  He had been beating back a mob of soldiers with one of their own comrades, when someone landed a glancing shot. With a tank.

Without effective anchoring, the force of the high explosive had blown Ralph Rivers something like five miles out of the village. Some layer of his mind—deeper than the sunlit regions where his thoughts took the form of words, but still broadly rational—suspected the shock of the impact had triggered his flight reflex. Well, he called it flight. Without the aid of his ruined wing harness, it was more like exploding in a particular direction. It was what had made him pick the name “Comet” to begin with. He had appended “Crimson” to it after someone had told him about an American with disintegrator eyes who went by the Comet, too. Rivers always privately hoped that someday he’d share a pint with his namesake, but never more so than now.

He was getting slower and slower with every step. He wasn’t sure where he was trying to get to anymore. Dazed, he had mostly forgotten about the village, and even the war altogether. For a moment, he had no past, or future, only the settled agony in his chest and the wet blood on his palm urging him forward. He hardly noticed when he fell down the hill. What he did notice was something being pushed up into his stomach.

He came to rest facing up at the night sky. This far from any light pollution, the Milky Way shone boldy, spread out above him like sand blown across a tar road. The waning moon had drifted behind some clouds, somehow darker for the white haze that hemmed them.

Ralph took in every detail of the sky he could, being fairly sure that it would be the last thing he ever saw. Given the circumstances, he could have done far worse. He prayed silently, though he only truly believed in God every other week. Back home, he’d gone to confession regularly, even telling his priest about the blunders he made as the Crimson Comet. He hadn’t, however, mentioned anything about his love life. As he lay there, he wondered if his… inversion really did qualify as a sin. It didn’t seem to hurt anyone. Certainly didn’t hurt Albert. Or Finch.

Oh, God, Finch.

He didn’t want to die in the middle of a war. Maybe that went without saying, but it just wasn’t the proper place for a superhero. He should have gone over the falls with one of his arch-nemeses, like Holmes. No, that didn’t quite fit, either. He should have gone out helping someone. That was what men like him were built for. Anything else was a waste.

There was a movement in the corner of his eye, accompanied by a muffled splash. Turning his head weakly, Ralph glanced in its direction. There was a pond with designs towards lake-hood a few yards from him. A little girl was walking out of it, dripping water as she went. She was five or six years old near as Ralph could tell, and mother-naked, yet to all appearances unphased by the chill of the night air. Rivers shivered for her, or maybe just from blood loss. She looked like an illustration from the The Water-Babies.

As the child grew closer, what stood out to the Comet were her eyes. They were like nothing else he’d ever seen: two splinters of ice reflecting the moonlight. Wait, no, that glow was coming from within.

The girl was soon standing over Ralph, her eyes fading to a royal blue.

Was she Death? In some pictures angels took on the form of small children, which Ralph supposed had some advantages on the skull-and-scythe approach when it came to ensuring client cooperation. The girl regarded him with blank curiosity.

Faced with this apparition, the Crimson Comet only had one question. “…Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“How did he keep going when he was hurting so bad?”

Françoise cocked her head to the side slightly, surprised at the question from her son. He usually remained silent during her stories, allowing her words to lull him into a state of calm. This time, however, he was gazing up at her from his position on her knee, eyes shining with intent.

“How did he keep putting one foot in front of the other like that? How did he ignore the pain?”

“I…” Fran hesitated. With very few exceptions, physical pain was something she and her son could escape with a thought. “I never asked, really. Why? Do you think he should have stopped?”

“I think I would have,” David muttered, shifting on her knee until his cheek was pressed against her shoulder. “I think most people would have frozen up, you know? How do you deal with something so big like that?”

“I… I think you try and focus on other things,” she replied, a little concerned. “You try and remember why you risked being hurt in the first place, and remind yourself that being hurt is worth it as long as you can do what you wanted to. Don’t you think so, David?”

It sounded hollow and she knew it.

“Is this because of your eyes? Have you tried going icy?”

He shook his head. “Makes it worse.”

Part of Françoise wasn’t surprised. Whatever assailed her son, she doubted it was anything so physical. Picking up the story again, she tried to remember where she was up to.

“So the Comet was just lying there—I tried slowing down the bleeding, but I don’t think he noticed—babbling something about either sleep or death. It’s hard to remember specifics, didn’t speak any English back then.”

“And then what did you do?”

David knew the answer, of course. It wasn’t a nice one, but it was all a part of the Story.

“I took him to see my father.”

Ralph Rivers could only ever recall fragments of the next few hours. Grainy stills and disconnected scenes from a film whose negatives nobody had bothered to archive. He remembered something being slid under his back. At the time, he assumed it was a metal stretcher, so cold it felt to touch.

Then, motion, the moon above him drifting to the edge of his vision, like a child running to keep up with a train. After that, the girl had pushed him out onto the pond. It reminded the Comet of stories he had heard about Eskimos sending their sick and enfeebled adrift on the ice flows. If that was the little girl’s intention, he was rather offended. Surely she could tell he wasn’t going to be a burden for long?

Something was waiting for him in the middle of the water. To his regret, it was the one part of the whole ordeal that Ralph could always readily grasp in his memory.

The man was handsome, or at least he would have been, if hadn’t looked like he’d sat at the bottom of a lake for a week. His skin was marble-pale, the unhealthy, pallid tone accentuated by patches of what looked like algae spider webbing out across his flesh. There was seaweed strewn through his hair, tangling the long, sleek strands in bundles and knots of dank, solid rot. His cold, waxen lips were set in a smile. He was quite naked and, unlike the girl, it was not a wholesome thing. What they did have in common was the gleam of their eyes; but while hers glowed a pure, powerful blue, his were of a more sickly kind. They didn’t shine their light so much as seep it, the milky, ocean green of their glow roiling out from his face like moonlight caught in a nighttime mist.

He smelled of salt and decay, even at a distance. Had Ralph had the energy, he might have gagged.

“Have you brought me a present, child?” The man’s voice was the soft swoosh of waves washing rock, and while he understood him clearly, Ralph wasn’t sure he was speaking English, or even if he was speaking at all.

The girl said something back that Ralph didn’t understand, but he at least was certain were words. Provence was in some ways the Wales of France: a country within a country, complete with its own particular dialect. He was surprised to see that she was standing beside him, her feet seemingly on top of the water. Was he floating on a puddle?

“Really?” the man said with feigned concern. “He won’t like it.”

The girl pouted, folding her arms. If not for the circumstances, Ralph might have found it cute. Now that he could see the man and the child together, he thought he might have been her father, or at least his corpse.

The man sighed. A whirlpool formed nearby. “Very well, he’s your catch.” He kneeled down, examining Ralph as though he were a fish with its innards spread out on the dock, before turning his head up at the girl. “You really should learn to do this yourself.”

The girl beamed, giggling like Ralph’s own niece whenever she managed to con a piggyback ride out of him.

Then he was plunged beneath the water. The cold burned, knocking the air from his lungs. As he choked and sputtered, he saw that the man and his child had joined him below. The girl floated on her belly, watching him, her feet churning the water behind her. There was nothing in her face to indicate she was holding her breath.

The pseudo-corpse raised a hand, and Ralph felt the water press against his body, the cold stinging sharply against the wounds in his chest, arm, and legs. He opened his mouth to scream, and found not only that the lack of air made it impossible, but that the water took advantage of the move, a liquid tendril forcing his jaw further apart. When the tank shell had struck him, the blast had forced his lower jaw hard up into his skull, striking his teeth together in a violent hammer blow that had made him occasionally stop in his staggering to spit out blood and chunks of his own teeth. The water surged now around the shattered remnants of his mouth, pressing violently against raw, exposed nerve endings. It would be charitable to say that this only redoubled the pain.

For the first time in his life, Ralph Rivers wanted to die. The pain was too great, the damage too severe, and he found that, even forced into consciousness as he was, he was unable to muster his power enough to defend his shattered body against the constant, continual rush of water. He squeezed his eyes shut, reached into the depths of his agonized mind for something of comfort—his sister, Albert’s embrace, his old border collie—and took a deep, full lungful of the water.

Nothing happened. Ralph Rivers was still conscious, still in pain. The water man was laughing. Not a hearty laugh, just a slight, wispy chuckle, almost casual.

“Ah, see? The man hates it so much he tried to die. I told you he might not like it, little one.”

The girl scowled, turning her head away from the man and back towards their captive, resting her chin on her arms and puffing out her cheeks in irritation, sending a plume of tiny bubbles rising to the surface. In another frame of mind, he might have laughed.

Was this Hell? If it was, then he had been greatly misinformed about the climate. Burning would have been a pleasure, compared to this. His priest always said that he who lays with men would see their repentance, but Ralph had been hopeful, or perhaps childish enough to believe that his God was a less wrathful soul than that. If he was wrong, then God had a sick sense of irony. His mouth forced apart, tortured by things moving inside him. Ha ha. Very funny.

Ralph wasn’t sure if he had cried by the end of it. He was quite certain that he had screamed, or at least, made the best attempt his drowned lungs would allow, before the pain, ever so slowly, began to recede. It faded from his mouth first, the shattered stumps of his teeth going slowly quiet. It wasn’t numbness. He knew that much, because he could still feel the water pushing and prodding and forcing his jaw painfully wide. He felt around with his tongue, tentatively touched one of the splintered teeth, only to find a smooth, solid surface, near exactly the shape he remembered it being in just the day before. Even a tooth Ralph had knocked out when was eight had been restored. It was slimy, the surface covered in a film somewhere between mucus and mold. The taste was foul, and he retched, but somewhere in his mind, he understood. Whatever this creature was doing, it was healing him, in some broken manner. He stopped fighting, let his body hang limp where he could, and, finally, the blackness took him.

David’s usual passivity during storytime was well and truly absent that night. Sitting up, he asked his mother “Did you ever learn how to fix people like that?”

Françoise wasn’t expecting that. Half the time, David made her skip the part with her father altogether. “No,” she admitted. “Didn’t see the need once I met your aunt. And to be honest, I was never all that interested to begin with.”

Fran’s father had a lot of tricks she never picked up herself. Separating salt from seawater, peering out from pools half a world away, blasphemously changing water into wine; yet it was easy to rest on your laurels when you were a goddess among mortals. Sometimes, she regretted not being able to pass down those secrets to her son.

“Oh. That’s okay.”

Françoise thought David sounded put out. Maybe he wanted to be more like his aunt.

“What was it like?”

“What was what like?”

“Being able to do what you wanted. No one making you be better. Being able to love your dad.”

Françoise was quiet for some time. “Oh, oh, droplet. Basil loves you.”

David fell back onto the bed. “I know he does!” he moaned. “But I don’t think I do! I mean, I like him, and he’s nice, but he’s not my dad.” He broke down into sobs once more. “Bad, bad bad.”

Françoise sighed, the boy letting out a small yelp as his body rose from the bed, reorienting in the air, before being deposited on her knee. She could have used her power to wipe the tears from his eyes as well, but chose to do it with her finger, using the other arm to pull the boy close, holding him about the shoulders.

“You’re not bad, little drop.” She murmured, trying desperately to keep herself from joining her son in tears. “You’re sad, and you’re lonely. But you’re loved. You know that right? I love you with everything I have, and so does your father. It’s okay if you don’t love him back. Kids aren’t supposed to love their parents as much as they love them. We’re meant to care more. It’s our job. You know, I think, if you really did care more about your dad than you do, I think that’d hurt him, in a way. I don’t think your dad likes himself very much, and knowing you loved him might make that hurt a little more, you know? He’d be asking himself why you cared so much, when he knows he’s worth so little. I think not loving him is kind of you, droplet, I really do.”

David looked up at her, his wet eyes filled with complete and total bafflement.

She had done it again, hadn’t she? Her son had always been been better at being a person than her. She brought a hand to her eyes, frustrated.

“What was it like, being with Grandfather?”

Françoise glanced down at her son. He was staring at her with an odd look in his eyes, eager, shining, but at the same time, it almost struck her as angry. “…Like moving from dream to dream,” she answered. “All of them were beautiful, but… It just didn’t feel real. Like… remember when you told me about Cinderella?”

The boy nodded. He had been taken to see it as a reward, following his and Myriad’s performances at the parliament, the tickets provided at the Valour residence by a surprisingly affable Robert Menzies. By David’s own account, he had been mesmerized by it. It was as though the humans had managed to imprint whatever magic Mabel commanded onto reels of film.

“Well,” she continued. “It was like watching Cinderella, in a way. Like, everything was perfect, but none of it felt real after a while.”

David considered this, then shook his head, scowling at her.

“I’m not a baby, Mummy,” he muttered. “I don’t just want you to tell me something that sounds pretty. I want to know what it was really like.”

Fran considered the boy thoughtfully, then sighed.

“You have to promise me you’ll never tell your friends or Lawrence I said any of this. My childhood was… not for children.”

For just a moment, the boy hesitated, loyalty to Lawrence warring with loyalty to his mother and curiosity to know more. Eventually, he nodded.

“Well,” she said. “Where to begin? My first memory is of a ship burning overhead while my father and I watched. It was a strange ship, not like anything we’d seen before, all grey tones and hard lines. We’d been playing tag in the water behind it, trying to see who could move about better in its wake without stilling the water. The first explosion was a shock. I screamed, forgetting all about the race. It was scary, but Father was there. In an instant, he was around me, keeping me safe. We went deep and watched this new ship, a smaller ship, approaching the first one from underneath the water. The Germans called them U-boats. The sailors on the bigger one didn’t stand a chance. The thing sank, and that was the first time I saw what humans could do. For all the miracles my father had ever shown me, this was the first time I had ever seen fire touching water. He’d told me that was impossible.”

She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts, making an effort to exclude the more upsetting details of it all. David was staring up at her, eyes wide, mouth slightly open. She leaned down, and gave him a small peck on the forehead, before she continued.

“My father didn’t care for this new human miracle. He thought it was some chemical trick, which, to be fair, it was. These humans, though, they entranced me. I started trying to seek them out, watching the lights and feeling the sounds echo through the waters. My father let me watch, long as I always stayed close to the water so that he could keep an eye on me. My second outing, I watched the men, and, strangely enough, they were all men, sinking beneath the water. Some looked scared, some, pained. I tried approaching one. He wasn’t at his best. The ship’s propeller had taken half his leg on the way down, and he was struggling. He didn’t seem to mind the pain. Too busy being terrified, I suppose. I wanted a closer look, so I made myself real in front of him. I can only imagine how it must have looked. This tiny little girl emerging out of the darkness in front of him. Maybe he thought I was an angel. He died not long after, but what I do know is that seeing me made him smile. He reached out to touch my hand and, curious, I let him. Then, he closed his eyes, smiled, and died. It was the first time a human being ever made me feel something.”

It had been an odd sensation. In retrospect, she knew it was best summed up as ‘melancholy,’ but at the time, she had had no such word for it. In truth, she had yet to find words for anything back then. It was only after watching the humans, particularly those engaged in a long, hard fought campaign along the outskirts of a city, that she would begin trying to understand their words. She would later come to identify the language they spoke as Occitan.

The men, and again, they had almost all been men, who had seen her while fighting on land, had been far less calmed by her presence. Their responses were raw, untamed, fueled by adrenaline and fear. Some had tried to chase her away, some had tried to shield her, guide her somewhere safe. One man—which side he had fought for she didn’t know—had taken her behind the wall of a house, and began to touch her. It had made her uncomfortable, but she did not stop him immediately. It was only when his hands reached too far, and she smelled his hot, desperate breath against her cheek that she had ended it. It was the first man she had killed for anything other than amusement, and unlike the other victims of her youth, she had felt the urge to hide this one, a pit of what she had later come to call shame forming in her gut at the thought of him. She had buried him in pieces, his head in a bomb crater, some distance from his legs. She wasn’t sure how much her father had seen, and if he had, why he hadn’t chosen to intervene. Perhaps he had intended that human to be a lesson. She still wasn’t sure.

It had been some months later that she finally came back to watch the men of war again. In the meantime, she pursued the company of other children, swimming and playing off of beaches half a world away from the flashes and the noise. Sometimes, she didn’t even seem out of place among them. Eventually, however, curiosity had once more gotten the best of her, and she had returned. She watched from a distance this time, more cautious, almost afraid.

 The iron ships had given way to metal carts now. Perhaps they had always been there, perhaps not, but this was the first she saw of them. The metal carts with their long, pointed horns that swiveled and pelted the land with fire and rock. She didn’t like those carts. They scared her.

Then, one night, she had come across two men. She wouldn’t have payed them even the barest of thoughts, but their actions, they were familiar. At first, she had mistaken it for grappling, a fight to the death of some kind. But both of these men wore the colors of the same side. She recognized the look in their eyes, the heavy panting of their breath. Watching had not been a pleasant thing for her, but, oddly, she found it gave her closure. There was less shame, she thought, to killing the desperate man if that had been what he intended to do to her. These men were discovered, not by friends, but opponents, and had been virtually drowned in a deluge of fire. The girl had expected that to be the end of it. But one man stood, covered in the blood of his companion, and, without a single tear, had laid waste to the opponents at his back, tearing them to pieces with his bare hands. The girl was in awe. Was this a man she watched? The same frail and feeble things that she had seen drowning by the dozens?

She watched as the man collected the remnants of his foes into a pile, and then set them all ablaze with a stick and some alien fluid she couldn’t touch. She watched as he gently, almost fearfully picked up his companion’s cadaver, and carried it away from the scene. Watching that made her feel something unsettling. It reminded her a little too closely of how her father held her. She did not see it, but she could feel the tears begin to flow gently from his eyes. He didn’t have to dig the man a grave alone. She helped him from the dark, parting damp soil and snow for him to ease his efforts. Looking back, perhaps that had been unkind. Perhaps the extra effort would have been a solace to him.

In the weeks that followed, she had watched the man from afar, as long and often as she could. By day, he wore a different uniform to those around him, all color and lights and power. Much later, she had realized that he had only worn the more common uniform so he could be with a man he called Finch. She watched this man day and night, desperate to learn more about what made him special, like her father. No matter how often she watched, however, she had never seen him hold another man as gently as he had Finch. Never seen that desperation, either.

She continued to aid the man, when she felt like it. None of the great, metal dragons that infested her father’s kingdom could touch any ship which carried her pet. On the rare occasions that his foes fielded their own godling against him, the girl tilted the odds in his favour. Not that the man really needed it. Even among the semi-divine, he appeared to be exceptional.

The only things the man seemed to truly fear were the metal carts and discovery. Once, one of the little men who hid behind her titan in battle spied him lying with another man, and had marched off in clear disgust. The child didn’t know much about human beings, but she had observed them enough to tell when someone was planning something, so she burst a blood vessel in his brain, and that was the end of that.

Eventually, the man found his way to the part of the world where her memories began, and where her father still haunted. It didn’t matter much—her father was omnipresent wherever there was water, his currents cradling her in her sleep and bringing her fish when she was hungry—but there was a joy to watching her favourite exercise his might in such familiar surroundings.

But then a metal cart had managed to break her man. Broke him bad enough that she needed her father to fix him.

⬗  

The Crimson Comet did not regain consciousness so much as find himself forcibly pulled back into it. His first action was to gag violently. His mouth felt slimy, the sharp taste of rot and long dead fish still lingering. Then, he became aware of a pressure on top of his chest, something cold and wet and slimy. Opening his eyes, he almost yelped as his gaze met two cobalt specks less than half a foot from his face. It was the little girl, legs to one side like the Little Mermaid in miniature, leaning forwards on her slender arms to stare at him. Well, that explained the pressure against his ribs. Ralph took a moment to find his composure, before carefully lifting his hands to the girl’s shoulders. She flinched ever so slightly at his touch, leaning back from him.

“I-it’s alright, kid,” he said, as gently as he could. “I just need you to hop off me for a second so I can stand up, there’s a good girl.”

The child cocked her head, uncomprehending. Ah, yes, French. Or Provencal. Or something else he didn’t want to know. Well, at least the softness of his intonation seemed to have helped. Otherwise, Ralph could only hope that pantomime was their lingua franca. Slowly, he pushed himself up from the ground, coming about a third of the way to a sitting position when the girl lost her balance with a squeak. He steadied her with an arm about the shoulders, and allowed himself a small laugh, trying not to sound cruel. Surprisingly, she laughed as well, and awkwardly clambered off of him, sitting herself on the dirt floor a few feet away. He pushed himself upright, and took a quick stock of the situation.

Dawn had broken through the night, leaving a pleasant spring morning in its wake. It annoyed Ralph a touch that those were still allowed to happen in wartime. Mother Nature, Father Time, or whoever was in charge of setting up days ought to be indicted for harming troop morale by means of inappropriate backdrops.

Looking down at himself, Rivers saw that his chest was streaked with mottled grey algae, roughly corresponding to where he had been so traumatically healed the night before. He winced at the memory, before tentatively feeling his ribs with his fingers. He worried for a second that his ruined flesh had been replaced by bilge and silt, but he was able to wipe it away, revealing normal, if a sight paler skin underneath. He picked up a rock from the ground, and struck it against the flesh. No pain. He tried again, harder, this time shattering the stone into powder. No pain. Good. He didn’t know what he would have done if his new skin was merely human.

He really couldn’t abide the taste in his mouth. Looking towards the pond (it seemed so much smaller in the daylight) his chest tightened as he remembered what he’d found there the night before. Blessedly, it appeared vacant. He glanced at the girl, who was watching him intently with her legs bent against her chest. “Just going to wash my mouth out, honey. Won’t be a second.”

He was about to lower his cupped hands into the water, when it exploded upwards at him, sending him—a man who had once jumped onto a grenade with only a deep bruise to show for it—sprawling backwards, completely drenched. Behind him, the little girl was on her back with laughter.

Ralph Rivers was no fool, and he’d been in the superhero business long enough to put two-and-two (and three-and-four) together. He stood back up, shaking some of the excess from his comic-book black hair. “Very funny,” he said flatly. He decided to try and extract some benefit from the situation. He scraped some of the foul mould from his teeth and showed it to the child. “Mind playing dentist?” he asked, miming a path from his mouth to the girl.

She seemed to mull the request over a little, before Ralph suddenly felt the slime being pulled from his mouth with a sensation like putting his lips over the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. Of the many, many possible reactions, Ralph Rivers chose to sneeze, spraying the ground in front of him with a porridge of snot, and dark, subaquatic sludge. If the girl had been laughing before, she was positively choking on it now, a few tears running down her cheeks as she clutched at her sides. He stuck out his tongue at her, and she replied in kind. Scowling, he dipped his hand once more into the water, before swiping his arm forward to splash her. The child let out an outraged little shriek, glaring up at him, but Ralph was too busy assesing the condition of his teeth to notice. Everything seemed just as it should be, the teeth still sat in the neat little row his government appointed dentist had put them in to make him nice and pretty for his photo ops, and if he wasn’t wrong—yup, the fillings were gone, too. He’d had a few crowns and coverings placed over chips in the past, but now they were gone. His teeth were anatomical model perfect. That sort of explained why his tongue still felt odd in his head. The map no longer matched the territory. “Thanks, ki-”

Another wave of water knocked him off his feet.

“…Pushing your luck.”

He sat down next to the child, looking her over. She looked healthy enough. Surprisingly so, in fact, lacking any signs of the trademark malnourishment that afflicted so many this close to the frontlines. In contrast to the thing in the pond, she was tan, her flaxen hair tangled and riddled with bits of water-plants. Somehow, they almost made her look regal, like a wreath. She turned her head slightly to look at him, smiling.

“You speak any French?” Ralph asked in said language. A dear lady friend of his who had kindly helped deflect suspicion from him all during high school had painstakingly tutored him to the point that he could pass for a French half-wit in casual conversation. If his father only knew the number of times he had allowed said friend up to his son’s room with a knowing wink for “French lessons,” only for her to actually be teaching the boy French. The idea made him smile.

In answer, the girl only giggled.

Scratch that, then.

“Ralph.” He pointed at himself as he spoke, then at her… Nope, no response. He tried again. “I AM RALPH.” He said, enunciating each syllable loudly and clearly in the full understanding that this would indeed assist the dialogue. In a sense, it did. The girl grinned, gestured grandly at her breast, and positively bellowed:

“I AM RALPH!!”

He put his head in his hands with a groan, which the girl copied.

His lamentation was interrupted by a distant, yet all too familiar pop. The girl yowled in horror as her kneecap exploded, falling from her perch beside him and instinctively huddling her arms around the wound. Ralph wasted no time, and knelt around the girl, covering her as best he could with the breadth of his shoulders. As a boy, his size had been something of a knock to his self confidence, having always been a small, wiry sort as a young child. As the Comet, as a soldier, he was eternally glad of his newfound bulk, for now he could be a larger shield. More bullets pinged off his shoulder blades.

“It’s okay, girl,” he cooed, trying to reassure her as best he could. “You just need to trust me, okay?”

No answer. The girl was too busy sobbing, her left leg crumpled beneath her, hanging by a few strands of skin and muscle ligaments. Running on some mad instinct, he picked her up, still shielding her with his frame, and, lacking anywhere better to hide her, he tossed her into the pond. “Go down low!” he shouted, before turning towards the source of the shots.

Invulnerability opens the door to certain tricks. Some of these are obvious, others less so. Most soldiers, for example, never get the chance to use muzzle flares to track the placement of their enemies, because by the time they’ve registered the shot, they’re usually already dead. For the Crimson Comet, on the other hand, it was like tracking the whine of a blood fattened mosquito after a bite.   

Five German soldiers stood on the crest of the hill, the forest green of their uniforms making them stand out against the luminous aqua of the sky behind them. They had probably been out looking for him all night, Ralph guessed. If the tank hadn’t finished them off, no doubt they were meant to deliver the coup de grâce. Probably planning on stripping the flesh from his skull and putting it on display in Berlin as phrenological evidence of race-mixing among Allied supers or something. Four of them had rifles trained on the Comet, while one tried and failed to surreptitiously ready a panzerschreck.

Cocky cunts should have led with the rocket. Ralph Rivers let out a scream as he ran towards the infantryman trying to prepare his ordinance, the air around around him blurring and becoming singed. Half a second later, the soldier exploded against Ralph’s shoulder, painting his skin red. The Crimson Comet, it would seem, was back.

None of his comrades had time to react. It was more of a scourge than an engagement, really. The Comet ripped the gun—along with both arms—from one of the soldiers, before slamming the butt of it into another’s face, sending fragments of skull and nasal bridge into his brain. The fourth man, he lifted up by the chin, before bringing him down on top of the barrel, running him through.

The Comet advanced on the last soldier. In all the commotion, he had fallen onto the grass, and was now scrambling backwards in fear of the herculean figure. As he did, Rivers stepped over the soldier whose arms he had torn off, seizing and sputtering from the shock. There was a crunch, and that was the end of that.

The remaining soldier was in hysterics now, frantically repeating something under his breath, leaving no spaces between the words5. Was he begging for his life? Praying? Reaffirming his loyalty to something or other in the face of death? Ralph couldn’t bring himself to care.

Some part of him, the superheroic part, perhaps, was begging Rivers to stop. This man could do him no harm, and if he wasn’t technically surrendering, he might as well have been. But, whenever he tried giving that notion quarter, he remembered his own wounds, and Finch (oh, God, Finch) and that little girl screaming and screaming at the ruins of her blasted leg. He raised his fist to strike, when the man convulsed, a spot of blood blooming on his chest like a rose. Then another. And another, again and again. It was like a drawn out execution by a phantom firing squad. Before the Crimson Comet could make any move to end it, the man was dead.       

There was a smug “hmph” from behind him.

The little girl was standing there, her features set in a triumphant grin, on two perfectly intact legs. She was completely soaked, her hair now slick and free of detritus. The colour had gone from her skin. Most tellingly, her finger and thumb were extended, her hand pointing toward the corpse like a pistol.

Being a career superhero, miraculous healing was well within Ralph’s realm of experience. What was new to him was the utter lack of concern, either for herself or the suffering she inflicted. He understood the little girl lashing out so viciously, he really could. Except there was no hint of trauma on the girl’s face. She had had her leg nearly blown off, killed a man for it, and if anything, she had chosen to make a game out of it. She toed the ruined face of the soldier Ralph had felled with the rifle, before looking back at him with a smile. She looked impressed.

Ralph shuddered. The Crimson Comet hadn’t been a killer, before the war. A brawler, sure, and maybe he hadn’t been all too concerned about the long term effects of the concussions he handed out like pennycandy, but he never went into a fight looking to kill anyone. But since the war… since Finch, it had gotten so easy. And the worst thing was, it barely even bothered him much of the time. Even then, his thoughts kept drifting to more pragmatic concerns. How far he was from his unit, how long it would take him to reach them on foot, the girl…

Oh, yes, the girl.

She would slow him down, that was certain. Even ignoring that she was a child, he could barely communicate even the simplest of concepts to her. Far as he could tell, she was totally feral, a waterborne Mowgli. Shamefully, he considered the possibility of simply leaving her by the pond. She had some power behind her, that he knew for sure, and the monster that had so tortuously spared him appeared to be fond of her. Maybe he would come back for the child, eventually.

The mere fact that was the best case settled it for Ralph. He gestured to her repaired leg, arching his eyebrow in exaggerated curiosity, and she glanced down at it, kicking the ground once or twice, before looking up at him with a grin. Nothing, no memory of pain.  

Best not to look that particular gift horse too hard in the mouth. He shrugged and looked around at his fallen foes. The armless man’s jacket was, for obvious reasons, a little the worse for wear. It wouldn’t do to cover him, same for the impaled one. The man the girl had riddled with invisible bullets, on the other hand, his jacket was largely intact, apart from a few holes. And stains. Ralph stripped the article from the corpse, and pulled it on, pausing to tear away the insignia and empty out the pockets. He scavenged the panzerschreck (a very adolescent part of him hoped none of the heroes he knew found out that he had started using firearms), then returned his attention to the armless man. The jacket wouldn’t serve him, but the lack of sleeves might suit the girl’s shorter arms. He pried it free of the corpse, and tossed it to the girl. It landed at her feet, and she glanced down at it, confused, prodding the fabric with a toe, before turning her face to him, an eyebrow raised, seemingly in imitation of Ralph’s earlier expression.

“Put it on,” he grunted, waving a hand in an “on you go” sort of gesture. Again, she prodded at it, before returning her attention to him. Ralph sighed, then, very slowly, very deliberately, put both hands in front of his eyes for a few moments, before pulling them away, and gesturing for her to do the same. Still utterly mystified, the child raised her hands to her eyes, covering them. Ralph strode forward, businesslike, picked the makeshift dress up off the ground, spread the waistline of it between his hands, and pulled it down over the girl’s head. She squeaked in surprise, pulling her hands from her eyes and giving him a reproachful sort of look, her bottom lip sticking out slightly, before realizing what he’d done. She gazed down at her first garment in wonder, slipping her arms out through the holes in either side, and running her palms along the fabric. She looked up at him, grinned, and spoke.

“Ralph,” she said, pointing at her chest.

He snorted, shaking his head. At least the girl was trying.

“…And that was the start of my little human experiment.” Françoise smiled. “And you already know my eye for fashion remains as clear as it ever was.”

It was a tried and true punchline, and normally David would have giggled, but this time he just stared up at his mother. “So Grandfather just let you go away and live with land people?”

Françoise shrugged. “I wouldn’t have called it ‘going away’. My father is everywhere there’s water. He might be watching us right now.” She only realized how that sounded once she said it out loud.

“But it’s so long! You were a little girl, and now you’re grown up!”

“You’re thinking about your grandfather like he’s a person. Something that only lives a few years, so every year feels like this great big chunk of time. But he’s not a person, David. My father was old when the first fish hatched. Probably hardly anything older than him, besides maybe rocks. Twenty-one years for him is like the time it takes you to take a breath.”

“But Lawrence said Grandfather is just—”

“Lawrence doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” Françoise snapped. She never took to the old man’s attempts to fit her father into his little boxes.

David flinched.

“I-I’m sorry.” His mother let her apology hang in the air for a moment, before adding, “He used to visit me, sometimes. Even after we came to Australia. So did Ralph. He saw you once, you know.” David was about to question this, but Fran stopped him. “You wouldn’t remember, droplet—you were very small.”

David pondered this. “…Why doesn’t Ralph visit anymore?” He hesitated, before asking, “Why haven’t I ever seen Grandfather?”

Françoise spent a full minute trying to give him an answer, even making to speak once or twice, the words dying on her lips, before she gave up. “Not tonight, David. Please?”

Her son nodded.

“…Mummy, are we bad people?”

“Bad people? No, I don’t think we are. Bad at being people? Sometimes, I think so.” She ruffled her son’s hair. “You’re much better at it than me, though.”

The conversation wound down after that. David sometimes mentioned something about the other children, or the Watercolours, or The Tempest. He brought up Myriad at lot, which Fran didn’t know how to feel about. Eventually, sleep managed to find him.

Françoise lay there for a while, feeling the rise and fall of her son’s chest against her side, content for a moment. One arm still around David, she picked her book back up, flicking past the section covering the Raven to the account of the Crimson Comet’s last known case.

Apart from it being the last one, there wasn’t much to distinguish that caper from any of the Comet’s post-war adventures—those last few bursts of glory before the winter of Australia’s superheroes. Some teenage mad scientist with the disappointingly mundane name of Maude Simmons had threatened to transmute the world’s supply of silver into calcium. What possible benefit this could have held for the young woman the book didn’t explain. The first page of the chapter was topped by a black and white news photo of the Crimson Comet gently but sternly escorting a grim faced nineteen year old in a lead apron down the steps of a police station. She looked like she was running out the clock till she could be a crotchety old crone. With a name like “Maude”, what else could you do?

Françoise smiled to herself as her eyes passed over the Comet’s wings. What the author of the book couldn’t know was that they were foam mock ups of the originals. Ralph had never been able to find functional replacements, and so had simply spent the rest of his career without the ability to change direction in flight.

There was no real reason Maude Simmons had been Rivers’ last case, except for the fact that he wasn’t seen in costume again after that. No hostages died, he hadn’t been forced to betray some deep seated moral principle in order to save the day, and he hadn’t been injured as far as anyone could tell. He had bowed out of the game with grace, the author speculated.

She wished he was right.

There was a knock at the door, answered with a “shhhh” loud enough to wake the dead.

Lawrence opened the door. “Ah, I see Maelstrom’s asleep. I’ll just pop him back down to the dormitory.”

“Please, Laurie,” said Françoise. “Can’t we just leave him in here tonight? What harm will it do?”

The headmaster shook his head. “We can’t be seen showing favoritism, Melusine. It would only upset the other children.” He grinned with ill-timed humour. “Unless you want them all in here for the night.”

Fran set her book down again, gently sliding her arm off her son. “Fine,” she hissed. “But don’t wake him up!”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” replied Lawrence, moving over to beside the boy. He caught a glance at the cover of Heroes of the Outback and smiled knowingly. “You tell him one of your Rivers stories again?” he said as he hoisted up Maelstrom. The child looked even younger in his arms. “Impressive fellow in his time, he really was. Shame about his… predilections. Awful the way people hounded him about it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hardly a productive lifestyle, is it?”

 Françoise’s long nails dug into the doona cover. “Good night, Lawrence.”

Alone once more, Fran somehow felt even more like a counterfeit woman than she usually did. Everything about her was a pretense. The French cooking, the Occitan, the affected Provencal patriotism, all of it. She didn’t even know if her poor, poor mother had been from France at all. Her father might have snatched her from the watermen’s steps along the Thames, for all she knew. Even her original name was a fiction. Françoise Barthe, bah! She had only called herself that so Lawrence and Mary would stop badgering her about it. Not that it mattered, anyway, they wasted no time in making her discard it. Her father had never needed a name for her, apart from maybe the sound of sea-foam drying on the shore.

She didn’t know why she stayed, sometimes. Being human was a game that had dragged on long past the point of being any fun, at least in this venue. But there was David to think about…

Except, she didn’t even know why that was an issue. She knew her son wasn’t happy—and he’d even just told her he didn’t love his father. What was there for him at the Institute? A prescribed, regimented life, held to the impossible standard of the flawless prototype; the perfect first draft of a new human race designed by someone who read too much Stapledon. A life of being the odd one out even among nature’s misfits. Well, whether old or new, neither she, nor her son were human.

She could take him away from all that. Nobody could stop her. She doubted even the Flying Man himself would last long up against her. She closed her eyes, imagining it. Her son’s hand in hers, as they crossed the sea, on foot if need be. Great jade mountains rising and falling around them, the dark shapes of whales beneath their feet. Oh, how she had dreamed of showing the boy whales.

They could go to France—or anywhere, really, but it would be nice to salvage some truth out of the lie. She’d find a village, invent a story about a drowned husband, and her David would know how she felt on those American beaches long ago: commonplace.

Or maybe they would dive deep beneath the waves, past the point where even light gave up, all the way to the bottom of the world. And then, perhaps, David would know his grandfather.

She rose from her bed, her fingers clenched, a smile forming on her lips. The kind of smile she hadn’t worn since she was a little girl. She was going to do it. She and David were going far away from this place. She would take him somewhere he could be happy, and if one could not be found, then she would carve a place out for him. A sliver of her conscience hoped Basil would—  

She sat back down on her bed. She was being stupid and selfish. David wouldn’t want this. It would be taking him away from everything he knew: from Mabel, from Myriad and (much as she struggled to admit that she was a concern) from Eliza, and who knows what else she had missed. As for showing him to her father, she had her doubts about that. While her father loved her unconditionally, he had not always necessarily cared for others just because she did; Ralph was a case in point. He might even find the boy offensive. David might not have been human, but whatever he was, it was a kinder creature than either of them.

She reached over to her bedside and shut off her lamp. Then she went to sleep, and dreamed of watching whales crashing down into the sea, a small boy’s hand clutched tight in her own.   


1. Her favourite orange cloak had needed to be thrown out after Basilisk bodily prevented Ophelia from carrying her into the sky. She of course still had her red cloak, but it just wasn’t the same.

2. Gendered according to some inscrutable child-logic.

3. Aside from the general secrecy and intrigue surrounding superhumans, the author’s attention became divided when he himself developed superpowers and took up a crime fighting career.

4. General Alexander McCarrell “Sandy” Patch was grateful he was being shot at somewhere without malaria.

5. “Mutter, schwester, ich liebe dich. Mutter, schwester, ich liebe dich…”/“Mother, sister, I love you. Mother, sister, I love you…”

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Chapter Seventeen: The Naming of Cats

Billy’s first fortnight at the New Human Institute was everything he had ever longed for and more. Even amidst the frankly dismal winter he had arrived in, colours seemed brighter and more vivid than he’d ever known. He was a Pevensie, or a Darling, or some other tourist of secondary worlds. Slivers of blue pouring through cracks in the leaden sky and the rainy-green grass that stabbed up through the mist that blanketed the grounds ever morning hit his senses harder than a thousand years of autumn. He found music in the most innocuous of sounds, from the interminable hiss of rain against the corrugated dormitory roof, to the silences broken by the fall of small, hurried footsteps a story above him in the farmhouse. Everything at the Institute had an extra lacquer of significance. Bare, runtish trees barely taller than Billy himself were the gnarled, grasping hands of buried witches, blindly trying to pull unwary children down into their earthen tombs to devour. The cold, silent depths of the River Avon concealed drowned empires, treasure galleons sunk by the weight of their gold and silver cargo, and little villages grown of coral, where merfolk went about their dark, wet business.

It helped that the river did on occasion play home to a fair maiden; or at least, a woman. One morning, when Billy had awoken a full two hours earlier than most of his new schoolmates out of sheer excitement, and had decided to go exploring along the riverbank, he stumbled upon a periwinkle shift dress folded neatly on top of the frigid mud. Picking it up, he was about to go in search of its owner, when a vast, warbly voice radiated out over the water:

“Oh, Billy, don’t go anywhere with that, I’m getting out in a sec.” Somehow, even when it was just the vibration of the river’s surface, the voice still managed to sound French.

Billy started, the fur standing up on the back of his neck. “M-Miss Mels?”

The river fretted and roiled as Melusine’s elegant frozen form walked out onto the shore like some tundral nymph, water dripping down her and glinting in the cold morning light. A hapless minnow was suspended within her abdomen. “Please, William, you can drop the ‘Miss’.” She would have been smiling, if she were flesh, but as she was—her features fixed in a look of thoughtful early morning ennui, her voice verillion—it was more than a little disquieting. It didn’t help that the sorry business with Edward Taylor had already entered the whispered mythology of the school1.

“Sorry, Mi- Mels,” Billy said, holding out the dress, eyes averted slightly.

“It’s alright.” For a moment, she was as still and silent as a real ice sculpture. Billy wasn’t completely certain her consciousness hadn’t headed down river. “Actually,” she said, making Billy jump, “would you be up for a little experiment?”

It wasn’t a surprising question. Aside from physical education2, Melusine was also chiefly responsible for power development class.

Power development class was one of the cornerstones of the New Human Institute’s mission. Put simply, it consisted of individual sessions where students explored the mechanics, limitations, and potential applications of their particular abilities—as well as how they interacted with other powers. Melusine, as it turned out, had a gift for coming up with edifying test uses for superhuman powers, something Lawrence credited to the versatility of her own extranormal talents. It was a well liked class amongst the students, largely owing to Melusine’s aptitude at dressing her tests up as games.

Not every student had these sessions with equal frequency. While Ex Nihilo—whose matter generation abilities were similar enough to Billy’s own that he worried the older girl saw him as a potential usurper—still attended at least twice a week, Stratogale hadn’t been the main subject of the class in over five years. As it turned out, the things you could do with the strength of fifty stout men were much the same as what you could do with just the one—only more so3.

“Sure,” answered Billy. “What were you thinking?”

He was Melusine’s new favourite when it came to power development, which fortunately he was rather fond of, no matter how Lawrence spoiled it by trying to puzzle out a unifying theme for his abilities. Melusine had suggested they were all rooted in some kind of energy manipulation. Sound, light, atomic bonds, etcetera. Lawrence had brushed off the idea, retorting that “some kind of energy manipulation” described every deliberate action ever taken in the history of the universe.

“Why don’t you try turning my body into something else? Like a statue.”

Billy looked at her dubiously. The idea of using his power on something that was, at least at the moment, a person was uncomfortable. It reminded him of the less than willing lady astronaut Mabel had conjured for him to test his power on, though at that least then he had felt nothing but air and dust in his mercury grip. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but wouldn’t that make you… um, dead?”

“There’d have to be no water at all for at least a mile.” She turned to face the river, jerking back a little, as though mildly surprised. “Oh, look, there’s some,” she said, deadpan.

Billy giggled.

Melusine turned back to look at the boy. “That includes the water you’re made of, just so you know. Do you know how to make lapis lazuli?”

Billy nodded. Some of the most common birthday and Christmas presents Betty had gotten him were semi-precious tumbled stones: new patterns for his alchemical gift. Lawrence hadn’t let up either, ordering in everything short of enriched uranium for the boy.

Melusine examined her reflection in the back of her hand. “Alright then, just let me fix my hair.” She had frozen herself while her hair was fanned out above her in the water, creating an unfortunate resemblance to the Bride of Frankenstein. “Turn around if it bothers you.”

Billy took the offer, allowing Melusine to revert back to human form (expelling the poor, dead fish first) and work her slick, water-darkened hair into a do more worthy of preservation. When she was done, she posed in what she hoped was an artistic but tasteful manner, and became ice once more. “I’m ready.”

Over the course of about four minutes, Billy worked up a cloud of mercury a little larger than his model and medium, before allowing it to waft over and envelop her like a Man O’ War pulling in prey.

“Christ, it’s pitch black in here.” Seeing Billy’s distress at that from all possible angles, her ethereal proxy voice quickly added “No, don’t worry, it’s only dark in here. If it makes you feel better, try changing one layer at a time. I’ll warn you if anything seems amiss.”

And so William got to it. As he exerted his will over the molecular pattern of Melusine’s body, he mumbled tuneless little songs under his breath, unconsciously kneading the air like he was working a potter’s wheel—massaging atoms, scraping off electrons and gently inserting neutrons as needed. Not that he conceptualised it that way. As far as Billy knew, he was just remembering something really hard.

Melusine chatted all through the process, just in case the boy thought he was killing her for art. “It’s like bits of me keep falling away or going numb. Imagine if your hand fell asleep so deeply, you couldn’t even feel the tickle.”

It took half an hour for the mercury to permeate and transform the ice. When it evaporated, he was left standing in front of an intricate forgery, almost disquieting in its detail. It was like her irises had burst, the colour of her eyes spreading to the rest of her body, coloring it a radiant Afgan blue. Tiny specks of gold and pearly crisscrossing lines scattered across its skin gave it the likeness of a three dimensional woman shaped rent into some impressionist’s vision of an evening starfield, strewn with galaxies and clouds of interstellar dust; the sort of thing that might have resulted if Van Gogh had gotten into body paint. A discriminating eye might have deemed it a bit much, a little too overt a display of grandeur. But to Billy’s sensibilities, it was angelic.

Billy was allowing himself a small smile at his handiwork when he heard Melusine say with her human voice “Oh, oh, Billy, that’s fabulous.” As quietly as the river behind them lapped over the rocks, Melusine had reformed and pulled her dress on, and was now admiring her mineralogical twin.

“You really think so?” Billy asked brightly.

The woman adopted an expression of benign arrogance. “It’s a statue of me entirely made of the most beautiful stone in nature. Of course it’s gorgeous.” She stepped forward to examine the statue more closely. Much to her amusement, there was a small, sulfurous green nebula in the corner of its chin, roughly corresponding to a tiny birthmark on her own person. As with any authentic Persian rug, Melusine had been made with one imperfection to avoid offending God.

Once the glow of accomplishment faded, Billy got down to some self-critique. “The stone isn’t very pure. Too much pyrite and calcite.”

Melusine chuckled. Even fully human, she sounded burbly. “You do have a head for rocks, don’t you, Billy? And I like how it’s turned out. Reminds me of the ocean.”

Billy tilted his head, his tail swaying like a charmed snake. “Really? I thought it looked more like the sky.”

“It can be that, too.” She knelt so her and William’s heads were level, pointing to a mottled baby blue patch on her former body’s right cheek. “But I think those paler bits are like when the water is shallower than the sea around it, so the blue isn’t as deep.”

“And the gold?”

“Sandbanks, or rocks just below the surface.”

The child was enjoying this. He felt like he was being taught to read omens. “What about the white lines? Those have to be clouds.”

“Ohhh, no, no, no, they’re the easiest parts of all. You ever been to the beach on a windy day? Seen those choppy little waves that break before they even reach the shore? That’s what those are.” She seemed to consider the matter further. “Or maybe it’s a lake that’s frozen over, and those are cracks in the ice.”

Whatever it was, she liked it. As polished as the stone was, the little imperfections and corruptions made the sculpture look a touch saltburned and wave-beaten. It could have been the sea itself, taken mortal form, if not for the fact that she knew what he looked like.

Melusine frowned. “If I could make one small alteration…” A stream of ice crystals flowed out of the river, settling on the statue and weaving together into something not dissimilar to a Greek chiton. “Forgive me if it seems prudish, but there are plenty of boys here who’d like to see me in the buff, and if they get to, I’d prefer to be able to look them in the eye. Come, on, let’s go find this girl a toga or something4.”

Billy followed his teacher up the gentle slope leading up to the main cluster of buildings, the fur of his legs and the tops of his feet picking up the grass’s morning dew. “So, what did that teach us about my power?”

Melusine shrugged. “Absolutely nothing. Fun, though. So, how’s life at our little school treating you?”

The boy’s face lit up. Of all the strange magics William St. George had read about, the one he had coveted most was companionship5. He’d gotten a taste of it in the journey to the Institute, Myriad and Maelstrom having positively lavished him with their attention for reasons he still didn’t quite understand, not seeing himself as a particularly interesting sort of boy compared to either of them. That had been nothing, however, compared to the social cornucopia that was the crowds of other people: living, breathing, talking people, who swarmed throughout every corner of the school itself. He was still amazed by how many timbres and pitches voices came in. Mealtimes had quickly become his favourite parts of the day. Not so much because of the food—though the fare at the New Human Institute was almost too delicious to deserve the debasement of human teeth—but for the absolute concentration of company. The laughter and overlap of so many different conversations rising and falling around him was like floating in a warm, aural bath.

On the first tuesday of the past week, two days after his arrival at the Institute, Billy had experienced something entirely new: for the first time in his life, he had been invited to play with another child. Specifically, Britomart had knighted him “it” with a smack on the shoulder. This was, he discovered, not the same as those solitary idles he had to content himself with—or at least feign contentment in some attempt to reduce his nanny’s perpetual guilt—back in Albany. No, this was something different. Something far, far better.

After a lifetime of loneliness so complete, he didn’t even truly realise there was any other way of being that wasn’t fictional, William had friends. He had fallen through the looking glass, stepped through the wardrobe, and climbed the world-tree till he found the branches the sun rested in. The rules had changed for him, or at least he had found children who had to live by the same ones.

Almost.

Billy had eyes. He knew none of the other students were precisely the same kind of different as himself. And as inexperienced as he was with other children, he’d expected his looks to garner a bit of teasing. Betty had warned him of it over and over in the days leading up to his departure. “Children can be right little bastards,” she had told him, spending her annual curse on emphasis. “When they don’t understand something, they joke about it.”

And there had been jokes. Some days he heard “Whiskers” or “Kitty-Boy” more than his own name. But that was alright; it wasn’t as if he was the only student walking around with a nickname. It meant he was fitting in. Every night, there would inevitably be a crack about Billy eating at the table, or that they had run out of wet food for him, and William would always laugh—whether or not it was actually funny was beside the point. At least there was someone to be snide at him.

Sometimes his schoolmates’ jokes strayed more into the practical. Once, a coalition consisting of Windshear, Talos, and Veltha had set a bushel of Żywie’s radishes loose in the shower block while Billy was trying to wash the mud out his fur, which chased him all the way down to the barn on evil, lashing roots. If the Watercolours had found the sight of the boy running naked from the shower block in any way odd, none of them had deigned to comment on it. Maelstrom had pulled the liquid from his fur, while Myriad assisted Elsewhere in depositing the wayward vegetables back in the garden to await their fate.

“They really shouldn’t pick on you like this,” Maelstrom had said as he wrapped a Mabel sourced towel around the other boy6.  

Billy had written it off as an overreaction. He wasn’t being picked on. All the bullies he had ever read of had been single mindedly devoted to the misery of their victims. As much as some, or even most, of the other children having a go at him on occasion, they also ran and laughed with him.

Maybe things would have been clearer if he had come by train. That always seemed to be where these things got sorted out.

“I’ve never been more happy,” he had told Maelstrom then. “I’ve never been more happy,” he repeated now to his mother, meaning it.

Melusine smiled. “I suppose I couldn’t hope for a better answer.”

From her office window, Żywie watched the two of them, glad for something other than reading journals to occupy her attention. Much as she enjoyed exploring language and literature with her students, sometimes the healer cum English teacher struggled to get through their weekly reflections on The Hobbit7 as much as they did writing them. And she did wish that Myriad would learn to restrain herself to the fifty word maximum, instead of the two and a half pages she had been averaging as of late8. She technically wasn’t even supposed to bother with the reading project anyway, but she’d seemed so put out when Lawrence barred her from participating. If Lawrence ever objected, Żywie would tell him Myriad sitting in a desk helped maintain the classroom’s feng shui9.

“Something caught your eye?” Lawrence said from the cracked door. Still in his green silk dressing gown, he looked ready to ambush any child looking for answers about other worlds or familial insanity with Lewis’s trilemma.

Żywie, in contrast, was already well and truly up and dressed. In fact, nobody had ever witnessed her in any state between sleep and spruceness. “Just watching William and Melusine.” With the smooth, practised calm she usually reserved for tending to injured children, she inconspicuously stowed Myriad’s latest treatise on authorial integrity in the dark, voluminous drawers of her flame mahogany writing desk. “It’s good to see her take an interest in one of the children besides Maelstrom. I think she relates to Billy.” She pronounced the boy’s name with a longer “e” than strictly warranted. “You’re certainly up early this morning. Sleep troubled?”

Lawrence idly wondered if being a fantastically beautiful blonde with ultramarines for eyes was to be compared with being mistakable for an attraction at London Zoo. “Yes, actually. There is a matter that’s been rather niggling at me these past few days. It concerns our newest student, as it happens. May I take a seat?”

“Yes, I thought that might be the case. And of course.”

They both sat down, Żywie regarding her mentor with cool, Germanic patience—the kind of look that keenly reminded the recipient of how many priceless seconds went to ignoble deaths in every needless lull in the discussion.

Try as he might, Lawrence sometimes found it very hard to treat Żywie as the grown, learned woman he knew she was. He had known and looked after her since she was a young girl, and he had over thirty years on her besides. Here, though, in her private office, with him about to ask for her wisdom on the field she practically embodied, it was quite the opposite. Her gaze was pushing him further and further back in time, all the way to when he was a boy at Eton, about to be interrogated by the headteacher concerning his mysterious appearance at the Waterman’s Arms. “So, I assume the Physician passed his findings on to you after examining William?”

As was his way, the Physician paid the Institute a visit soon on the heels of Billy’s arrival. In a break from tradition, he had chosen to hold the examination outside, to more safely test the child’s vocal capabilities. Apart from the barrage of unanswerable biographical and genealogical questions he asked of every student, the Physician had challenged William to sing a ballad10  from his own world (His ruse already rumbled, the Physician was more upfront with William about such things) at the top of his magnified voice. It made him sound and feel as if he had strep throat, and his recitation was apparently flat and mangled, but there was some fun in it. Then the Physician had had him engulf a seemingly empty glass tube, stoppered at each end with silver, which he claimed contained a few atoms of “the mirror of hydrogen”, suspended in a cradle of electromagnetic force: engulfing it in his mercury was like trying to grab hold of a seizure. He even turned invisible at the alien’s bidding, who had peered at him through an ornate, brass eyepiece with many lenses, held in place by insectile limbs that helpfully adjusted themselves at a thought—each attuned to a different spectra of light. Silhouetted in ultraviolet and infrared, the boy looked like his own portrait by Andy Warhol.

“Congratulations,” John Smith (for politeness’ sake Billy hadn’t questioned the outrageously fake name) said, “you’ve got yourself a link up in that brain of yours.”   

Billy had almost managed to enjoy himself.

Żywie folded her arms. “Yes. You know he always does.” She scowled. “I think he believes we’re friends.”

“And what did he say about the boy’s health?” asked Lawrence.

“He came to the same conclusion I did, more or less. As odd as Billy looks, there’s nothing either of us could find wrong with him, at least after my usual preliminary improvements. He’s as healthy and hale as any of our other students.”

“Good, good… look, I’ll cut to the chase here. Do you think you think you could make William look… less like an animal?

The medical woman did not look surprised by the question. She put her hand on the desk, as though probing for a drink that did not present itself for duty. “I think so, given a few hours and a broom. Drastic as they seem, the aberrant elements of his physiology are actually quite minor, and none of them seem tied in with his powers, so we probably wouldn’t run into the same issue as Reverb.”

Lawrence grinned, a man delivered. “Wonderful!” he almost bellowed. Żywie briefly worried that the vibration of his voice might knock over the vase on her windowsill. “I’m sure he’ll be thrilled. Perhaps you could start after breakfast, once has a good meal in him? Or should he fast—”

“I do not think I will be doing that,” Żywie said, her eyes closed.

“…Pardon?”

“I don’t expect I’ll be performing the procedure,” she reiterated. “Medically speaking, I don’t see the necessity.”

Lawrence shook his head slowly, flummoxed. “He looks like a bloomin’ tiger!” His affected Oxfordian tone had fallen a few rungs down the class ladder.

“Yes, he does. He also shows no sign of physical impairment or mental retardation. I live in a school with over a dozen young girls, Lawrence. How often do you think I’m asked to make their noses ‘less Jewish’, or to slim down their figures? If I granted every request for cosmetic alteration, this whole school would be a collage of Woman’s Mirror covers. Me and Mother Nature may have our disagreements, but I don’t pick fights with her out of vanity.”

“…You cure acne.”

“Acne is a skin condition.”

“And fur isn’t?”

She shrugged. “I think it helps with temperature regulation. I’ve certainly never seen Billy wear his coat. I can’t imagine what the air on his skin would feel like after a lifetime of insulation. And I’m fairly sure the tail aids his sense of balance.”

“Are you telling me that if a child came to us with a harelip, you wouldn’t do anything to correct it?”

Żywie sighed. “A harelip is a congenital malformation, Lawrence. Billy’s appearance seems far too… deliberate to be that. Callous as it sounds, I get a strong sense of aesthetics looking at him.” She smiled, without much joy. “He might be more proof of your invisible agent theory.”

Lawrence felt ill thinking about it, like a vicar confronted with the suggestion that God only made men as a host for smallpox. “Żywie, please, think about the disadvantage you’ll be putting the poor boy at! The way people will look at him!”

“It seems to me that dark skin is also a disadvantage in this country, but I can’t recall you ever asking me to turn Haunt and Maelstrom white.”    

“Don’t be obtuse with me, girl!” Lawrence snapped. “You can’t tell me you’re disingenuous enough to think that being black and… that are in any way comparable!”

All of a sudden, Żywie slumped back in her chair, only half-looking at the headmaster. “Maybe they aren’t.” Her voice sounded tired, almost despairing. It briefly occured to Lawrence that she might have already had this argument all on her own. “But regardless, it sets a precedent I wish to avoid. And since when have we expected children here to change to placate the outside world? As it stands, I don’t see anything stopping Billy from enjoying as full and good a life as any of the other children. He can still run, can still play with his friends and seems fully on track to living a full and contented adult life. It’d be different if this was causing him pain, or was going to reduce his lifespan, or prevent him from having children—”

“Children?” Lawrence shouted. “What girl do you think will be willing to carry such a deformity?”

The office was silent, the sound of the old man’s outburst sinking into the oriental carpeting like dust. Żywie glared at him, deep shock and hurt in her eyes. In the distance, Tiresias faintly groaned at them to keep the racket down.

Lawrence knew he had made a grave tactical error. This was Achilles and Telephus all over again, and he was fumbling with Odysseus’ torch. “Have you consulted Tiresias? Gotten the psychological take?” Lawrence wasn’t proud of the occasional monitoring of his students’ thoughts, but the possibility of mental illness going undetected in even the least potent of the children was too terrible to contemplate.

Żywie nodded. It seemed she had chosen to strike Lawrence’s lapse in tact from the mnemonic record. He wasn’t sure if this was mercy or punishment. “Yes, actually.”

Lawrence was surprised. Neither the healer nor the telepath regarded each other very highly, something their teacher tried to convince himself was rooted in the six year age gap between them.

“He said that while Billy is understandably self conscious about his looks, he hasn’t let it turn into self loathing. On top of everything else, I worry thrusting such a drastic change of appearance on him might provoke a dysphoric reaction in him, especially since we would essentially be amputating a limb. I’m sure Elsewhere could tell you some family stories about phantom pains.” She stood from her chair, circling the desk till she was at Lawrence’s side, placing a hand on his shoulder. “He still likes what he sees in the mirror, Laurie. Can’t we let him hold onto that?” Moment of sentiment over with, Żywie composed herself again. “I’ll see you at breakfast?” She asked the question like they had just got done discussing lesson plans.

“Yes, of course,” Lawrence replied, rising to leave. “Thank you, Żywie.”

As he wandered—almost dazed—back out into the hallway, he wondered if Myriad could do what her teacher wouldn’t.

“She’s got the ball!”

A horde of children pursued Myriad through the tall grass like hunters in the Savanna, crying out in rage and ecstasy after their quarry, fighting the wind as they went. She, on the other hand, faced no such impediment. It swept her up every time she leapt, the way a child at sea lets the waves push her back to shore. Alongside her bobbed a football. Touching the ball with your hands was of course strictly verboten, but what could be done about the wind being amenable to your every whim?

Calcio fiorentino11,” Tiresias had explained, long ago, “was a special kind of football—and anyone caught calling it ‘soccer’ will be drawn and quartered—they played in my country some time between when Jesus Christ roamed the Earth and the dinosaurs died out. Imagine regular football, except with twice as many guys on each team, and brawling is the whole point of the game, instead of being saved for afterwards like in jolly old England. I mean, it was a bloodbath, and everyone played it! Aristos, popes, everyone. No, really! A whole bunch of popes played it! Can you imagine Pope John tearing off some poor bastard’s nipple to win a footy match? They stopped playing it in the 17th century or thereabouts, probably because they were running out of Italians to play it, but good old Mussolini brought it back. Had to make up some new rules, though; mostly because anyone who knew how to write wasn’t hard enough to play calcio fiorentino.” He had taken a long sip of his wine. “What I think the game really lacked till now was superpowered brats like you all12.”

Much to Tiresias’ remarkably unselfconscious delight, the game had caught on amongst the students. They, too, had been forced to alter the rules themselves. The restriction of female players was obviously right out. Even with that no longer a factor, there were hardly enough students for one calcio fiorentino team, let alone two. To address this, a system had been developed where students were ranked by how many players their powers made them worth. The epidemic of wounded egos that resulted practically ensured there was always a warm-up riot before the game could even begin. Furthermore, instead of the victors receiving a flawless, Chianina calf, the students had managed to harang the staff into agreeing to double dessert for the winning team.  

Her feet briefly on the ground, Myriad ran through one of the pools of shadow that dotted the pitch, before allowing the unnatural wind to release the ball and kicking it savagely towards her opponents’ goal. She overshot it, instead sending the ball into the vast, curved wall of water. It was raining hard that afternoon, and rather than let it ruin their game the way baseline children would have, Maelstrom had ordered the shower to stop a fair distance above their heads. In obeisance, the water had formed a great dome, rain smearing against it like it was a car windshield. The whole field was now bathed in dappled light, as though they were playing beneath a sky of stained glass, accentuated by uneven breaks in the clouds above.

It was not—Myriad insisted—the same as playing underwater, no matter what everyone else said. And she would know, having actually played some ball games with Maelstrom on the bottom of the river.

The ball floated in the firmament for a moment, a puffer fish caught in an ice drift, before shooting out of it like a pistol-shot—even leaving behind a vaporous trail as it sailed through the air. It hurtled all the way to the other end of the dome, which sent it flying right back, the entire field transformed into a gigantic pinball machine.

The ball shot towards the goal with such force that children standing too close staggered in its wake, but it was intercepted by Brit at the last second. She took the ball in the stomach, a blow that likely would have torn any natural in half, but which bounced harmlessly off of her. Brit did not hesitate to give all the stolen force right back, and took a step back, raising a leg behind her to strike it with all her might. The children between her and the goal scrambled for cover, before the girl struck the ball with the sound of mountains embracing and sent it towards the opposing team’s goal, guarded by an unfortunate Billy who, for his part, did not flinch. Most of the other students had vaguely expected him to possess superior physical capabilities, but as it turned out, goalie was the only position where he wasn’t a liability. They really shouldn’t have been surprised: it wasn’t as if the boy had ever spent much time running around with other children. As such he wasn’t particularly athletic, no matter whatever his feline appearance might have suggested13.

The boy opened his mouth, and let out something that could charitably be called a sound. The shockwave struck the ball and for a moment it seemed to simply hang in midair, the warring forces of the two strikes battling for supremacy, before it dropped to the ground, where Windshear scooped it up in a tiny dervish of wind.

Elsewhere soon saw to that, teleporting not the ball (that had been declared cheating), but the girl, sending Windshear far off to the other side of the dome, before taking the ball via the significantly more mundane medium of his feet, giggling all the way. Maelstrom, here manifested as an eight foot Goliath of solid ice, moved to intercept the boy, until suddenly, a drought stricken village in North Africa was blessed with enough water to last them until the rains. Some may have considered Elsewhere the least of the players on the field, but his inability to accelerate the ball paled in comparison to his capacity to remove his opponents from play.

His triumphant break for the end-line was soon cut short, the ball kicked out from in front of him. The interceptor was much taller than Elsewhere, a grown man, in fact. His physique and features were cartoonishly masculine, but his blond hair was styled in an incongruously feminine Prince Valiant cut. Clad in a red footballer’s kit interrupted by a stripe of yellow down the side, the out of place Roy Race14 grimaced with exaggerated determination, giving his all in a world of  muddled and unfamiliar colours for the honour of the Melchester Rovers—wherever they were.

His stint on the Far Out Thunder Kings was short lived, however, as the ground itself swallowed both the strip character and the ball, as though he had stumbled over the lair of some subterranean shark. The last thing anyone heard from him was a strangled cry about “the team” being relegated to Second Division.

Myriad knew who the culprit was immediately. She could hear the steady bass drumbeat of her song even through ten feet of sod. Not that she needed to once Veltha burst from the earth, with so much dirt in her hair you couldn’t begin to even guess what colour it might have been. Then again, the child always had a layer of grime that clung to her even fresh from a bath. A little girl of ten, Veltha rounded out the Institute’s elemental quartet15—specifically filling the role of the gnome. She could manipulate soil and rock with a degree precision that would put any earthmoving machine to shame, and move through it like water, navigating through the lightless underworld by some kind of sonar.

Taking advantage of the slight slope, Veltha created a shallow trench in front of her as she ran, unerringly corralling the ball towards Billy and the goal with the speed of a very low flying meteorite. Myriad tried to divert the ball herself, but the soil refused to yield to her demands. Similarly, she found the air around her sluggish to respond, as though the atmosphere had become as thick as honey. When she tried to send some of the water crashing down on top of the earth shaker, it too failed to answer her. Generally, when she emulated a power that involved exerting control over some aspect of nature, it tended to give priority to the actual owner of said power and said aspect. Only fair, she supposed, but not now.

Billy stood at the ready, his legs spread out and his arms at his side. In Maelstrom’s arena, goals were simply partings in the water, like drawn curtains. It was an elegant solution, much preferable to having to lug out and assemble the Institute’s ancient football nets. Even ball retrieval wasn’t a problem; with how hard it was raining just outside the canopy, the difference between David and the much vaunted, hypothetical, telekinetic generalist was mostly academic.

Billy was ready for this. Sure, he had let more shots past than he had caught. And yes, his first attempt at deflection the ball with his shout had managed to score an own goal via ricochet, but this time would be different. He was going to do the Far Out Thunder Kings proud, even if he had to reach into a whole other dimension to catch the damn ball.

Knowing it was only a matter of time till the ball was taken from her or someone made an attempt on her person, Veltha took the shot.

The ball crossed the distance between the girl and Billy at what seemed to him a leisurely pace. The moment stretched so thin, it was in danger of splitting in half, forever dividing the universe into two continuities. He wasn’t watching a football hurtling towards him at speed, but rather Pluto’s bicentennial journey around the sun. For a moment, he thought he must have manifested a new power, but never mind that. Without thinking, he leapt to the side, only barely managing to snatch the the ball out of the air, clutching it to his chest like a newborn.

I did it, Billy thought as he skidded across the grass. I actually did it. It was far from a deciding goal, but it was good enough for him… at least until he heard the high whine of trapped air escaping from around his curved, black claws. “Oh.”

“Nice going!” Talos yelled in his synthesised, staccato voice, his glass eyes glowing dangerously yellow.

Still drunk from his successful catch and a little dazed from the impact, Billy missed the sarcasm. “I know, right?”

Talos let out a great trumpet blast. Behind him, Veltha said, “That was our only ball!”

Cardea emerged from one of her blurrings of space, the advance scout of the other children converging on the scene. “Guess this means the game’s over.” She grinned smugly. “Far Out Thunder Kings win six to four points.”

“That’s a load of bull!” shouted Elsewhere. “You don’t get to win a match because someone on your team blew up the ball!”

“Why not?” Myriad retorted. “Our game, our rules.”

“It’s a stupid rule!”

“Guys,” said Maelstrom, stepping out from the water as though he had been waiting outside the dome, ready to play referee, “the match doesn’t have to be over. We could just get Ex Nihilo to make us something round to kick. Or Phantasmagoria could get us one of Roy’s balls. Metonymy could probably whip up something, too.”

“I could make you a ball,” Billy chimed in as he dusted himself off. There was a pleading tone to his voice.

Everyone looked at their newest classmate.

“Can you?” asked Windshear, curious.

Billy shrugged, smiling nervously under the other children’s gaze. “Well, I think I can. It’s just some air covered in—”

“Leather, mostly,” Myriad supplied helpfully.

“Yeah, that.”

“Let him try,” insisted Elsewhere. “Not like he’s gonna run out of silver cloud.”

The remark earned earned him some nasty looks from the more senior students. It was in very poor taste at the Institute to even joke about powers being being finite.

Heedless, Billy set to work, first casting his mercury over the rapidly deflating football to refresh his sense memory. After less than a minute of work, he had a perfectly round mass of air clothed in a thin layer of leather. Once it was done, he tried catching the ball with his foot, badly thumbling the move.

Plucking the ball out from in front of Billy, Talos weighed it in his bronze hands, studying it with a cold, appraising eye. Unlike most footballs made by human hands, this one lacked any panels, but it responded just fine to a good, sharp kick. The fact it didn’t explode from the piston-like force of Talos’ metal foot spoke well for its craftsmanship. “Yeah, we can use this.”

Billy smiled his friendly vampire grin. “Great! Should I keep being the goalie?”

Talos looked at the other child with equal parts confusion and disdain. “What? You think you’re still in the game? You’re out, kitty-boy.”

Billy’s tail drooped, his lip wobbling. “But-but I fixed the ball.”

“And I don’t want to have to stop the game every five seconds for you to keep fixing it. Buzz off.”

The proclamation instantly kindled dissent among the children.  

“You can’t do that!” cried Cardea. “He’s not on your team!”

“There aren’t penalties in calico fiorentino!” asserted Britomart, mangling the Italian words with panache.

“Oh, quit whinging,” said Windshear. “You should be happy he’s being kicked out, he was a rubbish goalie anyway.”

David walked up to Talos, his expression very serious. There was something of his mother in his countenance. “It was an accident, he fixed it, now drop it.”

Unlike the Barthes, Talos could visibly emote in his transformed state. It was, the most insecure part of himself sometimes reminded him, the one advantage his power had over Maelstrom’s. He sneered, revealing black iron teeth. “You don’t have to be all teacher’s pet, Mealy. We all know Lawrence only let the monster in because his dad paid him.”

Everyone went silent. Even the roar of the rain stopped.

Billy looked from student to student, desperately searching for some sign of disbelief. Then he began sobbing.

A dam inside Maelstrom burst, ice water flowing freely through his veins. It was a sensation he’d always feared and secretly longed for taking hold of him. In that moment, for maybe the first time in his young life, he truly felt like his mother’s son. 

“You’re a bloody stupid liar, Talos.” It wasn’t an insult so much as a bare declaration of fact. “Now tell Billy you’re sorry so we can get on with the game.”

All the way back on the farmhouse’s veranda, Mabel applauded.

Talos momentarily looked at the water sprite like he was a gorgon’s son instead of a nereid’s. Then he remembered who he was talking to. This was Mealy: a boy so lukewarm, you couldn’t even use him to make tea. Still, no harm in letting him think he was scary for a moment. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s get it over with.”

Maelstrom allowed Talos past him, Billy offering his hand to shake. “Mates?”

The bronze boy was about to take the proffered hand and make some grunt of agreement, when he realised that people might think Mealy actually intimidated him. Instead, he grabbed Billy’s tail and yanked it in an unnatural direction, harder than he really intended.

There was a crack. Billy screamed.

A few things happened in very quick succession. First, Myriad’s eyes went blue. Veltha retreated beneath the Earth. In the same moment, Abalone enclosed himself and those students lucky enough to be standing within a few feet of him under one of his forcefields. Heralded by a small thunderclap, Jumpcut and Cardea both joined Mabel under the veranda. Brit and Elsewhere each lit up their auras. Talos, surprised by his own act of violence, reverted to his organic form.

“I—”

And then all the water hanging above them fell: forty days and forty nights worth of rainfall in one concentrated burst. Everyone who hadn’t fled or taken steps to protect themselves was knocked off their feet. All except Billy. Aside from being already sprawled on the grass, his patch of ground remained miraculously dry: Noah, spared by an altogether more practical deity.  

When the waters receded, the children were at war. Roughly divided into Pro and Anti Williamites, they fought each other, slipping and struggling to even see their foes amidst the rain and the mud. Maelstrom—now ice—was on top of Talos, landing blow after blow on his face hard enough to draw either blood or mineral lubricant, all in utter silence. This outbreak of posthuman-on-posthuman aggression might have earned them all another round of flogging, if it weren’t almost identical to how every other game of calcio fiorentino turned out.

Shellshocked, Elsewhere picked his way through the battlefield, trying to avoid being drawn into any of the smaller fights. Occasionally, one of his classmates would lunge at him, only to find themselves landing face first in the swollen River Avon. He figured someone should deliver Billy to Żywie: she didn’t ask questions when it came to calcio fiorentino. He might have left that up to Myriad, but she had been skittish with the healer lately, and was also presently occupied swatting at Automata’s air forces with flaming fists that burned bright in the cold, wet air.

The rain didn’t bother him. The raindrops disappeared before they even hit his skin16, as though he were radiating heat intense enough to evaporate them. Billy, too, was preserved from the rain, which swerved away from him in the air, as though he were lying under an invisible umbrella.

Elsewhere knelt next to Billy, who was face down in the grass. His mangled tail twitched spasmodically. “You okay, buddy?” he asked, feeling like an idiot as soon as the words left his mouth.

Billy hardly stirred. “…I have friends.”

“…What?”

“I have friends,” Billy repeated, a little louder.

He really did. He had friends who cared enough to beat up their other friends for him. He didn’t think anyone in the world besides his nanny could care that much about him.

“I have friends.”

“So, do you know what my name’s going to be?” Billy asked as Mrs Gillespie led him by the hand to the front door of the house. She had done an excellent job freshening the boy up for his Naming, and had assured him repeatedly that the pair of good trousers and short pants she’d sacrificed for it were no great loss.

“I’ve no idea, love. Dr. Lawrence likes to keep this sort of thing under his hat till the big announcement.” She chuckled. “I will tell you this, he’s been pulling his hair out trying to think of something that encompasses all your powers.” She stopped walking, raising a finger in the air. “Swiss-Army-Boy.” She closed her hand, smiling slyly. “No, nobody’s that cruel.”

Billy giggled.

“In all seriousness, I imagine it’ll be something along the lines of ‘Alchemist’—not sure how I feel about giving a child a professional title for a name, but there you go. Personally, I’m rather fond of Jericho, for your shout, you see, but Dr. Lawrence has never gone in for scriptural references17. I think ‘Soundbite’ is what most of the money’s on in Windshear’s little betting pool.”

“Oh, you know about that?”

Mrs Gillespie gave the child a bemused look. “Oh, William, you children don’t get away with nearly as much as you think.”

When they reached the threshold, Mary asked if Billy wanted escorting down to the staging ground.         

The boy nodded, and Mrs Gillespie, noting the fear in his eyes, took his hand, setting forth in a stride that he was half helped, half forced to match. The sun had set hours ago on that dreary, mayfly day, and while the Institute’s remoteness usually blessed it with an enviable view of the night sky, that night no starlight pierced the rolling plains of clouds. The darkness’ only blemish was the faint haze of the moon; a lighthouse for airships.

The path to the bonfire was lit by some of Snapdragon’s constructs, immolated will o’ wisps and stoic, dignified djinn. Under his fur, Billy paled on catching sight of the multitude of other children watching him on either side of the bonfire, the flame casting their faces in disturbing, almost inhuman patches of shadow. His breathing began to increase in speed, his hands starting to shake, when four bright pools of cobalt caught his eye in the crowd. Maelstrom and Myriad stood, hand in hand, flanked on either side by Mabel and Elsewhere, all four of them smiling gently at him. His first real friends. He felt the cold in his chest begin to melt away, a tentative smile playing on his lips. He took his first truly voluntary step forwards, drawing a glance from Mrs Gillespie, then a chuckle, as she let him continue on alone. The entire Institute population was present, including Basilisk, who had managed to regain a fragile equilibrium while Lawrence and his chosen companions were away. And they were all smiling across at him, even, surprisingly, Talos.

Lawrence stood right next to the fire, a small space separating him from the rest of the crowd. Billy duly took his place beside the man, trying to simultaneously look past the crowd without appearing to be avoiding their gaze.

By his standards, Lawrence’s Naming speech was as brief and perfunctory as a pauper’s bank statement. “While I hadn’t expected to return from Canberra with a new student, I have no regrets about this particular surprise. In a way, children like young William are the whole reason our community exists. I can only imagine the kind of treatment his appearance would have garnered him in a school full of baseline children. Needless to say, I’ve been very impressed by how readily you children have all accepted him, and in William’s indomitable pride in his nature.” He looked right at Żywie. “And in recognition of this pride, I would like to introduce you all to… Growltiger!”

There was the expected applause. Except from Lawrence’s eldest students, who shared looks ranging from mild surprise to outright dismay.

Billy grinned. “Pleased to meet you!” It was a good name, he thought. At least he would have one thing less to agonize over when they played superhero.

Lawrence smiled, still not taking his eyes off Żywie. “Before we let this party take its natural course, I believe our Watercolours have a welcoming present for you.”

The Watercolours approached Billy with the conscious haste of children being called to stage. He looked at the blue-eyed ones. After saving him from a life of complete isolation, and in Maelstrom’s case, earnestly trying to drown his enemies, he wasn’t sure what more they could possibly give him.

Myriad started. “So, remember that one lunchtime when Elsewhere was complaining about the weather, ‘cause he’s a wimp?”

Elsewhere looked at her indignantly. “I was complaining because I don’t have magic not-getting-cold-powers!” He frowned playfully at William. “Or fur.”

Mabel picked up from the other girl. It seemed rehearsed. “And you said you liked it because it reminded you of Narnia?”

It appeared to be Billy’s cue. “Yeah? But it wasn’t—”

He hadn’t even finished his sentence before the first flakes began to fall. Before they even reached the ground, a host of nymphs, fauns, dwarves, and more mundane yet still deeply out of place English fauna appeared all over the grounds, a great lion18 lying at the centre of it all. It was really the kind of spectacle the Watercolours had been trying to move away from with their Tempest production, but it had seemed a worthy occasion for a little backsliding.

Billy still wasn’t sure what had come first, the tears of joy or the excited squealing. It was a close run thing.

The entire student body and even the human teachers dispersed into the miniature Narnia. Mabel conjured a fine rendition of Jadis, Empress of Charn for some harmless menace. About five loose quartets of Pevensie children formed out of the chaos, one of whom appointed William as their Peter. It was the first game of pretend where he hadn’t been cast as the monster.

He’d done it. He had found his secret country, claimed his throne, and would steer clear of any white stags that happened to pass through.

Back in what still passed for reality, the original four new humans were pulling their old teacher aside.

“That was low and childish of you, Lawrence,” Żywie hissed.

Lawrence raised his eyebrows in mock confusion. “I have no clue what you’re talking about, my girl. I simply—”

Tact can sometimes be a disease, one which Melusine had been thoroughly immunized against. “Cut the crap, Bertie, we all know about your little cosmetic surgery discussion with Żywie.”

“Mostly because the echo still hasn’t died down,” added Tiresias. He began walking slowly backwards, waving his hands. “What girl will want him? What girl will want him…”

They ignored him.

“So that’s how we play things now?” Żywie said, glaring. “When we can’t satisfy our vanity, we use the children to snipe at each other? Even if it means making their very names insults?”

“I’m with Zy on this one, Laurie,” said Basilisk. “I don’t quite know if you meant it the way she thinks you did, but the name feels a little… on the nose.”

Lawrence raised an eyebrow. “And ‘Elsewhere’ wasn’t? I was just following our Żywie’s advice. Why shouldn’t we celebrate Growltiger’s appearance? He seems to like the name.”

Basilisk glanced at his friend. “He has a point, Zy. Maybe we should ask Billy—don’t give me that look, Lawrence, it hasn’t even been ten minutes—what he thinks?”

Melusine rolled her eyes. “As though he’s going to risk upsetting us? The poor thing probably has nightmares about waking up back in his own room. He’d have taken being called ‘Old Deuteronomy’ with a smile.” She looked sharply at Lawrence. “And that still would have been a better name!”

The headmaster put a hand on Żywie’s shoulder. “I still don’t see why you’re so upset. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Growltiger now knows exactly how we feel about his appearance. And I’m sure if he has any objections to the name, he’ll make them known to us, just as I’m sure you would do everything in your power to address them.” He pronounced the word “power” very deliberately, removing his hand. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to watch the children play, and have a drink. I suggest you all do the same.”

He walked off towards Narnia, leaving his students to awkwardly disperse, except Tiresias—who departed with the air of a man leaving the theatre after a show, ready to get just drunk enough to forget Jadis wasn’t a real woman in either sense of the word19—and Żywie, who just stood there, fuming.

As Melusine passed Lawrence on her way to congratulate her son on the authenticity of his snow, she whispered a single word in his ear:

Coward.”


1. Which included such tales as “The Brass-Balled Hippie”, “The Tragical Life of Fozzwozzle, Birthday Clown”, and “The Absent Goldsmith”.

2. Because as the woman herself put it, “You have to work to look this good.” Which, coming from her, was a lie.

3. The ability to command the loyalty of birds, on the other hand, was surprisingly useful, as anyone at the Institute unfortunate enough to have gossip they’d rather keep to themselves soon found out.

4. The statue was later purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, where it was exhibited under the title “Amphitrite of Avon”.

5. That and throwing thunderbolts.

6. She heavily implied it had been pulled from an inappropriate magazine, but it had in fact originated from a mail order linen catalogue.

7. Lawrence sometimes claimed to have crossed paths with J.R.R Tolkien when he was finishing his Masters after World War One. Żywie was never sure what to make of the claim. While she could see no discrepancy in the timing, it seemed something any Oxfordian would claim if they could, like lesser immortals and the Crucifixion; or in later segments of time, Woodstock.

8. “And I think it was very naughty of Mr. Tolkien to go back and change The Hobbit just because he was putting a new book out.”

9. AU’s knowledge of the land of his grandparents was all in all pretty thin, but it did stretch far enough for some decent jokes.

10. It was a love ballad, specifically, though the romance might be lost on viparious audiences.

11. Literally, “Florentine football”.

12. Despite what Tiresias may have thought, there were in fact several credible accounts of superpowered children in fifteenth century Italy. But that is another story.

13. Plato would have been heartbroken.

14. With the amount of pre-season games the Melchester Rovers played deep in South American jungle at gunpoint, it was not surprising that Roy Racer took being drafted without warning to play on a team of supernatural primary schoolers half a world and who knows how many universes away with aplomb.

15. Windshear, Maelstrom (or his mother), Veltha, and Snapdragon. Elsewhere had tried claiming membership in the cohort as “lightning”, but nobody brought it.

16. It was a very lucky village.

17. By the Mary Gillespie schema, the Book of Joshua is best paired with a good vermouth cocktail.

18. Contrary to expectations, the lion was not sourced from any illustrations of the works of Clive Staples Lewis, but rather a thankfully bowdlerized depiction of colosseum bloodsports Mabel was fond of. The “real” Aslan never played well at parties.

19. His was a high and lonely destiny.

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The New Humans, Chapter Sixteen: The Glass Forest

The three days between the demonstration and the NHI party’s flight home were not unlike a dream for Myriad. A long, meandering dream, with even less structure or meaning than is typical for that species. The kind where you remember the waking world enough to dearly wish to return there, but not quite enough for it to do so under your power. Canberra had little to offer children, being almost a child itself; birthed from the mind of Walter Burley Griffin and groomed for the business of government.

There were museums; and libraries; as well an endless procession of scholars, scientists, and other learned people—almost all men, to be honest—dropping by the Valour household to impart their wisdom to Herbert Lawrence’s wunderkind. One thing Myriad noticed, apart from each man’s utter resolution that their chosen field was the one on which all life and human civilization hinged upon, was how old most of her visitors were. Hardly one of them seemed less than fifty— and most were much older. She might have written it off as simply the natural outcome of all the time and effort it took human beings to become truly good at anything, if it weren’t for the faint look of desperation in many of their eyes. She wondered if they saw her as something of an immortality project: a fresh, sturdy vessel to carry some part of themselves a few more yards down time’s river. She was tactful enough not to inform the men about how much of their precious, hard won knowledge her power was discarding as simply incorrect1.

She took their songs into herself with feigned enthusiasm. Once, the suite of new knowledge  and skills might have excited her, but now, after McClare and the Institute, it was like returning to a diet of bread and water after tasting meat and fruit for the first time.

Lawrence wasn’t having the best time of it, either, preoccupied as he was by the question of William St. George. Through a couple of furtive phone conversations and a tense lunch at the   Hotel Kurrajong had gleaned him some small trivia about the boy, though less than he had expected, given its source was the child’s father. As Bryant had admitted, unable to meet Lawrence’s eyes, they mostly left their son in the care of his nanny. For a man of Lawrence’s age and breeding, that seemed like the most normal aspect of the whole affair.

Lawrence found William’s predicament almost philosophically terrifying. He had learned to accept the odd physical abnormality among his students. Sometimes, he even found the odd dash of inhumanity aesthetically pleasing. But the hearth inside Snapdragon’s eyes, or the odd blue lowlights in Britomart’s hair couldn’t prepare him for the kind of atavism he had seen in that photo.

He had discussed the matter with Tiresias, to little good. In lieu of advice, the psychic had only his usual low humour to offer.

“Look,” he had said, “you’ve been worried about the other children picking on Maelstrom. If we take on this boy”—he tossed the photo back at Lawrence—“I doubt they’ll have any energy left over for him.”

Not for the first time on that trip, Lawrence wished he had brought Żywie instead. She was, in a sense, the reason he was even considering Bryant’s offer. Much as William did not fit his usual criteria for new students, there was no reason to think their resident healer couldn’t change that.

There was also the matter of money. The Lawrences were an extremely well-to-do branch of what passed for the petty aristocracy in Australia, and Herbert had been the sole heir of their wealth. Coupled with the generally reliable prognosticative talents of Tiresias (the esper could always be counted on for anything that maintained his own comfort) the New Human Institute was in no danger of running low on funds. Still, its headmaster was not so rich that the sum St. George was willing to pay wasn’t tempting. Lawrence was sure they would need to accommodate many more students in the near future, and the nursery would need expanding. All that, in exchange for what was ultimately a small kindness…

And so, Lawrence accepted Bryant St. George’s offer, and his cheque, watching the other man collapse into a pile of guilt-tainted relief from the other side of the table. He could almost see the albatross around his neck stir and take flight.

That had been decided on the morning before the NHI party’s departure from Canberra. Lawrence had chosen to save the news that Maelstrom and Myriad would be gaining a new brother till after dinner that evening, with their whole group plus the Valours gathered in their blue damask wallpapered living room, scrims of snow melting sullenly as they clung to the window frames.

Lawrence had expected the children to have questions, or to maybe even react with fear to William’s photograph. What Myriad homed in on, though, surprised him.

“I just wanna go home!”

Myriad sat trembling with childish rage and resentment, sandwiched awkwardly between Maelstrom and Therese Fletcher on the Valours’ burnt orange sofa. The Valours themselves had fled the room as soon as they recognised the signs of an oncoming superpowered tantrum. Valerie was in a mad dash for the fallout shelter2, and Timothy left apologetically in an attempt to dig his wife back out again. Maelstrom had attempted to pry open his friend’s clenched fist and thread his fingers through hers, only to be met by a grip that threatened to crush his knuckles.

Lawrence stood with his back to what passed for the Valour family’s library. The single bookcase may never have seen the works of Chaucer, Stapledon or Wells grace its shelves, but nonetheless, he found the presence of books comforting. His arms were crossed almost defensively. “And we will be, child. We’re just picking up a new student on the way.”

“It’s boring here!” Myriad shouted, her face flushed with an wild, aimless anger. “Again and again, just nothing but tired, grumpy old men who are just CONVINCED that their songs should be saved and it’s so DULL! And with every one of them that turns up, I get reminded just a little bit more of how beautiful everyone was back home!”              

Lawrence tried to take the insult to his friends and colleagues on the chin. “I don’t see how that pertains to what we’re talking about, Myriad. Our new student lives in Albany; we won’t be spending any more time here in Canberra than we already were. Just means we’ll be taking a slightly longer route to get back to the Institute.”

Myriad wrenched herself from the sofa, standing to look Lawrence dead in the eyes, her cheeks now traced by the wet paths of tears. “Don’t lie! The train to Albany is overnight, there and back! And it’s even slower in a car! And we’ll be taking the truck so people don’t freak about the weird kid, won’t we?” She spat the last two words like she was capping off a murder accusation.

Lawrence sighed. “That is true, Myriad.”

Myriad brushed her fist across her eyes, trying to wipe away her tears with little success. With surprising quietness, she asked, “Could you maybe drop me off at home before you go get this boy?” She glanced at her friend, trying to avoid having his ribs broken by the armrest, before adding, “Maelstrom, too, if he wants.”

Tiresias’ hand shot up. A cloud of clove laden cigarette smoke exploded from his mouth. “And me!”  

“I’m sorry, children,” he looked straight at Tiresias on the last word, “but that would entail a two hour detour in the other direction.” He attempted a smile. “Besides, I think it would do young William some good to meet a couple of his future schoolmates.”

The anger reared up in Myriad again, hot and bright, like it had been bathed in molten gold. “You lied to me! You said I only had to do that stupid show, then you made me talk to all your boring, dumb, old friends, and now you’re dragging me to some dumb whaling town to pick up some new boy—and you lie and grownups always act like I won’t know when they tell me things that aren’t true—”

Therese Fletcher wondered if she should say something. She always felt like she was in danger of tripping over some unspoken boundary with the children. Her training had relentlessly hammered in the importance of maintaining a professional distance from her students, but that had been before she got caught up in the closed off, strangely intimate little world of the New Human Institute. She had always envied Mary Gillespie’s ability to simultaneously occupy both the role of school teacher and universal grandmother, without compromising either. However, for her, it was difficult to discern whether she was meant to be a primary school teacher or a sister at an orphanage.

Erring on the side of maternalism, she placed a hand on Myriad’s shoulder. “It’ll be alright, Miri. You’re going to have a new friend in just two sleeps!”

The sudden physical contact and her tone of voice somehow all at once reminded the girl of her mother, the nurses at McClare, and Żywie’s wires. Myriad slapped the hand away, her eyes burning blue with fury. The woman flinched from her. “Don’t touch me—”

She felt a sharp clip across her ear. After a second of stunned, almost Heisenbergian uncertainty, Myriad broke down in choked, high pitched sobs.

Lawrence stood resolutely over the girl, expression sombre, his arms folded once more. “I’m disappointed in you, Myriad. I might have expected this kind of childishness from some of the other students, but I thought better of you.” His brow wrinkled with anger. “When we pick up William, you will be pleasant, open, and a good example of what a posthuman child is meant to be. Are we following?”

Myriad nodded, trying to blink back tears.

“And we never, ever threaten baseline humans with our powers.”

“Yes.”

“Now apologise for that display.”   

There was a slightly ritualistic offering of apologies to each member of the group in term, answered with mumbled acceptances. Or, in Tiresias’ case, a magnanimous, slow spoken proclamation of forgiveness; like a king handing down a pardon.

“Now, off to bed with you.” The old man threw a glance Maelstrom’s way. “You can follow her in ten minutes.”

Myriad tried to stifle her weeping as she made her way back to the room she and Maelstrom were just shy of accustomed to, though, nobody would have seen or heard her, barring God or maybe the Flying Man, from whatever perch he surveyed the world from. She managed to hold it together till she passed the staircase down to the cellar:

“—Please come out, darling. Even if she was going to start something, there’s water in the shelter!”

She collapsed on top of the duvet, surrounded by some other child’s things. She felt shaken, numb with loneliness, and the last few useless dregs of anger, clinging to her like droplets at the bottom of a glass. She started trying to hum some of her schoolmates’ songs—even some of the ones without names or faces attached that she had heard at the asylum.

Eventually, David lay down beside her. He did not turn out the light as he entered the room. The Valours had been kind enough to allow Myriad to keep it on to ward off her night thoughts, and her friend hadn’t complained. If she had the presence of mind in that moment, she would have loved him for it.

It hailed sideways outside.

“So, what’s it like at your school?”

There was very little to separate William “Billy” St. George from any ordinary boy his age, apart from his marked resemblance to a humanoid tiger. At a distance, the short, black and orange fur that covered most of his skin might have been mistaken for body paint, or an all-covering tattoo; and the slightly elongated canines were only really evident when he grinned—which, granted, was often. The architecture of his face, though, was human enough, and his eyes were  a typical mud brown.

It was all a bit of an anticlimax.

Really, the most remarkable thing about the child was the striped tail that protruded from the base of his spine. Myriad found herself tracking its path as it twitched and swished through the air behind its owner.

She had been surprised by Billy’s song, too. She’d worried all throughout their trip down south that the boy would not be musically unlike the Physician: alien and inimical. As it turned out, though, his song was no more strange than that of any other posthuman. Unsurprisingly, given the diversity of powers Lawrence had spoken of, Billy’s song was something of a medley, making heavy use of what Myriad thought sounded like an electric guitar being played in a realm where the distinction between colour and sound was looser. If his song were to somehow be played in the physical world, the best venue for it would be a vast plain of powdered glass.

“…Fun,” she answered, a little late. “It’s not at all what I thought boarding school would be like. I think you’ll like it there.”

“That’s good,” Billy replied, flopping back onto his bed, grey, wintry sunlight pouring onto his belly from the window above. “How many other kids live there?”

“About thirty,” said Maelstrom, idly spinning the antique globe that rested on the tiger-child’s dresser with one finger, its fawn seas lapping at the coastlines of slightly inaccurate3 continents while great serpents and leviathans swam through their depths. He was mostly trying to keep his hands busy, lest he start kneading them in front of the new boy. He was already mildly embarrassed by his open envy at Billy owning his own bed. Plus, it was his first time in another child’s bedroom, and he found the concept of a truly personal space mildly exotic.

A look of almost dreamlike delight spread across Billy’s face. “Must be great.”

Maelstrom plucked a book off one of the shelves; some hardback children’s novel Lawrence had probably read when he was their age, almost falling apart with age and use. It opened—the binding almost audibly straining—onto a black engraving of a horde of schoolchildren at play. “Yeah,” he said, frowning. “It is.”

“Are you two cousins or something?”

“Why’d you think that?” said Myriad, before realising she was still attuned to Maelstrom’s song. Reluctantly, she blinked away the blue. “Nah, that’s all him,” she pointed at the other boy. “I don’t really have my own powers, so I borrow other people’s.”

“She’s being modest,” cut in Maelstrom, looking up from the region of the globe its makers doubtlessly called “Darkest Africa”, ready to defend Myriad’s honour, even from herself. “Seriously, we live with dozens of other new humans, and Miri can use all their powers whenever she wants. She’s like, a post-posthuman.”

Myriad blushed.

Billy frowned with curiosity. “I heard your teacher—the big bloke with the beard—using that word? What’s it mean?”

“Another word for super,” Myriad said.

The corner of Maelstrom’s lip curled in thought. “I guess it is, but it’s more than that… hmm…” He tried to remember how Lawrence once put it. The old man had countless poetic turns of phrase for describing the evolutionary process, and sometimes they ran together in Maelstrom’s head. “It’s like, humans invented—he knows what I mean, Miri—fire, and then they became the fire.” He clapped, as though remembering some vital detail. He pointed at Myriad. “She doesn’t have to learn things!”

Myriad smiled bashfully, suddenly very interested in her shoes. “I do, really. I just learn from other people… automatically.”

“I think she knows everything already; she just needs to meet people who know something before she remembers it.”

Billy looked totally bewildered by the concept, which was not helped when Maelstrom pointed sharply at him and asked “What are you really good at? Is there anything you know a lot about?”

Billy had to think about that. His short, circumscribed existence hadn’t offered many opportunities to acquire any special wisdom or rare skills—apart, of course, from the ones that had brought these strange children to his home. But he hadn’t needed to cultivate any of those. He could sing a little over a dozen of his nanny’s favourite Irish folk songs, off key; he’d recently managed to change his bedroom lightbulb all on his own, without his nanny even knowing it had blown to begin with; and he was fairly certain he could identify every beetle, spider and other crawling thing within a mile of his house. Eventually, after some umming and ahhing, he went with “…I’m a good swimmer.”

Not exactly the definable and unique skill Maelstrom had been hoping for, but it would have to do. “Well now so is Myriad.”

Said good swimmer suppressed a giggle. She had of course already been an excellent swimmer for some time, thanks to Maelstrom. He’d been able to swim before he could walk.

Billy decided to take Maelstrom’s word for it.

They were mostly silent for a little while, the Institute children not quite past being surprised every time their eyes fell on Billy, and Billy still not accustomed to other children, period.

Somewhere between mortified and elated by Maelstrom’s adulation, Myriad explored Billy’s room: her manner unfortunately reminiscent of an anthropologist pawing over a native hut as though its occupants weren’t even there. It seemed the boy read a lot, although judging by the amount of half-pound adventure novels and comic books, this was less a result of natural bookishness and more often having little else to do else to do. To her quiet horror, The G-Men was well represented on his shelves, along with a few issues of a short lived series about the Flying Man—not that it was brave enough to be upfront about it. The comic and its eponymous hero were both titled Captain Diamond4, and his chest insignia was solid red instead of half-blue, but the inspiration was clear. Myriad assumed it was meant to be furtively read by young boys with the same kind of taboo breaking excitement as stolen gentlemen’s magazines. Regardless, she couldn’t see the real Flying Man being majorly inconvenienced by a grown man who voluntarily styled himself “Baron Betrayal”5.

There were also a fair few framed pictures adorning his walls. Most were of the elder St. Georges, only twice with their son. In both preserved moments, their smiles were brittle, not quite reaching their eyes, while their son wore an expression of pained joy: the sort that is close kin to—and in many ways worse than—despair. It reminded Myriad of the constructed, confectioned families that she saw in advertising catalogues, if the child had somehow been convinced he and the other models were actually family.

Turning away from the photos, Myriad asked “So, what exactly are your powers. Lawrence mentioned something about you turning invisible?”

Billy grinned. “Yup!”

And with no fuss or fanfare, Billy vanished, like a spectre winking out of a scene in some piece of early fantastic cinema.

Maelstrom’s reaction was mild, to say the least. In his experience, children disappearing from a room was almost more normal than them using the door. Besides, he could still feel the water that made up most of Billy’s being. Myriad, on the other hand, peered closely at the space she intellectually knew the tiger-boy still occupied. When she strained her eyes, she could see that dust motes weren’t drifting through the pocket of air quite as they should. It was the sort of thing you would only notice or pay any mind if you already had reason to suspect there was some unseen presence there in the room with you, and even then it was only discernible in a certain light.

Lawrence was vehement that some guiding intelligence was responsible for the manifestation of superpowers in the human race. He often waxed poetic about this hypothetical entity casting a sideways glance, from somewhere outside of linear time, at all the possibilities of an unborn new human’s life: carefully considering which gifts to bestow. If he was right, then Myriad couldn’t decide whether that being was uncommonly kind or bitterly sarcastic. “Can you see when you’re like this?”

Billy reappeared. “Yes. Shouldn’t I?”

Myriad shook her head. “I think the way you turn invisible works by bending light away from you. None of it should hit you in the eyes.”

Billy’s tail undulated slowly, as he turned the girl’s words over in his mind. “…Isn’t that a good thing? Getting the sun in my eyes hurts.”

Myriad had to keep her eyes from rolling at that. “I’ll try and explain it better later.”

William’s experience with other children outside of his personal fantasies was nil, but he had interacted enough with the odd tradesman and the gardener to tell when someone thought he was being slow. Hoping to dispel that notion, he tried to think of something insightful to say. “I can speak when I’m see-through, but for some reason nobody can hear me.”

“You probably muffle the sound waves before they get very far.”

Billy shrugged. “You’re the genius.”

Myriad wasn’t sure how to take that compliment.

“So what else do you do?” asked Maelstrom. “Lawrence said you had a few powers.”

Billy twisted his foot demurely in the off-cream carpet. “I do, but they’re not really inside things.” He made a doomed attempt not to let his thoughts stray back to the incident with the cat6.

“Then show us outside.”

The three of them rushed out the room and down the stairs with the casual impatience of children, past the two leather sofas and the mahogany coffee table at which their elders were taking afternoon tea.

In accordance with some unconscious yet universal social etiquette, the NHI staff had all piled onto one of the couches while Billy’s nanny sat alone across from them.

“It’s good to see your tykes getting along with Billy.”

Beatrice Sullivan was a dark haired, round faced young woman with a loud smile, whose casual demeanor Lawrence thought would have better suited the mistress of the household than staff. Not that he blamed her for it; he highly suspected Mrs St. George had never called the small, out of the way grey brick house she and her husband had stashed her son in home. “That it is.” He brought his delicate, blue china cup to his lips, making a contented sound. “The tea is excellent, Miss Sullivan.”

There were fervent nods of agreement, even from Tiresias, who usually couldn’t be bothered extending compliments to non-fermented beverages.

Betty laughed. “Don’t give me any of the credit, Doctor. All I did was boil the water. Doesn’t even say anything about my taste: Mr. St. George was the one who ordered it.”

A brief hush fell over Lawrence and the others: the usual response whenever Betty sung her employers’ praise, which was once or twice more than seemed appropriate. Therese suspected it was a habit she had cultivated for her charge’s sake; rose tinted glasses were preferable to the alternative. “So,” Therese said, searching for a safe subject in the primordial brown of her tea, “you’ve been looking after Billy how long?”

Betty’s expression grew nostalgic. “All his life. I’ll tell you what, when his parents told me he had some special needs—” She laughed guiltily. “I was half-afraid of him at him at first, if I’m being honest. But then I realised he needed the same things as any other child. As for the things he can do, well, everyone’s heard stories. I just figured he was going to grow up to be the next Crimson Comet.”

Lawrence refrained from informing Miss Sullivan of what actually became of Ralph Rivers.

“Didn’t think I was going to stay on as long as I have, but every day made leaving feel like more of a crime. He knew me, you know? And they had already gone through four nannies…”

“That’s an impressive commitment, Miss Sullivan,” Lawrence said admiringly.

“Please, don’t flatter me. I’ve had free room and board for nearly eight years, and Billy’s as sweet a boy as you could find.”

Tiresias cocked an eyebrow. “It certainly is an interesting arrangement. I’d have expected a parent to want their boy closer to home.” His tone indicated he expected no such thing.

“The St. Georges moved us out here when Billy got old enough to start getting underfoot… try not to judge them too harshly, Mr. Moretti. They’re handling this a lot better than I suspect most people of their stature would. It’s a minor miracle they didn’t drown him at birth.”

Tiresias restrained himself from adding “like kittens?”

“When was the last time you had a holiday?” Therese asked.

Betty smile dimmed a little in intensity. “Children don’t pack themselves away into a corner for two weeks every year. Still, I’m thrilled this opportunity’s come along for Billy. He tries not to show it—I think he’s worried I’ll be offended—but it’s been a lonely life for him. You could start a whole new school with all the imaginary friends he’s dreamed up. Once told me he met a witch in the woods, who let him wish for friends in exchange for a single hair. ” She shook her head fondly. “I blame C.S Lewis.”

Tiresias finished his tea, setting down the cup emphatically. “And what do you plan on doing with yourself once William is in our care? I imagine you’ll have a lot of spare time. Maybe pop off over to the Gold Coast. You must have some pretty serious back pay accumulated.”

“I prefer to keep busy. The St. Georges were nice enough to set me up with a secretarial job at some mine of theirs or another.” She laughed again, a little hoarsely. “This was supposed to be something to tide me over till I could find typist work!”

And then Betty started weeping.    

“Oh, God, I don’t know. It’s like trying to imagine a day when the sun doesn’t come up! It throws everything off-kilter. And I don’t know how Billy will cope with so many other people, and then I just wonder if I’m just not letting go…” She buried her face in her hands, no longer able to put her dread and anxiety into words.

Lawrence felt a stab of pity for the poor woman. By the look of her, she had spent most of her adult life cooped up in the countryside, with neither friend nor lover nor any other kind of adult companionship, devoting herself to the deformed child of parents too vain or cowardly to love him themselves. He couldn’t imagine a more lonely life for a human being. He was almost tempted to offer her a job just so he knew she’d have someone to talk to.

To everyone’s surprise, it was Tiresias who made the first concerted effort to comfort Miss Sullivan, over Therese’s vague assurances that everything would turn out alright. Stepping around the coffee table with his long, lanky legs, he sat down beside the nanny, gently brushing aside her hands to look her in the eye. “Look, lady, I can’t promise you that Billy isn’t going to be sad another day in his life. I don’t know what his toff parents pay you, but I’m sure that honesty isn’t above your salary. And I’m definitely not going to tell you people will never give him shit about how he looks.”

There was something off about Tiresias’ voice, Lawrence thought. It was like the ever audible sneer was missing from it—or he had acquiesced to let Betty Sullivan in on the private joke he always seemed to be enjoying at the world’s expense. Except he seemed to be keeping one eye fixed on the Oxfordian.

“What I will tell you is that everyone at the Institute knows what it’s like to be different. Maybe not exactly the same kind of different, I’ll grant you, but at the end of the day, people out there don’t care about that. People out there are arseholes, and the thing about arseholes is that they have a way of barging into the bubbles of decency we carve out for ourselves; wouldn’t it be better if Billy had some backup when his pops?” He flashed her a rakish grin. “I know we would appreciate the extra hands.”

Slowly, Betty nodded. Wiping away tears with one shaky finger, she almost looked surprised by the wave of relief crashing over her. “Has anyone ever told you have an odd way with words?”

“When God was casting the silver tongues, he cut corners and gave me a pyrite one.” The esper stood up, still grinning. “Shall we go check on the kids?”

Lawrence looked uneasy. “Yes. That might be a good idea.”

Betty smiled. “I imagine Billy’s showing them his trees by now. He’s very artistic, in his way.”

A little beyond the boundaries of the back garden proper—a veritable refugee camp for English flora and landscaping—the children stood in the shadow of a copse of wattle trees.

At least, they had been trees in life. In death, however, they were something altogether stranger. Each was warped in entirely different ways. One was bent at the trunk, a section seeming to have collapsed upon itself, plunging the lush green canopy down towards the ground like a prostrate worshiper. Another seemed to have had a hole bored straight into it; though the wood lacked anything like drag marks, burns, or splinters. Smooth, shiny, almost polished, the edges bevelled away into an alcove like a throne. A third had a section that seemed to be made from molded gold, marred slightly by a set of long, deep claw marks in the soft metal.

At last, there was one tree left fully formed and intact, though its substance had been replaced with clear glass; which nonetheless still preserved the whorls and grain of the wood. Its transformed, diffractionated blossoms shattered the bleak winter sun where it struck them, throwing out rainbows and chiming whenever the breeze blew through them.

The vast majority of the trees, barring one or two, were dead.

Maelstrom looked around the grove with unguarded wonder. “It’s like fairyland…” He ran over to the throne-tree, parking himself regally in it like he was prince of the elves. “I am Oberon!” he crowed. “Hear me, my fairy subjects!”

Myriad was grateful that the boys at Harvey Primary couldn’t hear her friend. Cocking her head curiously at the clear tree, she shifted to ice. She could have passed for a native of the world the tree ought to have grown in. She willed flecks of her index finger to fall away till it was sharp enough to cut flesh, and then ran it down the tree’s trunk. All that accomplished was grinding the digit down to a nub.

“Wow,” Billy said, wide-eyed. “You can turn into glass?”

Myriad giggled, the sound echoing out from every frozen molecule of her body like a ghost fiddle, reverberating off the leaves of the crystal tree like bells in the wind. The colour flowed back into her features, like food dye diffusing through water. Her finger reformed quite nicely. Idly, she pondered how the mass she shed was replaced. Fat deposits? It would certainly explain a lot about Melusine’s figure. “Ice,” she corrected Billy. “And I think this might be diamond.”

“Really?” the boy asked, tail waving excitedly. “I thought it was just glass. Shouldn’t the edges be all sharp and sparkly?”

“They don’t come out of the ground like that,” Myriad explained patiently, junior geologist on top of everything else.

“How do you do all this?” Maelstrom inquired from his seat of arboreal power.

Billy beckoned the other two to him. “I’ll show you!”

He cupped his hands like he was begging for water. In them, a small globe of what looked like mercury bloomed into existence. Its surface was so perfectly reflective, Myriad almost felt less real than the slightly curved version of herself looking up at her. She hoped they weren’t breathing in actual mercury fumes.

“You ever dipped your hand in sand?” Billy asked aloud. Not waiting for an answer, he continued, “You can sort feel it all between your fingers. That’s kind of what it feels like when I’ve got something in this. And if I remember what something else felt like…” The mercury evaporated, revealing a perfect sphere of cloudy quartz, contaminated by faint purple and green veins of what Myriad thought might have been alexandrite, like trapped wisps of coloured smoke. “It changes into that stuff! Mostly. Or it melts.” He swallowed. “Like Mummy’s wedding ring.” He handed the orb to Maelstrom. “Here, keep it.”

“Thanks,” said Maelstrom, admiring his present. “So, what did this used to be? I didn’t see anything in your hands.”

He shrugged. “Air, I guess.”

Maelstrom whistled, impressed. “Ex Nihilo is not gonna like this.”

Billy looked at Myriad. “I can make you one too, if you like.”

“Maybe later. So, you have one more power?”

Billy scratched the back of neck apprehensively. “Uh, yeah. Is it okay if I don’t show you near the trees? It’s kinda… breaky.” He gestured to a side of the clearing where, sure enough, one of the wattle corpses lay. It had once been formed of some sort of crystal, but now it lay, shattered along the ground. Just enough remained of the trunk, however, to make it clear what it had once been.

The Institute children followed their new acquaintance to a more disposable copse. “Are you two tougher when you’re made of ice?”

They both nodded.

“Then be ice.”

The two nodded, wordlessy shifting into their ice forms, eyes fixed on Billy; their utter stillness making him suddenly feel both watched and strangely alone. For his part, he turned to one side, facing just a little away from them, and opened his mouth. What followed could have been called a sound, but doing so failed to truly express the scope of it. An immense front of sonic force burst from his mouth, ripping grass from the ground by the root. The shockwave met a twisted, stunted jarrah tree, and it exploded, sending wooden shrapnel hurtling in all directions. Much to Billy’s momentary alarm, Myriad’s frozen shell teetered like it had been caught in the wake of a cannonball, before falling to the floor and cracking in two at the midsection. He raised a hand to her, his eyes going wide in shock, before she reformed, grinning.

“That was amazing!” she squealed, human once more.

Billy heard a sound like two very small glaciers slamming into each other. When he looked in its direction, he saw Maelstrom was applauding him. A sizable splinter was lodged in his right eye like a cocktail stick, which he removed perfunctorily before reassuming his flesh and blood, his lips curling into a broad smile as soon as they were able. “I’m glad you made us go icy first,” he said playfully. “I bet any naturals would be bleeding out their ears right now.”

“I assure you we’re fine,” said Lawrence, the other adults in tow behind him. “I think it’s time we got you packed and ready, William.”

Speaking truthfully, the polite thing to do would have been for William and Betty to have packed his bags long before Lawrence and the others arrived to pick him up, but nobody could blame them for trying to postpone the inevitable separation as long as possible. A pair of brown leather samsonite train cases were loaded with so many clothes, toys, and books, the NHI headmaster almost suspected Beatrice harboured a secret space-folding power. Most of it would have to be shared with the other children, of course, but Lawrence figured that conversation could wait.

Betty’s delaying tactics were many and varied. Billy’s travelling clothes were fussed over to within an inch of their life, his luggage checked and rechecked. Long speeches were given on the importance of bathing twice a day and wearing a hat; all interspersed with admonishments that Lawrence feed her boy right.

Eventually, though, after a protracted afternoon tea and some last minute visits to the smallest room, Beatrice Sullivan found herself on the lawn of the little house, watching a massive, lost Englishman load the rented Volkswagen van that would carry away the child she had more or less raised single handedly.

Betty turned to her charge, standing beside her as they watched the old man handle the trunks with surprising grace for his age and size, and placed her hands on each of his shoulders. The boy looked away from the van, his eyes meeting hers. He managed to suppress a sniffle with some effort.

“You take good care of yourself, okay?” Betty murmured, the words coming out somewhere between a terse command and a mumbled request.

The boy didn’t trust himself to answer, and so merely nodded, blinking his eyes a few times to clear them. After a few tries, he managed a single word without letting his voice crack. “Hug?”

Wordlessly, the young woman pulled the boy in close, her cheek pressed gently against the back of his head.

“Mummy and Daddy always said my fur felt weird to touch,” Billy mumbled, his words coming out just a little oddly with his body pressed against his carer. “But you always pretended not to care. Thank you for that.”

“Shush, you,” she replied taking a quick breath with a sound like a vacuum cleaner jamming. “I like the fur. It makes it feel like I’m hugging a teddy bear.”

“… Love you.” The boy managed, saying the words out loud for the first time.

“Yeah, me too.”

“…And we’re done,” grunted Lawrence, tightening a strap around the last of Billy’s luggage. He turned to face Miss Sullivan, his brow flushed with exertion. “We should be ready to head out once Alberto is finished with whatever it is he’s doing.”

“I meant to mention, Doctor, Billy doesn’t agree with bee stings.”

“It’s okay, Betty, they hardly ever get past my fur anyway.”

“And he sometimes gets hay fever during the—”  

Lawrence held a hand up reassuringly, trying to ward off further warnings. “It’s alright, Miss Sullivan, allergies don’t tend to last too long against our medic.” A lot of things don’t, Lawrence reflected. Maybe I should send Miss Sullivan a photo once Żywie’s finished up with him. “Now where has that boy gotten to?”

“Hold your horses, Bertie, I’m coming,” Tiresias called as he strode across the lawn, waving a bottle of wine in one hand. “Say, Miss Sullivan, do you mind if I take this with me? I haven’t tasted a good Amarone since I was ten.”

Miss Sullivan giggled. “Call me Betty, please.”

“Only if you call me Alberto,” Tiresias responded with a grin. .

Lawrence made an almost imperceptible noise of exasperation. He found that his student had two modes to him: schoolboy mopiness, or drifting through the world aloft an updraft of undispellable irony and snide bemusement. He wasn’t sure which he found more trying.   

“Granted, gladly. And sure, take it. The St. Georges send me a couple of bottles every Christmas.”  

Tiresias bowed slightly. “Grazie.” He exaggerated the accent, just a touch.

“Shame we don’t have the time to enjoy a glass of it together… will we?” For some reason, Betty felt the need to conceal her smile behind her hand.  Yet, she was blushing, and felt no need to hide that.

Seeing this, the psychic took a quick peek at the nanny’s underlying mental machinery. Her flirtations were born mostly from the fear of loneliness—a stalling tactic she wasn’t even aware she was employing—but there was some genuine attraction underlying it all, and he couldn’t help but be flattered. He also couldn’t help but notice the irritation rising inside Lawrence like acrid smoke. The old man always overestimated his mental privacy.

If those monks charged anything, they’d be liable under the Trade Descriptions Act7. He held his thumb and index finger to his temples in the standard esper gesture, his mouth set in grim line, his eyes still twinkling. “The future is a storm of change, Betty. But it looks very nice.”    

 “I’ll hold you to that.”

Before Lawrence could try and hurry things along, or at least beg the two of them to be a little less secondary school about it, Allison poked her head out from one of the van’s windows, the very picture of righteous indignation. “Let’s go already!”

Betty Sullivan followed the van as it trundled down the driveway, still waving as it rounded the first bend in the country road, only making her way back to the house she had thought of as “hers” (or maybe “ours”) for years once the dust and sound it had kicked up subsided. She would need to call her employers to inform them their son had been picked up without issue, but that could surely wait an hour or two. She suddenly felt a pressing need to dispose of more of that wine. Or maybe head out to the Regent Theatre and catch a showing of The Sandpiper. Or Saint Mary’s Church, to confess some sin she wasn’t sure she commited, or even what its name was.  

She was walking to the kitchen when she noticed the farewell gift William left for her on the table. He made trinkets for her constantly, and she kept all of them. She would have even if they were balled dirt clods—which, in a sense, many of them were. This one was a rose bulb, woven from silver and gold thread. Beneath it lay a note in his tight, laboriously neat hand:

Thanks for everything.    

Betty Sullivan smiled to herself. “We really did have too much time on our hands.”

By some measures, the return journey to the Institute was more of an ordeal for Myriad than the detour to pick up William was. It wasn’t that the company was any worse off for his presence; Billy was a surprisingly, almost exhaustingly gregarious little boy, and he approached the whole trip with an astronaut’s enthusiasm. As the other two children gathered, apart from the occasional day trip to a particularly lonely stretch of Peaceful Bay, and some excursions into Albany proper under cover of invisibility, the child had seen almost nothing of the world beyond the woods surrounding his home. Every mile down Albany Highway—made silver and shining by winter rain and moonlight—carried him deeper into undiscovered country.

The problem was his song. Myriad had been musically deprived for a little over a week by then, and while she did have Maelstrom’s song—which by now was as comfortable and familiar as a favourite set of clothes—to keep her from feeling totally human, she was craving variety. Billy’s song offered that in spades: while David was the absolute master (or at least, co-regent) of one aspect of the universe, while William’s powers were fascinatingly generalist in their purview. One controlled, the other created. She kept imagining herself twisting the stuffy, recirculated air of the van into ribbons of quartz, reverting her window back to the sand from whence it was blown; or maybe, just maybe, making the stale bags of crisps she and the boys were subsisting on fresh once more.

But what would attuning herself to that song do to her? It was always a bit of a crapshoot whether or not Myriad manifested the more visible peculiarities of other posthumans. Her eyes always turned Barthe8 blue without fail when she used their powers, but she could still speak with her own voice when she assumed Reverb’s. This inconsistency drove Lawrence to distraction, though Żywie was more philosophical about it:

“Nature is almost all edge cases, little one,” she had said with a shrug.

As for the girl herself, right at that moment, it made Myriad want to scream. Specifically, she wished to scream loud enough to shatter concrete.

There’s no reason I couldn’t play his song, she tried convincing herself. I don’t turn into a grown woman when I use Melusine’s powers, or a boy with David’s. She shot a glance at Billy, whose eyes were darting back and forth between the window and his sunset diary—in his isolation he had cultivated a depressingly vast array of hobbies—trying vainly to document the  incongruously bright orange dregs of daylight’s westward retreat in the face of a charging umbral host. She almost psyched herself up enough to play his song right then and there—not to do anything with it, just to feel it within herself—but the image of her fingernails curving into claws, or her spine erupting from under her skin was vividly persistent. It’s perfectly safe to try… when Żywie’s in shrieking distance.

Instead of laying over in a motel for the night as they had on the trip down, Lawrence insisted they sleep in the van. Everyone grumbled about it, with the two of exceptions of Therese Fletcher, who voiced her complaints on a wavelength only Tiresias could pick up, and William, for whom it only enhanced the adventure. Even if he knew he was the reason they were playing at homelessness for the night.

Pressed between Maelstrom and the tiger-boy in the dark, blankets up to their chins, and trying not to kick Tiresias awake, Myriad asked “Billy, you’ve always been able to do the things you can do, right?”

“Yup,” he answered, half-dreaming, not entirely .

“You remember your dreams much?”

“S’ppose.”

“Anything… pop up a lot?”

There was a contemplative silence in the van, disturbed only by the dull roar of Lawrence’s snoring. Myriad thought the boy had simply drifted off to sleep completely, until— “…Falling. Falling and changing.” The last word was prolonged by an unfortunately timed yawn. It lent William the unintended air of a strongly medicated  Hammer horror headliner.  

Well, that’s new.      

They arrived back at the New Human Institute late the next day. For Billy, passing through Perth was like showing a landlocked child the sea. WA’s capital may not have made anyone’s list of great metropoli9, but to William it could have been Rome, Paris, and New York all at once. More than a few children in passing cars would have difficulty convincing their parents of what they saw peering at them from the window of a VW.

Myriad’s schoolmates’ songs reached her long before they were in sight of the New Human Institute, instantly rousing her from a bout of travel sickness brought on from riding in the tray of the truck, and the soggy, petrol station chips10 she had devoured while Lawrence reacquired the Institute’s ute11. They were the chimes of “Greensleeves” playing on an ice-cream van’s speakers in the distance: a promise of infinite joy. They existed parallel of each other, somehow not devolving into cacophony as they approached the way that many songs made of sound would when being played at once. She felt like a child raised by wolves—or maybe paintings—hearing speech for the first time, or someone who had went their whole lives without some desperately vital vitamin finally being allowed to eat her fill.

As soon as it was close enough, she grabbed hold of Snapdragon’s song, thrusting her hand out over the side and unleashing a stream of phosphorescent red and yellow sparks that drifted in their wake like the Milky Way set ablaze, eliciting a lot of oohing and aahing from Billy, who crawled over to her side to get a better look.  

“Aren’t you worried about starting a bushfire or something?” Despite the cautiousness his words implied, his tone was one of utter delight.

Myriad smiled, primly. “It only burns when I want it to.” In demonstration, she allowed a fountain of fireworks to flow from her fingertip over the three of them, sadly without the characteristic whine of the real thing, but with plenty of popping and crackling.

Billy instinctively went to pat out the embers that settled on his jacket, earning him some laughter from Maelstrom and Myriad. Soon enough, he was laughing, too.

If AU had invaded and burned, or possibly gilded, the New Human Institute since Lawrence last checked in on it, everyone was being very civil about it. The students and staff were all assembled around the chewed up patch of dried mud the truck usually summered in, Mary Gillespie and Linus enthusiastically waving a “welcome back” banner. Also waiting to greet the party was a contingent of what were doubtlessly Mabel’s creatures. A giant, vaguely reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln and dressed in suspenders and stovepipe trousers loomed over the crowd, flanked by centaurs, who, at a deafening trumpet blow from the giant, fired a volley of arrows in salute. Overhead, rather more fireworks than Myriad had produced exploded cheerfully.

When the truck came to a stop, Myriad heard someone shout “They’re in position!”

There was a crack, and a shower of confetti rained down over the truck.

“And who’s going to clean that up?” Tiresias snapped as he gratefully clambered out of the Ute’s cabin, before slinking off to a less glaringly festive corner of the campus.

Myriad jumped off the truck, slowing her descent with a well timed gust of wind. Maelstrom bothered with no such precaution. Both children were soon fallen upon, Maelstrom being enveloped by Melusine and Mabel’s arms, while Elsewhere ran up beaming, a broadsheet under his arm.

“You were in the paper!” he shouted, holding up the five day copy of The Australian. “Not even just this one! The West Australian did a story about you guys as well!”

“And The Northam Advertiser,” added Mabel proudly, breaking away from the hug.

“Called you both ‘local children’. Never going to see them admit that again,” Melusine said, still embracing her son, pride, bitterness, and absolute relief warring in her voice.

Myriad took the paper from Elsewhere’s hands. The front page was dominated by a photograph of what Bob Jenkins had dubbed her cathedral , grainily rendered in light and shadow. She had seen it the day of publication, of course. Lawrence had trooped out to the nearest newsagent first thing in the morning to purchase up a copy. She had no doubt that another had already been framed and hung up somewhere in the big house. Still, after the days of stress and longing, and all the business with Billy, it felt odd being reminded that the Parliament House demo wasn’t even a fortnight behind them.  

Out of some irrational urge to check if Jenkins hadn’t somehow retroactively broken his promise, she turned the page to the main body of the article. She soon found what she was looking for, printed in bolded italics on the rough paper:

The little girl sends her love to her mother and father, in hope they might read this.

Myriad looked up. Most of the other children were starting to cluster around the triumphant returnees, eager for tales of the outside world, while a few were trailing Tiresias as if he were a beloved, if grumpy, housecat. The air was thick with their songs, and Myriad found herself rapidly cycling through them, not holding onto any one for more than a second or two, just to assure herself they were there if she needed them. Then she started laughing. And crying.

“Ah, Miri,” said Elsewhere, sounding worried. “Are you okay?”

“I-I think I am.”  

“Something wrong, Allie?” Billy asked, leaning over the side of the truck tray.

Almost as one organism, everyone looked at the boy. Somehow, he’d gotten lost in the general excitement. Or he’d been too busy staring at the giant to make himself known.

“…Hi! Could someone help me down?”


1. Having personally met the Physician (and Żywie), the biological sciences were culled with particular stringence.

2. Perhaps surprisingly, the production of fallout shelters saw an uptick after global nuclear disarmament. Though, as some would later reflect, it was unlikely the Flying Man would be stopped by a door handle.

3. Almost as inaccurate as most modern globes.

4. The K.G. Murray Publishing Company put out eight issues of Captain Diamond before retiring the title due to public outcry and—so it was rumoured—a personal visit to their offices by the Flying Man himself.

5. In the period between 1962 and 1966, there were very few credible reports of the Flying Man engaging other superhuman beings—with the major exception of the Arkwright Incident of August 1963. If there were more, no camera or eye had been attentive enough to capture them.

6. It had taken his nanny and parents some time to assure themselves it wasn’t some twisted act of resentment on Billy’s part.

7. He should have found monks on a higher mountain—this being the main barometer of monk quality.

8. Françoise’s and the first half of David’s surname, legally speaking.

9. At least before the middle part of the 21st century.

10. There was enough vinegar in her blood to drive jellyfish to extinction.

11. Billy politely remained invisible for the most part, though not enough to prevent Crackbone Pete from being smug for weeks.

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Chapter Fifteen: Waters Clear and Dark

The workmen were quick to move the coal heaters, drinks, and refreshments down to what people quickly started calling the boathouse. Nobody wanted to tell their grandchildren that after riding in watercraft spawned from the earth itself and commanding the elements with borrowed divinity, they chose to sip champagne under a tent instead of the living cathedral created through sheer force of will. And of course, everyone was eager to congratulate its architect.  

Myriad had basked in the attention at first. It was like her birthday, first holy communion, and confirmation had all come at once. For one halcyon moment, she and Maelstrom had bridged the gap between human and superhuman, and shown some of the most influential men in the country that their kind weren’t all fiends like Redcap1 or victims of their own powers like Isabelle Thope. Timothy Valour had even congratulated them, in the first unabashed display of enthusiasm the children had witnessed from the man, which was like a match in a blizzard compared to Lawrence’s reaction.

Her patience had started to thin when she realised, with mounting horror, that a grown up party was hitting full swing in her wooden playground. She felt much like a museum curator watching children climb all over the sculptures. And unlike the parties her parents had occasionally thrown back home, there was little chance of Myriad being able to steal away over to Elsewhere’s place. At least it would be a hell of a walk.

There was Maelstrom, but he was enjoying the party a great deal more than his friend. He was being approved of, something he always hungered for. To prolong this state of affairs, he had set up in a corner taking requests for ice sculptures. Myriad had thought about joining him, but she didn’t want to spoil his mood. That, and it reminded her too much of a clown making balloon animals.

“Make the Crimson Comet!” demanded the Governor-General.

Maelstrom grinned. That was one was easy; his mother had shown him pictures. “One wing or both?”

Richard Casey had only been appointed Governor-General that August, but this day had confirmed the excellence of the timing for him. “Are you mad, boy? One wing, clearly!”

The boy’s eyes shone. A silent flurry of snowflakes blew in through the entrance, carried by no perceptible breeze, like a blizzard holding its breath. They coalesced next to the Governor-General in the shape of a costumed, extravagantly muscled figure, a single angelic wing protruding from his left shoulder blade. His expression was solemn, maybe even morose, mostly because that’s how he looked in most of the photos Maelstrom had seen.

“My word,” said Casey, squinting at the statue’s wing, the corner of his moustache twitching in thought. “You can make out every feather.”

“Our Maelstrom’s an artist, Your Excellency,” boomed Lawrence, watching approvingly from the sidelines. “He’s not going to skimp on any details.”            

Maelstrom beamed. Any other time, the praise might have caused him performance anxiety, but he was still riding high on a sense of accomplishment. “It’s not like carving. I just imagine what I want the the ice to look like, and… it does.”

“And how did you know what we wanted with the wands?”

“Just guessing, mainly. I did it for a friend once, a long time ago. She’d just come to the school and was kinda scared of her powers. So I let her use mine instead.”

If Maelstrom was talking about who Myriad thought he was, she found it very difficult to imagine. Mabel feared neither man, nor God, nor Lawrence, so why would she be scared of her own powers?

Maybe he was projecting, she mused, frowning as the psychological concept suddenly popped into her thoughts. That was the problem with her power. Sometimes, she didn’t know what she knew until the knowledge was suddenly relevant.

While Myriad’s creation outwardly resembled a church, its interior was substantially wilder. Dying winter sunlight filtered in through the great, thin leaves that covered the largest gaps in the trunks and branches that formed the walls of the place, supplementing the comforting glow of the heaters. The whole space was broken up by outgrowths that suspiciously resembled playground equipment. She had even managed to work in a decent staircase and loft, with a slide winding down from it. Myriad wasn’t sure if it was frictionless enough, and she hadn’t had the opportunity to test it. A couple of men were discussing the possibility of renovating the structure into a conference room.

“Missing the point,” she grumbled under her breath. How would you even wire the place up?

She passed Tiresias, who had been cornered by Agent Preston. His strong Midwestern accent was filled with the doubtless confidence Americans are so often blessed with. “You know, Mr. Moretti, the intelligence community could use a man like you. The applications of your talents in the Vietnamese conflict alone…” The spook smiled. “Well, I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”       

The psychic swirled his champagne in its delicate glass. “Don’t you have Pendergast for interrogations?”

“We do,” Preston admitted. “But Colonel Pendergast’s methods are best employed on…” He searched for a tactful way of putting it.

“The predeceased?” offered Tiresias.

“Well, yes. An operative with the power to read living minds would be invaluable. And then there’s your precognitive abilities—”

Tiresias sighed. He had hoped Lawrence would have the sense to not go telling people about that.

“—As hard as I’m sure it would be leaving your students behind, I think it’s fair to say the US richly compensates its paranormal operatives.”    

 “Ah.” The prospect of not having to deal with children all day for the rest of his life appealed, and he could see clearly that Agent Preston was being truthful. And maybe it would be better than the last time a government had made use of him. He managed to convince himself for a moment that he was about to take the American up on his offer: an old trick of his for exploring the possible outcomes of a decision. He saw futures rich with wine, women and song; power and prestige… along with bamboo shoots under his fingernails. “I’ll think about it.” Best stay the course, he decided.  

Leaving the telepath to his deliberations and Agent Preston’s continued pushing, Myriad weaved around the many examples of Maelstrom’s sculptory. He’d first demonstrated that aspect of his power using subjects he knew well. Basilisk and Żywie sat over one of their games of chess. With the absolute clarity of the ice, the only way you could determine who was winning was which way the pieces faced—or maybe the finely crafted look of exasperation on Żywie’s face. Off to the side of them was a likeness of Melusine so exact, you could be forgiven for thinking she was gatecrashing.

Moving on, one could find recreations of MPs’ grandchildren, alongside decidedly non-super heroes like Captain Cook and Don Bradman2; interspersed by rogues such as Pemulwuy and Ned Kelly—Australia’s first and still most infamous supervillain.

Myriad was admiring the texture of Blinky Bill’s frost wrought fur when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked up to find a sandy haired, hungry looking, grey suited young man with a press badge pinned to his front pocket, a No.2 pencil as sharp as anything that cuts hovering anxiously over his notepad. Myriad smiled immediately when she saw the other young man bringing up the rear, camera poised at the ready. She was representing her race, after all. And, if it ever came down to that, she had learned several new ways of living on a criminally small amount of money, like how to work virtually anything into an omelette.

“Comment for The Australian, young lady?”

No matter what they might tell you in journalism school, it is never advisable to open an interview by addressing a child as “young lady”3. Still, Myriad couldn’t hold it against the reporter. He was so nervous his song was skipping beats. He had probably only gotten the assignment because everyone comfortable with the heightened risk of exploding was already reporting from Vietnam, dodging bullets and searching for Walkleys.

“Sure,” she answered amiably. “You got questions for me?”

The reporter had them in great abundance. Lawrence had taken care to coach both his students in the event of such a barrage of questioning. He may not have been much help in devising a display of extranormal abilities, but journalism was well within his comprehension.

“What’s it like having powers?”

Myriad was tempted to ask the reporter what it was like being a human being, or a man, but instead stuck with Lawrence’s stock answer. “A real blessing. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

For his part, the reporter wasn’t sure he had ever heard a child that small call anything besides a sneeze a blessing. Still, he pressed on. “And what’s it like at this school of yours? Do you prefer being with your own kind? Do you miss being with regular children?”

Myriad bit her lip thoughtfully. She didn’t have to think about the answer, not really, but she thought it might soften the blow. “Not much,” she said, quite truthfully. Myriad had gotten along well enough with other children. Most of her classmates had liked her and she had nothing against them, but aside from her parents, the only person she’d really missed at McClare was Elsewhere. “It’s nice being with kids who’re the same kind of different as me.”

The reporter nodded carefully, scratching away at his pad. “Your teacher called you ‘Myriad’,” he said, smiling in a poor substitute for wryness. Or maybe it was supposed to be warmth. “I can’t imagine that’s your Christian name.”

“It isn’t. Lawrence likes to give us new names. Says the ones your parents give you don’t tell people much about you, except where your family might be from, I guess.”

The reporter laughed. After a few seconds spent trying to figure out if that was the right move or not, he spoke, “I guess Bob Jenkins doesn’t tell you much about me, does it? Not sure if it would work as well for us mere mortals, if I’m being honest. I mean, you’re not likely to stop being a super, are ya? Me, if this reporting thing doesn’t work out, would I have to stop calling myself…” He tried to think of a suitable moniker.

“Veritas?” Myriad offered. “It means truth.”

“I’m flattered.”

Bob had many more questions, ranging from the meaningful to the frivolous. Daily life at the Institute, the specifics of Myriad’s power, the inevitable tests of her knowledge, whether she envied any of her peers’ abilities (“They’re mine, too,” she told him), all peppered with some ill-considered jokes about her and Maelstrom making a cute couple which she charitably ignored.

Then he threw her a hardball. “How did you get to be at the Institute, anyway?”

As if you don’t already know. She answered anyway, “Lawrence took me from one of the asylums. McClare. It’s in Western Australia.”

Bob gave her a look of professional sympathy. “And do you ever feel angry at normal people for putting you there?” He then winced, as though he thought he might be reduced to a pillar of salt where he stood. He was in no such danger, of course. Even back at the Institute, Myriad could’ve at best smothered him in the stuff.

Myriad’s fingers hurt. She wanted to tell him, “Yes, all the time, forever,” but she knew how bad of an idea that was. Lawrence had been very clear: “You can’t ever—not even for a moment—let them think you bear a grudge.”

Very carefully, she recited, “I understand why they thought they had to.”

With some solemnity, Bob made one final note, before saying, “Thank you, Myriad. Do you think your little friend would mind speaking to us?”

Myriad looked back towards Maelstrom. The boy was working on a sculpture of Timothy Valour in his glory days4, complete with iconic aviator jacket, bomber hat, and goggles, while his current self looked on bashfully. She thought she understood why Basilisk had reacted so badly to her contradiction. “I think he’d like that,” she said.

Bob and his silent photographer were about to reassimilated into the crowd when Myriad remembered something. She rushed forwards and grabbed the reporter by the arm. “Are you going to use my picture in the article?”

Bob looked down at her, a little nonplussed. “…I can’t see why we wouldn’t. Not really up to me, though, or Sam.” He quirked his head towards the photographer, who nodded in confirmation.

“Well, if you do—”

“We’ll make sure to use the one of your good side, got it.”

Myriad frowned like Death. “If you do have a picture of me, I want you to write that I love my mum and dad very much. I’d tell you their names, but I’m not sure they would like that. They might not want more people knowing their daughter’s a—”

Bob’s marginal experience with children was more than enough to tell him that the girl was on the brink of tears. He put his hand on hers. “Me and Sam will make sure of it, don’t worry. Good of you to be thinking of them. I’m sure they’ll be very proud of you when they see the paper.”

Their reassurances made, the newsmen left Myriad alone in the crowd. Blinking her eyes shut very hard a few times, she continued her way towards the exit, hoping to get some fresh air.

A man stepped in front of her path. He was finely suited, his honey-blond hair slicked back with more brylcreem than even Elsewhere would have considered wise. “Myriad, wasn’t it?” He sounded British. Actually British—not Lawrence’s odd boarding school bred accent.   

Another grownup wants to make me recite their favourite poet5 or something. “Yes?”

He flashed her a How to Win Friends and Influence People smile. “Bryant St. George,” he extended a hand for her, “Was watching your show earlier, you handed me one of those wands. Loved the design of those, by the way. Shame they don’t last.”

Myriad thought she might have heard the name before. She shook the proffered hand dutifully. “Thanks.”

“If it isn’t too much of an imposition, would you mind introducing me to your teacher. I think we have a lot to discuss.”

Myriad shrugged. Not a bad idea, really. Get all the adults together in one conversation and they might leave her alone.      

“No, I didn’t plan their routine for them,” Lawrence was explaining to a rapt Prime Minister between bites of prawn. “I find that children growing up with abilities beyond the bounds of normal possibility can come up with ideas you and I wouldn’t even consider.”

Menzies nodded. “I have to say, Doctor, I was surprised you chose that foreign boy for the display—”

“He’s never been outside the country, Prime Minister,” Lawrence cut in flatly.

The Prime Minister frowned. “Oh.” He laughed. “Well, you wouldn’t think it hearing him talk. Still, I’ll give him this: there’s something very British in his bearing.”

Lawrence grinned. “His mother’s French.”

“Ah, well, I’m sure she’s a fine woman.”

There was a tug on Lawrence’s sleeve. He looked down to find Myriad staring up at him. “Lawrence, this man wants to talk to you. Says his name is Bryant St. George.”

Bryant St. George held up a hand. “Guilty as charged.” He smiled in Menzies’ direction. “Enjoying the evening, Prime Minister? So glad for the invitation.”

Menzies chortled. “You’ll have to thank Valour for that,” he said, pointing towards Timothy, who was patiently critiquing the accuracy of the sidearm Maelstrom had furnished his frozen counterpart with.  

“Of course,” replied Bryant. He gave Lawrence and inquiring look. “Are you from the Cottesloe Lawrences by any chance?”

“That I am,” confirmed Lawrence. “And which of the St. Georges did you spring from? The Burmese? The Raj? Johannesburg?”

“Liverpool. We may be losing the Empire, but the sun still doesn’t set on the St. Georges. Me and the wife came down here to keep an eye on the mines after my uncle passed on. Found the climate agreed with us. Sorry she couldn’t be here, by the way. She gets nervous just reading about this sort of thing.” He beamed down at Myriad. “You can go now, dear. Thanks for the introduction.”

Lawrence didn’t approve of his students being ordered about, or being summarily banished from adult conversations like that, but it wasn’t as though Myriad seemed eager to participate.

She continued towards the outside, catching snippets of conversations almost as banal as the songs of those holding them:

“Clearly, the Flying Man is a wizard…”

“…Daughter’s reflection keeps winking at her…”

“…Oven’s still on.”

Finally, she escaped out into the cool dusk air; out of the herd of chatting adults and roving reporters and the cloudbank of cigarette smoke. Who smokes inside a giant treehouse?

Khí Cụ’s song was as welcome as the blast of fresh air. She was sitting at the edge of the jetty, looking out over the water, the hem of her gown spilling out from her coat like a mermaid’s tail. She looks too young for war, Myriad thought once more. It did not occur to her that many of the fighters in her war were no older; albeit usually male.

What Myriad did grasp, however, was the commonality between them. Khí Cụ was a new human, and still young enough she fuzzily registered as another child to the little girl. She sat down beside her.

“Enjoying the party?” Myriad asked in Vietnamese.

Without looking at the girl, the botanical super snapped at her, “Don’t—” She seemed to decide her tone was too hostile, and caught herself. “Don’t-don’t do that,” she said, a little more kindly.

Taken aback, Myriad switched languages “Why not?” she asked in English. “Just trying to be nice.”

“I don’t need to be catered to like that. And-and I don’t like you using my words at me.”

Myriad frowned. “Oh, nobody told me you invented Vietnamese. You and Tolkien should have coffee.”

Khí Cụ looked at the girl quizzically. “…I don’t know who that is.”

Myriad pulled her shoes and socks off, dipping her feet into the lake. With how cold the water was, Khí Cụ wondered if the child felt she had a surplus of toes and could afford to lose a few. Myriad jolted, before her eyes turned the shade of blue they had been for most of the demonstration. “Doesn’t matter,” she said, kicking the water. “But still, what did you mean?”

For some reason, Khí Cụ couldn’t help but think that the younger superhuman had everything she needed to recreate Noah’s Ark if it struck her fancy. “You couldn’t speak Vietnamese before you met me, right?”

Myriad nodded. “Nope.”

“Say something in it—a full sentence.”

“She sells seashells by the seashore.” The tongue-twister was of course ruined in the translation, but it was still the first thing that came to mind.

“You speak it exactly like I do,” the young woman commented, sounding troubled.

“So?” she asked. “Do you speak a dialect? Or have speech problems?”

She’s not trying to be rude, she’s just eight,  Khí Cụ reminded herself while taking a deep breath. “Look, everybody talks a little differently. Doesn’t matter if they’re speaking the same language. You, though, you sound just like me. That’s not right.”

“Seems like a silly thing to be upset by,” Myriad remarked sourly.

Khí Cụ shrugged. “Maybe it is. How long have you been like this?”

“Had powers, you mean? Since forever.”

“…And you can learn whole languages and trades just by standing next to people?”

“Yes?”

“Did you come out of the womb walking and talking?”

“No. Well, at least my parents never said anything about it. Seems like the kind of thing they’d notice.”

“Why do you think that was?”

Myriad tried to remember as far back as she could, before the start of her coherent memory, past the haze of home and school and Elsewhere, all the way to the earliest, fragmentary moments and feelings; vague and hyper-clear all at once. The gentle motion of the family sedan on some long forgotten bank holiday. Her father holding her in the ocean. The time she slashed her foot open on a broken beer bottle at a neighbourhood barbecue. That incident had left temporal evidence, a jagged white line on the ball of her heel, faded with time and growth. It was gone now, along with every other nick and scar on her body, probably ever since the first time she’d used Maelstrom’s power6.

Playing through all of them, though, was the music.   

The songs had always been there, but she could dimly recall a time where she had yet to figure out how to incorporate them into her own. It was likely the last thing she’d ever had to learn. The thought stung at her for some reason. “I guess I wasn’t always all like this.” She decided she had earned a question of her own. “How old were you when you got powers?”

She was vaguely expecting a trancelike recitation of “There was a man,” but instead the girl answered, “Since birth. Just like you. They tell me the village produced enough rice that year to soak up the sea, but who knows. Only thing old men get better at with age is bullshitting.”

The only other born new humans Myriad knew were Maelstrom and maybe Elsewhere. Well, probably Ophelia and the other babies, too7, but they were hardly up to talk about it. And neither of the boys worked like she did; at least if the Physician were to be believed. That was a big “if”, but it was all Myriad had to go on.

“Khí Cụ?”

“Yes?”

“Are you scared of the dark?”

Myriad wasn’t sure if she should expect an answer. Teenagers could be such prideful creatures. She was almost surprised when Khí Cụ spoke:

“It’s like water, isn’t it? Thick and warm and pressing down on you from all sides?”

“I know, right?” said Myriad, elated to find someone who finally understood. “Why is it like that?”

The older girl shrugged. “My mother used to say I remember the womb. I always told her it was a stupid idea”—she smiled sadly—“but then she’d remind of whatever, dumb, impossible thing I’d done that morning.” Her smile flattened. “This wasn’t meant to be a working holiday,” she said, looking up at the moon, already drifting into sight from behind a curtain of clouds. “Your country is strange.”

That last statement was puzzling. “Is it because it’s summer in Vietnam?” Myriad asked. “Well, that’s because—”

Khí Cụ cut off the impromptu geography lecture. “The way it treats us, I mean.” She hoped the child thought she needed it because she was eight and not because she was white. “Your government can’t decide what to do with your lot. They lock you up, then they make you dance for them. Like letting tigers into your house. ”

“Is it different where you’re from?”

Khí Cụ laughed. “Might be, but it’s the Americans who decide what happens to me at the moment. They’re simple. They take what they love, and turn it into a weapon. It’s also what they do with what they hate, but the result’s the same. I think they’re even proud of the Flying Man.”

“…That doesn’t make sense.”

“Think about it. If the Flying Man was ever a little boy, what do you think he grew up reading? Who invented the word ‘superhero’? What would he have looked up to if he had come up in my village, or here, or in Russia?” She laughed, saluting mockingly. “The Flying Man is a menace, but he’s an American menace, goddamnit!”

 Myriad was considering her argument when she heard Maelstrom’s song approaching. She made space for him to sit down. “What’s up?”

“Not much. Talking to Khí Cụ.”

Maelstrom waved at her, who reciprocated the gesture without looking at the boy.

“Done with the statues?” his friend asked.

Maelstrom quirked his shoulders. “I needed a break. I was starting to feel a bit like a clown doing balloon animals.”   

Myriad giggled. “You’ve seen one of those?”

“Lawrence hired a clown for a February party once.”

“How was it?”

“The others… didn’t think he was very funny.”

Myriad would’ve laughed if she couldn’t see the expression of pained recollection on her friend’s face. “Oh. Did you?”

Maelstrom relaxed a touch. “He tried.”

They looked down into the lake, still clear as diamond from their display. The execution had been Myriad’s idea. Some of the grown ups had asked Maelstrom how they did it, but he had kept mum. It would only spoil the magic.

The water looked very inviting.

“Do you think…” Maelstrom began, then cast Khí Cụ a glance. “Nah. We’d get in trouble.”

“Yeah. And we probably don’t want the Prime Minister seeing… those parts.”

“What the hell are you two talking about?”

Neither child deigned to explain themselves.

“They don’t have to,” said Maelstrom. “We can always steam our clothes after.”

“Please keep your clothes on,” Khí Cụ said in a voice of increasing panic.

“You can see all the way to the bottom,” Myriad sighed, gazing at the water, then glancing back at the treehouse, the party still going full swing inside. “It can’t hurt, can it? As long as we aren’t too… over the top? I could really use a swim right now. It wouldn’t even be swimming, really. Just wading, except, all over.”

“Can’t see a reason why it would,” Mael answered evenly, “It’s not as if they don’t know we have powers. We haven’t exactly been told not to use them… Maybe we should ask Lawrence.”

That alone was enough to sway Myriad on the matter. She took a step forwards, the water splashing slightly around her foot. She closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of it between her toes, before turning back towards David, swinging her arms and, along with them, sending a splash of water up into his face.

“That was for earlier,” she grinned. “I told you it was too hard!”

For once in the boy’s life, enthusiasm seemed to overtake the need to look reserved, and he giggled, running forwards into the water to join her, the pristine leather of his dress shoes squeaking slightly on the snow that lined the bank, before hitting the water in a manner that would likely give most cordwainers a heart attack.

“What in the world…?” Khí Cụ muttered, watching the two children cackle by the water’s edge, wrestling in the shallows, before one of them got water on her dress. She growled, raising a root from the nearby shore to momentarily dunk both kids’ heads beneath the surface, not that either of them seemed to care. She eventually gave a little shrug, and raised a short wooden chair from the earth to sit on, nursing her champagne. She found watching the pair oddly relaxing. They reminded her of how her powers had seemed to her at first, when she was younger—before she became a gun. Back when the French were someone else’s problem. It was only now that she was beginning to recognize how much she missed that feeling. She sighed, and glanced down at her drink. She was going to need more champagne.

“Young miss?” called a man’s voice from behind her. “Do you… Do you have any idea what they’re doing?”

Khí Cụ glanced around at the man. It was one of the politicians from before. She graced him with one of her best scoffs. “I believe it is called ‘playing,’ sir, but I can understand how one could be forgiven for not recognizing it.”

If the man found the attempt at rudeness offensive, he paid it no mind. Perhaps deciding against starting an argument with a half drunk demigod. “It’s… a little odd, seeing them do that so casually, don’t you think?” he asked, taking a few steps closer and gazing at the pair. “God, I wish I was able to enjoy myself like that these days.”

Khí Cụ snorted. “Me too, old timer, me too.”

After a few minutes, she rose the man a chair, and they sat together, watching the children be children for however long they could.

Herbert Lawrence and Bryant St. George laughed together in a corner of what the former was finally willing to admit was a treehouse. Robert Menzies was still outside watching Maelstrom and Myriad frolic, and it would be ten minutes before Tiresias would unwisely seek shelter in it after tipsily making a pass at Khí Cụ.

Lawrence was honestly glad to be free of the Prime Minister’s company. He had known the man to be a parochial sort, but there was only so much ranting about the role of posthumanity in the fight against the “socialist panacea” he could take. Bryant, on the other hand, knew how to keep politics out of the conversation, and had somehow managed to procure them some decent beer.  

“…And then she tried telling us the cow got on top of the house by herself!”

Bryant slapped the table in front of him with apparent amusement. Much as that story always cheered Lawrence himself, he thought that was a little excessive. He hadn’t even told the one about the time Stratogale had to go after Ophelia with a net.

“Oh, I don’t know how you manage it, Lawrence,” he said, wiping his eyes. “All those kids! My whole life would be spent under a desk with a bottle of wine. And that’s just if they were naturals! How do you keep your head about it?”

Lawrence smiled. “It’s not what you would think. Think about it for a moment. Is the majority of juvenile crime committed by children with extranormal abilities? No—like all other human sins, it’s our kind that bears the lion’s share. A new human may have taken the bomb from us, but I doubt he was the one who dropped it on Hiroshima.”

Bryant nodded solemnly. “I’ve read a fair bit about your Institute—at least—what reading there is available. The Northern Advertiser could have been kinder in its coverage of your work, I think.”

Lurid headlines on cheap, recycled paper made an unwanted return to Lawrence’s thoughts:

“DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR NEIGHBOUR IS?”

“FLYING GIRL SPOTTED OVER BAKER’S HILL”

“LOCAL WEATHER WITCH WELCOMES SON INTO THE WORLD8

The recollection made him set his teeth grimly. He had told Żywie that putting in a birth notice for Maelstrom was a bad idea. Especially under that cradle-name his mother sometimes used. “That they could have, Mr. St. George, that they could have.”

“I did read your book, though. The New Child.”  

Lawrence was genuinely surprised. He had written The New Child only a little after Maelstrom was born, and with the—for better or worse—lesser visibility of posthumans at the time, it had received little attention upon publication. Honestly, Lawrence wasn’t all that proud of a lot of what he had said in that book. He had only personally known a handful of posthumans at that point in his life, and had yet to even meet the Physician. Even the Namings back then were more of a lark than the tradition they would grow into. Still, it was nice to know he wasn’t writing for the void. “Did you now? What’d you think of it?”

St. George gave Lawrence an impassioned look. “I think you were dead to rights on how we should be handling these children, Lawrence. As things are now, well, best case scenario: we waste something truly wonderful. Worst case: we’re all dead before the year 2000.” He shook his head gravely. “It’s something of a personal concern, you see.”

Lawrence’s eyes lit up. “How so?”

Bryant graced the older man with a half smile. “My son is… well, he’s more like those two children playing out there in the lake than you and me.”

Lawrence needed no further prompting to start interrogating the man. “What can he do exactly? Was he born with his abilities or did they come in later? How old is he?”

St. George threw his hands up. “Slow down, old boy. Billy’s turning eight in March, and he’s always been… that way. His first cries broke all the windows.”

Sonic manipulation, thought Lawrence. Sounds a little cruder than Reverb, but you can’t expect her to set the standard.

“That’s the thing, though. All the supers I’ve ever heard of—not that that’s many, mind you—have either only been able to do one extra thing, or they’re all… themed, I suppose is how you you might put it? But what does breaking glass with your voice have to do with turning invisible.”

That’s a bit of a cheap trick. Wonder if he does it by bending light or meddling with perceptions directly.

“—And I don’t even know what to make of that mercury trick of his.”

…That I’ll have to see.

“It’s been a hard life for him, Doctor. Even before the Flying Man, he never really got to be like the other kids. We’re lucky to have even kept him this long, but, well, we have an arrangement with the DDHA, you understand.”

Lawrence nodded. He had no doubt that someone with the St. Georges’ kind of wealth could “persuade” the DDHA to leave their child be. That was, essentially, how he had kept the Institute from being dismantled when the panic first started. Probably cost the government less than housing the children themselves, after all. “I can imagine the pressure it’s put on you and your wife, Mr. St. George.”

“I appreciate the thought. Well, me and Cecilia have talked it over, and we’ve decided that our boy might be happier at your school, with his own kind.”

Lawrence tried not to make his pleasure at the news obvious. “That’s a commendable decision, Mr. St. George. It takes a big man to be able put their child’s welfare over their proximity to them. I can swear on my life, though, that Billy will be accepted into our family with open arms.”

Bryant suddenly looked uncomfortable. “That’s very kind of you to say…” He seemed to hesitate before belatedly adding, “There is one other thing I should mention, Doctor. About Billy.”

Lawrence did not fail to notice the man’s disquiet. Leaning in slightly, he asked, “And that is?”

St. George pointed towards the treehouse’s entrance. “Those two out there, you would say they were handsome enough specimens, right?”

Lawrence’s smile returned. “That’s our Żywie’s doing. She regularly checks to make sure the children are growing up into their best selves. Trims away negative recessives, fixes environmental damage, that sort of thing. She’s a refiner of living things.”

Bryant tapped his fingers on the table, his lips pursed, before fumbling in his pocket for his wallet. “Then I send her my admiration. But more to point, whatever difference there may be between supers and regular people, it’s usually invisible, yes?” He opened the leather wallet, passing it to Lawrence. “Well, not so much with our Billy.”

Aside from far too much cash and a few club cards, the wallet also contained a photo. Lawrence’s eyes widened at the sight of it. He decided that Bryant St. George was probably being honest when he said his son was more like Maelstrom and Myriad than either of them. The way mammals resemble each other more so than reptiles.

He looked back up at Bryant, his face pale. “Is-is this purely physical?”

“He’s no retard, if that’s what you’re asking.” With a trace of guilt, he admitted, “At least, that’s what his nanny tells us.”

Averting his eyes, Lawrence slid the wallet back towards its owner. “Mr. St. George, I’m not sure you grasp what you’re asking me to do. I don’t know how my students will respond to… I don’t need to say it, do I?”

Bryant slumped in his chair, looking exhausted. “Billy has never been to school, Lawrence. He’s never even played with another child. Those two out there play on the bottom of lakes like they were parkland. When you come down to it, is there any real difference between them and my son?”

“I think you know the answer to that, Bryant.” Lawrence stood up from the table. “I do not enjoy parting children from their parents in the best of circumstances. You and your wife seem to have young Billy’s care in good stead. I wish him the best.”

The feeling that Bryant St. George experienced in that moment surprised him. After over seven years, he thought he had grown numb to shame. “I’m willing to write a cheque.”


1. Prominent Perthite supervillain, infamous for his ability to telekinetically influence human blood, even within an individual’s body.

2. Though some might argue that understanding the rules of cricket qualifies as a power.

3. Especially if the interviewee is a boy.

4. Why the period of his life he spent alternatively killing or nearly being killed should be considered his “glory days” sometimes puzzled Valour.

5. In this particular individual’s case, anyone except William Blake.

6. Which made it rather confusing that she still had a navel.

7. Elsewhere had suggested scenarios involving careless mothers and open vats of toxic waste, but Myriad had written off those as fairly unlikely.

8. The people of Northam and its surrounding environs were always a little vague on what Melusine actually did.

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Chapter Fourteen: The Miracle at Parliament House

Before Parliament House, the great and the good had gathered in the snow to witness a miracle. It was scheduled for a quarter past one, with refreshments to be served immediately following. Politicians, captains of industry, their wives, journalists, a smattering of academics, and a couple of individuals with real power sat expectantly in white wooden chairs. Officially, they were there to take in a speech by an advocate for demi-human rights, followed by a demonstration of two of his students’ abilities.

Unofficially, they were there to watch children do magic.

Khí Cụ was not what either Maelstrom or Myriad had been expecting. Lawrence and Timothy Valour had both described her as a young woman, but Myriad and Maelstrom had pictured her as just that: a woman. Instead, they were greeted by a teenage girl—probably no older than Ex-Nihilo or Stratogale, maybe a little younger—sipping a champagne flute beneath the pole marquee that had been set up for the guests. The warm, red glow thrown off by the coals of an outdoor heater bathed her face and that of the strong featured, dark-suited man shadowing her. At first glance, Maelstrom thought he might be a relative of Thumps and Jives, but the suspicious look he shot the party as they filed inside put paid to that notion. There was a gun holstered at his side.     

“Are you the group from the New Human Institute?”

It was the first American accent Maelstrom and Myriad had ever heard in person. He sounded like television. Elsewhere would simply die of envy.

Tiresias smirked. “That we are. And you must be the man from U.N.C.L.E?”

Therese waved, smiling nervously. “Hello.”

He ignored the sarcasm, and the woman. “Agent Preston, Department of Psychonautics and Occultism, on attachment with—”

“I think I can introduce myself, Harold,” cut in Khí Cụ. The South Vietnamese super got up from her chair and walked over to the children. Smartly dressed in a long belted coat the colour of burnt umber, the collar of a brightly coloured undershirt just barely visible beneath a thick woolen scarf, the young lady somehow gave the impression of being both overgrown and half-finished. Gerberas were scattered through her raven dark hair1. Nobody—barring maybe Agent Preston—could picture her in a war zone. Her song was oddly organic, as though instead of being played with actual instruments, it was the work of an orchestra of piping, chittering insects.

She shook Maelstrom and Myriad’s hands in turn. “Khí Cụ. Sorry for using the codename, Harold here insisted.” Her English was quite passable, although something odd happened whenever she spoke. It was like she said something, then half an instant later the universe decided she actually said something else.

“Security, ma’am,” the spook said, a touch apologetically.  

“Can’t imagine what difference it makes.” Without prompting, she pulled a necklace from under her blouse: an amulet hung from the chain, consisting of a splinter of stone entwined in bronze. “If you’re wondering about the… playback, blame it on this. Gift from Pendergast. Translation pendant, he called it. Told me it was hewn from the Tower of Babel or something. Works both ways, too.” She smiled wryly. “From my end, you’re all speaking Vietnamese.”

In Vietnamese, Myriad asked, “Can you tell I’m really speaking it right now?”

Khí Cụ tilted her head. “…I can. Did I just teach you a language?”

The girl nodded, not a little proudly. “Yup! Got it from your song. First Asian language I’ve learned, I think, aside from a little Chinese.” Oh, that was AU…  

“I’m flattered? And what song?”

Lawrence beamed. “Myriad—forgive me if we use ‘codenames’ ourselves—perceives people’s skills and knowledge as music. I’m told us baselines sound much the same, but supers are a mite more interesting.”

“…A person can be summed up with a song?”

“I’ve heard some of them myself,” said Tiresias. “I just take comfort that at least one child will hit legal drinking age with a healthy understanding of wine vintages.”

Myriad went very still on hearing that the esper had read her mind at some point. Luckily for her, no one noticed.

“And it took her less than a minute to… become everything I am?”

“Spectacular, isn’t it?” said Lawrence, grinning.

Khí Cụ downed the rest of her drink. It suddenly felt very necessary to be at least slightly tipsy.

Therese looked on with some concern. “Aren’t you a little young for that?”   

“Lady, I’m on leave from being shot at by communists. I think I’m entitled to a little drink.” She hiccuped slightly. “And kangaroos!”

Tiresias picked up a flute from the refreshments table. “I’ll drink to that!”

“Before, you do,” said Tim Valour as he passed through the tent flaps. “I think we should talk shop.”

“Ah, Timothy,” said Lawrence jovially. “Is everything set?”

“Yes,” he confirmed, frowning. “I still wish I could’ve told them more precisely what you were planning.”

Lawrence patted Maelstrom on the back. “I trust my students to come up with something edifying. So long as they’re provided with the adequate resources.”

“Water tanks have been placed in suitably discrete locations on the grounds. Not that the boy should need them in this weather.”

Maelstrom hoped dearly that his teacher hadn’t been talking him up.

“And me?” asked Myriad.

“Various seeds have been planted for your use,” explained Agent Preston. “Rest assured, this winter of yours shouldn’t impede you.”

“You should be able to tell what they’ll grow up into, if you really can take on my power,” added Khí Cụ, with what Myriad thought might be a trace of distaste in her voice. Like she was hoping it couldn’t be done. Nodding, a patch of dandelions sprouted at the child’s feet.

Therese cocked an eyebrow. “How’d you ever get that approved? I mean, no offense, Maelstrom, but water dries up. Plants seem a bit more… permanent.”

Maelstrom honesty wondered how he could be offended by that.

Tiresias grinned, his index and pointer fingers pressing on his temples in the universally recognised psionic gesture. “He convinced the maintenance people that it was cheaper than hiring a landscaper!”

Timothy glared at the esper. “Have you been reading my mind, Moretti? There’s classified information in here!” he almost growled.  

“Because that’s going to make me less inclined to poke around there.”

Lawrence made to chastise Tiresias, but Valour threw a hand up. “It’s for your own good, lad,” he warned. “There’s things in my head that you don’t want to let the light fall on.”

“My hometown was run by blackshirts, old man. I’ve seen plenty.”

Timothy folded his arms. “Then go ahead, my boy.”

Tiresias smirked. Then he suddenly looked acutely queasy. “Oh, God.” He stumbled backwards into the table behind him, almost knocking it over. “How are you still alive?”

Tim Valour allowed himself the ghost of a smile. “Who says I am? Miss Fletcher, will you do me the favour of helping Mr. Moretti find his seat?”

The DDHA head and the young teacher hoisted up the woozy psychic between them, leading him outside.

Over his shoulder, Tim said, “We’re on in five, Lawrence. Me and Khí Cụ soften them up, you give your spiel, and you two”—He pointed at the children—“come out and do your thing, so keep an ear out for your cue. Oh, and good luck.”

Agent Preston and Khí Cụ both made to follow them, the former gently supporting the latter by the arm. It amazed Preston that an almost deific power could be such a lightweight with her booze. But then, she was young. “We’ll leave you to it. Hope we can speak more later.”

The other adults gone, the children both looked up at Lawrence. He had wished to avoid dressing them up like circus performers, but it was hard to resist a little symbolism in their outfits. Maelstrom had been clothed in the shades of Aegean blue and electric lime his mother was partial towards, and Therese had found him a set of pearl cufflinks out in the city. And as fond as Mary Gillespie was of communion white for the namings, the head teacher thought it far too severe a colour for a little girl—and black was simply out of the question. Instead, Myriad was wearing a cotton floral dress for the occasion, all pinks and reds and bright purples. She had to admit, it did make her feel pretty.

“What are we supposed to do out there?” she asked plaintively.  

“And is there stuff we’re not supposed to do?”

Lawrence chuckled. “I’m sure you two have enough common sense not to try anything potentially catastrophic. And there’s little you could do that wouldn’t impress.” He started for the outside. “Just pretend you’re playing, you’ll be fine,” he finished, not looking back.

Maelstrom and Myriad looked at each other. That advice put them at ease about as as much as an alien anthropologist telling a grown up he only wishes to observe human mating practises2.  Alone at last, they got down to panicking in earnest.

“Seriously, what’s the plan?” cried Maelstrom, raking his fingernails over the backs of his hands.

“I don’t know!” Myriad spat back. The most experience the girl had performing for an audience was her brief turn as the Virgin Mary in Harvey Primary’s 1964 nativity play, and the less said about that debacle the better3. “You and Mabel do this sorta thing all the time! Don’t you have any ideas?”

There was the sharpening whine of a microphone being adjusted. Preambles and platitudes from a man who, while confident and convicted, did not expect his career to involve many speeches.

“We never did anything in front of strangers!” And we usually knew they weren’t gonna like us to start with… Maelstrom’s voice was quavering, barely holding back sobs. “And Mabel was the one who came up with stuff! We’re gonna ruin everything!”    

Myriad grabbed her friend’s shoulders. Much as she liked the water-sprite, Maelstrom was wobbly even at the best of times, and this was not the time for a breakdown. Holding his gaze, she said, “It’ll be okay, David. We’re new humans.” She tried to think of what Lawrence might say. “The worst we can do is still better than the best thing they’ve ever seen.”

“—hostile footing with our demi-human population not only needlessly ties up funds and manpower, it also puts our regulatory forces at unprecedented risk—”

It wasn’t working, and no matter what Myriad tried, David was looking paler and paler by the second. She wondered if using his… old human name, she supposed, was such a good idea after all.

“How are we doing in here?” Came the kind, unfamiliar voice of some staffer from the exit. “You two are on in about two minutes, okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Myriad replied absently, her focus still on Maelstrom, who had begun to look distinctly ill. “Hey, David, you’re just gonna be playing with me, okay? Just playing in the water, like we did back home, alright?”

“—they not Australian children, also?”   

The boy gave her a feverish little nod, but the look of panic on his face remained unchanged. Myriad sighed, and moved away from him for a moment, trying to catch a glimpse of the Vietnamese girl’s performance. She allowed herself to peek out, just for a moment, before pulling her head back inside. It looked like the show was already over, the stage surrounded by a thick bracket of apple trees. Trees that had most definitely not been there a few minutes ago.

“—Hope this demonstrates to you all with some degree of finality, the many and sundry practical applications for such powers, in war, construction, and even simple agriculture. With these demi-humans—appropriately trained and controlled, of course—on our side, the potential is enormous. Don’t hesitate to sample some apples, by the way. I’m told they’re quite delicious. But first, our next demonstration, sourced from a facility in Western Australia, the New Hu-”

She pulled back away, thoughts tumbling around in her head in a disorganized heap, and looked back to David. He was crying, mumbling quietly to himself as he did.

“David!” Myriad groaned, looking around wildly for something she could use to calm the boy. A small table caught her eye, littered with a smattering of preshow refreshments for the stage workers and other such performers. She darted over to it, wrapping Maelstrom’s song around herself and working intensely for a few moments, before returning to the boy. Quite unceremoniously, she shoved her freshly made snowball, a slurry of frozen water and orange juice, into his face, forcing a good dollop into his mouth. David yelped, eyes darting to her face in confusion and surprise. She didn’t stop, and instead started working bits of her makeshift snow cone up into her friend’s nose. He shuddered with discomfort, his whole body seeming to tense for a second, before he sneezed, loud and undignified, spraying the grass with citrus scented sludge.

“David,” Myriad hissed, grabbing the boy by the shoulders. “Nothing’s changed, okay? It’s you and me, and we are gonna go out there and play in the water, just like we always do. And if we mess it up, if it all goes wrong, then I guess it just means the world wasn’t ready to see us yet, okay?”

“B-buh,” David tried to respond, staring at her, “but what about Lawrence and M-mum and everyone who needs this!?”

“They aren’t real right now, David,” she ordered, trying to force it to be true by sheer force of will. “Right now it’s just you and me playing with the water and nothing else matters, okay? Nothing else.”

Maelstrom shuddered, absently licking a lump of orange snow from his lip. He looked up at her, took a deep breath, swallowed, and nodded.

“Good,” Myriad sighed, relieved. “Let’s think. What do we have to work with?” As she spoke, she moved back over to the refreshments table, tossing Maelstrom a glass of water, with which he began to wash the juice from himself.

“Well,” he pondered, “We have my powers, and Khi Cu’s, and Tiresias’, I guess.”

Myriad thought about it, then shook her head. While she knew from unfortunate experience that Tiresias could project images onto the mind’s eye, she had yet to sample his powers, and hoped she wouldn’t need to. She didn’t expect performing would be any less daunting with their audience’s every thought slamming against her skull. Not only that, she suspected a lot of the telepath’s demeanor was a direct result of his abilities; and she was far too young for wine and clove cigarettes.  

“Not Tiresias,” she muttered. “There’s cameras out there. I don’t think anything I made them see would show up in photos.”   

“R-right,”

Lawrence had taken over from Timothy Valour by then, but the children hadn’t been paying attention. They had mostly heard it all before over many a breakfast. At least until they heard their names called:

“And now, Maelstrom and Myriad.”

David went as still as he could while still being flesh and blood. He was well beyond panic.

Myriad took his hand, smiling through her own fear. “Watercolours on tour?”

He nodded uneasily.

The two children walked out into the cold, empty air, the thick carpet of snow going from the consistency of flour to crushed ice beneath their feet. Neither of them had ever seen snow in person before, and while the adults had mentioned the possibility, they hadn’t imagined such a complete powdering of the capitol. It was as if the Americans had brought their winter with them, three or four months early.   

The snow simultaneously comforted and intimidated David. The abundance of water, even in a somewhat unfamiliar form was reassuring, yes, but here was nature replicating one of Melusine’s parlour tricks without permission. The boy tried to mimic his mother’s usual confidence and self-possession as they walked towards the stage. When the crowd caught sight of the children, they were met with with polite, anticipatory applause, which was of little comfort to Maelstrom. It made him feel like he now owed them something.

Myriad kept ahold of her friend’s hand; partly in an attempt to keep him calm, partly in case he tried pulling a runner. “Me first, okay?”

Maelstrom didn’t argue.

The chill was hitting Myriad far harder than her friend. As it turned out, Khí Cụ had no more resistance to the cold than any baseline. What she did have was a whole new complex of exotic senses for Myriad to adjust to. She could feel every plant for over a fifth of a mile clinging to the skin of the world. She felt like an ant inching its way across the body of a somnolent giant as it slept away the winter, conserving all it could while dreaming of spring. She could sense the warmth of seeds buried beneath the earth, waiting for either the weather to turn or for her to rouse them. When she looked at the apple trees Khí Cụ had brought forth, she knew they would always be verdant, until there was no sun at all to shine down on them, and maybe even beyond that.

Timothy, Mr. Thumps and Lawrence were waiting on stage, Lawrence with an arm held out to the two as if presenting a new car. “Are you two ready to show us what you can do?”

Myriad looked out over the audience. Robert Menzies and his wife Pattie sat in the middle of the front row, between Valerie “Val” Valour (“Now where’s my comic?” she’d always say at parties) and Khi Cu’s official host during her sojourn in the country: the bespeckled US ambassador Edward A. Clark4. For the first time in her short life, Myriad honestly envied Fred Barnes. He would know just what to do faced with these men of influence who had so thoughtlessly strayed from the newspapers in which they belonged. It would’ve involved a lot of shouting and impeccably aimed spittle, but he would have done it without hesitation or regret.     

The audience looked out and saw a little girl and boy, each dressed in what would appear to have been their Sunday best—if they were Swiss Guards at the Vatican. The little girl paused, glanced back at her companion, and turned to face the crowd. She stepped up to the microphone, standing on her toes trying to reach the receiver. Without instruction, Mr. Thumps lowered it to her height, which elicited some chuckles from the audience.

The girl tapped the microphone, as you do, eliciting a small crackle of static. “If you don’t mind, I’m gonna need you all to follow me and Maelstrom.” Offering no further explanation, she strode across the stage, descended the stairs on the left side, and strolled through the snow down towards Lake Burley Griffin, as though the company of her audience was more a pleasant possibility than a strict requirement. Maelstrom followed, trying his best to look like he knew what his friend was doing.

Timothy and Lawrence glanced at one another. The Oxfordian shrugged, which for him was a particularly seismic movement. They both hurried after the children, Tim Valour taking a moment to bend down and speak into the microphone, “Well, you heard the girl.”

With trepidation, the crowd rose from their seats, following the children down to the chopping, slate waters of the artificial lake. Some did so with difficulty, being at an age where any walking is preferably scheduled far in advance. They muttered amongst themselves about the presumption of it all, wondering darkly if the rural headteacher needed to exercise a stronger hand on his students.

The Prime Minister, for his part, spurred his peers across the smothered grass. “Keep apace, fellas! Surely we’re not averse to a touch of exercise?”

Mrs Valour caught up to her husband, holding the hem of her dress so it didn’t drag in the snow. “Tim, was this planned?”

Timothy looked at his wife. One of the few advantages of his new vocation was that he was practically mandated to drag Valerie to all kinds of functions and events. He’d had quite his fill of time away from his wife during the wars. Still, she had never been comfortable with the stranger details of his life. She rarely even abided stories from the old days. “Well, the ‘plan’ was for those two to do something impressive. I’d say a pair of eight year olds ordering the political elite around qualifies. Anything more is just a bonus.”

Valerie gave him a sharp glance. “I doubt our elected representatives will see it that way. Do you have any idea what those children are going to do?”

Timothy looked out at Maelstrom and Myriad. The two of them were well ahead of their audience, nobody daring to close the distance between them. They were walking with the casual, loping grace of children at ease, cutting through the snow as if it were fog, conversing too low for any of the adults to hear. You might have thought they had forgotten the cohort of politic-men, reporters, business moguls and professional wives trudging behind them.

Tim thought he saw Myriad look back at the crowd. It took him a moment to puzzle out the expression that graced her face. Fear? Anger? Disdain?

No—indifference. Just checking to see if the humans were still following them.

“I’m sure whatever game they decide to play will be interesting to watch.”

The children stopped at the edge of the water. After all, it would have been impolite to go where the crowd behind them could not follow. Myriad raised a hand, and there was no question of anyone coming any closer. Maelstrom regarded the lake with something that might have been longing. The girl was digging into the frozen dirt with her foot.

A newsman standing close to Lawrence said, “Well, either you’ve taught these kids the value of suspense, or we’ve caught them flat footed.”

Wordlessly, the two children turned to face the watching crowd. It was hard to make out, but some of the keener eyed among their audience thought that perhaps their eyes shone with a faint Cherenkov blue. All was silence as the two groups gazed at one another. The snow continued to fall gently all around them, first a little harder, then a lot harder, growing and growing until they could barely see more than a foot in front of their own faces. For a few moments, all that anyone could see were four tiny points of blue light, glowing softly in the distance. Then, all at once, the snowfall stopped. In mid air. The snow remained exactly where it was, hanging in the air like time itself had succumbed to winter.

Far ahead of the gathered crowd of the most powerful, influential men Australia had to offer, the two children had reemerged. Despite the biting cold and their small frames, both children looked utterly comfortable.

Maelstrom (most of the crowded guessed he was an Aborigine, but none of them thought it was an exact fit) stepped forward, shrugged off his jacket, and deposited it, neatly folded, on the snow covered ground. With that, he stepped out onto the perfect, unblemished patch of snow that separated them from their audience, but his steps left no mark and his feet failed to sink even an inch into the fine powder.

The boy gave his audience a polite bow, raised his arms to either side, and began to dance, his body shifting gently over the snow like a skater. He moved like water. He pushed off from the floor in the tiniest of leaps, and executed a gentle pirouette through the air. In the sudden clarity of the air, many caught the strange serenity of his face, others, more attentive, saw that his eyes were closed. Then Myriad began to move and in an instant all eyes were drawn to her.

She, like her partner, took a small step forwards, and gave a small bow—not a curtsey, but a bow—before raising her arms to her sides as Maelstorm had. All around the crowd the snow began to shift and clear, eventually compacting itself into a formation of chairs, each made from solid ice. The gathered men and women took their seats reluctantly, and most of them gave the seats a cautionary poke before sitting down.

“Wonderful,” said Tiresias, still recovering from his glimpse inside the DDHA chief’s head. “She makes us get up out of our chairs and drags us through the snow, so she can make us sit on ice. Real improvement there.”

Though clearly audible in the utter silence, Tiresias’ words were largely ignored by those assembled, as the children before them held all of their focus. Myriad gave the tiniest flick of her outstretched wrist, and the patch of snow upon which Maelstrom was dancing began to shift and shimmer, before erupting upwards in a plume of motion, disturbing the otherwise utter stillness of the scene beyond the dancing boy. In the center of the plume, a figure slowly began to form, about the height of the two children, but composed of pure, crystalline ice. It was a girl, but oddly for a sculpture, not an idealized one. Her features were not slight or refined, and they were just a little on the side of chubby. Perched on her nose were a pair of frost-formed horn rimmed glasses.

Boy and statue began to dance together, slowly at first, Maelstrom stumbling oddly with every few steps, for which the sculpture covered expertly. Slowly he grew used to the steps, and the two began to speed up ever so slightly, their steps taking them easily to the boundaries of the snow to either side until, with a look of pure joy upon his face, the boy came to a stop. The statue pulled him in for a hug, before slowly sinking once more into the snow.

The boy returned to Myriad’s side, retrieving his jacket from where it lay folded on the ground and, as one, the two turned away from the audience, each extending a hand into the thick fog that separated the scene from the rest of the world. At their will, the shroud began to clear. In its place, suffice to say, stood a miracle.

It was obvious that the children had led them to the banks of the lake with the intent of using the muddy water for some display or another. What was surprising was that the water was no longer muddy. It was now clear, so clear in fact, that the eye could see to the very bottom of it with ease. The two children stepped easily out onto the water’s surface, much to the surprise of anyone who had, for some damn fool reason, been expecting them to sink. The moment the first foot struck the water’s surface, a ripple began to spread across the lake, and the small waves that perpetually rocked their way across the lake were stilled upon contact with it.

The two young demigods turned their attention back to the gathered humans, and, in an eerie synchrony, raised their hands to beckon them forwards. The snow upon which Maelstrom had been dancing parted, like the red sea itself, and the first of the politicians, practically mesmerized by what he had seen, rose from his chair and stepped forwards.

Once the entirety of the crowd had gathered around them, leaving perhaps a metre of space as an unspoken gesture of either respect or fear, Myriad slipped a hand in her pocket, letting out a mumbled little curse as she fumbled inside it, then checked her other pocket and gave a little grunt of satisfaction. For a moment, her eyes lost their strange blue luminescence, returning to their usual hazel, and she put her hand to the ground, placing whatever she had pulled from her dress on the icy soil. The child then beckoned the ground with her hands, and, strangely enough, the ground complied. Roots began to grow with startling speed through the frozen earth, a tiny smattering of saplings sprouting from it. These roots twisted upwards from the ground, shifting and winding together until they began to take on a form some of the watching crowd recognized. Soon enough, the first of the dinghies was completed, and the bravest of the humans took their seats upon it. Then the second, and the third.

The children stepped calmly out onto the surface of the lake proper, the fifteen boats pulling their audience along behind them at a respectful distance that was entirely not of their choosing. When they reached the centre of the lake, Myriad leaned in to whisper something into Maelstrom’s ear, and he nodded. They stopped walking, the boats surging forwards and spacing themselves out evenly around them. Maelstrom stooped down, his hand dropping below the surface of the water for a few moments, and the audience let out a muffled gasp as his form became that of solid, implacable ice. It didn’t seem to impede him in the slightest, and he withdrew his hand, now clutching a long, slender wand, hewn from ice like glass. With a degree of nervousness, the boy strode across the water to the third boat, upon which, among others, sat the perplexed form of Robert Menzies. The little boy extended a hand, holding out the wand to the confused Prime Minister who, after a moment of uncertainty, took it from him.

For several moments, nothing happened. All eyes staring towards the boy statue and the most powerful man in Australia. The boy gave an awkward little gesture towards the water with a hand and, in a voice like a thousand wind chimes ringing all at once, distorted perhaps by the ice that was his form, asked:

“Well, wanna try it out?”

Menzies glanced down at the wand, then, with a shrug, gave it a little flick. About twenty feet away, the water responded with a little splash. Of all the reactions he could have given, the Prime Minister laughed, a surprised sound, growing into a full, chortling guffaw. He gave the wand another, slightly more confident flick, and the water flowed smoothly in response, one or two of the nearby boats rocking slightly on the disturbed surface. Menzies stood, grinning foolishly in spite of himself, and pointed the wand at the surface of the lake, before directing it up towards the sky. A great pillar of ice rose up from the water’s surface, looming ten, twenty, thirty feet up into the air, before coming to a halt.

Menzies cackled, bringing the wand up to his shoulder and swiping it wildly to the side. The great monolith of ice shattered at its midsection, massive chunks of it showering down into the still water with, one had to assume, a very intentional set of satisfying splashes. The ice boy giggled. Or rather, the water around him vibrated in a way reminiscent of giggling, while his features remained completely fixed.

“It’s fun, huh?” Maelstrom asked in that same, utterly alien voice. The Prime Minister nodded, his face split by a wide grin.

With another faint laugh, the boy knelt back down towards the water, producing another wand, and offering it to Menzies’ wife. On the boat opposite, Doctor Lawrence was receiving his wand from the girl. Within a few minutes, all present were similarly armed—each wand personalised according to Maelstrom’s whims—and the two small gods once more stood in the centre of the ring. Myriad, a sharp grin on her face, turned towards the good doctor and flicked her wrist at him. A small spout of water leapt up from the surface of the lake and impacted against Lawrence’s face. It was surprisingly warm.

“Water fight!” she said with a smile.

Lawrence let out a laugh that sounded more like a foghorn, and flicked his wand back at her. A great plume of water erupted from the lake beside her, covering the little girl from head to toe.

“Eep!” She yelped, before prodding her frozen partner in the side. “Maelstrom, too hard!”

His only response came in the form of another splash, dousing her yet again.

It was Khi Cu who set the real fight going, directing her own wand towards Valerie Valour, and causing a wave powerful enough to rock the boat on which her whole party sat. From there, it wasn’t long at all before the majority of the Australian parliament was fighting amongst themselves like children5 with the wands.

Menzies scored one or two very satisfying hits on a few of the more irritating backbenchers. Almost as frequent as the sounds of splashing were the flashes of cameras, as journos tried desperately to capture the action6.  

Eventually, Myriad cleared her throat. “If we’re ready to head back to land, we can show you all what it feels like to walk on water.”

It took a little while for anyone to try. Eventually, though, Therese Fletcher swung her legs over the side of her dinghy, and after an agonizing moment of hesitation, lowered herself—eyes screwed shut—down onto the water. When it registered that she hadn’t in fact fallen through the surface, she laughed, almost hysterically. She leaned down, tapping the surface of the water with a finger. A single ripple shifted through the water all around her in a perfect circle. She began to walk forward, cautiously at first, then at a great stride, head held high. She wondered, privately, if this was how Melusine felt.

Soon, the two children were leading a parade back to the shore. As they drew nearer, trees started to erupt from the soil near the lakeside, like great, bark covered fingers straining to reach the grey sky. Lebanese cedar and cork pine hurried through childhood, weaving together as Myriad—much to Khi Cu’s dismay—demanded they contort themselves to her design. The result was a living imitation of a gothic cathedral in miniature, like some strange Christian tribute to a forgotten nature god. A number of unnaturally bent tree trunks split from the cathedral’s entrance like great wooden tongues, meeting to form a jetty on the lake.

There was little question as to where the rest of the function was to be held.


1. She usually let people assume she weaved them in.

2. The Physician learned the hard way that most humans aren’t amenable to such requests.

3. Myriad had questioned both the lack of contemporary evidence for the Romans requiring subjects to return to their place of birth for censuses or the Massacre of the Innocents, as well the presence of rainbow lorikeets in first century Palestine (the costumes had been recycled from a previous school play about the wonders of Australia). Elsewhere, being second rainbow lorikeet, took this as a ploy to force him out of the production, which resulted in a scuffle between the children. Any hope of getting things back on track once the tears and the feathers were cleaned up were dashed when Elsewhere asked what a virgin was.

4. Who, in conspiracy theorist circles, would later be accused of being the Flying Man.

5. Business as usual, really.

6. The headline in the following morning’s edition of The Australian read “Menzies wins, by four dunks to two”

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Chapter Thirteen: The Most Startling Supervillain of All!

The flying carpet glided low over the grass, sending ripples of green movement across the field. It said something about Mabel’s mood that this was the best she could come up with. At least its constant, sourceless motion made for a smoother ride than the Thoat.

Nobody felt much like talking, after what they had seen in the witch’s tent. They couldn’t remember all of it clearly. Like dreams, visions burn easily in the light of day, no matter how deep the truths they reveal.

Elsewhere remembered enough, though.

“It was like they were at Roberts, and they don’t know it.”

“They have a pool and a television with four thousand channels, I wouldn’t be whinging.”

And then there was the other thing he’d seen. He desperately hoped Myriad didn’t ask him about it. She’d think he hated her, and then she’d hate him. It wasn’t as though she really needed him anymore, with the whole score of songs she now had access to. Elsewhere may not have been Myriad, but he was no fool. He’d put the dots together when she’d explained how her power worked. Especially now that he knew his own had been inside him since before they met.

Myriad blinked at him with Maelstrom’s eyes. “What’s up with you?”

“Nothing,” Elsewhere blurted. “That witch-lady just freaked me out, okay?”

“But you were looking at me weird.”

“I thought you looked sad.”

“We all look sad right now,” Mabel pointed out. “And you didn’t look so good when you were getting your face painted…” An italicised question mark bounced over her head.

Growing up with Angela Barnes as a mother, there are only two real approaches a boy can take to lying. Elsewhere’s brothers had become better than average at it, for what little good it did them. Elsewhere, however, had the misfortune of being born at the height of his mother’s powers, and had taken the other approach.

“I saw Eddie!”

The children all crawled in closer, their faces worried and curious in equal measure.

“Eddie? You mean the big guy from when we…” Mabel didn’t finish her sentence. She didn’t need to.

Maelstrom’s reaction was perhaps predictable. “He’s gonna dob on us!”

“…To who?” Mabel asked.

“I don’t know, his parents? The police? Lawrence will hear about it anyway.” He twisted and squirmed, squeezing one hand in the other. “Why wouldn’t he tell someone? After what we did to him…”

Despite herself, Mabel’s tone was more chastising than consoling. “You didn’t do anything!”

“He didn’t remember us,” said Elsewhere.

Myriad looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“I was trying to say sorry, and he didn’t know who we were. He said he never even went to the Institute.”

“Maybe he was lying?” suggested Mabel, mostly trying to comfort Maelstrom. “I bet he would’ve gotten into trouble if his folks knew he came ‘round our place.”

Elsewhere shook his head. “You weren’t there. He wasn’t lying. He got really mad, but I think that was just because I said I was a new human.”

“When something really bad or scary happens to someone, people try to block the memory out. Maybe that’s what Eddie did?” said Myriad.

“But Bazza was there, too, and he said he wasn’t at the Institute, either.”

“We still chased him around like a fox,” Myriad reminded him.

“But he was so calm…”

“Does it matter?” said Mabel, testily. “So he doesn’t remember getting his blood ripped out. Who cares? Isn’t that a good thing? There’s lots of stuff I don’t want to remember. And Bazza looked like the kind of fella who gets ‘forgetful’ a lot.”

Distressed, Elsewhere said, “But what if he’s sick? Maybe Żywie missed something, and his memory’s leaking!”

The argument lasted the rest of the flight. Privately, Myriad was relieved. It meant nobody asked her about what she had seen at the carnival.

When they reached the spot where Mabel had conjured the Thoat, she insisted they walk the rest of the way. On the surface, there wasn’t anything incriminating about a flying carpet, but having a mode of transport might have given people ideas.

Tiresias was waiting for them on the other side of the river. His attention was divided between his bottle of wine and jangling keys in a delighted Ophelia’s face. “Look, birbantella, it’s the world’s driest, landiest fish! How was your swim?” His voice was uncharacteristically cheerful, but characteristically slurred.

“Fine,” Mabel called back flatly. She felt it best to humour the telepath. “The water’s great.”

“Oh,” said Tiresias, as though remembering a chore, “speaking of which.” He tossed a bag at Mabel, almost knocking her off her stone. “Your lord and saviour told me to give you this.”

Recovering her bearings, she looked inside the bag. “Wet towels?”

“Thinks of everything, Windshear.”

The children had to admit, she did. As they skipped their way back onto dry land, Tiresias looked at their faces. Their powers left a stigma on each of them. The psionically nearsighted couldn’t make them out—at least not consciously—but for him they were as clear and unremarkable as freckles or missing milk teeth. Like most superhumans he had seen, the girls’ skin swirled with iridescence, forming patterns that danced on the border between organic and mechanical; tree roots with aspirations to circuitry. The boys’ marks were a bit more distinctive. Elsewhere’s forehead bore a calligraphic mark drawn in luminous green ink. Tiresias thought the symbol might be Oriental, but he wasn’t actually interested enough to look into it. Maelstrom meanwhile appeared to simultaneously exist as ice, mist, water and flesh. None of those were what caught his attention, though:  

“Going to show Laurie the new paint job?”

The children all looked at one another, or more precisely, at the facepaint they still had on. They then leaped into the water as one, frantically trying to wash it off, the psychic and his young companion laughing all the while.

Myriad spent the next week in a state of complete anxiety. It was almost worse than at McClare. There, the worst she had to fear was nothing changing. Now she expected every morning to awaken to  screams, or Lawrence waiting at the foot of her bed, cane in hand. It shamed her that she couldn’t decide which idea inspired more dread.

She wondered how Tiresias hadn’t picked up on her fear. Sometimes, she wished he would. Then it would be out of her hands. It would be handled—even if it meant another beating. But maybe it was a good sign that the esper wasn’t concerned. He’d know if AU’s warning would come to nothing, right? Unless he’s in on it. Basil did say they were mates.

She checked the haypile where she sequestered the gold pouch as often as she could, which wasn’t nearly as much as she would have prefered, thanks to The Tempest auditions. She knew  AU could well have intended it as a weapons stockpile, but she still couldn’t bring herself to get rid of it. What if they did end up having to run?

She had to talk to someone, before the stress burned a hole in her stomach. She couldn’t work up the steel to speak to Lawrence himself, and the idea of bringing it to Melusine was even scarier. Żywie was infinitely more approachable, but there was the note, and that part she hadn’t read the others…

Eventually, she settled on Basilisk. Excusing herself from what distantly resembled a game of soccer, Myriad headed down to the nursery.

For the sake of everyone else’s good night’s sleep, the youngest of the New Human Institute’s students were housed in a separate building closer to the edge of the property. The adults took it in shifts looking after the infants. To Myriad’s perpetual amusement the most frequent volunteer by a fair margin (after Żywie, of course) was Tiresias.

Or he might have been, until the unfortunate incident by the river. Since that day, Basilisk had kept almost completely to the nursery, to the exclusion of all his other duties. Therese Fletcher and Mrs Gillespie had all but taken over his classes, with Myriad being passed from teacher to teacher like an itinerant knight.  

The nursery smelt of baby powder, disinfectant, and stale milk, almost but not completely smothering the scent of sick. Myriad had been told that many mothers found the aroma pleasant. She suspected all the screaming made something in the brain rupture. The walls were painted with stars and planets, covering up a mural of Superman Lawrence had once begrudgingly tolerated1.  

Having somehow managed to get Ophelia, Chant, Chorus and Spitfire to sleep at the same time, Basil was reading a maths book in his usual manner: very carefully. He got up when he saw Myriad enter, flashing her a forced smile. “Miri! Thought you might have forgotten about me.” Although he was whispering, Basil still managed an impression of exuberance.

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Myriad whispered back.

Basilisk chuckled. “It’s no problem, dear. You shouldn’t be spending all your time with a geezer like me, anyway. You might pick up grown up words, like mortgage.”

Myriad laughed uncomfortably.

“Something the matter?”

“Nah, everything’s fine,” Myriad lied. “Some of us were wondering when you’d get back to maths.”

“Soon, soon. A man’s entitled into a holiday now and then, isn’t he? And it’s good for the littlies to have a consistent face, now and again.”

Myriad couldn’t imagine what difference it made when they all lived in the same school, but she didn’t dispute the idea. It sounded like something Basilisk needed to be true.

“How’s the play going, by the way?”

“It’s okay. We finally got a Miranda.”

“Who?”

Myriad was finding it surprisingly hard to move the conversation towards Basil’s supervillainous former friend. “Stratogale.”

Basilisk smiled to himself. “She’ll like that.”

“As long as she doesn’t get any more fat,” said Myriad.

“Don’t be nasty, Myriad. Back in my village, a girl didn’t look good if they didn’t have a bit of a figure. Made them look rich. Actually, Miri, could I ask you a favour?”

Myriad felt like this was the reverse of how these conversations were supposed to go.  “I can try? What is it?”

His smile had a trace of bashfulness. “Could you maybe try steering Maelstrom into taking a part in the play? If Phantasmagoria doesn’t mind, of course.”

This only elicited confusion. “But he’s already part of the play. He’s doing the waves and stuff.”

“I know, and believe me, could not be more proud, but I mean being a part of the cast. I think he’d make a smashing Ariel.”

Myriad tried to picture Maelstrom performing on stage. She imagined it would look much the same as if the roof sprung a link. “Uh, I don’t think he’d go for it.”

Basilisk grinned out the side of his mouth. “You’d be surprised. Maelstrom can be pretty gregarious if you catch him in the right moment.”

Myriad remembered playing in the clouds with Maelstrom. He had seemed more at ease with himself. But this would be in front of the whole Institute, with Lawrence watching… “Um, Basil, are you sure that’s really true?”

The expression on Basil’s face was one Myriad had rarely seen from the man. He looked angry. “What are you saying, Miri?”

She tried to phrase it like a therapist. “Maybe that’s the way you want Maelstrom to be, instead of how he is?”

“Are you saying that I don’t know my son?”

“There’s a lot you don’t get to see.” Like secret trips to carnivals and encounters with probably evil witches.

“Myriad, you’ve only know Maelstrom for a few months.”

“Yeah, but it’s different when you’re a kid—”

“Are you serious? You’re telling me that you think you know my boy better than me because you’re the same age?” There was a disdainful edge to Basil’s voice Myriad would never have expected from him.

The problem with trying to engage with a child on their level on a regular basis is that after a while they start to think it’s a good idea for them to do the same. “You only hang out with him in class!” Myriad shouted.      

One of the babies woke up and started wailing, the other three quickly joining them.

“I’m-I’m sorry—”

“Just go, Myriad,” Basil snapped while trying to quiet the screaming infants. “Maybe you could get to know Maelstrom better.”

She did not take his advice. Instead, she wandered out of the nursery, angry and shellshocked. Curled up under an out of the way tree, she cried confused tears. She wasn’t concerned about anyone coming across her. Weeping fits were common enough at the New Human Institute that it was considered impolite to ask about them.

Ugly, paranoid thoughts filled the girl’s mind. He knows I don’t like babies, maybe he’s been hanging around them so much so I’ll stay away

“Oh, oh Myriad.”

She was dimly conscious of Lawrence taking her hands pulling her to her feet. “Chin up, girl,” he said. “I know it can be rough going sometimes, but it’ll be alright.”

He knows, thought Myriad. Better this way. Hope he doesn’t know the others were there, too. Maelstrom would die…

Lawrence tilted her head up so she was looking at him. “If it will help dry your eyes, I’ve got some good news.”

“What news?” asked Myriad, sniffling.

“I’ve been talking on the phone with Tim Valour—that’s the headman at the DDHA, but try not to hold it against him—and I’ve convinced him to let me put on a little demonstration for the bigwigs over in Canberra.” He grinned proudly. “I’m told the Prime Minister will be in attendance. Now, obviously if I’m to show the great and the good the merits of our little experiment, they’ll need proof. So I’ve decided to take you and Maelstrom along; if you’re so inclined, of course.”

“Wait, Canberra?” said Myriad.

“Yes. I know, dreary little testament to the folly of planned cities, but we must go where we are needed.”

“How long would we be gone?”

Lawrence ran his fingers through his beard. “Hmm, I have some business I need to attend to while we’re there, but all in all we shouldn’t be gone more than a week.”

“…When would we leave?”

“I’ve got our flight booked for the Tuesday coming. You ever flown? No? Well, I’m sure it’ll prove more fascinating than our destination. You will be coming along, won’t you?”

Myriad put on some false cheer. “Sure! Sounds like an adventure.”

Lawrence smiled kindly. “My child, you don’t have to put up a front for me. I won’t think any less of you for having butterflies in your stomach.” He began to walk back towards the farmstead. “I’ve already told Maelstrom, but I want to keep the announcement for dinner, so try and keep it under your hats!”

Myriad sat back down beneath her tree, staring at some nondescript insect crawling painstakingly slow through the grass. She tightened in on herself. It’ll happen while we’re gone, she thought to herself. There’ll be nowhere to come back to.

Elsewhere lay in the dark, listening to the night-sounds. The crickets were quiet this time of year, leaving only the steady, out-of-synch breathing of his schoolmates and the space heater rumbling away like a friendly dragon. Winter had well and truly set in, with the long pyjamas and the thickest blankets brought out of storage. The days were getting intolerably short, though at least the children could still play by the light of Ēōs and Snapdragon’s powers. It seemed the height of extravagance to Elsewhere that Lawrence could afford to constantly heat the dormitories as he did. Sometimes at home he’d been forced to sleep in his parents’ bed for warmth.

By then most of the other children had settled into sleep, after an hour or so of whimpering and whispered conversation. By the standards of posthuman children, Elsewhere was an easy-sleeper. Most of his classmates suffered chronic nightmares. According to Żywie, it was because of something the Physician called “links”, which he didn’t have. It was a silly thing to let make him feel like an outsider, but it did.

He wasn’t surprised Lawrence was taking Myriad to Canberra. It made sense. If you want people to be impressed with your school, show them your smartest student. He also wasn’t surprised by the poorly concealed jealousy of the other children, especially from the older ones.  

Elsewhere understood, though. He couldn’t help but feel a little angry at his friend, too. Myriad was the one constant note of familiarity in a still strange land—and much more of a sibling to him than either of his brothers ever had the time to be—and she was leaving him alone. It was stupid and petty, he knew, but when had that ever stopped anyone?

He loved her, deeply, but there was nothing revelatory about that. Their friendship was like the corner of the schoolyard they favoured: utterly comfortable and completely taken for granted. And it wasn’t until Roberts that he realised how much he feared losing it. She was spending an awful amount of time with Maelstrom…

It won’t be so bad, he attempted to reassure himself. Mabel will need someone to talk to, and most of the other kids like me alright—that’s new. And I can always send Miri—Oh. Oh. Ooooh.

Elsewhere sat bolt upright, swearing at himself for not remembering the idea sooner. Allowing a trickle of power to flow through him cast a faint aura over the pencils and paper he had stashed in his drawer. Most children at the Institute didn’t have much in the way of personal property, but Lawrence had given Elsewhere the stationary to help keep track of the play. Gathering them up, he padded as quietly as possible over to Myriad’s hammock.

“Miri,”  he whispered excitedly, shaking her gently. “Miri!”

She woke with a gasp. A few glasses of water on bedside tables rattled, as though there was a small earthquake only they noticed. Thankfully, none of them shattered. She stared at Elsewhere with Maelstrom’s eyes, like stray remnants of day sky in the dark. “What’s happening? Is someone—”

He put a finger to her mouth. “Everything’s fine. I just remembered something we should have done as soon as we got here.”

Myriad’s eyes narrowed. “What are you on about, Elsie?”       

He still rued the day that nickname popped into his friend’s head, or whoever’s head she got it from. “Remember back at McClare.”

Her fingers throbbed. “I try not to,” she said, annoyed.

“Remember how I told you I was coming?”

“Oh.”

“I know, right?”

“I feel stupid.”

“Same. It’d be easy. I got that letter to you, and I didn’t even really know where you were. I could send a letter to the butcher’s, and you could send yours to—I don’t know—your dad’s office?”

Myriad shook her head. “Mags might see it first.”

“Mags?”

“Dad’s secretary,” she explained.

“Oh… does that matter? Is it illegal or something to teleport letters?”

“I don’t know. Feels like the sort of thing that might be.”

Elsewhere shrugged. “Well, you’ll think of somewhere to put it. Do you have a torch or something?”

Myriad pointed towards the ceiling. Throat singing Martians. A luminous, translucent red square appeared over the hammock. “Why would you even ask that?”

“Oh shush. And move over.” He climbed into Myriad’s hammock beside her. “So, how do we start?”

They lay there for what seemed like hours, agonizing over what to tell their parents. They could both have covered multiple pages solid black, but neither had the composure for more than a couple paragraphs each. Myriad offered to dictate for the both of them, but Elsewhere insisted on writing his own letter. Myriad’s handwriting was certainly impeccable, but it had a tendency of changing styles frequently whenever she wrote something. He also had to correct her on one point.

“Don’t use my new name, silly. They won’t know who ‘Elsewhere’ is.”

The girl laughed, realising she was almost about to sign her’s as “Myriad.” “Right, right, boring old names it is.”

Eventually, the two were content with what they had written, or at least as close to it as was possible. “Do we-do we just send them off?” Myriad asked.

Elsewhere thought about it. “…Nah, wait a bit. It’ll wake everyone up if we do it right now. And they’ll all be asleep back home, anyway. ”

She nodded. “Okay.” A quick, tight hug. “Thanks for letting me in on this. Now get out of my bed.”

They both slept easier after that.

Myriad stretched out in her first class seat, trying to tune out the stewardess’s pre-flight announcements and focus on her book. It was hard work. Tiresias had sold it to her as a story about a princess marrying a god, but it was turning out to mostly consist of her ugly sister being bitter about everything. She ignored the crash instructions. They unnerved her, and besides, if anything happened, she had Maelstrom’s song playing next to her.

Maelstrom gripped his armrests hard, as though they were already flying through turbulence. Neither child had been looking forward to their first plane ride. They were both ultimately country children, and this was the first time either of them had ever travelled outside Western Australia. It was worse for the boy. Myriad had at least been up and down the state in her time. Maelstrom was lucky if he made one new acquaintance in a year. He’d tried unsuccessfully to convince Lawrence to let him be shipped as an ice sculpture. He would have at least avoided the stench of cigarettes that seemed to permeate everything from the carpets to the very steel of the Boeing 707. He reminded himself to get Żywie to squeeze out his lungs when he got home.

It didn’t help that they were dressed to the eights and nines—all stiff-collared shirts, hair clips, and starched, pastel dresses. Myriad had gotten quite accustomed to the simple, unisex clothing the Institute normally provided its students, and was especially put off by Lawrence’s insistence that her hair be trimmed. The shoes were a bother, too: it’d been weeks since she’d worn any kind of footwear.

And then there was AU, lurking always at the corner of her mind.

“Do you think it hurts?” Maelstrom couldn’t get that Cordwainer Smith story out his head; the one where flying through space hurt worse than anything else.

Myriad silently thanked her friend for the distraction. “Think what hurts?”

“Flying.”

Myriad looked at him funny. “…No. Not unless you get deep vein thrombosis or something, but that’s not terribly likely. Your ears might pop a bit from the pressure change, though.” She broke out laughing. “Be funny if it did, though. Stratogale would be all, ‘AAAAAAHHHH, I ENVY THE DEAD!’.” She twisted and turned in her seat, waving her hands before noticing that Maelstrom wasn’t laughing. “Sorry.”

A couple of rows behind them sat Lawrence and the other two adults he’d chosen to accompany the group. He’d thought it appropriate to bring one of the adult new humans and one of the baseline teachers. Żywie was immediately ruled out; she rarely ever allowed herself to be away from the Institute for long. Melusine… well, nobody needed to voice aloud why she wasn’t coming along, despite her protestations that Maelstrom would cope better if she did. The idea of Basilisk on a plane was too horrible to contemplate2, so that left Tiresias to serve as the ambassador for his generation of posthumanity, an opportunity he seized upon eagerly. Anything to get out for a change.

As for the human representative, the only real criteria Lawrence had in mind was “not Mary Gillespie”, for he trusted no one better to keep things running in his absence. So, pretty much randomly, he had drafted Therese Fletcher, the somewhat drippy science teacher.

Much as Therese thought it was an honour, she was of much the same mind as Maelstrom when it came to flying. And she had misjudged the dosage of her sedative.

“Don’t fret, my dear,” said Lawrence, patting the teacher on the hand. “Flying really is the safest way to travel. Statistically proven!”

“Yes,” said Tiresias from the seat to her left, lighting another cigarette. The general shape of the futures he saw indicated plane travel would sooner or later become much less smoky, and much less comfortable, so he was trying to enjoy it while it lasted. “I think the Flying Man said that when he caught that plane over the Atlantic.” He grinned, and turned to look Therese right in the eye. “I hear he’s a dish.”

Therese shuddered a little.

Lawrence glared at the psychic. “And never mind him.”

Minded or not, Tiresias kept talking. “He was right, though. There aren’t that many crashes a year. Most of the time, when anything happens, the plane just sort of disappears. Maybe the Flying Man takes the people on them and has them dust his undersea palace, or whatever it is he calls a house.”

Lawrence smiled tiredly at the frightened woman. “At least Qantas doesn’t skimp on the drink.”

Finally, the plane took off. Maelstrom clutched Myriad’s hand tight as they felt the wheels part from the ground and the G-force sunk them deeper into their seats. Myriad thought it was like being on an elevator, only inclined, while Maelstrom was uncomfortably reminded of the only time he harangued Stratogale into giving him a ride.

Their elevation wreaked havoc with their bundle of unusual senses. Beyond the mass of mediocre songs packed tight into the plane, Myriad was greeted by only a vast, resounding emptiness—a candle floating adrift in a lonely sea. As uncanny as it felt, she was glad to find no one lurking in the clouds outside.   

For Maelstrom, it was a little less ominous, though still deeply strange. While they were of course surrounded by water vapour, apart from what was onboard the plane or bound up in living cells, there was very little liquid to be found, creating a strangely dry abundance of water. He couldn’t help but absently prod and stir the clouds. Shaking his head, he opened the book his mother gave for the trip, a well-loved copy of Le Petit Prince. Melusine had insisted he read it in the original French, something Lawrence had not been slow to declare awfully quaint of her3.  Maelstrom didn’t mind, though. There was a certain pride to be found in multilingualism.

“Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.”

“Wanna swap?” Myriad asked.

“You finished yours already?”

“Yeah!” she said with false enthusiasm.

“…How was it?”

“Really, really good.” She lied. “Especially the elf bits.”

Maelstrom smiled. “Miri, I read that one ages ago. When did you realise the lion wasn’t going to turn up?”

She sighed. “When she started going on about her castle’s tiling. Kinda surprised when she started going on about Jesus at the end, but all this guy writes about is Jesus.”

“…Narnia was about Jesus? And wait, the God of the Mountain was Jesus? Jesus is married?”

Myriad regarded the boy with something almost like awe. In that moment, she wasn’t sure if Maelstrom had read all the wrong books, or all the right ones. Not eager right that second to try and explain the relationship between Christian allegory and Greek fairy tales, Myriad retreated back into her book, to try and figure out exactly what deformity the protagonist possessed.  

Soon after, Maelstrom felt a tap on his shoulder, along with a pleasant voice asking, “Would either of you like some orange juice this morning?”

  He looked up at the air hostess, and immediately wished he hadn’t when he saw her startled expression. Lawrence had told him to expect at least some shock at his eyes. He was surprised, though, to see the woman’s initial surprise give way to what he thought was genuine wonder.

A pretty, open faced young woman, as company policy dictated, the sky-blue clad hostess was examining Maelstrom’s face with more open curiosity than was probably polite. Yet, right then, he found he welcomed it. “Well look at those. How’d you get eyes like them? They contacts?”

Maelstrom shook his head. He’d suggested—many times, in fact—that he wear the Physician’s special contacts, at least for the flight, but Lawrence had held firm on him going undisguised. “No, ma’am.”

The hostess smiled warmly. “Well they’re certainly a sight, I can tell you that. Can you tell me your name?”

Maelstrom bit his lip. He was already more than a little surprised that this woman seemed to like his eyes, and he really didn’t want to push it… “David,” he answered, pronouncing it French style. “My name’s David.”

Myriad looked back up from her book, wondering where Maelstrom had gotten the pseudonym.

“Nice, solid name, that. So, orange juice for the both of you?”

Maelstrom watched her go, as Myriad made inquiries as to the origin of the name he gave.

“Did you just make it up? Or do you use it in town and stuff?” She didn’t bother whispering, thanks to the engine noise.

Maelstrom only answer was continual, vague nodding, which didn’t clear up much. Lawrence had prepared him for a lot on this trip. Fear, revulsion, resentment, gawking horror. Somehow, though, he missed honest fascination.

They played Bye, Bye, Birdie during the flight. That was nice.

When it came time to write a retrospective on the 20th century, many popular historians would cite the destruction of the world’s nuclear arsenals by the Flying Man as the end of the Cold War4. A self satisfied Zeus had stolen back Oppenheimer’s fire from mankind: who could possibly give a damn for dueling economic systems and political philosophies after that? With the ascendance of the superhuman, old-style humanity could finally rally together against a common devil.

Sir Timothy Valour would laugh at such a suggestion. A new player did not do away with the game. A new slight did not erase old grudges. That old war by proxy, that war of ideology, moonshots, chess, and Olympic medals still waged—there had merely been a slight reordering of things. Before, you had the West Bloc and the Warsaw Pact, and everyone else unfortunate enough to find themselves between the the two giants. Now, you still had the First World and the Second World, but both with one eye turned skywards at the Third Man.

Cold spray in his greying hair pulled him from his musings, accompanied by shrill laughter. He shouted over the lawn, “Oi! Tone it down a bit!”

Maelstrom poked his head out from one of the twisting tunnels of water that rose out of Valour’s swimming pool, flowing into each other before returning to their source. “Sorry!” he yelled back before diving back in after the other shape that flitted through them. Valour was amazed they were able to cope with the frigid water, flecked with the first signs of snowfall, without even the benefit of bathing costumes, but then, he supposed, that was probably the least of what they could do. He wished it wasn’t, to be honest. Then he wouldn’t have had to sit outside minding his young guests in the below freezing weather.

“I’m sorry about that,” said Lawrence from his end of the garden table, all too solemnly. “I’ll have some words with them about this later.”

Timothy sighed. “It’s no matter, Doctor, really.” He was glad to hear children playing, honestly. His own sons and daughters had long since grown up and left home, and he hadn’t been present for as much of that process as he would have liked. It was good to see Maelstrom enjoying himself, too. He had feared the boy was composed entirely of nerve tissue till he showed him the pool.

He did wish they had had some bathing costumes in the house, though.

“It’s the principle of the thing. And thank you again for letting us stay for the duration.”

“To be frank, Lawrence, I was worried you wouldn’t have been able to find a hotel willing to take three supers, two under the age of ten. I swear, Herbert, you’d have an easier time travelling if you just didn’t mention it!”

The look on Lawrence’s face was just short of outraged. “Maelstrom and My—” He caught himself. “—Allison are very well behaved.”

Timothy gave his guest a pointed look. He was handsome, even as old age began to seep into his bones, but battered: his face nicked with dozens of small scars, his blue eyes war-weary. Those cartoons they made about him never included the scars. “And if they weren’t?”

Lawrence knew the man had a point, but it was not something anyone halfway attached to a child in their care would ever want to admit about them. “A disturbed baseline child can do unspeakable things with just a pair of craft scissors. Do we bar them from public spaces?”

“No, but we do take the scissors off them. Tell me, how do you manage that when the child has scissors for brains?”

“…That metaphor got away from you there, Tim?”

“We didn’t all have tutors growing up, Lawrence. I’m just saying, the fear is understandable.”

That sent the old Oxfordian into a long tirade on the comparative barbarity of the average rootstock human versus the typical superhuman. A lot of heartwarming anecdotes about the Institute’s students that made Tim feel like he was in danger of developing diabetes. It was like his old divinity teacher had risen from the grave, with new objects of worship.

The DDHA had been founded in a panic, the result of a government’s fervent need to be seen doing something, even if they had no idea what. The asylums were a decidedly ineffective stopgap, able to contain only the weakest or most easily cowed supers. For a lot of them, it was more a trick of psychology than any real difficulty preventing their escape, like that Barnes boy Lawrence had taken on: there was a reason most of their inmates were children. It was a solution that only allayed the fears of the least informed members of the public, the ones who didn’t know what a superhuman could really do. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact nobody could decide if the administration of superhumans was a matter of military security, public hygiene, or wildlife management.       

Eventually, as people became accustomed to the chaos, parliament of course started arguing about what to replace it with. The first head of the DDHA—a colourless unfortunate whose name Timothy couldn’t even recall—had been forced to step down in order to recover from his burns and learn to trust suspension bridges again, courtesy of a disgruntled, floating employee calling himself the Hylothesist5.

“Tim Valour will sort this out,” some cretin in the parliament chamber had doubtlessly declared. “He knows how to handle these supers! He chews lead6 and spits bullets that hit their mark from the other side of the globe!”

They were right in part. Not so much about the bullets—he wasn’t even a terribly good shot. But he did know superhumans. Much of his career as an air pilot had been spent stalking through lairs covered from floor to ceiling in formulae and equations—often childishly, laughably flawed, yet still capable of producing workable anti-gravity—pursued by clanking horrors, the malformed offspring of equal parts brilliance and mad, dejected bitterness. He had seen men fly long before Kennedy laid eyes on such a thing. The only reason he could still walk was because a little Polish girl had knitted his spine back together with a wish.

He had also seen two wars. He had lost friends—good friends—and had born witness to and committed what he would unhesitantly call atrocities. Military targets had a habit of nestling among civilians, and a bomb can exercise no judgement. And so Timothy Valour had accepted a knighthood for services rendered to King and Country, less than half of which were the public even allowed to know about, and entered the civil service: a well worn path for used-up war heroes tired of the smell of blood.

He had been enjoying a productively obscure working retirement when he was called upon to take the reigns of the DDHA. And because he was a patriot, and because he was sure someone else would do it worse, he did. Now he had to find some way of phasing out the asylums before they produced a new generation of vengeful supervillains, without sending the public into a panic. And without letting loose someone who could cause another Circle’s End.

To his displeasure, it was looking like this would mean a lot of time spent dealing with Doctor Herbert Lawrence.

“And I can assure you, I’d rather put my life in the hands of—”

The back sliding door opened. To Timothy’s relief, one of the servants, the improbably named Mr. Thumps, stepped out onto the veranda, a tray carrying coffee and a couple of towels in his arms.

Lawrence ceased his lecture. If there was one thing you could say about Mr. Thumps, it was that he demanded attention.

He moved towards where the two men were sitting with a measured, deliberate pace. Seven feet tall, muscles churned beneath his suit like Volkswagens parking. If Lawrence or Timothy were to hazard a guess as to his genetic background, both would have suggested he was Scandinavian. His blond hair and chiseled, expressionless features uncomfortably reminded Lawrence of a lot of posters he’d seen during the War. It didn’t help that the other servant he’d seen looked like the same man, just with different hair colours.

Mr. Thumps set the tray down on the table. “Coffee and towels for the children, sirs.”

Lawrence knew intellectually that it was impossible for anyone to speak “without an accent”, but that was the only way he could describe Mr. Thumps’ mode of speech7.  “Thank you… Thumps. If you don’t mind me asking, where are Alberto and Therese?”

“Mrs Valour has taken Miss Fletcher and Mr. Moretti sightseeing, Doctor.”

“Alone?” asked Tim, concerned.

“No, sir. Mr. Jives is escorting them. Your wife wished me to inform you they would return by 5 0’clock at the latest.”

“Ah, thank you, Thumps.”

Mr. Thumps made a guttural sound in his throat as acknowledgement, before standing completely still. Valour knew from experience that he would continue standing there till he was either told to leave, or mold started growing on his suit.  

“How about you go entertain the children?” he told the hulking servant.

When Mr. Thumps had moved to the side of the pool, Lawrence burst out in his great booming laugh. “Mr. Jives! Oh, John does know how to name them, doesn’t he?”

The DDHA chief pursed his lips. “I have no idea what you might mean by that.”

Still smiling, Lawrence asked, “But did the Physician put you in touch with Mr. Thumps and Jives, Tim?”

Timothy looked towards the pool. The children by then had let their tunnels collapse back into the pool, and were now simply drifting with the current they created. If you didn’t look closely at their eyes, they could’ve been mistaken for baseline children simply enjoying a swim. They both seemed bemused at the interloper looming over them.

“I have been ordered to entertain you,” Mr. Thumps said stoically.  

“Yes. Yes he did,” Tim admitted.

“They do look rather similar,” Lawrence pointed out cheerfully.

“Must be related.”

“Different surnames.”

“Cousins, then.”

“Oh, Timothy, why do you play along? All it accomplishes is making him think people fall for it.” He glanced at his students, who were busy splashing Mr. Thumps to no response. He was like a guard in front of Buckingham Palace, except he never started screaming at the children to stop or cursed Lucille Ball’s name8. “He once offered me the services of one of those… let’s call them men. I had to decline.”

“Why?”

Lawrence smiled as he watched Mr. Thumps summersault for the children, his face still betraying no emotion or even exertion. He was surprisingly nimble for such a bulky creature. “I worried the students might wear them out.” He slapped his lap, his expression becoming serious. “Right, down to business. Is everything in place for the demonstration tommorow? That American super arrived?”

“She’s Vietnamese, actually,” Tim corrected him. “Khí Cụ. Does some magic with plants. The Americans were using her as a defoliant to root out guerillas. Arrived a few nights before your lot. I’m told she’s very insistent on seeing a kangaroo while she’s down here.”

Lawrence frowned. “Please, Tim, don’t tell me you’re letting the Americans have the last word on powers! Writing it all off as ‘magic’.” He pronounced the last word like it was four letters long.

“There’s Pendergast. I’ve seen his work in person. If anyone’s ever done magic, it’s him.”

“I’m sure Mr. Pendergast is a very powerful esper, and I’m charitable enough to assume he believes he’s some kind of magician, but magic is a word people use when they’ve thrown up their hands and decided they can’t be bothered trying to figure out how the world works.”

Valour tried to resist rolling his eyes. “Whatever the nature of Pendergast’s powers, or any power for that matter, the Americans say this girl makes trees strangle Vietcong. They weren’t eager to tell me anything more specific. Do you think Allison will be able to handle it? It’s not as if she’ll have an opportunity to practise.”

“If this Khí Cụ is competent in her powers, so will Allison.” Lawrence shook his head, tutting. “Such a shame to see such wonders wasted on something as futile as war.”

For a long time, Timothy Valour just looked at Lawrence. Then he laughed, more out of pity than anything like humour. “Oh, Herbert, what do you think will happen if you impress people tomorrow? If Menzies decides to build a hundred New Human Institutes? That they’ll just send all the super-tots to run around on a farm?” He looked sideways, grinning. “Christ alive, am I talking about children or the family dog?”

“What are you saying, Tim?”

“What I’m saying is that the only way the taxpayer is putting up supers in some bucolic retreat is if they think they’re getting something out of it. That’s half the problem with the asylums: we’re paying to keep the inmates fed and sheltered without getting any use out of them.  And when thousands of their boys are fighting and dying in some country they hadn’t even heard of three years ago, I’m sure you can guess what folks will be clamouring for.”  

Lawrence crossed his arms. “Is that why you’re doing this? So you can convince the powers that be to turn those two children into weapons.”

“No. I want to give them a chance to grow up into respected, well compensated public servants. I want a class of soldier that can claim any strategic resource without one more drop of blood spilled than is absolutely required. Most importantly, I want to make sure they have something more productive to do than knocking over gold mines!”

The other man stiffened. “That’s not fair, Tim. I called your lot as soon as I had any idea what Chen was getting himself into.”

“Yes, and you were kind enough to lend us Françoise for the operation. Only cost us thousands of pounds in property damage.”

“That was not her fault.”

“So which of your students was it, then?”

Lawrence sighed deeply. “So this is the future of posthumanity: to be tools in the squabbles of their predecessors.”

Timothy Valour looked back at the children. They were arguing about whether they should command Mr. Thumps to walk on his hands or throw them into the pool. Much as Timothy appreciated the children’s presence, he preferred them to keep their distance. He was awkward with children, mostly from lack of practice, and he could barely bring himself to look these two in the eye. And it had nothing to do with their colour. “You never had kids of your own, did you, Lawrence?”

Lawrence had not. He had in fact actively avoided marriage or children, the better to focus his energies on his students’ well being. “Not in the sense you mean, I’m sure. Why do you ask?”

“Just a thought,” Timothy replied. “Just a thought.”

Maelstrom and Myriad laid down wooden tracks across the floor of the guest bedroom, preparing to run an express railway through the shag carpeting. There were still enough pieces left in the cardboard box that they could imagine them eventually bridging the gap between the door and the closet, with enough leftover to turn the bed into an overhanging bridge. They would be sorely disappointed, but it was fun getting there.

The children had been gently but firmly ordered to the room about half an hour earlier, after dinner and baths. They’d thankfully been able to prove that personal transmutation meant that Mr. Thumps didn’t need to wash the salt and chlorine out their hair. They didn’t mind too much: while Timothy Valour didn’t go out of his way to antagonise the children, he didn’t make much effort to make himself approachable, and his wife looked at them like she expected the glorious new human revolution to start right there in her sitting room. The room had belonged to one of their daughters, and seemed to have been left untouched since she moved out. The pair had felt awkward in there at first, like they were playing in someone else’s memory. Their rapidly approaching bedtime, however, and what awaited them in the morning, made them eager to squeeze in as much enjoyment as possible.

And much to Myriad’s joy, she had finally found another child who liked toy trains as much as she did.    

“What’d you think of Valour?” asked Maelstrom as he put together a track switch. “He wasn’t as… hatey as I thought he’d be.”

Myriad frowned, trying to decide if it was better to put a curve along the bed leg or another straight piece. “He’s still the boss of the asylums. And he’s more boring than his comics made him out to be. You ever read those?”

Elsewhere had been quite fond of Tim Valour, the comic. His father had approved of them mostly on the basis that they were about an armyman of sorts. Myriad of course thought they were completely brainless, and only read them over her friend’s shoulder so she knew what to tease him for.

“Nah. Lawrence says most comics are fascist. Though, Batman and Superman and all them never really seemed much like the people from Mels and Tiresias9 and Żywie’s stories.” Myriad looked frustrated at something, grabbing railroad pieces only to immediately discard them. “Is something the matter, Miri?”

She dropped the track piece in her hand, scowling. “I can’t stop thinking about all the things I could do with the others’ songs. If Automata was here, I could make the train move on its own! And I don’t know why we’re being all polite with the bloke who had me, and Elsewhere, and hundreds and hundreds of other kids locked up, and why we need to put on a big show just to make the humans leave us alone, and the smokestack on the train is weird and-and…” She stopped herself before she blurted out what was really eating away at her.

All Maelstrom could do in the face of outburst was nod slowly. “I just don’t want to embarrass Lawrence.”

“Is he the one who has to get up and dance for the prime minister tomorrow?”

Maelstrom looked terrified. “There’s a dance? Lawrence didn’t say I had to dance.”

“You don’t. I was joking.”

“You didn’t sound like you were joking.”

“Angry joking.”

“Oh, I’m—”

“Not at you.”

“Good.” He clambered on top of the bed, bouncing lightly. “Floor is made of lava!”

 Myriad yelped like her feet were catching fire and flung herself onto the bed after him. For a few minutes they leapt between the few pieces of bedroom furniture Cassandra Valour10 had owned, giggling not very quietly. Part of the thrill of furniture hopping in any new environment is seeing how long you can get away with it before a grownup tells you to knock it off, or the old study-desk gives way. Maelstrom was better at it, having a more instinctive grasp that his body was ultimately replaceable.

He was about to make a jump onto the armchair when he was blinded by a burst of green light. Shocked by the flash and the loud crack that filled the room, he tumbled onto the floor, badly twisting his ankle. He breathed sharply through his teeth, managing to hold back tears long enough for his features to fade into translucence and back.

“Mealy!” Myriad hopped down from the desk to her friend’s side, the same time as she heard hurried footsteps.

Tim Valour burst through the door. “What’s happening? I heard thunder.” He had his hand in his jacket.

The children both looked at the man. “Sorry, Sir Valour. Me and Miri got kind of excited. Don’t know about the thunder.”

“Maybe it’s going to rain tonight?” suggested Myriad.

Valour visibly relaxed, loosening his grip on the cold metal he had concealed. It was an ugly precaution, but there had already been one attempt on his life that year by some Perthite supervillain. If his experience with empowered humans had taught him one thing, it was that you trusted a few, and feared the rest. “I hope not. It would put a damper on the show tomorrow.”

He saw the apprehension in the children’s eyes. “Look, kids, don’t get too worked up about tomorrow. The people who’ll be watching, not a man Jack of them has ever seen a super in person, and most of what they’ve heard is cops and robbers nonsense. Just do something pretty, don’t boil their blood in their veins, and they’ll be telling their grandkids about it till they die.” He made to leave. “Lawrence wanted me to tell you bedtime’s in five minutes. And it’s Mr. Valour, Maelstrom. Good night.”

Once Mr. Valour was well and truly gone, Maelstrom rolled off the small, string bound bundle he had fallen on. There was a note tucked on top.

“What’s Elsewhere say?” asked Maelstrom.

Myriad read it out. “Myriad, Maelstrom, got this to you in only two—no three—FOUR tries. Things are dead boring around here. We’re thinking about letting Haunt be Stephano, but we’re waiting for you two to get back to decide. Melusine cried at dinner last night. You’d think she’d be able to make that not happen if she really wanted. Basilisk’s still in a state.” Myriad tried not to meet Maelstrom’s eyes. She hadn’t told him about her fight with his father. “Anyways, we didn’t know if you’d have tele or anything over there, so me and Mabel got some old comics together. One of them’s pretty terrible, but Mabel said she likes it because it’s bad. No, I don’t know how that works.” Myriad looked up from the note. “She means she likes it ‘ironically’.”

“Sounds ghastly.”

“It is.” She finished up: “Signed Elsewhere, production manager of the Watercolours, sans their Orchestra.” Myriad smiled. So AU hasn’t turned up and killed everyone… unless he made Elsewhere send this so Lawrence would come back. But why would he send comics?

Undeterred and unaware of his friend’s paranoia, Maelstrom severed the string with an icy, sharpened finger. There were three comics. One was an old Marvelman11 annual, another something called G-Men that he didn’t recognise at all. Oddest of all was the Superman title. Well, Superman adjacent:

“Superman’s girlfriend had her own comic?”

“Why not? She’s a reporter, sure she gets up to stuff, give us a look.”

Maelstrom held the comic up for inspection. The cover was dated to July of 1959: a relic of a time when the antics of superhumans were looked upon as a diversion for children, instead of enough reason to found an entire new governmental department. Though whether the DDHA or its foreign counterparts ever had to deal with the groupies of superheroes being turned into babies and adopted by their romantic rivals was something Myriad and Maelstrom did not know12.

“Okay, I need to see what this looks like.” Myriad flopped onto the bed, gesturing for Maelstrom to join her.  

As was typical of comics of the time, Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #10 actually contained three stories. The first was the one depicted on the cover,  an almost disappointingly straightforward tale about Lois Lane gradually regressing through childhood, followed by a bizarre romantic farce in Italy, and finally a story where Lois posed as a fortuneteller. They skimmed that one quickly. By the end of the issue, neither child had any idea what Superman saw in Lois Lane. On the other hand, they couldn’t understand what she saw in him, either.

“Why’s it called Superman’s Girlfriend?” asked Maelstrom.

“Because that’s what she is, silly.”

“Really? Because it seems like he hates this lady more than anyone has ever hated anyone.”

“Guess she can’t take the hint… do you think the Flying Man has a girlfriend?”

“Maybe. Do you think he pulls tricks on her like this?”

Myriad tried imagining the Flying Man blowing clouds away like birthday candles, or convincing mobsters that his woman could command spirits. She giggled. ‘Nah. She’d have killed him by now.”

“…He’s the Flying Man.”

“She’d find a way.”

From their combined observation of teenage boys, they both concluded that if Marvelman actually existed, his ability to become a grown man would exclusively be used to get into pubs.

“You ever heard of G-Men?”

Myriad searched her patchwork memory. “No, but—Oh, Lawrence hates it. A lot.”

“Why?”

“Just read it and you’ll find out.”

As it turned out, the issue in question had only been released a couple of months prior. The cover was quite simple in composition: the silhouette of a little girl, surrounded by a profusion of black circles like poorly rendered sunspots. Cowering from her as bravely as possible were four dashing men in jumpsuits and one in a costume just dissimilar enough to the Crimson Comet’s that nobody had to pay him any royalties. A yellow caption box proclaimed someone to be “THE MOST STARTLING SUPERVILLAIN OF ALL!”.

Maelstrom regarded the book dubiously. “Should we? I don’t think it likes us very much.”

“What, you’re worried we’ll start hating us because the stupid comic said to?”

He pouted. “Fine, we’ll read the dumb comic.”    

The art was okay. Flatter than the Lois Lane comic, and lacking the faint storybook charm of the Marvelman annual, but it did the job well enough. It opened with a single large panel dominating the top half of the page, which more or less replicated the cover image from a different angle. The main difference was the addition of dialogue. One barrel shaped man was shouting at the Crimson Comet lookalike—their token new human, Myriad surmised—to “Take the shot, now!”

“Oh, they’re gonna shoot a little girl,” said Maelstrom. “This is a nice story.”

Myriad thought it might’ve been the first time she had ever heard the boy be sarcastic. “You really need to read more of Mabel’s stuff. They don’t have the guts to kill a little kid.”

The story proper opened with said little kid bounding into the kitchen to find her family all slumped face down on the table, unable to be roused, with the narrator trying and failing to be enigmatic as to the cause of their predicament.

“She’s radioactive, isn’t she?” asked Maelstrom.

“Bet my life.”

“But does radiation work that way?”

“Nope.”

“Got it.”

It then cut to a nondescript, official looking set of rectangles, a sign out front proclaiming it the headquarters of the National Demi-Human Response Team. It could have been in any large city in Australia, America, or Great Britain. One of the quirks of Australian comic books at the time was their dogged refusal to admit they took place in their country of origin, even if they were never intended for foreign markets13.

Within, the National Demi-Human Response Team—Myriad was sure no such thing existed—made weak banter with each other. A lot of it was aimed at their pet superhuman, the Red Raven. He seemed to possess a very watered down version of the Flying Man’s most obvious powers: flight, enhanced strength, the general durability of an old boot14. Myriad was amazed they dared joke about such a man right to his face, but he just smiled and took their jokes, till a klaxon blared and the team were summoned to what looked like nothing more than an enormous TV screen.   

“Do you think they watch movies on that thing?”

Myriad snorted. “Yeah.”

What followed was a long string of truly mad technobabble. Something about a genetic mutation of all things causing radioactive materials to build up in the bones and baby teeth of the girl from the prologue—because of course a single twenty-six page story needed to be divided into discrete sections. It bore a slight resemblance to some actual science Myriad knew off, but substantially more demented15. They then piled into their cutting edge spy plane and headed for the nameless hometown of Isabel “Izzy” Thope.

Myriad groaned.

“Did the DDHA have a plane like that?”

“No,” Myriad answered, bitterly. “Just a truck and a needle.”

Despite Izzy’s radiation evidently being invisible up to this point, it was a veritable light show by the time the G-Men arrived on the scene, as she wandered delirious down the mainstreet. There was a lot of false tension about whether or not they might have to execute the poor girl, though Myriad wasn’t sure how they would make her any less radioactive fast enough to matter.

The debate was rendered moot when one of the G-Men managed to slam some kind of contraption over Izzy’s head. It looked like a colander covered in radio parts. There was a onomatopoeic crackle of electricity, and in defiance of all known laws of physics, the radiation vanished. And it must have been a very unique frequency, powerful enough to cause immediate harm at close range, but leaving no lasting effects once its source was cut off16.

Maelstrom frowned in confusion. “Uh, what’d he do?”

As the next page revealed, the Red Raven had used their “Cerebral Reorganizer” to burn out the “anomalous brain element” that caused Isabel’s radioactivity. Myriad didn’t even know where to start with that one.

“What does that even mean?” asked Maelstrom.

Myriad’s fists were balled up. “It means they gave her brain damage so she couldn’t use her powers anymore,” she answered, flatly.

“Oh… isn’t that called a lobotomy?”

“Yes.”

The wrap-up was insultingly brief. Everyone in town was none the worse the wear from hours of hard radiation exposure. Izzy was reunited with her parents, and she thanked the G-Men for making her like all the other boys and girls.

The children stared at each other. Maelstrom spoke first, “You don’t think there’s something that can do that, right?”

Myriad shook her head. It was a nonsensical idea. If the DDHA could strip a new human’s powers so casually, her stint in McClare’s would have been much shorter. They would have simply held her down, attached electrodes or whatever they used, and burned out part of her brain. It’d be like if they cut out her eardrums, though she would’ve chosen that over losing the songs. Otherwise, it would be like if one day she could no longer see faces. It would be awful for Maelstrom, too, she knew. A world as dry and barren as hers would be quiet.  

They’d be human. No, crippled posthumans. Neither of them had ever been human to start with.

Finally, Myriad answered. “No.” She wished Snapdragon was here, so she could burn the damn comic, or failing that, Elsewhere, so she could send it back to the writer with an itemised list of all the ways he was an idiot. She settled for throwing it under the bed where the sight of it could no longer offend her. “If it did Elsewhere would be sending this stupid thing by post.”

“Then why’d they have it happen?”

“Because they’re lazy and jealous. They don’t want to admit we’re better than them, so they tell themselves it’s awful being like us, and that we’d thank them if they took it away.”

She was angry. Angry at Lawrence for dragging them all the way across the country to impress some old, crumbly baselines. Angry at AU for hanging a sword over their heads, and not having the decency to give her a date for when it would all fall down. Angry at herself for letting a cheap comic’s dumb contrivances get to her. Angry at Mabel for sending it to her instead of another Lois Lane. Angry at Superman for not telling the stupid bint to leave him alone and go work for another paper. She reached over and turned off the bedside lamp. “I’m going to sleep, night.”

They both lay there in darkness, keenly aware that neither of them seemed quite at the point of sleep yet.

“I didn’t make that name up.”

“What?”

“David. Mummy calls me that sometimes. Mabel, too, when nobody’s around.”

“…Why?”

His outline shrugged. “Mum says it’s good to have something that isn’t all about the powers.”

“But what’s it mean?”

David considered the question. “Whatever I want it to.”

“Why are you telling me this now?”

“Because we’re friends… I think.” He forced a giggle. “And you’ll know what to call me if they get the Cerebral Reorganizer on me.”

“I’d blow their heads up before they did that.”

Myriad’s eyes hadn’t acclimated to the dark enough to make out details, but she felt a smile coming from the boy. “I know you would.”

“Night, David. Pleased to meet ya.”

Given the context, David wasn’t sure what name would be appropriate. It didn’t really matter. She knew who she was. “Night.”

When the two of them awoke the next morning, they were slightly relieved to find the world was still wet, and people still had songs.


1. Superhero comics experienced a considerable lull in popularity in the period immediately after the Flying Man revealing himself. Many parents and politicians accused the genre of promoting superpowered vigilantism, and many publishers shied away from the genre as a result. Some publishers, such as the recently rebranded Marvel Comics, folded altogether. Often regarded as a probable inspiration for the Flying Man, Superman was pulled from the shelves completely.  While superhero comics as a whole eventually rebounded, Superman never quite regained the pop-cultural presence he once enjoyed. He would experience periodic revivals, however, including a well-regarded run by Alan Moore.

2. Lawrence could tell stories about merely trying to transport the man by boat.

3. “I do not see you learning Esperanto, do I?”

4. See John Lewis Gaddis’ The Cold Peace, originally published 1987.

5. He was last seen telling a flaming copy of Einstein’s Relativity to choke on its lies.

6. Please do not chew lead.

7. But that was only because he had never watched The Addams Family.

8. He was also similar to the King’s Guard in that he was not in fact stationed in front of Buckingham Palace.

9. “If they were fascist, kid, they’d have much spiffier duds.”

10. After Cassandra Valour was engaged, she sometimes wondered whether she would be relieved or saddened when the time came to trade in her surname.

11. Although the United Kingdom was not spared the loss of its nuclear weapons, the reaction of its comic book industry was substantially more restrained than the United States’s. Marvelman—a legally distinct but functionally identical British localization of the Captain Marvel franchise, which itself would later be revived by DC Comics during its resurgence—would continue to be published almost continuously for many decades, even receiving a film adaptation in 2013.

12. Superhero groupies have led to immense leaps in the field of obstetrics.

13. This would become easier after the switch from pounds to dollars in 1966. Less so in timelines where Sir Robert Menzies got his way, and the new decimal currency was named the royal. Or worse, the roo.

14. Despite the actual rarity of this powerset, it is generally what people picture when they imagine “superpowers”, even back in the days before the Flying Man.

15. She was probably thinking of the Baby Tooth Survey conducted by the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information, which measured the level of radioactive materials absorbed by the deciduous teeth of children.

16. Admittedly, it wasn’t as though Maelstrom and Myriad had access to later issues to see if the G-Men struggled with cancer or impotency.

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