Category Archives: Book Two: Titanomachy

The second volume of the story.

Chapter Fifty-Five: …And Hell Rode Behind Her

Allison Kinsey ran through the bush, bounding over branches and rocks with no conscious effort. Her muscles screamed under her skin until she silenced them. She would have played Cardea’s, or Jumpcut’s, or even Britomart’s songs, but all she could find of them was echoes in the air.

Windshear’s song had stopped first. Then Linus’ had reared to life, clear and glorious, before going jagged and ending mid-note.

Ending. How could a song end?    

The Institute’s children had all vanished—extinguished in an impossible explosion of music—leaving only the Watercolours and nearly a hundred strange, banal human songs.

And, of course, its prodigal son.

Alberto and Allison collided with no small force, both falling backwards into the undergrowth.

“Ow, fucking ow…”

Allison recovered first, springing catlike back her feet and looking down with bewilderment at the esper in soldier’s costume sprawled before her. “Alberto? What—I thought—why are you dressed like that?”

Alberto lunged at the little girl, slapping a gloved hand over her mouth. “Shut up, shut up! They’ll hear you!”

Allison backed away from the man, out of his grip. “Those soldiers?” She scowled at Alberto’s uniform. “Are you with them?”

A gasp of pure frustration throttled its way out of Alberto. “No! I mean, yes, but—” A choked noise that might have been a sob. “It wasn’t supposed to go this way.”

Allison realised there were tear-streaks on the man’s face. Quietly, she asked, “Alberto, what’s happening?”

“Valour sent his bloody people after you. Cormey went nuts, and they started shooting! Christ, Mary and Windy are dead!” Alberto’s eyes darted around like he thought there were demons in the trees. “How—where’d they go? Oh, God, I think they’re all dead.”  

Allison just stood there.

Dead.

She couldn’t get a hold on the idea. She knew what death was supposed to mean. How could she not? Sometimes it seemed to be all grown ups thought and wrote about. But those were only words. She’d never known anyone who died. Even Adam had been a brief passerby in her life, exiting quietly out of her sight.  

But then, hadn’t that just happened to all the other students?

Everyone was dead. People Allison had played with everyday for nearly a year were gone, their songs silenced forever.

Bella was barely seven. Mrs Gillespie had put flowers in Allison’s hair and held her when she cried. They’d both been shot.

Allison’s nails dug into the skin of her palms, radioactive-green light coursing through her from head to toe. “I’m gonna kill them.”

“What?”

“I’m going to kill them all!”

Alberto stared at the little girl. There was no fear in her, only pure, untempered fury. A child’s anger, a hard gem of flame that burned away everything else.

The only other supers within Allison’s grasp were the other theatre kids. Could she take on over a hundred armed men with just those powers? Normally, Alberto wouldn’t have hesitated saying “Yes!” and running far, far away, but somehow those soldiers had put out dozens of their lot, all at once.

He didn’t want to feel another child die.

“No.”

The child burned brighter. “No?”

“They just managed to rub out two footy teams worth of you! At once. I don’t know if the Physician packed them a fucking tactical nuke or what, but you can’t fight that!”

“They killed my friends! Don’t you care?”

Alberto was surprised to find he did. “They’ll kill you too, if you don’t turn around and run.”

Allison marched past the psychic. “You can’t stop me.”

Alberto had never thought much of himself. Truthfully, he was right not to. But couldn’t he stop this stupid little girl from wandering into her death?

He slipped off his gloves. “No, I guess I can’t.”

He swung around and grabbed Allison’s shoulder. “You are going to turn around, go get your friends, and run far, far away, you hear me, kid?”

For a single moment, something inside her resisted.

“… Right.”

It was as she turned to leave, orienting towards the still ringing sound of Arnold and Mabel’s songs in the distance, that she heard a quiet pop in the distance, and Alberto staggered as something struck him in the arm. “Fuck!”

Allison stopped walking, and turned to stare at Alberto. He was on the ground, cradling a  bleeding shoulder with his remaining good hand. His song was fluctuating. Spiking. What if it went away, too? Like all the others had.

She couldn’t let that happen.

She didn’t really think about what happened next. It was like reflexively reaching for an apple when you dropped it. The next thing Allison knew, she was upon the psychic, her knees pressing against his chest and pinning him there as, for the first time, she dug her power into him, pulling his song into her own.

“Oh, Christ,” he whimpered, the pain apparently forgotten. “Not like this, you little cunt.” She felt his hand against her forehead, trailing fresh blood across her scalp. “Sleep!” he commanded. “Fucking sleep, Allison!”

Why was she so tired all of a sudden? Allison ignored it. No time for that. She had to help Alberto.

“Stop fighting me.”

Alberto had been halfway through a yell when his voice cut off, his hand, halfway through trying to shove the girl away, fell back. He stopped.

“A—Allison,” he begged, a few fresh tears trickling down his face. “Please don’t. I don’t want to die like this.”

Die? Allison paused for a moment, confused. Why die? She was saving him.

“It’s gonna be okay,” she whispered, not sure how she knew that. “You’ll be fine. I promise.” For a moment, Alberto tried to object, but then she pressed his power into him, and that look of panic seemed to catch on something.

“… You promise?”

She gave him another reassuring wave of his power, and nodded.

“I’m gonna get us out of here.”

Alberto closed his eyes.

“… Okay.”

A dozen or so seconds later, Allison stood back up. Then, she turned on her heel, and set off, leaving the thing that had once been Tiresias bleeding from every hole in his face. His song was nothing but noise now, but that was okay. It was still playing inside Allison.

She felt good. The anger was still there, but even that felt good. Like a thousand birthdays.

There was a soldier in her path. An old man, with a still-smoking pistol hanging limply at his side like a child’s toy.

“Good God, girl, what did you do to Moretti?”

Allison kept walking, her head tilted. There were lights inside the man’s head: fireflies dancing in his skull. And they told her things, like Morse code. His name was Harris Yellick, and he had done very bad things.

“Why’d you kill them?”

Allison knew Yellick was going to shoot at her before he even raised his gun. The lights screamed it, but that wasn’t the only tell. It was like he had to do everything twice before it happened.

She dodged the bullet like it was a tennis ball.

“Fuck.”

Electric riffs.

Allison roared with Billy’s voice, toppling the major like a blade of grass in a hurricane. In a split second she had a foot on his throat.

“You killed Mels.” She didn’t know why she’d used that name.

“I didn’t…”

“You made someone do it.”

Allison was wondering what she was going to do with the man when she heard the song.

It rose and ebbed in a tide of flame over her. Its notes and harmonies couldn’t be counted, reaching higher than the uppermost reaches of the night, where stars lived and died. It was the voice of comet and asteroid. It was the growth of flowers, the white-gold of dawn, and the foam-wrought sea all at once.

It was everything.

Allison started to babble words born under different constellations. She knew the webs of birth and death, the pathways between ancient suns, and the very language that wrote the universe. In that moment, she could’ve reconciled quantum physics, gravity, and magic in a single sentence.

It was too much. She couldn’t take it all in.

It did help fill in some gaps, though.

Allison could remember snippets of songs. David’s, Veltha’s, Snapdragon’s, even Windshear’s. Beautiful, but powerless. Incomplete.

But then, she’d already worked Alberto’s song into her pattern, hadn’t she?

Allison burst into flames. It was ecstasy.

Major Yellick thrashed and struggled, staring up at the ashen-skinned spirit.

She looked down at him with yellow, burning eyes. “You hurt my family.”

“…I’m sorry.”

Allison didn’t answer him. Not with words. A globule of magma bubbled into existence in her hand.

“Wait, please!”

The conjured liquid rock coiled and spiraled down through the air like a river of sunlight. Major Yellick’s flesh burned. His bones blackened. His blood turned to steam in his veins. His screams were lost in that boundless song.

Allison stepped back from the smouldering body. His song was gone now. Good. She looked up through the trees, towards the source of the new music. She’d always been able to hear songs. But now she could see them.

It was thousands upon thousands of layers of mystic violet and nearly white lavender, with countless stars pressed between them like specks of gold in stained glass. They came together like rose petals.

And at the centre of it all, the Flying Man hovered above the Institute.

“Allie?”

Arnold’s voice.

“What’s going on?”

Allison turned to look at her friend. The others were standing a little behind the boy, holding onto each other.

“What the hell is that?” Mabel said, pointing at what was left of Major Yellick.

“It’s nothing,” answered Allison, meaning it.

“Something wrong with Alberto,” Billy said. “He’s all… bleeding.”

“He’ll be alright.”  

Billy, Mabel, and David all disappeared in a blast of lightning. Allison’s new fire had been replaced by Arnold’s electricity.

“Allie! What are you doing?”

“I had to put them somewhere safe. The Flying Man’s here.”

“…The Flying Man?”

“We need to leave.”

“How?” Arnold’s voice was very small.

“Your power.”

“But one of us will get left behind!”

Arnold’s aura grew brighter in Allison. She held out her hand. “Not if we zap each other at the same time.”

Slowly, Arnold started glowing, too. He reached for Allison. “You sure this’ll work?”

“Promise.”

“The Dam?”

“Yeah. The Dam.”

The two children’s hands touched—  


Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-Four: These Are the Damned

The army convoy slowly crept down the moonlit Great Eastern Highway, as though wary of attracting the gaze of the stars above. An American-donated humvee led a coterie of armoured troop-carriers down the pitch black road: a bee marshalling a parade of wasps. In their wake, four trucks dragged spired chambers carved from what looked like rough volcanic rock. “Quiet Vans,” their inventor called them. The road was so narrow, the entire procession could only drive in single file.

Someone had wanted to bring a tank, but the powers that be decided that would fall in the odd overlap between far-too-much and not-nearly-enough.

Alberto was pretty sure it had been an American.

The psychic rode in one of the cramped transports, reeking of sweat and sandwiched shoulder-to-shoulder between two soldiers on a hard metal bench, their gun-barrels crossed in front of his chest. The cabin was filled with more shadow than light, yet glaringly bright to Alberto’s eyes. Swirls of hot yellow fear, nebulas of blue curiosity, even a shameful cloud of excitement. Alberto wasn’t surprised to find that some of the boys were looking forward to testing their mettle against real supers. At least some of them were rightly scared shitless. And then there were the smart ones. The ones who knew that—whatever happened at the New Human Institute—none of them would be getting into Heaven that night.

“Feels weird, fighting kids,” one of the soldiers mused. He was an American (a very southern American, by the sound of him) whose broad features stood out in the gloom like Mount Rushmore at night. DOPO had insisted on there being an American presence on the raid. They had lost people too, the US consulate insisted, and they would have their pound of flesh.

Alright, the last part was mostly inference on Alberto’s part. Even so, he supposed the DDHA was in no position to turn down the help. After the bombings, the Australian government mostly consisted of Timothy Valour and Harold Holt1. For now, they were about as independent as the average banana republic.

“You aren’t fighting kids yet,” Alberto reminded him. With surprising vehemence, he added, “And if you have any sense, better hope you keep not fighting them.”

One of the Australian soldiers replied, “Can you really even call them kids? When they’re that strong…”

“Even gods have childhoods, Private Warren.”

Every other head in the transport snapped to look at the one woman among them. Alberto had been issued an ADF uniform for the mission, but Strikepoint looked like she had wandered in from the movie playing in the next theatre. She wore a black domino mask, with a charcoal grey body-glove broken up by cobwebs of glow-paint lightning. Her chest bore a pair of scales weighing a white feather. A swan’s, she had mentioned to Alberto back in Exmouth. Her hands meanwhile had been left bare, by specific request, apparently.

Alberto was almost certain she had been sourced from the asylums. She had the same buzz cut Allison had when he first met her.

Damn it, why did he let himself think about Allison? About any of them?

“Know that for a fact, do you?” Private Warren asked, a forced smile to his voice.

Strikepoint simply answered, “I did.”

The cabin went quiet again.

Fuck, Alberto thought to himself. Since when did superheroes have such big egos?

But was it ego? Alberto’s powers offered no answers. Trying to read Strikepoint’s mind was like attempting to parse constellations at the centre of the galaxy. It was as if her whole body was made of latticed thought.

Is she some sort of projection?

“Hey, Psi-Man.”

Alberto winced as he turned towards the American. “Yes, Wilkins?”

“Psi-Man” was his code name for the operation. It was almost as bad as “Tiresias” but at least nobody expected him to use it on his own time. He’d put his foot down at the costume, though. The DDHA had wanted him to do this in a high-collared cape and the turban. Apparently, he and Strikepoint were meant to represent “a new, more socially responsible tradition of superheroism.”

Fucking jackals.

“Sergeant says you can see the future? That true?”

“Some of them.”

“…How many?”

Trillions. At least.”

Wilkins thought he was making the word up.

“He’s right,” Strikepoint interjected. “Some dooms are fixed, but the rest of it…” She waved her hand. Her fingernails cut faint trails in the black. “People—societies—they always want something outside themselves to blame.”

One of the Australians whispered, “Blimey.”

On that note, the carrier came to a halt. Alberto half-expected the darkness to slosh about like water inside an aquarium. Instead the doors opened, diluting the shadow.

Alberto stood up as straight as he could without scraping the roof. “Well, time to pick our doom.”

Soldiers bustled about the road, setting up road blockades or assembling before their commanding officers. Some, Alberto knew, were armed with Physician-made tranquillisers, along with high-impact and explosive rounds.    

Others just had plain old bullets.

It didn’t take long for the major to find the two superhumans. He was a short, stockily built older man, with brown hair graying at the temples like wood ash and a pencil mustache. Something about his air reminded Alberto of Arnold Barnes’ father. Only taller.

He shook Strikepoint’s hand. “Good to see you, Miss… Strikepoint. I’m Major Yellick. Valour’s put me in charge of this show.”

Strikepoint nodded. “He told me about you. Said you served together in the war.”

Major Yellick allowed himself a small smile. “Yes. If the camera had been aimed a little differently, I might be the one on all the comic covers.”

Alberto raised an eyebrow. “Think a lot of yourself, do we?”

Major Yellick almost slapped the weedy looking wog around the ear for insubordination, but then he spotted the red “SS” badge on his breast2. “You’re Psi-Man, I take it?” He did not offer Alberto his hand. Tim had been very clear on that.

“If you must.”

Tim had also told him to expect lip. If anything, he should be worried if none was forthcoming. He returned it in-kind. “Yes, Psi-Man. I must.”

“Can we just get this over with?”

“Glad to see we’re on the same page about this.” Yerrick’s gaze drifted downward. He cleared his throat. “Are the targets asleep?”

“They’re not targets,” said Strikepoint firmly. “Not like that. I’m just here for deterrence.”

“Ah, my apologies… but are they?”

Alberto closed his eyes, casting his third eye towards the Institute. Dozens of low, dreamy clusters of light, mostly concentrated in the dorms. A few bright stragglers and scattered sleepers, but Alberto had been expecting that.

“About as close to all of them as we can hope for.”

“…Priority Alpha?”

Alberto sighed. “Her too.”

“Right then.” Major Yerrick took his walkie-talkie off his belt. “Positions, everyone. Operation: Prometheus commences in minus ten minutes.”

The bulk of the seventy-five strong task force broke up into ten squads of five and crept like wolves into the trees bordering the west side of the highway. The remaining twenty-five men phalanxed around Strikepoint and Alberto, Major Yerrick taking spearpoint.

They marched to a dirt turnoff into the bush. It had no signpost—just as the property owner liked it. As the squad started down the path, under the shadow of bent, curious trees, Alberto started thinking one thought very hard:

DON’T PAY US ATTENTION! DON’T PAY US ATTENTION!

It was a simple enough trick. He used to pull it all the time playing hide and seek with Françoise.3

Fran.       

He’d never done it with so many hangers-on, though. The pressure in his ears felt like he was in a plane taking off from the bottom of the sea.

“You’re really making us invisible, esper?” Strikepoint asked.

Alberto screwed his eyes shut before blinking rapidly. “Not exactly. You ever notice the air in front of your face?”

“I might be the wrong person to answer that.”

“Then please stop talking.”

Strikepoint’s usual edifice of sage reserve cracked. “Oh sorry.”

Alberto put his fingers to his forehead. That usually told idiots he was doing psychic stuff—even when he wasn’t.

He’d never realised how long the path to the Institute was, or how fast you could reach the end by foot. He threw a hand up before the squad turned the last bend, along with a general vibe of “hold up.”

Yerrick glanced over his shoulder at Alberto. The psychic nodded back.

The major steeled himself. “Wilkins, you’re up.”

The soldiers parted to let the American make his way to the front.

He saluted the major. “Awaiting orders, sir!”

Yerrick regarded the private. He was so young. Couldn’t be more than twenty-two. He still had freckles. Who thought giving this job to someone with freckles was a good idea? Had he done well on an infiltration course4? He put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Private, you’re going to hear a voice in your head. That’s just Psi-Man, you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Make sure you follow his instructions exactly as he gives them.” Yerrick felt like he was handing over his kid to a babysitter. “If you argue or try to resist, you might break his concentration.”

And then the super-children murder us all.

Both men winced.

“What he said.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Remember, son, you’re not just doing this for your country, you’re doing it for mine, and every other country where human beings make their homes.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If you pull this off, you might be well be saving the lives of every child at this school.”

Wilkins didn’t know why the major was trying to hammer it in so hard. He was a soldier. This was his job. “Yes, sir!”

“Good luck, soldier.”

The private trode on ahead, turning the corner and emerging onto the New Human Institute, before hopping the fence and wading out into the night-covered grass. Looking around at the silhouetted buildings and other, less definable shapes in the distance, Wilkins’ mind rapidly flicked between his family’s farm back in New England, and the forgotten, degenerate towns that dotted Lovecraft’s vision of the East Coast.       

Priority Alpha is in the farmhouse, get a move on.

Private Wilkins obeyed, climbing the slope towards the looming manor.

Voices. Children.

The soldier swung around, the light on his rifle shining on a blonde teenage girl with a younger boy heading right for him.

“Shit. Shit. Shit.”

Stay still!   

Private Wilkins did just that, not that he had much of a choice in the matter. Fear nailed his feet to the earth.

“…So he said ‘Well, maybe when it comes Allie can be the midwife.’ He seriously thought I was going to let a nine year old be my midwife!”

“Idiot.”

The pair passed by Wilkins without comment. Once he was sure they were out of earshot, he whispered, “How…”

I made you less interesting than the dirt you’re standing on. Trust me, it wasn’t hard. Now get on with it!

Private Wilkins soon reached the farmhouse. The front door wasn’t locked. Why would it be?

Inside, the only sources of light were a few strategically placed candles. Wilkins didn’t need them. He found himself navigating the darkened, rambling house like it was his own. He even turned his scope-light off. Why make Psi-Man’s job harder for him? Directions came not as words, but pure impulse.

He climbed the stairs to the top floor, and opened the second door on the right:

She was asleep, thank God, lying under a thin white duvet.

Through Private Wilkins’ eyes, Alberto watched Françoise Barthe’s chest rise and fall.

He’d tried arguing for her, he really had.

“For God’s sake, Valour! She could win Vietnam for you!”

Timothy Valour had turned his back to Alberto while he stared out the window of his new office. “She’s also unstable and aggressive. There’s no way she’ll go along with the removal.”

“I could—”

“I know you could. Ethics aside, what happens if you let the reigns slip?”

“I wouldn’t—”

“We drown, that’s what happens.”

“…Can you blame her?”

“I offered her a sensible, humane alternative. I offered them all that. They didn’t listen.”

Private Wilkins lowered his rifle and raised his sidearm, cocking back the pistol’s hammer as he stalked closer to the Priority’s bedside.

It needs to be a headshot, right through the brain. If she even gets a second to use her powers, you will die. We will all die.

Wilkins aimed his gun just above the woman’s ear, the end almost getting tangled in the gold of her hair. His fingers wrapped around the trigger—  

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They’d told him this woman was a fearsome, mighty sea-witch, more a goddess than a super. But now she just looked like a woman…

She’s more dangerous than any hero or villain you’ve heard of. She could fight the Flying and win. Easily. You have to—

The woman stirred. Her blue, gleaming eyes locked with Wilkins’ own. “What—”   

Fuck!

Wilkins’ finger twitched. Alberto heard the bang.

The private watched as the body collapsed into water, soaking into the mattress and spilling down the sides. Soon, all that was left of Françoise Barthe was the blood on Wilkins’ face.

“Psi-Man,” he said aloud, like he was speaking to God. “She—are you seeing this?”

Yes, Wilkins.

“Is—is she dead?”

Alberto closed his eyes. Françoise’s lights were gone. “Yes Wilkins, you did it. You fucking did it.”

The psychic felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Strikepoint’s. “Moretti, are you alright?”

Alberto brushed it off. He could find no traction on the woman’s mind, but right now he couldn’t bring himself to care. “I just helped assassinate my oldest friend. No, I’m not.” He looked over at Major Yellick. “Tell the men to start the roundup. I don’t want to be anywhere near this shithole by sunup.”

The Watercolours were panicking. It was the only sensible thing to do.

“What the hell is going on?” Arnold cried. “Why’d Mavis… do that?”

Mabel got in Allison’s face and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Did you say there was shooting?”

“That’s what it sounded like!”

Billy was tearily repeating, “Not a good game—not a good game—not a good game…”   

In the middle of it all, David stamped his foot and shouted with as much of mother in his voice as he could muster, “Everyone shut up!

The others fell silent.

David raised a hand. His eyes were burning. “People are coming.”

In the distance, torchlights cut through the trees like phantom axes.

By the time the vanguard of the gamma squad reached the Watercolours, the four children were sitting around a renewed campfire, each with a hand of playing cards.

The squad-leader’s scope-light fell on David’s back while he shuffled the deck. The soldier called out to his comrades, “Y’all get your asses up here, I’ve found them!”

The Watercolours didn’t look up from their cards, listening impassively as the heavy-booted footsteps amassed around them.

“Alright kids, it’s over.”  

 “Go fish,” Billy said.

“We’re playing poker, Growly,” said Mabel.

“Oh.”

The squad-leader and his gathered troops exchanged confused glances. Did these kids even realize they were there? Did they care?

“…Look, we’re not here to hurt you!”

“We know,” said Arnold.

A storm of green lightning struck the meadow,  illuminating it like green sunrise, but one gone as fast as it started. Arnold’s empty pool came alive with shouting and wild, chittering gunfire.

Allison dropped down from the trees above the patch of grass where the soldiers had been standing, now luna-barren. She tried shouting over the bullets still screeching up from the crater, “What were they doing?”

Mabel put her hand to her ear, “What?”

“I said, ‘What were they doing?’ ”

“I can’t hear you!”

Allison pointed her fingers over her shoulders. A dozen or so trees behind the girl suddenly found themselves uprooted above the crater. The soldiers screamed as they rained down upon them. The gunfire stopped.

“They dead?” Allison asked flatly, already knowing the answer.

Billy carefully approached the groaning pit, poking his head over the rim just enough to be able to peer at the mess of broken trunks, branches, and khaki-clothed limbs. “Are you fellas okay down there?”

The human bush swore almost as one entity.

Billy frowned. “Don’t be rude! You pointed guns at us!”

One of the buried soldiers gasped out, “Fuck off, Paddington Bear.”

“That doesn’t even make sense!”

Mabel joined Billy at the edge, along with the red-suited spacewoman. The astronaut pointed her raygun down at the soldiers. “Please tell the children why you’re here, fellow travellers.”

“We’re getting you freaks back. For what you did to Canberra!”

Arnold looked at David. “Wait, are they talking about you and Allie’s show?”

The water-sprite shrugged. “I thought we were pretty—”

A wave of perfect, unnatural silence washed over the clearing, drowning David’s words the moment they passed his lips.

Arnold tried to ask what was going on, but it was like he was trapped in a muted TV set. He couldn’t even hear his own thoughts. For a brief, horrible moment, Allison couldn’t hear any songs.

A second later, sound rushed back into the world.

“What was that?” asked Mabel.

Something fast and bright flitted past the girl.

“Or that!”

“I don’t know,” answered Allison. She tilted her ear, trying to regain her hold on the Institute’s musical landscape. “Something’s—”

She took off running, back towards the Institute.

Arnold tried to run after her. “Allie! Wait up!”

The boy couldn’t hope to keep up with his friend’s inhuman speed and grace. Not after what she had heard.

“Allie!”

It could be debated whether soldiers are very bad or in fact rather good at getting children out of bed. Alberto and Major Yellick’s men scoured the dormitories, their screamed orders jarring the students out of their dreams, while rough hands and rifle-butts forced them drowsy and bewildered out into the night.

The soldiers started to shepherd the crying, confused children towards the Institute’s wood and wire gate. Lana was being frog-marched by a pair of Americans in some twisted gesture of chivalry when she caught sight of Alberto:

“Bertie! What the hell are you doing here?” She squinted at his uniform. “When’d you join the army?”

Alberto shouted back, “Just keep doing what they tell you. It’ll be alright as long as you don’t fight!”

Louise and Tom each had an arm around Bella, trying to support the sobbing younger girl and keep up with the other children, ahead of the soldiers’ gunpoints.

“Why are they doing this to us?” Louse whispered.

“It doesn’t matter,” Tom answered. “They don’t need a reason.”

Louise hoped Bella didn’t hear him.

Strikepoint watched it all from the farmhouse verandah, her hand scorching the balustrade where she grasped it. Her thoughts were of a night thousands of sunrises gone—of children being led from a burning city towards the living death of slavery and worse.

It has to be better than that. Valour swore to me.

The newly minted superheroine searched the faces of the children below. Was Allison Kinsey among them? She wondered if Dr. Carter would think well of her “help.”

Something caught her eye. A gaggle of soldiers shouting at a pearly, iridescent dome and hammering their rifles against it.

This looked like a job for Strikepoint.

One of the soldiers, an Australian with an unfortunately patchy beard, bellowed, “You’re only making things worse yourselves!” He nodded at one of his fellows. “Do it.”

The other army man turned his gun the right way around and fired at the dome. It expanded explosively, knocking the troops closest to the ground and throwing up a crest of sod.

“What’s going on here?”

The soldiers all scrambled to attention (and their feet) seemingly racing to see who could salute Strikepoint first. She folded her arms and tried to smile wryly. “You do realize I’m not your CO, right boys?”

The badly shaved Aussie’s shoulders dropped slightly. “Yeah, but you know… superhero.”

It was funny, the instinctive respect a dollop of spirit-gum and a strip of fabric across the bridge of her nose could afford. It reminded Strikepoint of the masks the priests once wore. “Suit yourselves.” She pointed past the men at the bubble. “Still looks like you could use some help.”

The lead soldier’s face hardened. “There’s a couple demis hiding under there. They’re refusing to drop… whatever that thing is.”

So they got to be demis, while she was a superhero. Odd. “Of course they aren’t, you’re waving guns at them. Move aside.”

They obeyed. Wise. Strikepoint knelt in front of the shining bubble. She could see the shadows of two children huddling at the centre of it. It had been nearly two hundred years since she’d mothered any child, but she tried her best to remember. “Listen, I don’t blame you for doing this. I know we’re being scary, and you don’t deserve this.”

One of the soldiers tried to object, but Strikepoint threw her hand up, sunlight blazing beneath her palm. He shut up.

“Things will get better. I promise.”       

The dome dessicated and faded away, revealing a grimy little girl and a boy with sand-blond hair. Strikepoint wanted to ask which of them created the force-field. She didn’t.

The girl said, “You really promise?”

Strikepoint smiled gently. “On the River Styx.” She took the pair by the hands, helping them up from the ground. She was doubly glad she’d turned down gloves. “That’s deadly serious.”

They started walking towards what Strikepoint couldn’t help but think as the chokepoint.

“Are you a superhero?” asked the boy.

“Yes.”

Strikepoint felt the children’s hands relax slightly in hers.

It was a strange mask she wore.

Alberto was leaning against the fence when the soldiers dragged over what was left of the NHI’s staff like a cut-rate Roman triumph.

“We found them in the cottages.”

Bryant Cormey struggled against a pair of handcuffs. He spat at Alberto, “Traitor!”

Alberto ignored the teacher. He was going straight for Vercingetorix. He pushed aside past the soldiers that were flanking the headmaster and grabbed Lawrence by the front of his mouldering suit-jacket. “I fucking knew it.”

Lawrence’s voice was low, almost a whimper. “I tried, Tiresias.”

Mary was weeping into her nightgown. The soldiers at her side looked like they wanted to offer her a handkerchief. “Why are you doing this, Alberto?”

Alberto shared a look with the old woman, regret passing briefly over his features. “I’m sorry, Mrs G.” He glared back at Lawrence. “You’ll have to ask him.” Alberto turned around and walked away from the teachers, telling the soldiers, “Put them with the kids. I’m sure Tim will figure out what to do with them. Once he’s done buying me a fucking drink.”

The teachers were taken to the gate, where their students stood huddled before Major Yerrick and his praetorians, guns aimed at them from all sides.

Strikepoint fed the former Abalone and Veltha into the crowd, trying to reassure the pair as she left them to join the major.

“Please don’t drag this out,” she warned Yellick.

Alberto was with them soon enough.

Yellick asked, “Is this everyone?”

Alberto closed his eyes, opening them again almost immediately. Close enough. “Yep.”

Yellick turned to the children and started speaking: his steady, well-calloused voice clear over their tears or questions. “You are all charged with defying official DDHA orders, as well as attempting to intimidate agents. Furthermore, you are also charged orchestrating terror attacks in Perth, the ACT, and Washington D.C, resulting in at least five hundred deaths, including many members of Federal Parliament.”

The students’ confusion reached new heights.

“What the hell are you on about?” shouted Linus.

Already in his mechanical form, Troy buzzed, “They’re trying to stitch us up!”

Mary Gillespie was clutched Lawrence’s arm. “Laurie, why are they saying these things?”

She saw the vacant, staring look on the old man’s face.

“Laurie… what did you do?”

Yellick continued, ignoring all protests. “The Commonwealth of Australia is willing to show you children clemency. Through service, you may repay your country.”

Bryant Cormey started laughing, high and horse. “You see what you’ve done? You fucking kids took something glorious and turned it into shite! Threw away a future for a few weeks of frolicking!”

“Someone’s picked up the boss-man’s vocab,” Alberto muttered.

Mary begged the other teacher. “Please, Bryant.  Don’t make it worse for them.”

Cormey kept on raving. “They deserve it!” He gestured around at the children. “Look at them! Gods cowering at Neanderthals with metal sticks!”

“Cormey,” Lawrence sighed. “It’s over. Let’s try and go with some dignity.”

“And whose fault is that?”

“Be quiet, sir,” ordered Strikepoint, trying not to look at a white-haired boy crying into his hands at the edge of the crowd. “You’re frightening the children.”

A choked, manic giggle. “And who are you? The freak-finders’ pet demi?” He pantomimed peering at Strikepoint. “Are you even a super? Or did they just dress up some whore and hoped we bought it?”

“You don’t know what I am.”  

“Well then.”

There was no real reason for Strikepoint to have done anything when Bryant Cormey ran at her, screaming at the top of his tired lungs. He was a handcuffed, half-mad cultist whose world was falling apart. She, by definition, could not die.

But she was so angry.

Lightning lashed from Strikepoint’s eyes, striking Cormey right in his heart. He fell face forward in the dirt, the stench of burnt hair and flesh rising from his body.

She hadn’t meant to kill the poor fool.

Screaming. So much screaming. Children caught between their fear of what just happened and the guns still trained on them.

The wind screamed too, trying to match its mistress. Bella was on the ground, her hands over her head. Her unnatural, private hurricane tore blindly at soldier, student, and staff alike. Strikepoint tried to soothe the air, but the girl had a deathgrip on it.

“Is this one of you?” Yellick yelled over the roar. “Stop it immediately!”

Mary fought the wind, painfully forcing her way over to Bella and pulling her into an embrace.

“Please, she’s just scared!”

She shouldn’t have given Yellick something to aim at.

Mrs Gillespie collapsed, Bella Wilson still in her arms. Their blood mixed in the grass.

The children’s shouting and screams died. Louise stared at her teacher and her friend. “…Bella?”

Tom looked right at Major Yellick. His voice shook. “You—you fucks.”

Strikepoint had her hand over her mouth. “No…”

Alberto shook his head at the major. “They were an old lady and a fucking kid.”

“I—”  

Mary!” Lawrence ran to Mrs Gillespie’s side, falling to his knees and draping himself over her body, weeping. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”    

Mavis eyes raked over the soldiers, her whole body shaking. When she finally her voice was wrong—like she was trying to build words out of the drone of locusts and hornets:

You bastards! You murdering fucking bastard—  

The sound tightened and bended through the air, lancing through the inner ears of half a dozen soldiers. Their eyes exploded from their heads in great bursts of blood.

Someone got off a lucky shot, but the spell was broken. The children fought back.

Tom’s ghost charged at a soldier. He passed through the man, taking most of his insides with him. The soldier’s mates fell upon and tried firing at the boy, but it was like trying to slay mist. Their bullets whizzed through him right into each other.

Tom glared contemptuously at the men bleeding their last around him, tears running down his face like rain on glass. White fuckers and their guns.

All around, troops were being sucked under the earth, down into new, unmarked graves. Dolls and toys clawed their way out of the Institute’s soil, clambering up legs to gouge out eyes and force their way down throats. Force fields opened over soldiers and snapped shut, leaving only piles of torn fabric and gristle. Others were smashed by invisible hammers, their legs snapping beneath them as their brains were driven into their ribcage.   

Not all the children fought. Sheilah and Bran were running towards one of her tears, hoping  to find refuge in the darkness, the former pulling her little sister behind them.

“I’m scared!” Dawn cried, light spilling wildly from her body.

Sheilah breathlessly tried reassuring her. “We’ll be alright, Dawnie! We just need to—”

The three passed into the dark. A bullet followed.

Louise was facing down five men alone. They kept pouring ammo into her, bullets falling undeformed at her feet as she walked steadily towards them. Every round made her glow brighter, till her skin was a white corona. All that kinetic energy had to go somewhere…

She clapped. The shockwave stripped muscle from bone.

It wasn’t completely one-sided. A clutch of burning soldiers managed to land a wild shot at Brian Peters’ head as they danced from his fire.

Brian Peters died. His flames did not.

Troy’s approach was simple. He grabbed a soldier, and pounded their face with his bronze, hydraulic powered fists till they no longer had a head.

Problem was, that left him exposed.

An explosive round went off in the boy’s side. Hundreds of error messages flashed across his mind in a single second. The missing chunk of himself shifted frantically between exposed, blasted metal struts and bloodied ribs, before settling on the machine. The light in his glass eyes went out.

Strikepoint kept throwing herself between the students and the soldiers, letting bullets and God knew what else draw gold ichor from her. She didn’t know what to do. Men were dying. Men were dying trying to murder children.  

“Please, we can stop this! We can all stop!”

Alberto was white as death. Lights he knew as well as the stars were going out all around. The ones that kept shining were doing things even he couldn’t have imagined. Couldn’t have considered. The whole Institute was flooded with light as black as smoke.

The psychic grabbed onto Major Yellick’s arm, turning the man around to face him. “Call them off!”

The major was staring at the carnage, forgotten by soldier and child alike. Slowly, he answered, “I don’t think I can.”  

Alberto shook the man. “Do something—” He shuddered. Robert Carrol just got a rifle butt to the head. He could feel the blood clotting in the boy’s brain. Staggering backwards, he stammered, “I can’t be here. I have to get away…”

Alberto ran for the trees. A familiar, reliable thought returned to Major Yellick’s awe-drunk mind:

Deserter.

He ran after the telepath. “Get back here, Moretti! Get back here!”  

Linus wandered numbly through the pockets of violence. His surviving foster-sister was launching white phosphorus at soldiers as they tried to mow down Jeremy, who was busy using his force-bubbles like a millstone on some of their comrades.

So many of his brothers had been heroes. Warriors. But Lucius Owens was not bred for battle. He could stop it, though. He didn’t have his guitar, but still had his voice.    

Linus breathed in, feeling the notes assemble themselves before him—

He felt the air cleave next to him

It almost felt like he’d been punched in the ribs. Linus’ hand went to his side. It came up bloody. As he fell backwards, an anti-note escaped him. It grew, gorging itself on the screams and the gunfire, leaving only scraps of silence in its wake.

All fighting came to a halt.

There was a man.

No, not a man. Not quite. His hair was like flame, his skin gold, clothed in a cloak woven from a thousand dawns. He was taller than any human man, and seemed somehow more real than everyone and everything around him: a three-dimensional object descended into a two-dimensional space.    

Everyone who could still stand was gripped by an urge to kneel before the newcomer. All except for Strikepoint.

He was family, after all.  

“Lucius!”

Apollo, lord of song ran to Linus’ side. He fell to his knees when he saw the blood seeping from Linus’ side, despair breaking across his perfect features. “My son,” he moaned, holding the boy’s head to his chest, “my son, what have they done to you?

Linus’ breath rattled. “Hey, Dad.”

Lawrence finally looked up from Mary and Bella. “My God,” he said, staring at the god. “You are real.”

The god ignored the old man. There was nothing else in creation but his son. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I left you…”

“Don’t—it’s fine, Dad. It’ll all be fine…”

Linus trailed off. He never came back.

Apollo wailed. His grief was like the sun setting at the end of the world.

Strikepoint approached the mournful deity. “Brother, I know how this feels—”

Apollo leapt to his feet, spinning around to face Strikepoint. With a sunburst, he conjured a bow and aimed it at the superheroine’s heart. “No,” he said. “You don’t.”

One of the surviving soldiers fired at the pair. The bullet dropped a few inches from Apollo, the grass beneath catching fire as it melted into a glowing red puddle.

“Shit—”

The soldier’s expletive was choked by a cough. His skin bubbled like boiling lava with sores and pustules. He died choking on his own blood and screams.

Apollo didn’t even look back at the man. Tonelessly, he said “Take off the mask.”

“Apollo—”

“Now.”

Strikepoint removed and threw aside her domino mask, staring at Apollo with her almost-black eyes.

“Why did you come here?”

“I wanted to help—”

Apollo roared, grabbing Helen by the neck and lifting her off the ground. His bright eyes had become solar eclipses, rimmed by white light. “You led these fools here! Made them brave!”         

The goddess did not struggle. Instead, she wheezed out, “Athena…

Above the Institute, a mountain of cloud swelled and thundered. Lightning lit its dark face, briefly revealing the towering, regal silhouette of an armour-clad, spear-toting woman.

Pallas Athena, king of all the gods.

Her voice showered over the Institute like iron rain:

Apollo, do put down our sister.

The god tossed Helen to the dirt. The goddess gasped, savouring the taste of air again. Deep gold bruises were forming around her collarbone.

Helen of Sparta, why have you drawn my eye?

“My son died trying to put a stop to the fight she started! And now she tries to hide behind you!”

The thunder stirred again. “I was not asking you, Apollo. You will get your chance to speak.”

Helen managed to get back on her feet, looking up at the sky. “My king, I beg your aid.”

A sigh rippled through the grass. “Sister, what have you done now?”      

Shame like acid coursed through Helen. Was that her role in the world? Inflicting her mistakes on anyone who crossed her path? “The children need us.”

Apollo sneered at a pile of minced soldier. “I think they can look after themselves.”

“Please, brother—”

“Don’t call me that.”

Helen didn’t stop speaking. “The people who rule this country, they’ll never let the children live. Not after this. They’ll hound the children to the ends of the Earth.”

Apollo glanced around at the cowed students, his inner glow throwing veils of shadows across their faces. “These children’s brutality was half of what killed my Lucius. I don’t care what becomes of them.”

“I think your son would.”

Apollo turned to find Lana sitting beside Linus’ body. She was stroking his face, trying to comfort a boy who wasn’t there anymore.

Slowly, the god knelt down beside the girl. He studied the young woman’s face. “…You loved him, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. We all did. He was my brother.”

For a moment, god and mortal spoke in the perfect language of silence.

Apollo noticed the young woman’s bump. “Was he—”

Lana shook her head. “No. Not this time. His son’s out there, though. I think he’s safe, but I don’t…” She went silent for a moment. “I hope I can see him again.”

Apollo nodded. “What else would a mother wish for?”

Helen found the dirty little girl and the sand-haired boy again in the crowd. The presence of gods and a talking cloud in their midst didn’t appear to interest them. They were looking at each other—and themselves—like they were strangers. Their faces and hands were stained with blood.

Time to be a superhero.        

“Your son would rest easier knowing his family was safe, I should think.”

Apollo sighed. “He would.”

The anger had drained from his lyre of a voice. It was resigned; tired and empty.

The human mien fell away. The sun burned high in the night sky, banishing the stars behind its glare.

Three years durance, Helen. Our years.5”  

Helen nodded. “I understand.”

Athena, take them away.

It will be done.

Tom finally worked up the nerve to speak. “Excuse me…. Ma’am? Couldn’t you just bring everyone back? Linus?” He took a deep breath. “…Bella?”

Lightning flickered within the cloud. The goddess’ shadow seemed somehow pensive.

Tom didn’t know thunder could sound gentle:

I’m sorry child, but some things are beyond even our powers.

Tom wondered what the point of them was then.

The cloud twirled long and thin, swirling around the misplaced sun like the rings of Saturn.  

Fine, gleaming chains of adamantine sprouted around Helen’s wrists.

The sun and its ring descended towards the goddess, growing ever brighter. “When your durance is up, you will return to this place. You’ll meet two heroes, and join their cause till its end.

“How will I know them?”

One will be my son’s kin, the other… not.

“Not?”

You’ll know him when you see him.

Lawrence started shouting, “Wait! Please, I’m sorry—”  

He was dignified no answer.

The sun engulfed Helen. The light was blinding.

The children were gone. All that remained were the soldiers, Lawrence, and their shared victims.     


1. He was out swimming when the bombs went off.

2. Alberto sometimes wondered if the bloke who came up with the “sanctioned super” badges realized what he’d done or not. He wasn’t sure which would be worse. Or funnier.

3. It was really the only way he stood a chance.

4. In fact, Private Jerry Wilkins had scored high on three DOPO psychic sensitivity tests.

5. Due to their somewhat broader view on time, the Olympians traditionally measure nine of our years as one.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-Three: The Shoal

Until he woke up that morning, Alberto Moretti had thought throwing his lot in with the government was the best decision he’d ever made. His workload as one of the Commonwealth’s rarer monsters made George Jetson1 look like a coal canary. In exchange for glancing at the brains of suspected communist moles2 and oracling the movements of the Viet Cong and the Flying Man, Alberto got to enjoy a kingly expense account, an executive suite at the Hotel Canberra, and access to ministerial-grade escorts. The only real downside was that he had to live in Canberra, but Alberto could see ways out. As long as it wasn’t the Institute.

Then one morning his hangover was interrupted by the world screaming. The world shook. Hundreds of lights fluttering on the edge of Alberto’s vision were snuffed out all at once.    

The hotel had been bombed. Parliament House had been bombed. The Prime Minister’s house had been bombed. Robert Menzies was dead. His bloody wife was dead. And so, so many others.

Alberto knew the culprit as soon as Timothy Valour briefed him.

“Canberra isn’t the only place that got hit.” Valour thumbed vainly at his lighter’s spark-wheel, a cigarette hanging limp and unlit from between his lips. His fingers felt numb and clumsy. Like they weren’t his own. “The Americans say the Pentagon and DOPO headquarters both had bombs go off the same minute as us3. It can’t be a coincidence.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Alberto replied. “Anywhere else?”

“One of our regional offices got wiped out.”

Alberto still found thinking of himself as part of the DDHA odd. It was like taking up Devil worship after years of Sunday school. Immensely satisfying, even thrilling4 on many levels, strange and chancy on others. “…That office wouldn’t happen to be Perth, would it?”

Timothy looked away from the esper. It was only a slight turn of his head. The old airman probably didn’t realize he was doing it. “Yes.”

“Tim—”

Valour cut Alberto off before he could put voice to what they both were thinking. “Let’s not go jumping to conclusions, Moretti. We still don’t know who did this.”

That was what Alberto was supposed to find out. The psychic looked out the tinted, bulletproofed backseat window of the DDHA sedan he was riding in, his head lolling against the cheap imitation leather of his headrest.

The Flying Man may have doused the fires and pulled the survivors out of the fresh ruins, but  Canberra’s wounds were still raw and bleeding, pouring white smoke high into the sky. A full six of the nine confirmed or suspected bombs had gone off in that drearily singular planned city. Hundreds had died in the explosions themselves, with the hospitals added more names to the casualty list seemingly every minute.  And thanks to Walter Burley Griffith’s love of open vistas, you could see the results from nearly any in the city. It was like the Germans had hit King’s Park. 

Alberto screwed his eyes shut. His head was throbbing. The Canberran aether burned cold with fear and knotted panic, slicked through with sickly violet paranoia. Bovegno under the blackshirts had been like this. But at least people there had learned to compartmentalize the dread. Wading through it all was like trying to navigate an arctic sea littered with depth charges. He was suddenly very grateful he had been in the countryside during the Cuban Crisis.        

How did I miss this? Alberto kept asking himself through the migraine. For God’s sake, a bomb had gone off in his hotel! He’d glimpsed plenty of outlandish, far-out futures in the storm of possibility since moving to Canberra. Spontaneous Russian rearmament, alien invasion5, even Menagerie marching on the city with a herd of war-elephants, but not that. It was an intruder in the timeline. An ace of spades slipped into the tarot deck.  

The car eventually came to a halt. The chauffeur (a Physician drone by the looks of him, cheap bastards) scurried to open the passenger door, and Alberto stepped out in front of Parliament House.  

What was left of it.

From the terrace, the place almost looked unscathed. Then you noticed the broken windows and the charring beyond the missing front-doors, or the inescapable stench of ash and carbonized flesh. If you were to approach Parliament House from the air—as the Flying Man no doubt had—you’d see the smoking crater where the Senate and the House of Representatives used to be6. The building’s heart had been burned out. The whole complex had been cordoned off with yards of blue and white police-tape. Alberto thought it was a laughable fig-leaf. How could any of this possibly be contained?

Soldiers and coppers were milling uselessly about the grounds. Alberto could sense many of them congregating inside Allison’s living tree fort down by the lake, brandishing their respective jurisdiction’s phallic symbols at each other to try and forget their own powerlessness. Maybe that would be the new Provisional Parliament House.

All Alberto knew was that he wanted to get away from this place as soon as possible. He laid down on the sedan’s bonnet.

“Are you unwell, Mr. Moretti?” the chauffeur-minion asked flatly.

Alberto closed his eyes. It was time to be Tiresias again. “No, Mr. Whoo. I’m remembering.”

The psychic got up out of his body. Astral projection, Alberto thought was the term. The main difference he felt was that his naked mind or soul or what have you didn’t suffer nicotine cravings.

His shade climbed the ashen steps of 18 King George Terrace, up into its past. The sun flickered east, night’s shadow flowing over Alberto twice in as many moments. For a few fleeting seconds, the Flying Man hovered above the scene, his expression grave, but curious. Alberto almost thought he was looking down at him.

As if in anger, Parliament House screamed with flames. That seemed to scare the Flying Man off.

Alberto slowed his pace. Not his walking pace—or whatever one did when you’d already left your feet behind—but his pace through time. The world slowed with him.

He watched as the fire coalesced into a terrible, bulging wall of light. It began to retreat, the air in front of Alberto cooling like the tide pulling back from the sea. Specks of glass hail flew from the ground and unlucky passersby into vacant, staring window frames, fusing back together into unbroken panes.

As the explosion shrunk deeper into the building, Alberto’s spirit crept in after it—a ghost stalking the sun. The destruction led the esper up the front staircase into King’s Hall, the antechamber between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Alberto remembered it from the tour they went on back during the August trip. No snow now, only ash. He saw errant kings and prime ministers return to their portraits as the light washed over them, while scorched paint became white again. Blasted chairs and tables reassembled themselves as if Mary Poppins was starring in Bridge on the River Kwai.

Often, the light gave back people. Politicians and their harried staff. Wives and their bored children. Alberto could almost see their final thoughts. It felt like being tickled in the dark on a ghost-train.

At one point, the explosion pulled back to reveal a woman. A pretty young thing. Blonde. Some senator’s secretary, Alberto guessed. He watched as the fire gave her back her flesh, like God building an angel in real time. She looked bored. Alberto had to imagine she didn’t feel a thing.

The explosion began to collapse on itself, revealing parquetry floors of silver ash wood and jarrah as it recoiled from Alberto like a frightened beast. It spat out King George Ⅴ, stately in his bronze clothes and skin. A human king, whose power rested in the faith of other human beings. Alberto wondered how many of those were still to come

Soon the blast was small enough for a child to pick up and hold, cowering under a coffee table by a corner column. It retreated back into its egg and…

A green flash.

Alberto opened his eyes. Some iron-haired, corporeal looking bastard was looking down at him.

“Agent Moretti, is something the—”

Alberto grabbed hold of the soldier, pulled himself upright by his lapels, and hissed, “Get Timothy Valour on the phone and tell him Herbert Lawrence is a cunt.”

Allison Kinsey stood in front of the barn’s east wall against the setting afternoon sun, admiring what she had wrought. Her skin was mottled blue and green, her hair matted with half-dried paint.

Most importantly, she was very, very satisfied.

It started about a week earlier. Somehow, against all reason, Allison had found herself getting bored. Bored running around being all barbarian with David and whoever fell into their orbit. She didn’t understand how, but she knew it must be fought. It also occurred to Allison that non-Watercolours kept trespassing inside their barn. This too could not go unopposed.

David had seemed strangely unconcerned. “It’s not like there’s a big sign saying we own it.”

He was right, though. There was no sign. Allison decided to rectify that.

Painting a little over seven by thirty feet of wall by herself was easier than one might have guessed. Allison saved herself a lot of ladder hauling by borrowing Robert’s (formerly Gwydion’s) translucent platforms. The Barthe dress code meant paint-stains were a non-issue, and their hydrokinesis made for an excellent long range brush. Plus, thanks to Eliza, she only really needed about an hour of sleep a night.       

A shoal of mer-children7 swirled and sported together in a loose ring under the wave-broken light of a full moon, just below the skin of the sea. Their scales glinted cerulean, electric green, and flame-red against the pearly glow. One chestnut-haired young mermaid8 floated in the middle of the halo, arms outstretched for her companions, light filtering through the delicate webs between her fingers. If you asked the artist, they were playing tag.   

Allison cleared her throat, taking in Mavis’ breathy song:

Watercolours, assemble!

Thirty seconds of foot-tapping.

I said ‘assemble!’

Arnold’s voice shouted distantly. “Alright, we’re coming! Jeez.”

Unsurprisingly, David arrived well before the teleporter, condensing from the humidity along with his mother.    

“Ooh rah,” Françoise exclaimed as she looked the mural up and down. “Very nice, mon chéri.”

Floating as a boy-shaped cloud, David swirled around the painted merfolk, ice crystals ringing, “How’d you make the scales so shiny?”

Allison shrugged modestly. “Wasn’t that hard.”

Arnold finally caught up, Billy in tow. Once the former boy was done panting, he looked up at the merfolk. He nodded as cooly as he could. “Neat,” he remarked casually, only to blush when he got a good look at one of the sea-children. Allison had managed to translate his lightning into scale. “Really neat.”

Billy’s enthusiasm was far louder. He pointed a clawed finger toward the topmost mer-child. “That one has tiger-stripes!”

Allison smiled. “You noticed! I thought about giving him fur, but it looks weird underwater.”

“There’s seals,” Billy pointed out.

“True.”

“How do you know that one’s a boy?” Arnold asked.

Allison frowned. “Because I painted him.”

Roland Barthes1 wouldn’t put out “The Death of the Author” for another two years, so Arnold’s only response was, “You can’t see their bits.”

Fran scowled playfully, “Don’t be rude, Arnold.”

“You’re naked.”

“That’s incidental and you know it, young man.”

Allison wrinkled her nose. She was the artist, Arnold was just the consumer. She outranked him.

Suddenly, the moonlight in the painting warbled, making shadows dance on the young merfolk’s skin as they fled from the child they’d been circling. The one with the tiger-striped tail broke away from the chase, swimming down in front of Billy. His hair was a blonde mop, tinted green by the water, framing mud-brown eyes. He beamed a sharp, toothy grin, which Billy gleefully returned10.

Allison grinned too, folding her arms and glancing smugly at Arnold. “That look like a boy?”

Arnold sniffed. “Girls can have short hair too, sexist.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s lovely,” Françoise said. She kissed Allison on the temple. “You know, Allie, there’s plenty of big, blank walls around here that could do with sprucing up…”

Allison wiggled at the compliment even as she briefly thought about objecting. It was all other people’s skill, same as always. Maestros and amateur housewives alike had all left their mark on the girl. But even if all those artists had gotten together and painted the barn themselves, they wouldn’t have made this. They wouldn’t have seen the moon from the bottom of the river like she had, or have played chasey underwater. They probably didn’t even appreciate mermaids the way Allison did11.

It was hers. No one else’s.

Seeing her creation in motion reminded Allison of something. “What’s taking Mabel so long?”

Everyone looked at Allison like Mabel was long dead.

“I think Mabel’s still having quiet time,” said Françoise.

“Still? It’s been ages!”

“Allison, what Mabel admitted at the bonfire… it was very hard for her.”

“So? How is sulking in the bush going to help with that?” Allison turned and started trotting towards the Institute’s treeline. “I’m gonna find her. We can make the merlings fight. That’ll cheer her up.”

David’s eyes shot between his friend and his mother, before seemingly asking both, “That a good idea?”

Fran shrugged. “I don’t think having friends around would hurt.”

“Course it won’t!” replied Allison. She grabbed David’s hand and started pulling him along. “Cheering up is what friends are for!”

Powerless before her might, the other children followed Allison.

Françoise watched them go. Mabel would be fine. Allie would be fine. David was more than fine.

Maybe she’d take him to see Ralph sometime.

Or his grandfather.

As the Watercolours made their way to Mabel’s hideaway—Allison following the echo of her song—the topic of conversation turned to the most recent news at the Institute:

“…Easter eggs! It’s not even Christmas yet!”

“Do we do Christmas here?” asked Billy.

Allison answered, “Nope. Mavis says they haven’t for like, ten years. Maybe this year, though.”

“Seriously, why would Laurie want to send people Easter eggs?”

Billy’s tail lashed the air thoughtfully. “Were they chocolate?”

“I don’t think so… they were more orna…ornomatic?”

“Ornamental,” Allison corrected her friend.

“Yeah, that!”

“Maybe they were bribes? He is in big trouble.” Allison said it like Lawrence had been caught nicking baking chocolate from the pantry.

“I’d have used chocolate ones for that,” opined Billy.

Arnold kicked up some grass. “I still don’t know why Mary’s letting him stay. What’s the use of kicking someone out if you’re just going to let them sleep on your floor in a week?”

Allison quirked her shoulders. “I don’t care. Laurie can’t do anything to us, and they’re gonna come drag him to jail soon anyway. It’s like having a pet.”

“A very beardy pet,” Billy added.

The Watercolours’ discussion on the merits of a pet Oxfordian was cut short when Bryant Cormey staggered into their path. He was clad in grass-stained flannel pyjamas, while his unkempt beard looked like it was trying to evolve into his employer’s. The teacher was brandishing one of the beers the Northamites had donated12.

“Well look who it is,” Cormey jeered, “It’s Mealy and the Watered-Downs.”

David rolled his eyes. “Really, Bryant? You’re stealing jokes from little kids now? I think Ophelia used to call us that.”

“You looking for your girlfriend?” Arnold asked with a sneer. “I think he’s still crying in Therese’s cottage!”

Allison snorted. “You scared her away, didn’t you, Cormey? Made her put on a fake-beard when you kissed?

Without thinking, Bryant threw his beer bottle at Allison.

She let the glass shatter against her suddenly bronze skin, puffing out her chest like Superman taking a few bullets from Metropolis’s dumbest crooks. “Nice try,” she buzzed robotically.

Billy fumed. “Teachers aren’t supposed to throw things!”

“Oh, fuck off, you bloody mutant pity-case.”

Billy clenched his fists, breathing slowly and deeply.

“Aww, Bill,” said Arnold, “don’t go listening to—”

Billy vanished. A trail of grass started flattening from where he stood.

“…Bugger.”

Cormey smirked. “Not so tough? Just you wait, Lawrence is going to whip this place back into—”

Billy appeared behind the man and roared, sending the teacher flying over his friends’ heads. By the time Bryant had somewhat regained his bearings, the Watercolours were giggling off in the distance.

Arnold clapped Billy on the back as they ran. “Nice one, Growly.”

It wasn’t long before they reached the bush, long grass giving way to an autumn and winter’s worth of fallen leaves that crunched beneath their feet. Arnold occasionally blasted away a bramble or small tree from their path.

Then they ran into the witch. At least the Watercolours assumed she was meant to be a witch. The withered crone was decked out in a tattered robe the exact shade of dark green as a heavy duty rubbish bin.

She was clearly one of Mabel’s puppets. The shadow under her hood was too perfect. Allison seriously doubted she had anything besides a mouth and a nose under there.

“Who goes there?” the witch intoned in a voice like wind funneled through sandpaper.

“We’re here to see Mabel!” Billy replied cheerfully.

“You seek the Creator?” asked the hag. “Then you must answer these three—”

Allison huffed loudly, blowing a lock of hair from in front of her face. “Don’t be dumb, Mabs. We just want to see you.”

The witch made a sweeping gesture. “But first—”

Mabel.”  

Her arm dropped to her side like an actress who just noticed the looks on their audience’s faces. “Fine,” she said in a young girl’s voice, before turning around and starting to walk off. “Follow the crone,” she commanded, still with Mabel’s voice.

The crone led the children to a familiar clearing: the one where Arnold had teleported the earth from under the lads from Northam’s feet. The water that had filled the resulting pit during the rainy season had almost completely dried away, save a forlorn puddle waiting to be drank by the tree roots snaking through the crater-walls. Scattered about the place were the sleeping ashes of a campfire, an icebox, and a pile of books and drawing supplies resting on a picnic blanket.   

It was by this dismal view Mabel had hung her hammock. She was nestled with an open copy of Walkabout, the lady astronaut occasionally nudging the hammock in absence of any breeze. “Five years in the academy and this is what you make me do…”

Mabel ignored the space-adventurer, instead listlessly greeting her friends. “Hi guys.”

Billy gazed around the clearing like he had stepped into the Taj Mahal. “Wow, great camp you got here Mabs!”

Mabel supposed this did count as camping. “Thanks.”

“Allie finished her painting,” Arnold said.

Mural.”

“Whatever.”

“Yeah,” Mabel said. “I kinda guessed,”

The astronaut cut-in sourly, “Almost blew our eardrums out, you mean.”

“Shush up, you.”

Allison flung herself onto the hammock with enough force she almost sent Mabel tumbling off. “Why didn’t you come look?”

Mabel scratched her hair, not looking the other girl in the eye. “I… I just… look, it’s not like it’s going to disappear, you know?”

There was something plaintive in Allison’s voice. “But it’s new.

“You’d like it,” said Billy. “It’s got mermaids!”

That got Mabel’s interest. She looked at Allison. “…Seashell bras?”

“Course not.”

“Stupid things… maybe later.”

Allison slumped onto her back. “Come on…”

“It’s actually pretty neat,” Arnold said. “Good…” He tried to think of an art term. “…use of space. Didn’t go over the edges or anything.”

Mabel shouted, “I’m not in the mood, alright!”

Nobody spoke.

Except for Allison. “When will you be in the mood?”

Mabel spent a moment trying to figure out how to say she couldn’t know that, then gave up. “Later!”

“Well, what if I’m not in the mood later?”

Mabel blinked at the other girl. “…What?”

“What if I don’t want to show you when you are in the mood?”

“…It’s the side of a barn. You don’t need to show me.”

“Yes I do! You’re not allowed to look at it without me!”

“You can’t say that!”

“Yes I can! It’s my mural!”

“This is stupid!”

“Then can you please just be in the mood right now?”

Mabel crossed her arms and sighed. “Fine.”

Allison made a pleased noise, grabbing Mabel and pulling her into one of Cardea’s rifts.

“Well,” she said, arms spread in front of her creation, “what do you think?”

Mabel shuffled her feet. She liked the mural, she really did. And she appreciated Allison not making all the merfolk thin. She just had no space in her to be cheerful about it. “It’s good,” she mumbled. “Can we go back to my camp now?”

Allison pouted. “Sure, sure.”

A couple seconds and a few hundred yards of squeezed spacetime later, the girls were sitting back in the hammock.

“I don’t know why you’re being so weird about the Circle’s End thing,” Allison said while she picked at her toenails.

Mabel just stared at her. She couldn’t name what she was feeling. It was a bright, livid thing—beyond anger, confusion, or offense,  but claiming descent from all of them.

She glanced over at the boys, as though they could somehow explain what Allison had just said. All three of them appeared to have suddenly realized they were standing on a big white “X” in the middle of the Nevada desert.

“Allie, you do know what happened to me at Circle’s End, right? What I did?”

“I was there when you said it, wasn’t I? Your powers turned on and killed a lotta people.”

“And my dad.” Mabel would’ve cried then, but she’d had plenty of time to do that the last week or so. Her grief was a snapped tendon, too weak to support her.

“Yes. It’s awful and everything, but you didn’t mean to, did you?”

Mabel sighed. “No. I didn’t. But I think… doing that to people changes something. Something inside your guts. Even when you didn’t mean to. You’re not the same after.”

Allison tilted her head. “…That doesn’t explain why you’re hiding out here?”

“It doesn’t?”

“No,” Allison answered flatly. “I mean, if you think about it, you wouldn’t have changed when you fessed up, you’d have changed back in Circle’s End, and none of us knew you back then.”

“…Everyone looked at me weird.”

“Maybe at the bonfire yeah, but nobody’s seen you since then. How would ya know they’d keep doing that?”

“Seems kinda likely?”

“I’m not looking at you any different.”

Mabel didn’t know how to put it kindly.

Allison pointed at David. “Davie! Did you know about this before?”

“Yeah,” David admitted.

“See, nothing’s changed for him. And David’s worth like, ten other kids.”

David was glad his blush didn’t show.

Allison leaned back, a slight smile gracing her lips. “And Fran killed people for fun when she was littler than us. Are you scared of her?”

“…Kinda?” answered Mabel.

“To be fair,” said David. “A bunch of those people were Nazis.”  

Allison moved onto Billy. “What about you, Growly? You scared of Mabel?”

“No siree,” he answered with all the earnestness in the world.

“Arnold?”

The boy shrugged. “She chased me with a Dalek our first day.” He smiled. “I’ve always been scared of her.”

Mabel realised she was smiling, too. She tried shaking it off her face like a bug. She looked at Allison. “Why are you trying so hard?”

“Because I painted a very good mermaid picture and you should appreciate it more. And you’ve always tried really hard with me. Even back when I thought you were weird and scary.”

Mabel rested her head on the other girl’s shoulder. “…I’ll come back tomorrow, okay?”

“Sure,” replied Allison. “Mind if we camp here with you tonight?”

“No problem.”

Billy squeaked in delight, running off back towards the Institute in search of sleeping bags and marshmallows.

When the sun finally set, they relit Mabel’s campfire. Allison rattled off what felt like hundreds of ghost stories, which somehow all managed to end with her roaring and flailing her arms around at everyone. Mabel swore for a moment she’d managed to grab hold of the shadow-puppets. On a dare, Billy downed some of the funny-juice, and strewed the clearing with spongy rocks and ruby quartz silly string.

They stayed up well past any notion of bedtime, but sleep claimed them all in the end. Allison was even grateful for it, after an almost entirely wakeful week of hard painting.

It was still dark when the cracks woke her up. They were distant, but sharp. Allison rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She could hear shouting: not too unusual at the post-Lawrence Institute, but this didn’t sound like the usual rough play.

Those cracks again. They sounded a little like the noise the air made when Jumpcut teleported, only—  

Gunshots.

Allison shook Mabel hard. “Mabs, wake up!” she whispered harshly. “Wake up!

The girl jerked awake, blinking up at Allison through her lensless spectacles. “What’s going on?”

More cracks.

“I think someone’s shooting—”

A voice like breaking marble sliced through the trees:

You bastards! You murdering fucking bastard—  

There was a terrible, awful noise.

There was a terrible, awful silence.


1. Regular access to television was one of many things Alberto appreciated about life beyond the Institute. Part of him suspected that Darren Stephens was Herbert Lawrence’s equal and opposite in the cosmos.

2. Just like old times.

3. Both the Pentagon and DOPO’s Washington headquarters weathered the explosions far better than their Australian counterparts, the former due to the Pentagon’s extensive structural reinforcement and the latter thanks to energy sapping enchantments placed on the grounds by Howard Pendergast. The time-zone difference also played a role in reducing casualties.

4. The only time the word “thrilling” was ever used in relation to the DDHA.

5. If you could call John Smith’s people coming for him an invasion.

6. Like many other aspects of modern Australia, her political system is a nightmarish hybrid of Great Britain and the United States.

7. Allison wondered what the proper term would be. Fry?

8. Allison had considered sprinkling in some grown mermaids and mermen, but she was aesthetically opposed to seashell bras, and didn’t want to risk scandalizing Mrs Gillespie.

9. No relation.

10. Allison justified it to herself as an adaptation to a carnivorous diet.

11. As she saw it, mermaids could go almost anywhere, and the places they couldn’t were boring.

12. The fact that almost everyone at the Institute was underage didn’t seem to occur to the kindly townspeople. Alberto certainly hadn’t complained.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-Two: No Enemy Shall Gather Our Harvest

Elsa Lieroinen. Lawrence could swear he had heard the name before. But where?

A man stepped out from behind the woman. His thin, pale body was wrapped tight in a red tuxedo, and a black, swirled moustache rested like an octopus on top of his bloodless lips. He glanced curiously at the old Oxfordian. “Is this him?” he asked Elsa. Lawrence thought the man sounded Greek.

“Yep.”

“He looks like Henry the VIII. Better beard, though.”

The pair nodded at each other, their noses wrinkled in mutual amusement. Lawrence got the impression of close friends whose subtle gestures had contaminated one another.

He tried shaking off the shock. “Excuse me, but what have you done to Pierce?”

Elsa and the pale man both ignored Lawrence, the latter striding over to where Pie-Man still stood ready to kick. “This one important?”

Elsa shook her head, before letting a hazel wand slip out from her billowing sleeve. She raised it over head like a conductor’s baton. “Help yourself.”

Pie-Man suddenly took a sharp, gasping breath, stumbling as he lost his balance.“What the—”  He caught sight of the man in the red tux. “Who the hell are you?”

The man threw his head back, mouth open to reveal pointed canines, and then—  

The world hissed and buzzed with static like an out of tune television set. When it resolved, Lawrence found himself sitting on a counter-stool downstairs in the bar, Elsa and her companion flanking him on either side. The man was dabbing at his chin with a paper napkin.

Lawrence screamed at the sudden relocation. The deep, hyperventilating breaths he took as he scanned his surroundings didn’t help. The bar was wrong. It wasn’t just that the bar was dead empty on a Thursday night. Colour was bright and queasy, like his eyes had been replaced with shoddy colour cameras. His breath rasped in his lungs as though the air had been carved sharp, while the warm pub lights weighed heavy on his skin. All that could be seen through the windows was a wall of green fog.

He stared at the woman, eyes widening in panic. “How are you doing this?”

Elsa inserted a cigarette into a long, elegant holder. It lit of its own accord, her answer riding a gust of smoke. “If I just said ‘my powers,’ you’d believe me. Oh, sure, you might have follow-up questions—in fact, I know you would—but you would accept the premise. If I told you that I’m a witch and this is an ingenious skein of spells, you would roll your eyes and set your psychiatrist brain to diagnose me with something or other.” She put a hand under her chin and smiled. “Why is that, Dr. Lawrence?”

Lawrence didn’t answer her question. “Where’s Pierce? What have you done with him?”

“You do remember he was about to kick the shit out of you, right?” asked Elsa.

“Besides,” said the man, “here he comes know.”

Pie-Man slid in front of the three as if on wheels. His features were slack and fungal white—less expressive than a corpse. Atonally, he asked, “Can I get you all a drink?”

“Pierce!” Lawrence cried. “What’s wrong with you?”

The man in the tuxedo waved his hand. His face was feverishly flushed now, revealing a jagged scar running down his cheek like dragon’s teeth. “Don’t bother the poor bloke, he’s mostly leaves now. It’s Myles, by the way.”

Elsa raised two fingers. “Pints of bitter all around, barkeep.” She looked back at Lawrence while Pie-Man poured their draughts. “I’ve programmed him with all the drink names and some shitty jokes. Should tide people over till he starts to rot.”

Lawrence hands slammed onto the edge of the counter as he tried to push off from his seat.

A voice like breaking ice. “Don’t run.”

His legs went numb. “What do you want with me?”

“Simple,” said Elsa. “We want to talk about the New Human Institute.”

“We worry you’re giving up too hastily,” Myles continued.

Lawrence’s shoulders shrunk defensively. “What do you know about the Institute? About me?”

Elsa shrugged. “Only what we’ve read in your book, and the ones people write about you.”

Are they precogs, or just stupidly cryptic?   

Elsa titled her hand. “A little from column A, a little from column B. Also, the House of Ghosts ripped you off.”

Lawrence desperately tried to void his thoughts. It didn’t work.

“Tut tut,” said Myles. “Doing an awfully shabby job at this headmaster thing, aren’t you?”

Fear and confusion should have left no room in Lawrence for outrage, but still it found him. “You don’t know what I’ve been through! The things I’ve had to do, what I’ve lost! What those children put me through! I gave them paradise, and they treated me like dung on their shoes!” He slumped miserably, his suit crumpling around him like a collapsing circus tent. “I’m lucky to be alive.”

Elsa and Myles looked past the old man at each other, before breaking out in laughter.

“Oh, God.” Myles wiped at his eyes, shoulders still rolling with mirth. “How do you live in that head of yours?”

“It gets better!” Elsa waved her wand, pulling Lawrence’s diary out from nowhere.

Lawrence tried to snatch back the little leather volume. “Give me that—”

A shadow solid as obsidian caught his arm, sprouting from behind Myles as he went to read over his mistress’s shoulder.

Elsa recited from the book in an odd hybrid of Liverpudlian and BBC English. “ ‘Oh, my sweet Maelstrom, how could I let that ash-pale nymph corrupt you so?’ ” Laughter overtook the witch again. “It’s like if William Blake was a perv.”

Myles hummed thoughtfully. “I get more of a Ralph Chubb impression.”

“Who’s Ralph Chubb?”

“One of those Uranian poets you only search for incognito1.”

Lawrence struggled futilely against Myles’ shade. “Is this all I’m here for? Did you two ghouls drag me down here and”—he glanced at poor, empty Pie-Man mechanically sliding beers across the counter—“…bewitch Pierce just so you could throw my sorrows back at me? Tears began cutting all too familiar paths down Lawrence’s face. “Because trust me, there is nothing you can do that would bring me any lower.”

Myles grinned at the old man. His teeth were stained red. “Oh, Laurie, never say that.”

Lawrence felt the shadow start to prickle against his skin, but at the same moment, Elsa put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Now, now, Myles, Dr. Lawrence is right. We’re letting pleasure get in the way of business. Pull yourself together, will you?”

Myles made a disappointed grunt, and his shadow melted back into the floor.

Elsa pulled her stool in closer to Lawrence, tapping the side of his pint glass. “I suggest you drink, Doctor.”

Lawrence stared at her in disbelief. “You think I’d drink anything you’d give me?”

A kindly smirk. “Laurie, Laurie,” she gestured around grandly at the transfigured public bar, “do you think I need drugs?”

Resignedly, Lawrence drank deep, slamming the glass back down.

“Tell me, Doctor, what started this enthusiasm of yours for superhumans?”

A warm, drowsy sensation swilled about inside Lawrence. What was this beer’s proof? “Didn’t need drugs” his rump. Still, better than cold, hard sobriety.

“Do I need a reason?”

Elsa shrugged. “I’ve always thought of supers as being rather like very stupid witches who only know one spell.”

Lawrence didn’t know whether he wanted to laugh or smack the woman in the face. Probably both. He did chuckle, though. “You do know some posthumans have more than one ability, don’t you? The Flying Man springs immediately to mind.”

“That hardly dilutes my lady’s point.”

“I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t be fascinated with posthumanity. Even forgetting what… what they mean for us, for the future, their powers are a glimpse at true physics. At the way the universe really works.”

That raised another laugh from the strangers.

Lawrence took another gulp of his beer. “Go ahead and laugh. It’s a change from the sneers and bitterness. And at least you never loved me…”

Elsa tossed her wand in her hand. “See, that to me justifies an interest. Avid study, even. But this pure, endless devotion? Pouring your life and fortune into a kennel for stray gods? Breeding them?”

“Now you listen here young—”

Elsa put a finger to the old man’s lips. It might as well have been a needle and thread. He felt his cheeks swell out as he let out the air for the final word, his lips refusing to let it leave his mouth.

“It has to be more than scientific curiosity, Lawrence. Whatever your training, we both know you’re a man of passion, not science.” Her hand drifted down to one of Lawrence’s hands. At her touch, his glove evaporated, revealing the old burns beneath. “Tell us, how did you get these scars?”

Lawrence sighed. Why not the truth? All lies had done was bring him here. “I was always interested in new humans, I really was. Since Oxford, at least. Posthumans didn’t just pop into the world in 1939, you know. I wanted to be a psychiatrist, and they were the fringe of a fringe. Madmen who happened to be right. But yes, that’s all it was, back then. An interest. Like bird-watching. But there was this girl…”

Sweet, wordless singing, drifting like mist down the inn’s stairs.

“She lived in Jericho, on the Oxford canal. She had always lived by the canal, if you asked her neighbours. She never lit a fire, but her house was always warm as high summer, and her garden stayed in bloom all through the winter.”

“Cheap tricks,” muttered Elsa.

Out the corner of his eye, Lawrence saw something shift out the windows. The witch watched smugly as the old man went to investigate.

The green fog that pressed so thick against the glass had receded, but so had Northam. Instead, Lawrence saw brightly painted narrowboats cutting through Oxford canal. In the strip of garden between him and the water, a young woman with silver-dark hair fussed over a rose bush, her bare fingers fearing no thorns.

Lawrence put his bare hand against the window. “Maren…”

Rose-vines crept up and over the windowpane, its blossoms rushing through childhood until the glass was opaque with red, pink, and white petals.

“Maren Reoch of Jericho,” Elsa recited. “As names go, it’s no Soulmother of Küssnacht, but is anything? The people of Oxford called her a seer.”

Lawrence didn’t even bother to dispute the wording. “She was. She predicted Bloody Sunday over tea with me. People in Jericho said she had known the Archduke of Austria had been shot before the papers, and that she’d talked about the Czar like he was a deadman since 1910.” A sad smile. “The poor thing thought she was a witch.”

Elsa and Myles both kept their peace on that.

“I’ll tell you this, she slipped me more than a few exam questions. Once, she practically dictated me a whole essay. But they were my words. They just hadn’t been written yet…”

“I assume you keep in touch?” Myles asked jovially.

Lawrence blinked back more tears. He hated telling this story. It made him feel like a male Miss Havisham. Like his entire life’s work was just trying to make up for it. “There was this doctor. Old gent. One of those ‘pillars of the community.’ But his roots in Oxford were shallow. His family didn’t remember Maren calling the Civil War for the Roundheads, or even the Glorious Revolution. They thought she was mad. Tried to have her committed.”

Shouting leaked down through the upstairs floorboards, muffled but still audible.

“You’ll remember me when your blood’s mixing with the rain!”

Lawrence slumped down beneath the window. “The stupid bastard slipped on the pavement the next morning. Cracked his head open. His wife got their friends together…”

Elsa nodded. “That’d do it.”

Crackling, a dull roar. The gnawing of wood by flame. Lawrence sniffed. Smoke. He stared up at Elsa. “You wouldn’t…”

A man burst into the bar. A boy, really, but so broad and stocky you could hardly tell, especially not with his face half-masked by a bright red beard.

The sight of his long ago self stung Lawrence like an old war-wound. How could these people be so cruel?

“Maren!” the young man shouted, his accent rougher than what it would become. He scanned wildly around the bar, seeing somewhere altogether different. An ancient house, the man he became remembered, populated by centuries of dust and keepsakes. He called Maren’s name again and charged up the stairs, towards the baleful orange glow at their summit.

Elsa tried pulling Lawrence to his feet. “Get up.”

The man’s voice was quiet, trembling like a child with a broken bone that needed setting. “I don’t want to.”

An electric current coursed through him, spasmodically forcing him upright. “You need to see this.”

On the second floor of Maren’s home, young Lawrence was trying to force his way through a sturdy wooden door. Without thinking, he grabbed for the doorknob, only to shriek as the red hot metal sizzled into the skin of his palm. He tore his hand away, now missing a wide patch of flesh. Still undeterred, he threw his great frame against the door, knocking it down.

“A town tried burning me once,” said Elsa, mildly, “didn’t take, but it hurt like a bitch.”

The former Lawrence stumbled back out onto the landing, Maren cradled in his arms. Flame was turning her silver-dark hair charred and golden. Her whole body was smouldering. Lawrence’s face was twisted with a despair he wouldn’t know again till Panoply, a muted howl on his lips.

Elsa chuckled.

“You know, Lawrence. You almost used to be impressive.”

“She was already dead when I got to her,” he said forty-five years later. “Smoke inhalation. A mercy, really.”

Lawrence closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he and the laughing, smiling fiends were back down in the pub. He did not question the transition. “A witch burning. An honest to God witch burning in 1920!”

“More likely than you think,” commented Elsa. “Still happens all the time in bits of Africa and New Guinea. They’re basically where Christians go to hurt people when it becomes unfashionable.”

Myles chuckled. “Just wait till they outlaw sodomy over here.”

Lawrence growled, “But in the middle of Oxford. And they didn’t just destroy some mumbling old beggar-woman—”

“Nice,” said Elsa, deadpan.

“—They killed a wonder. And that’s what humans do. Our ugly, stupid fear spoils everything. Every time.”

Elsa sipped her beer genteely. “You know, I have eighteen sons and daughters, and not one of them has failed to disappoint me. They’re still mine. Do you have any children, Lawrence?”

Lawrence clenched his burnt fist. “Yes. Nearly forty of them. And I will not let my kind use their bones to kill each other.” A groaning sigh. “But what can I do?”           

Elsa and Myles looked at each other. A quick, almost invisible nod. The witch turned to look at the headmaster. “What would you give, Doctor, if it would save your students?”

“Anything.” Lawrence had read enough versions of Faust to recognize Mephistopheles when he saw her, but he didn’t care. “Take my life, my soul, whatever it takes.”

Elsa laughed. “Oh Laurie, nothing so dramatic. I just want what’s in your left breast pocket.”

Lawrence’s bones turned to wood. His teeth clenched. What was this woman? Some archivist of shame?

“Laurie, are you telling me that you’d offer up your soul more readily than a lock of hair?”

Lawrence forced himself to remove what he had kept next to his heart for days and nights. A lock of orange-red hair bound by a silver aglet.

Elsa walked over to Lawrence and took the lock from him the way she would pluck a purse off a mannequin’s arm. She turned the hair over in her hands, smiling knowingly. “And who did this come from?”

“It always bothered me, how history goes on and on about great deeds and just forgets about the cost. The hair’s from a student of mine. He was called Pan—Adam. He was called Adam.”

“And why isn’t this attached to his scalp?”

“…He died.”

“Was Adam under your guardianship when he died?”

“…Yes. That lock is so I never forget how I failed him.”

Elsa’s hand snapped shut. “Then we have a bargain.”

A metal suitcase appeared on the bar-counter. On its lid were stenciled the words:

THE SOLUTION™

“Take it.”

Lawrence approached the suitcase warily. “What’s in here?”

“Exactly what it says on the tin,” Myles answered. “Look, friend, do we seem like we’re going to tell you more?”

“I suppose not.”

Lawrence grasped the suitcase’s handle. The cold of the metal rushed up his arm and through his veins like winter seawater. “Please,” he asked quietly, “just send me home.”

 “Your students will build nations because of you, Herbert Lawrence.” Elsa said, swirling her wand over her head. “They’ll build worlds. Just remember…”

The bar (and its occupants) dissolved, the grounds of the New Human Institute folding out around Lawrence. All that was left of the witch was her voice:

“…There’ll always be reprisal.”

Lawrence spun on his feet wildly. It was as though all the alcohol or drugs or whatever else that horrible woman had dosed him with had been sucked right out of his system.

He was awake. He was alert. He was back.

The idea terrified Lawrence for a moment. Not what his children might do if they spotted him, or even what Mary might think, but just being at the Institute again. Lawrence felt like he was there to steal a fruit from the Tree of Life. The one thought that kept Lawrence together was that it wasn’t life for himself he sought, but for the children. Always the children.

Lawrence started taking stock. He’d been deposited (he supposed) at the edge of the campus proper, before a thick wall of trees that lay between the Institute and the endless farm-fields and the highway. The sun was nearly set, rose-gilt clouds and the low, burning mountain beneath them giving way to dark wastelands pitted by adventurous early stars. Then he looked down at the suitcase still in his hand—the Solution™, as it proclaimed itself. The only material evidence of his encounter with the “witch” and her lackey, and Lawrence didn’t even know what was inside it.

That had to be corrected. Laying it on top of the long, wanton grass, Lawrence undid the catches and flung the suitcase open.

Lawrence could only describe what he found inside as The Forbidden Planet’s take on hand-grenades. Thirteen small, roughly egg-shaped silver things with raised ridges ringing their outer-surfaces. In the middle of the case was what looked like an expensive graphics calculator with a note sticky-taped to them:

Lawrence,

What you are looking at are thirteen powerful, miniature explosives, along with their programmable detonator. They’re infinitely superior to anything you’ll find on the Vantablack market, but mostly for reasons that don’t matter unless you’re digging mine-shafts in the asteroid belt. Point is, you set a time (or times, I guess) and they explode very hard.

Sincerely yours, Myles.

Lawrence tore the note apart in frustration. Bombs? What on Earth was he supposed to do with bombs? Blow the children to smithereens and spare them whatever Timothy had planned for them?

The worst part was, that didn’t seem like the worst plan in the world right then.

Lawrence was about to start weeping again when he saw green flashes in the distance, low rumbles following just behind them.

Elsewhere.

The tears came anyway. Snapping the suitcase shut again, Lawrence started making his way towards the teleporter. He prayed the boy never realised his part in what was to come.

Galahs and cockatoos screamed and fled on the night-air as Arnold Barnes flung chains of lightning over their perches. The boy wasn’t trying to hurt them. He just liked imagining Aussie birds flitting through South American jungles. Honest.

Things had been alright lately. Yeah, Bryant Cormey was wandering around the place raving about the gospel of Lawrence, but he could be ignored. He was even funny, sometimes. Sure, the older kids seemed to have decided it was time to restore some order for whatever reason, to the point of even letting Mrs Gillespie hold lessons again, but an hour of her trying to educate them wasn’t unbearable.

And yes, Mabel had mostly retreated into a bush court of impossible creatures after admitting she killed a couple hundred people and helped usher in the reign of the asylums, but she’d be fine.

Arnold blasted a low-flying rosella to Paraguay.  

She had to be.

“Enjoying yourself?”

Arnold swung around to face the new voice. Oh, how he wished it was new.

“Good evening, Elsewhere.”

The bedraggled sight of Lawrence standing there with his weird metal suitcase made Arnold burn bright. His voice crackled and shrieked with electricity. “What are you doing here? Mrs Gillespie made you go away!”  

“I know, and having thought about it, perhaps she was right to.”

“…What?”

Hearing that from Lawrence was like if his mum actually said, “Yes Arnold, you’re right. We should have ice-cream for dinner, forever,” except far less fun. About as likely to end in a heart attack, though.

“I may have done well to listen a touch more. Ask after your feelings about… certain matters.”

“Yeah,” Arnold said flatly, “like how you wanted me and Allie to make babies for you.”

Lawrence had never specifically considered pairing Myriad and Elsewhere, but he imagined they would’ve gotten around to it eventually. “Yes, that particularly.”

Arnold’s glow dimmed somewhat, enough that Lawrence could make out the veins under the boy’s skin. “What do you want, Bertie?”

Lawrence threw his hands up. “Who says I want anything?”

“You always want something.”

God, was that what the children thought? “Well, if you must ask, there is something I could use your assistance with.”

Arnold narrowed his eyes. “You don’t want to be in charge again, do you?”

Lawrence shook his head. “No, nothing like that. I don’t deserve it.” He set the suitcase down on the ground in front of him, opening it for Arnold to inspect. “I need to send these little presents out for me.”

Arnold crouched to get a better look at Lawrence’s gifts. “What are these for? A robot Easter-egg hunt?”

Lawrence let out a slight chuckle. “Do you know what Fabergé eggs are, Elsewhere?”

“I guess?”

“Same principle.”

Arnold straightened. “You promise these aren’t bad?”

“My hand to God.”

“And if I help you, you promise to leave me and Allie and David and all that alone?”

Lawrence sighed. “If that is what you and your friends wish, I will respect it.”

“…Okay.”

And so they set about their task. Lawrence would call out an address, and Arnold would zap an egg there.

“Try to put them somewhere out of the way if you can,” Lawrence suggested. “I want it to be a surprise.

Some of the addresses felt vaguely familiar to Arnold. Some of them even sounded important to his young ears.

“18 King George Terrace.”

They had about done nine eggs when the questions overwhelmed Arnold. What possible occasion did Lawrence have for sending presents? Why eggs? How were the recipients supposed to know they had even gotten anything? Who were the recipients? And did Northam not have a post-office?

“5 Adelaide Avenue.”

Arnold hesitated.

“Come on, boy!” Lawrence almost barked, “We need to get this done!”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“Why is sending people presents so important?”

“I bet you don’t ask that at Christmastime.”

“I’m serious, why? It’s weird.”

“…You wouldn’t understand.”

Arnold folded his arms. “Then I won’t help you no more.”

Lawrence twitched. He knew what he was about to do was cruel, but if Elsa Lieroinen had taught him anything, sometimes necessity trumped kindness. “Elsewhere, do you remember your young niece?”

“…You think I’d forget her?” Being an uncle still sounded unreal to Arnold. Like someone had bunged up the timestream.

“Well, for reasons of conscience, I did not report her to the DDHA. I could have… and I still could.” Lawrence steeled himself. It was a risky ploy.

To his relief, the little boy went pale, the light inside him dying. “…You wouldn’t.”

Lawrence looked at Arnold sternly. “Much as I detest the asylums, Elsewhere, it still isn’t in the best interest for an infant with your kind of power to be left unsupervised.”

Arnold protested loudly, trying to convince himself as much as the headmaster, “They won’t listen to you! They know you’re a freak now!”

Lawrence closed his eyes sagely. “Whatever the DDHA thinks of me, they’re obligated to investigate reports of ‘demi-human’ activity. And us being on the outs with each other doesn’t mean they’ll let your brother keep little Julia…”

Arnold’s first thought was to just zap the old git into the sun. But then he thought about what Mabel had said around the bonfire. About Circle’s End:

“They were just lying in the dirt. Like they were there but… weren’t.

Could Arnold make a person… go away like that? Forever? Even someone like Lawrence? He had thought he could, when AU had stolen his mum, but even she didn’t want him to hurt the bloke.

His other thought was to just send Lawrence far away. But anywhere Arnold could think of that Lawrence stood a chance of survival was somewhere he could maybe find a phone…

Lawrence clapped his hands together. “So, shall we finish up here?”

“…Okay.”

The old man started reciting addresses again. Arnold didn’t pay much attention.

When the eggs were all gone, Lawrence put a hand on his little assistant’s shoulder. “Thank you, Elsewhere. You do not know what good you’ve done for your kind.”

Arnold didn’t answer him, instead fleeing from his touch.

He found David and Allison sitting around the ruins of a fire, chatting and consuming bags of raw marshmallows.

“…So then Snow White’s mum makes herself really ugly—”

The water-sprite was cut off by Arnold flinging himself at him and Allison, wrapping them in a tight, clinging hug.

“Arnold!” Allison cried. “What the hell!”

It dawned on the pair that Arnold was shaking. This wasn’t a happy hug.

“Arnold?” Allison asked again. “What’s the matter?”

“…I think I did something bad.”

In the bed that Therese Fletcher had occupied until recently, Mary Gillespie awoke to a knock on the cottage door, which was surprising enough. The children had become so self-sufficient lately. Still, it was what she was there for.

“Coming,” she called out, trying to keep the blurriness from her voice.

Whoever was waiting for her knocked loud and hard again before Mary had even reached the door. She had to stop for a second and count to five before she opened it.

“Did you have a nightmare, love—oh, Lawrence.”

Her old friend stood in the doorway, like a stray dog that didn’t know it wasn’t welcome. “Mary…”

Mary sighed. “Look, Laurie, I told you, we can’t—”

He threw his arms around the woman, tears dripping onto her neck. “I’m so sorry. So sorry…”

“…You are?”

A wretched, silent nod.

Mary found herself stroking Lawrence’s hair. So he got it. He finally got it. She couldn’t really complain about the timing. She’d barely realized what they were before him.

“Well, at least we will all go together…”

Most people assumed Mr. Thumps2 wasn’t very bright. But that was far from the truth. Thanks to the Physician’s strict tank-training and gene tailoring, Mr. Thumps could speak over fifty languages, was skilled in the cuisines of over a hundred countries, was qualified to perform both first-aid along with basic surgical procedures, and couldn’t count how many ways he knew to kill a man.

That is to say, Mr. Thumps knew a bomb when he saw one.

He spotted it while putting away the Valours’ laundry, tucked away in the corner of the linen closet. It sat there in the dark, the ridge around its midsection flashing faster and faster.

“Oh, dear.”

Mr. and Mrs Valour were brunching when Thumps strode down the stairs.

Mrs Valour glanced up from her french toast. “Ah, Mr. Thumps, is the laundry done?” She gestured at one of the dining table’s empty chairs. “Why don’t you join us?”

Mr. Thumps liked Valerie Valour. She was one of the few true-humans he knew who didn’t treat him or his brothers and cousins like living furniture. Which is why he proceeded to hoist her over his shoulder like a pulp gorilla.

Valerie screamed. “Thumps! What are you doing?

Her husband shot out of his chair. “The hell are you—”

Mr. Thumps threw Timothy over his back, too. “There is no time to explain.”

The two Valours kicked and clawed at their strange servant as he made his way towards the front door and out to Timothy’s black sedan, throwing them in the back seats. “We are going now.”

Before Tim and Val could do anything, Mr. Thumps was already in the driver’s seat and pulling out of the driveway.  

Timothy managed to pull himself upright, leaning in close to shout in Mr. Thumps’ ear. “I don’t know what’s got into your head, Thumps, but this—”

Behind the car, there was a boom like an entire forest falling at once. Valerie had her face pressed against the rear-window.

Their house was on fire, the second floor gone entirely, while flames gushed out of broken windows like tears from dead eyes.

Valerie turned to look at the back of Thumps’ head. “Did you know this was going to happen?”

“It was a good guess,” Thumps said colourlessly as always.

“Thank you.”

Before either her or Tim could say anything else, more explosions sounded in the distance. Towers of smoke rose around Canberra like petrified world-trees.

Not four seconds later, the Flying Man descended upon the city.

Valerie grabbed her husband’s arm.

“Timothy? What’s happening?”

The New Human Crisis had begun.


1. An obscure also-ran poet and artist of questionable peccadillos, Ralph Chubb is mostly remembered for his bizarre prophecy that the island of Albion would one day be redeemed by the boy-god Ra-el-phaos: “…a Young Boy of thirteen years old, naked perfect and unblemished.” Despite several false-starts, this has yet to occur.

2. Drone #627 with family.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty-One: Ulysses in Northam

Nobody at the Duke’s Inn knew what to say when Mad Laurie walked in from the night. For thirteen years, the headmaster had avoided Northam and her neighbouring towns—usually sending Mary Gillespie or one of his other minions for whatever he couldn’t have delivered directly to his school. Even his students were a more common sight in town. The man was like John the Baptist, if he had traded camel hair for a suit that looked like it had been ironed with him in it.

The few lucky pub-goers who had seen Herbert Lawrence up close almost didn’t recognize him. They remembered a polished Oxfordian fresh off the boat, not this haggard, storm-tossed old man with shredded trouser hems and red-stained derbys.

Mad Laurie darted his eyes around the crowded bar like a beaten dog. A tide of murmurs and shouting rose from the Northamites:

“Oi, Laurie, where you been?”

“I thought he was dead…”

“Is Mary with ya?”

Lawrence ignored them, making his way towards the counter. A few old men at the pool table set down their cues as he passed.

“Christ alive, Laurie, haven’t seen you since ‘58. Why didn’t you come out and say hello at the barbecue?”   

The idea of these people traipsing about his Institute almost made Lawrence wince. Cainites pillaging the Garden. “I was… under the weather.”

A bald, gnomish fellow with sunburnt ears had turned away from his game of darts. “Me missus went up to your school just this morning with some pies for ya kids. Said your lights got turned off…”

The man still had his dart raised behind his head. Duke’s Inn still kept the tips good and keen, Lawrence couldn’t help but notice. “Mix up with the utility company,” he answered. “It’ll be sorted post-haste.”

The man with the burnt ears shrugged and made his throw, poorly. “Bloody idiots.”

“Indeed.”

As the cheers and greetings lowered, Lawrence detected an undertow of whispers. Gossip. Pure slander… out of context. He was glad when he made it to the bar.

A handsome-boned woman with red, cape-like braids sat nursing a glass of something green and bitter smelling. She smiled up at the headmaster. “Fancy a drink, Doctor Lawrence?”

Hungarian? Lawrence thought to himself. Has Northam become cosmopolitan while I wasn’t looking? “No thank you, ma’am.”

The woman waved him off. “Later, then.”

The landlord of Duke’s Inn was one of those men who aged terribly until their forties, at which point they entered a kind of homeostasis till the day they died. He shook Lawrence’s hand like he wanted a new beer-tap. “Laurie!”

Lawrence let his arm be jerked around like he were a ragdoll. “Good evening, Pierce.”

“Aww, come on now, Lawrence, it’s Pie-man.”

Lawrence hoped he wouldn’t have to learn the origins of that nickname again1. “Quite.”

Pie-Man smiled. In private, Lawrence had said it made the landlord look like a gargoyle. Mary had laughed.

“Well, they repel evil, don’t they?”

He looked at the suitcases in Lawrence’s hands. “Need a room?”

Lawrence nodded. “Yes, if you could oblige.”

A chuckle. “Just like old times, innit?”

Lawrence forced a smile. When he, Mary, and their students returned to Australia to set up the Institute, they’d lodged in Duke’s Inn for nearly half a year. Even after that, they sometimes had to house children there while the dorms were being built. The old man supposed that had been kind of Pie-Man. “That it is.”

“Tell ya what, how about I have Jen carry your bags up while we have a pint.”

Lawrence glanced behind himself. More and more people were glaring at him, their eyes a constellation of black holes. “Ah, no thank you… Pie-Man.” He gestured down at his travel-tortured suit. “As you can see, I could rather use a shower.”

Pie-Man nodded slightly. He looked disappointed. “Fair enough, mate.”

His red-faced wife led Lawrence to “the nice room”—meaning it had an en-suite bathroom that had been cleaned sometime in the last calendar year, along with a desk designed for a primary-schooler with gigantism. Aside from a few hundred guests worth of hair and skin flakes nestled in the corners, the room’s only egregious blemish was a patch of scarred, bubbled plaster next to the door.

“I think your Hugo leaned against the wall there,” Mrs Pie-Man said wistfully. She rested a liver spotted hand on Lawrence’s shoulder. “We’re all sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.”

Thankfully, she left Lawrence to make himself at home. He locked the door behind her.

Hot water, for the first time in days. The shower washed away what felt like the dust and sweat of a decade, and Lawrence felt able to relax his shoulders for a moment. Donning the complimentary, threadbare bathrobe, he went and inspected the contents of his twin samsonites.

Mary had been thorough. Three changes of clothes, toiletries, and nearly two hundred pounds in cash. For all Lawrence knew, that money might now be all his assets in the world. Did Valour have his accounts frozen? Did he dare check?

What Lawrence was surprised to find was a black leather book, half filled with his neat, crisp handwriting. The latest volume of his diaries. Lawrence had been keeping it since the end of the war, free at last from the danger of Nazi bullets.  Now over twenty volumes, it constituted a meticulous account of life at the New Human Institute; from beginning to end, so it seemed. Lawrence had even left instructions in his will for them to be published after his death, when the world was hopefully open-minded enough to view them in context.

He imagined this unfinished epilogue would wind up the only surviving fragment. The children no doubt were using its older brothers for kindling. Or lavatory paper2
. Sighing softly, he opened the diary to the last entry:

November 16th, 1965

Żywie did what she could for Adam Sinclair. May he forgive us.

Lawrence turned the page immediately, fleeing to a safe wasteland of yellow writing paper. He wouldn’t let this be history’s last glimpse of his efforts. Of his new humans. Fishing the velvet case holding his fine silver graduation pens out of his suitcase, he sat down and started writing:

In in the sunset of my life’s work, I find myself harbouring doubt. I should consider this a sign my mind is still sound—true certainty is the domain of fanatics and madmen—but it is a cold comfort indeed. I had always considered posthuman abilities an unalloyed good: the kind of wonder seldom seen outside of dreams. My students’ mere presence at my school transformed it into a chimera of the wondrous and the everyday.

But then again, was not the chimera a monster?

Myriad keeps returning to my thoughts. That brilliant, uncanny girl, to whom my years of education and training were as simple as birdsong. She was a wonder. The very future of thought itself.

Or so I thought.

I think back to my school days. Did the labour of mastering words, numbers, and the human mind not help make me the man I am today? As I think about Myriad’s almost feral degeneration, I wonder if her powers robbed her of the ability to grow up?

But then, all races have their deviants and cripples. Perhaps Myriad is one such unfortunate. Then there’s Maelstrom. Poor, sweet Maelstrom. I always knew his mother was something of a lost cause. Melusine would always bear the scars of her wild childhood. But Maelstrom, Maelstrom was perfect. My prize orchard. The Adam Deucalion of the race to come.

Until a strange child woke up in his body. I can’t help but ask myself how close that new boy was to the surface? I tried telling myself it was Myriad’s doing. That she was his Lilith, or Pandora. But then it spread to the other children. Children I had saved from deprivation, imprisonment, and worse! Now they drive me from the home I gave them!

Mankind is a clumsy, blunt-toothed monkey. It was fragility that forced us to master fire and forge tools from a harsh world. To come together and make communities out of strangers. The children know nothing of fragility. Of raw, painful need. Was my stirpiculture breeding what was left of it out of them?

I can picture their descendants, a thousand years hence. Naked and mute, creating Eden as wordless want stirs within them, the way crows build nests and ants dig hives. Golden and godlike, freer than the freest man, but never thinking to look up and consider the sun and stars, enjoying only the ecstasy of beasts.

Part of me revolts at the image. Another, almost desires it.

No. I am thinking like the people downstairs. The people who would call the DDHA if their neighbour beat them at cards. The people who fear change. No revolution is easy to live through, and evolution is always gradual. I must keep heart. I must not abandon the children, no matter how much they wish I would.

If I was sensible, I would be far away. Timothy and his jackboots will come for me eventually. Who knows when some drunk Northamite will see fit to whip up a mob to drive out the ‘mad scientist’? But I am a man of reason, or have tried to be, at least. When they drag me before a judge or throw me into the darkness, I will explain myself. And damn whatever they think of me.

Lawrence set his pen down. A levy had burst within him, weariness drowning his bones once more. Without bothering to turn off the light, he fell backwards on top of his room’s starched, neatly made bed.

As his waking mind flickered out, countless thoughts stirred blearily. How long he had as a free man. How Mary would cope by herself. Would Timothy shackle her, too?

…Wait, what was a lady doing in the pub?

Lawrence spent as little of his days at Duke’s Inn as he could. Staying in one place too long made him nervous, while Pie-Man and his wife kept trying to rope him into dinner or pub trivia. He mostly haunted Northam’s cafes and restaurants, trickling away his money on endless cups of coffee while working on his diary, trying to reconstruct his world in its pages.    

Then he started seeing his students.

It was quick glimpses at first. Windshear and Growltiger playing in the park, or Linus out busking. Lawrence didn’t dare approach them.

Not content with banishing me, now they invade my exile. Still I worry. Do they realize how quickly human hearts turn?

As the week passed, these encounters became terrifying close. Haunt would rise from the concrete just a few paces ahead of Lawrence. Once, he fled from the doorstep of his favoured coffee lair when he spotted Reverb and Stratogale fawning over some local teen’s engagement ring in the window.

Far too young.  

Then, one morning, he saw Maelstrom.

The boy was with his mother, fidgeting in shorts and a t-shirt like he was decked out in his Sunday best. Britomart was walking alongside him, holding his hand.

Lawrence couldn’t resist. He followed them at a distance, hiding among clusters of other pedestrians as much as possible, sometimes even ducking into stores or alleys just to avoid being spotted.

Eventually, the three and their shadow arrived at Capitol Theatres. As the new humans strolled inside, Lawrence pulled out his wallet. He was going to the pictures.

David and Louise Michelson sat together in the darkened theatre, shovelling popcorn into their mouths till their lips chapped, watching Snow White duet with her own echo3

“I’m wishing…”

Louise was transfixed. She’d never seen anything like it. It was as if Mabel had managed to pull a whole world through.

I’m wishing…”

Her thoughts far away from her body, Louise’s aura pulsed softly, raising the ire of the family sitting in the row behind them.

“Put out the bleedin’ light!”

Louise scowled, the white glow dimming and dying.

“Damn demis come in and think they own the place.”

She muttered under her breath, “Gits.”

David found himself squeezing the girl’s hand. “Ignore them,” he whispered, “they’re just jealous.”

“The nice things

Louise smiled back at him. For some reason, it was taking her effort to keep her aura quiet. “You think so?”

The nice things…

David shrugged. “They should be.”

“…He’ll say.”

Louise pecked him playfully on the cheek. “Suck-up.”

The boy rubbed the kiss like it was a bruise. David hadn’t felt this queasy since his eyes changed. He almost wondered if they had gone blue again.

Oh, God, he thought. Linus was right.

David hadn’t thought much about inviting Louise to the movies. He thought it might cheer her up after she’d dredged up all those memories around the bonfire. He had asked Mabel, too, but she declined. Since that night, she seemed to prefer the company of fiction to flesh and blood. Or ice.

Then David had to go and mention it to Linus…

The older boy had grinned rakishly. “Ah, so it’s a date.”

“It’s not a date!” David protested. “I’m just going to the movies.”

“With a girl.”

“A girl’s who’s my friend.”

“Is your mum watchin’ it with ya?”

“…No,” he mumbled, “she’s going to the hairdressers4.”

“Then it’s a date.” He wrapped an arm around the water-sprite. “Here, I’ll give you some tips.”

It probably should have occurred to David how little experience Linus had with dating outside of bizarre forced mating schemes, but the young man’s sheer bigness eclipsed all that.

Snow White was now running through the woods, speeded on by the huntsman’s desperate warning, while malevolent, gnarled trees snatched at her dress.

“Okay, at some point you yawn and put your arm around her shoulder. Works really well if you pick a scary part. Makes you look all brave and protective all at once.”

Out the corner of his eye, David studied Louise’s face. She didn’t look particularly frightened, but a girl their age down the row was pressing her face into her mother’s sleeve, so he guessed it counted. He forced a yawn and flopped his arm down behind Louise’s neck, craning his head to try and gauge her reaction.

She snorted, laughing. “Dork.”

David found himself laughing, too.

Far in the back row, an old man was watching the children’s shadows, writing in his diary by the dancing, inconstant light of the projector. He was still sore about the cheek he’d gotten at the box office:

“One ticket for Snow White, please.”

The pothole faced concession boy regarded Lawrence like he was a leper. “Don’t have any grandkids, mate?”

Lawrence frowned. “One can appreciate art at any age, young man.”

I don’t see why Maelstrom took such issue with our stirpiculture. Even at this young age, I see him court and seduce. I am surprised he did not bring Myriad or Phantasmagoria. I can’t say part of me isn’t pleased, however. Phantasmagoria’s power is glorious, but I always worried about the influence she had on Maelstrom, and Myriad has turned out to be more Lilith than Eve.

The children are flicking popcorn at the screen now, the shadows arcing through the projector beam like dark comets. I thought I’d brought them up better. God, it’s a ghastly film. Say what you want about Sleeping Beauty, at least Walt Disney’s men learned how to draw humans by 19505. And why does Snow White look so young? A paradox of the modern age. Pregnancy—something impermanent by its very nature—we treat as some shuddering horror until a person’s life is a quarter done. Unless they’re married, of course. Just look at the girl in the cafe.

Peculiarly, the subject of breeding leads my thoughts back to superheroes. I always considered them and the supervillains the result of the pressures rootstock humanity puts on posthumans, but perhaps that was arrogant of me. The public clashes and test of strength, the bravado, the costumes as gaudy as a peacock’s tail. What if all that wasn’t a role society forced upon them, or a release valve? What if it was a mating display?

All creatures seek strong young. Man and superman are no exception. Perhaps I  fretted too much about stirpiculture. Perhaps, even now, the seeds I have sown will rise and reach for the sun. Perhaps, perhaps…

Eventually, the wicked queen—beauty lost—tumbled off the cliff. Her poisoned stepdaughter was woken by her prince, and all was good in the world. The theatre lights slowly woke back up.

Lawrence watched his students rise from their seats, an hour and twenty minutes worth of pent up energy twitching in their limbs. Louise ran out immediately, giggling like she expected to be chased.

Maelstrom however, lingered, looking right up at the back row. His eyes found Lawrence’s, turned milky-white.

Lawrence screwed his eyes shut, digging his fingernails into the armrests. Oh, God.

Something warm and wet splattered against his forehead. When Lawrence opened his eyes again, a globule of spit was dripping down his nose, a boy’s laughter fleeing at speed.

An ugly, angry scrawl, the only alternative to a scream.

Ungrateful little brat!

The end started that very night. Lawrence was holed up in his rented room, writing. Regrettably, he also had more than a few drinks in him, very deliberately not imbibed at the Duke’s Inn.

He scratched and slashed at the page like he was carving meat from a beast, sometimes forgetting spaces between words, his free hand shaking at his side.

Never expect recognition. Never expect appreciation, or even kindness. Schoolmasters are hated decades after their deaths for having the gall to drag their students inside and teach them how to get along in the world. They will resent you forever for not letting them drink lye or play on the edge of cliffs.

Blast them all! Let them waste their talents on this pimple of a town. Let them dance among wolves and dragons! Timothy can have them! I’m not—  

There was a loud, insistent knock on the door. Growling, Lawrence slammed down his pen and stalked over to silence it.

Pie-Man was waiting on the other side. His knobbled, perpetually middle-aged features were set uncharacteristically grim. “Hello, Lawrence.”

Lawrence was in too deep a sulk to pick up on the landlord’s tone. “What do you want, Pierce? I told you I’m not interested in binge-drinking with you.”

“We need to talk.”

“Do we? I recall paying you for the week.”

Lawrence tried closing the door, but Pie-Man stopped it with a hand. “It’s not about your money.”

Through the alcoholic haze, Lawrence finally saw the look in Pierce’s eyes. Hard, but with a glimmer that could have been the beginning of tears.

Lawrence smiled a tispy, joyless grin. “Good God, you must be the last man in Northam to hear about it.” He brought his face in close to Pie-Man’s. “Who told you about my stirpiculture?”

Pierce shook his head in confusion. “The hell are you on about?”

A laugh like wind through a broken flue. “The babies, of course! Who finally had the guts to let you in on the big secret?”

Pierce stepped fully into the room, slamming the door shut behind him. “The boys who helped your kids see off the supervillains.” He turned and glared at Lawrence. “Goddamnit, Laurie, what are you, a Nazi?”

Another weak laugh. “The ungrateful little bastards. Should’ve had Żywie put the Taylor lad’s blood back where she found it. Tell me, ‘Pie-Man’,” he jeered the nickname, “did Żywie pass through your fine establishment with my children?”

Pierce grabbed the headmaster by the collar, shoving him against a wall. “How can you stand here and laugh? You were… those poor girls, I don’t even know the word for what you were doing!”

“Eugenics, I believe your sort would call it.”

“Shut the fuck up! You think you’re so much better than us—so bloody wise and educated—and you were breeding little girls like cattle! And we just let you do it! All those years, and we never bothered to check in, or visit, or—we didn’t care.” Pie-Man started to weep. “And people know now. People know, and they’re still letting you walk around and selling you food.” He growled. “I should’ve turned you out. People like you, they should go live in bloody caves. Just clear off and top themselves!”

“Because of me,” Lawrence said quietly, “there are children in this world who can show you the face of God. What’s your legacy, Pierce? Three bakers and some housewife in Port Jackson?”

Pierce punched the old man square in the jaw, sending him to the dirty carpet.

Lawrence looked up at the landlord, blood trickling from his nose. “So what happens now, big man?”

“We’re going to the police station.”

“If the good Constable Preston wishes to speak to me, he can come and get me. I mean, he was the one slacking on the job, wasn’t he?”

Pie-Man reared his foot back for kick, and… it stayed there. Pierce held the pose as if he had just then turned to stone. He didn’t even blink.

What is this fool doing? Lawrence asked himself. Building suspense?

A minute passed. Pie-Man didn’t move. Lawrence got to his feet, slowly circling his aggressor. The man remained still. It became quickly apparent to Lawrence that he wasn’t even breathing.

He tried touching Pie-Man’s cheek, but recoiled instantly from his skin. It was like he’d struck a moving fan, or a live wire. The jolt also caused Lawrence to glance out the window:

A bird, wings caught mid-beat, hovering impossibly in the night air.

It was a new human. It had to be. But none of his students could play with time—  

The door opened again. A woman in a green dress and long thick braids walked in like she owned the world. The woman at the bar.

“Who—”  

“Hello, Dr. Lawrence,” she said, smiling like it was the driest thing ever said. “Elsa Lieroinen. We have a lot to talk about.”


1. An eating contest victory over Ralph Rivers himself. He was visiting the Finch family at the time.

2. In fact, Lawrence’s diaries mostly lay ignored by his students, much to the delight of the cult and cape researchers the New Human Institute inspired.

3. The showing was technically illegal, but the Walt Disney Corporation had yet to place agents in every small town.

4. Most of Mrs Taylor’s work would of course be undone the next time Françoise changed states, but it was a ritual of womanhood.

5. In his heart of hearts, Lawrence did have to admit the Evil Queen looked quite good. Very Joan Crawford.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Fifty: Nostos

Dr. Stephen Carter missed Allison Kinsey. The journeyman scientist and the little super may never have brought each other any joy, but they knew where they stood with each other. He would make her do something pointless for reasons neither understood, and they basked in the shared misery until he went home for the evening.

It was awful, yes, but it was still better than trying to get anything besides thunderbolts and flaming beams of light out of McClare’s oldest inmate. Yet here they were.

Dr. Carter looked across the metal table at the young woman. She was beautiful, certainly, even under the glaring, overexposing fluorescent light of the interview room. Her cheekbones reminded Carter of those great, severe eagles the Americans were so fond of. They framed eyes like storm clouds at midnight. As per McClare dictate, her dark hair was shorn nearly to the scalp.

“You know,” he said, “I always imagined Helen of Troy would be blonde.”

She frowned. “One could mistake the sun for the gold, I imagine. I’ve told you, Carter, it’s Helen of Sparta. I haven’t been ‘of Troy’ for a long time.”

“Sorry, sorry… hey, if you’re Greek, why do you sound so, well, Scottish?”

“Because I learned English from Scotsmen, cleverman,” she answered flatly.

Helen of Wherever1 had been held at McClare since it opened. From what Carter had been able to garner from the few staff who’d been there longer than him, she’d been arrested a little after the Cuban Crisis for melting a police car at a Vietnam protest. She’d put up no struggle. Since then, she had resided in the same cell, telling anyone who asked she was a character from the Iliad and frying alive anyone who objected. She brooked no experiments, and had no fear of punishment. Early on—so the story went—the head of the asylum had withheld all food and drink till she cooperated.

He gave up after nine months.

At McClare, if you had nothing better to do but needed to justify your paycheck, you went and talked to Helen on the off chance she spilled the beans on whatever her secret origin was.

The greying scientist yawned and folded his hands behind his neck. “Okay—”

“I know you don’t believe me,” Helen interrupted. “None of your sort do. Even when you pray to me that your babies will be beautiful.”    

Dr. Carter looked at her, his head tilted. “People do that?”

She quirked her shoulders. “A couple of the nurses.” She leant forward. “I hear them.”

Stephen tried shaking the thought from his mind. “Alright. I don’t believe you.”

Lightning flickered in Helen’s eyes. “But maybe you can convince me,” the doctor hastily added.  “Right now, in this room.”

The chancy glow subsided. “You think so?”

“Sure. Tell me, what’s it like being part god?”

“Not part. Would I be sitting here talking to you if any part of me could die?”

Carter raised an eyebrow, regarding the shackles that bound Helen’s hands. “I thought you were—what’s the word?” He clicked his fingers. “A demigoddess? Your mum was that queen, right?”

Helen sighed. “You’re thinking of Leda. And she was my mother, in all the ways that really matter. That’s probably where the confusion came from. But she was my mother only in name, not by birth.”

“Then who was your mother?”

Through the swamp of lingering arguments with his wife, through the upcoming birthdays and open days, an image rose to the top of Dr. Carter’s mind like a message in a bottle. A woman. A goddess, Carter knew as soon as he questioned it. Taller than a man, with hair like fire, and eyes like smoke. One hand held a dagger, the other balanced scales. She was as real as a dream in the moments before you opened your eyes.

“Nemesis is a proud goddess, Dr. Carter. Proud and beautiful. My father coveted both. Her beauty, for the same reasons all men do. Her pride, so he could conquer it”         

“What are you—”  

A silver fish speeding over dark waves in a loud-roaring sea. Snakes and scorpions crawling across the dry Earth. A goose in a storm tossed sky, fighting an eagle.

“My father got what he wanted. He always did.”

The goddess, blood streaking down her thighs, weeping alone in a copse of trees.

“Oh, God.”

“I’m sorry for that. But you must understand why she did what she did.”

Two eggs, lying in the grass. A herdsman presenting a fine wooden box to a woman in still finer clothes.

“My mother I imagine couldn’t bear the thought of me and my brother growing inside her. She existed to punish hubris, to tarry the scales. And what were we but a hubris she could never avenge? So, she exposed us, leaving our futures to the Fates.”

Stephen swallowed. An image was lurking just behind his eyes, like the shadow of a whale beneath the sea. A school, or something that looked like a school, far away.

No, it was nothing like that. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Helen smiled sadly. “You can’t judge us by mortal standards, Dr. Carter. We’re not people. We’re spells cast on the world to give it shape. My father did these things, yes, but he also punished tyrants and protected travellers. Bushfires coax seeds from their shells, don’t they?”

Dr. Carter didn’t know what to say to that. “What happened next?”

“Pollux and I hatched in Sparta, in the halls of King Tyndareus. He took us in, reared us up beside his own son and daughter.”

“Gotta say, that probably wouldn’t have been my first idea.”

“Gods are like cuckoo birds, Stephen. We don’t take kindly to those who turn out our byblows. And divine blood is an asset. It can strain gold from your line, or be traded for the same.”

“So you and your… were you ‘twins’ if you were eggs?”

To Stephen’s surprise, Helen laughed. “No one gave us a glossary, but the word works well enough.”

“So you two were gods.”

“Yes.”

“But your family weren’t.”

Helen looked down between her bound hands, faint steel eyes glinting back up at her. “Some of our brothers and sisters, they grow up in glades and grottos a mortal man couldn’t find if Father Zeus was holding their hand. Death and pain are just stories to them: little barbarisms their mothers tell them about so they know how good they have it.”

“Not me and Pollux, though. From birth, we were drowned in human frailty. Whooping babies, old nobles with faces like melted candles, haggard slaves—”

“You had slaves?”

“…Yes, we had slaves. We also sometimes ran people out of town for being ugly, exposed children who weren’t immortal, and hardly any of us could read, just to get those out of the way. May I continue?”

Dr. Carter nodded.

“Good. As I was saying, we were surrounded by suffering. But it never seemed quite real to us. Like a game. I think I was four before I realized clumsiness wasn’t an affection, or that the sound people made when they hit their toe wasn’t kin to laughter. I don’t think our foster parents quite knew what to make of us, either.”


“…You said you hatched from an egg.”

“That didn’t stop generations of your kind from calling us mere demigods, and Mother and Father didn’t try bleeding us to check. I remember this one day. It was summer, and Pollux and I had gone swimming in the river. We were scraping away at the mud at the bottom when we saw a couple guards diving in above us. They dragged us out kicking and screaming,”—a smile—“flashing and burning. Turned out we had been under for over fifteen minutes. It must sound strange to you, but all that fuss was terribly confusing for us.”

Dr. Carter shrugged. “Sounds like children, to me.”

“Do you have children, Stephen?”

Carter was taken back by the question, but he answered honestly. “Yes, actually. A daughter. Rachel.”

“Tell me about her?”

To his surprise, he did.

🗲

As the weeks passed, Dr. Carter’s sessions with Helen of Wherever became more and more bearable. She would feed him some petty details about her powers to pretty up the reports, and he got to skive off for most of his workday.

Other than that, they mostly just talked.

“How did you meet your wife, Dr. Carter?”

“Oh, it wasn’t anything special. Pam moved to my school in year 12, we went to a few mixers…” The scientist scratched the back of his neck. “I’m not sure when we got serious, but suddenly she was helping me through university and… well, what else was I supposed to do?”

Helen didn’t answer. She was staring right past the scientist’s head.

Dr. Carter clicked his fingers. “Helen? You there?”

She shook her head. “Sorry, nostalgia got me. Sometimes you moderns still sound so foreign when you talk about marriage.”

“I suppose yours was arranged?”

“Yes and no.”

“…I’m just not allowed to be right, am I?”

“No you are not. Do you remember my brother Pollux?”

“Yeah. You sounded close… oh, God, you weren’t married, were you?”

“I wish I could act like that was a completely stupid question, but no, we were not. As for us being close, we got on well enough. Our mortal brother Castor, though, he was the one Pollux really loved.” She smiled. “The Dioscuri, people called them, or the Gemini.”

“Wait, that—”

“Yes, Stephen, that Gemini. You’d think growing up in the company of gods—even ones as small and petty as me and Pollux were—would’ve stunted a boy like a flower in the shadow of a great tree. But Pollux wasn’t like that. His divinity didn’t cast a shadow over anyone. Only light. Or maybe Castor loved him too much for that to matter.”

To Dr. Carter’s ears, they sounded exactly like the kind of sibling duos that made his life hell in school. “They get up to much?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe. I remember once, when Theseus and his mate abducted me—”

“Wait, you got kidnapped by Theseus? The bloke who fought the Minotaur?”

Helen waved her hand. “This was years after that. He and… Pirithous I think it was were looking for new, divine wives. I was Theseus’ choice. I was also ten.”

“Christ.”

“Oh, it wasn’t as bad as all that. All it meant was that my brothers had plenty of time to come get me. We took Theseus’ mother with us as my handmaid. Aethra. Sweet thing, a bit thick.”

Stephen chuckled. “Is that some old Greek code of honour? You take our sister, we take your mum?”

“Not really. I just needed a new handmaiden. I hear after they lost me they tried stealing away Persephone. You can probably guess how that turned out for them.”

“Should I?”

“Her husband is the king of hell.”

“Oh. To be fair, I can’t imagine that was ever anyone’s normal.”

Helen sighed, turning away from Dr. Carter as best she could in her chains. “I never said it was. My actual wedding hardly was, either.”

Carter was no great reader of people, but he knew when a tangent was a sanctuary. “You still want to talk about it?”

“Yes, I do.” She took a deep breath. Dr. Carter wondered if breathing was just something she did not to freak people like him out.

“Castor and Pollux disappeared when I was sixteen. Some cattle raid in retaliation for a cattle raid in retaliation for I can’t even remember what anymore. They set off one morning. Days became weeks, weeks become months, and months became forever.”

“They died?”

“Castor must’ve. Pollux… I think he just couldn’t bring himself to come back without him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“English is strange. Always making you apologise for things you didn’t do. I just hope they’re together, somewhere.”

“How’d your father cope?”

“He wept. And then he went groom hunting for me.”

“Am I allowed to say that wouldn’t have been my priority?”

“You may, though I might say you wouldn’t have made much of a king. My father had lost both his heirs. His kingdom was one death away from dissolution.”

“Didn’t he have you?”

“I’m a woman, Dr. Carter. Our thrones weren’t like yours. They never would have tolerated your queen reigning alone, over even her own husband. The best me and my sister could hope for was to be conduits for our father’s blood and legacy—to be bartered away for a new son.”

“But you’re a goddess!”

Dr. Carter suddenly went very quiet.

Helen grinned slyly. “Ah, so you admit it.”

“I mean, so you say.”

“Close enough. Either way, being a goddess means very little outside a temple. Our palaces were littered with nymphs and small goddesses, thrown to mortal princes like meat to dogs by indulgent fathers. Rotting on the vine for eternity.”

For some reason, Stephen found himself recalling the time Allison Kinsey listed all the bones in the human body, and the man who could answer any question posed in exactly one hundred words. “Seems… wasteful.”

Helen shrugged. “Divine loins never falter.”

“…Forget I said anything.”

“Very wise. They came from all over, my suitors: Mycenae, Argos—and those names mean nothing to you, do they?”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I need to stop assuming everyone is familiar with my sliver of the world. Are you a churchgoing man, Stephen?”

“I guess?”

“Then maybe you’ll have a beginning of an idea of what it was like in my father’s hall that night. That holy scent of incense embracing the blood of beasts and the sweat of throngs of men.”

Dr. Carter tilted his hand. “Two out of three.”

“I remember sitting behind the screen, watching the shadows argue their right to me. To my right was my sister, Clytemnestra.” She looked at Dr. Carter expectantly, before shaking her head and muttering something in Greek. “Poor Clytemnestra. If I had hatched anywhere else, she might have been our father’s jewel. If she had been born some other time, she might even have been allowed to be a person. At the very least, we’d all have learned what she was capable of.”

“Penelope was with us, too, trying to comfort me.” Helen studied Carter’s face, searching in vain for a sign of recognition. “You really don’t know who Penelope is?”

“Afraid not.”

“Teach the masses to read and this is what they give you.”

“Weren’t you just saying it was alright I didn’t know Greek geography?”

“Do you know what the word ‘mentor’ means?”

“Yes.”

“I rest my case. I watched their silhouettes through the screen, like a shadow-play. The men had their hands at their swords, all shouting at my father why they ought to be allowed to rut with the cygnet of Zeus.” The goddess flew into a series of impressions of long dead men. To Carter’s ear, she sounded surprisingly authentic.  

“My coffers are the envy of the Rich One himself!”

“Look at how Father Zeus has blessed me with great size!”

“I fought alongside Heracles himself!”

Helen shot Carter a flat glance. “That last one had to be at least seventy. Not sure if he was better or worse than the seven year old.”

“You really think they were going to kill each other over a woman?”

“My, aren’t we civilized? They weren’t just competing for my hand, they were fighting for all my father’s lands and wealth. I was just the ribbon around the box. And back then, the Greeks were only one people in the sense we thought everyone else was worse. If anything, that started to change that very night, but that’s another story.”

“So how’d you get it sorted?”

“There was one man there who wasn’t interested in me, or even in Sparta. He’d arrived weeks before any of the other suitors, and had been pestering my cousin all that time. I hadn’t thought much of him—some podunk island prince with too-short legs—but Penelope seemed taken with him.” She smiled again. “He was called Odysseus, and his name meant trouble.”

“Oh, him!” exclaimed Dr. Carter.

“Indeed. His idea was simple. There would be no more debate, no more wheedling, no more gifts. I would decide who I would marry, right there, in front of everyone.” Helen laughed. “Radical concept. Do you see why they called Odysseus the wiliest of the Greeks?”

“Christ, how do you make that kind of choice on the spot?”

“Easily. I said ‘Menelaus’ before Odysseus’ words had stopped echoing.”

“Why him?”

“Because he was a redhead. The fact his elder brother held all his family’s lands didn’t hurt, either.” Helen steepled her fingers. “So, anything good on TV out there?”

Dr. Carter knew not to press.

🗲

It was some time before Helen discussed her youth again. What stories she did share were from much later. She rarely mentioned dates, so Dr. Carter learned to pay attention to the names of monarchs and other context clues. Mostly were surprisingly dull—long anecdotes of daily life through the ages, or wars Dr. Carter didn’t remember the names of.   

“Did you know any famous people who weren’t Greek?”

“Stephen, if you ever become immortal, I’m sure you’ll spend days hovering around celebrities in case you need to entertain a deputy-assistant-minion in a concentration camp. I on the other hand had a life to attend to.”   

Things improved greatly when Carter started sneaking in booze.

“Here ya go.” He slid a bottle of Swan Draught across the table, before remembering the handcuffs. “Oh, sorry. Maybe we could—”

Helen’s finger sparked, and the left handcuff chain snapped. She took a swig of her beer.

“Nice trick.”

The next big step in Carter and Helen’s growing friendship was the discovery of a copy of The Greek Myths for her to fact check:

“Dionysus was actually Persephone and Father Zeus’ boy, they just regrew him inside that mortal lady. You’d think him being a god and all would be a clue…”

“Medea didn’t kill her boys, it was the peasants. Always blaming the woman…”

“ ‘Fully-formed from Zeus’ head’? Only when Hera’s in earshot. Just ask Triton.”

Stephen grinned crookedly. “Look, lying to your missus is a vital skill. Just look at this bloke.” He flicked through the book, muttering silently to himself as searched for his example. “He’s gone for ten years, and soon as he gets back, his wife stabs him in the bloody bath!” He laughed. “Should’ve just stayed in Troy with Cassandra.”

Helen did not laugh. “That was my brother-in-law.”

Dr. Carter went red. “I’m sorry, Helen. If I’d remembered…”  He chuckled nervously. “All these foreign names, you know.”

“Agamemnon. My father gave Clytemnestra to him when I married his brother. ‘Strengthen our kinship’ he said.” She frowned. “Agamemnon was always a sore loser.”

“I don’t want to speak ill of your family, Helen, but you have to feel sorry for the guy.”

“I don’t. I feel sorry for my sister, for my nieces and nephew, even that poor madwoman he dragged home, but never him.” Helen bored into the scientist with those dark, eagle eyes of hers. “Doctor, have you ever been unfaithful? With Pamela, I mean.”

Dr. Carter sputtered, before trying and failing to match the lady’s glare. “What kind of question is that?”

“Have you?”

“…Once or twice.” Why was he being honest? Why did she have to use Pam’s name? “You have to understand, it wasn’t an ongoing thing. Just a couple of spills back in uni. And once… we were having a dry-spell, alright? She didn’t—what she doesn’t know won’t hurt—isn’t hurting her.”                  

Helen nodded. “Discreet. Good. Menelaus was like that too, when he took a slave or a handmaiden to bed. I always knew, but he didn’t rub it in my face, you know?”

“Helen, I didn’t—”

“I just wish my infidelity could’ve been so quiet.”

Stephen knew when to be quiet.

“My father died a year after the wedding. Heartbreak, I think.” She shook her head. “God, he loved my brothers. Menelaus took to kinging well enough. He was a prince, after all. His big problem was that he didn’t know the lay of the land, but then, he had me.”

“Power behind the throne?”

“I wouldn’t go that far, but you could say I was his map. Honestly, it was something of a relief having him around to do the ruling. Even at that age, mortals still confused me.”

“So you were happy?”

“As much as I could ask to be. For a girl in my place and time, the choice I’d been given was rarer than gold. I knew enough of the world to know I’d gotten lucky. Maybe not as lucky as Penelope, but definitely luckier than Clytemnestra. And Menelaus… Menelaus was kind. He sought out my company more than most kings would their wives. He listened to me. He was a good man.”

“You said he cheated on you. With slaves.”

Helen put her free hand to her temples. “It was the time. I was with child as soon as you could look for for it.”

“And how old were you again?”

Helen sighed knowingly. “Sixteen.”

“And Menelaus?”

“Twenty-five, I’d guess.”

Dr. Carter suppressed a shudder.

Helen ignored him. “I knew before anyone else. How could I not? A part of me was suddenly vulnerable.” She sighed. “I knew it’d be mortal. They almost always are with your kind.”

“I wonder about that sometimes. Almost seems counterintuitive to me. You’d think god genes or whatever could beat up ours.”

“Godhead—our godhead, at least—is like diamond. Harder than anything human, but brittle. Mortality can shatter it like nothing else. The moment I lay eyes on my daughter, I knew I’d outlive her.”

“I couldn’t imagine.”

“No, you couldn’t. Still, I had her for the moment. And she was good. And yet… as the years went on, I kept thinking back to my betrothal. I was a goddess. Something eternal—a part of the world. And I let a room full of men make me pick one of them to shackle myself to, all so they could call themselves king for a few decades before shuffling off into the shadows. It—it just stopped making sense to me.”

“How’d you cope?”

“Same way all women do. I kept it to myself. Until Paris came along.”

“The Trojan bloke?”

“Yes. ‘The Trojan bloke.’ ”

“How’d you meet him?”

“A diplomatic mission from the east. Paris was young. An exiled prince come home again. Of course, his family sent him abroad as soon as they could, but I’m not sure he ever thought about it like that. All the men at court scoffed at him. An effete eastener they called him, poisoned by comfort and the riches they envied2. And he was an archer to boot.”

“What wrong with archery?” Stephen didn’t mention taking archery in high-school.

A wicked grin. “A real man kills up close, Dr. Carter. With his own hands. Unless you were my cousin-in-law. Still, I couldn’t keep my eyes off Paris. The man smelt of sandalwood, all day long. He joked like Thalia was his mother, and he looked like Apollo was his father. I was twenty-three years old, and he was my first crush.”

“The night before he was due to leave, I woke up to find him in my chambers.”

“I think my wife has nightmares about that sort of thing.”

“Many women do. Many also dream of it. It certainly took me a moment to realise I was awake. He told me he’d dreamed of me for years, before we’d ever met. That Aphrodite herself wanted us to be together.” For the first time Dr. Carter could remember, Helen looked ashamed. “God, I believed him.”

“You don’t think he was telling the truth?”

Helen moaned. “Oh, I don’t know. The poets thought he was, but of course they’d think that. And aren’t all couplings the will of Aphrodite?”

“So you went with him.”

“Of course I did. The chance to decide my future, to be with a man that hadn’t been laid out for me like toys in front of a child: it was like wine. We were creeping through the halls of the women’s quarters when I heard her voice.”

“Whose voice?”

“My daughter’s. She was just standing there, woken by a nightmare. She’d been looking for me. Moonlight was streaming over her through the windows. She didn’t say anything about Paris. Maybe she didn’t see him in the shadows. Maybe she didn’t know she was awake. Either way, she was soon pulling at my chiton.”

“What did you do?” Dr. Carter asked, dreading the answer.

“I took her back to her bed, and held her until she fell asleep again. Then I made my way to Paris’ ship.” Helen turned her head down. “I wouldn’t see Hermione again for ten years.”

Carter started at her. “You just left your daughter?”

“We were always going to part. At least this way I didn’t have to watch her whither. And should I have stolen her from her father, too?”

The doctor shook his head. “Lady, you wouldn’t be the first woman to outlive your kid. They don’t abandon them.”

“You don’t understand. You can’t. You’re mortal. And a man.”

Stephen stood up. “I think we’re done for today, Helen. The guards will be here in a sec. I’d recommend you weld the chain back up before they get here.”

“They won’t care.”

“Who does, here?”

Dr. Carter went home confused and guilty that night.

🗲

By Stephen Carter’s request, it was some time before he had another session with Helen of Sparta. Instead, he spent the better part of two months recreating his time with Allison Kinsey with a parade of new sad children.

By the time bureaucratic callousness put Dr. Carter and the goddess in the same room again, he didn’t complain.

“I told Pam,” he finally said after ten minutes of silence.  

“How did she take it?”

“That’s the thing. I thought she’d be screaming and chucking skillets at my head. But she sounded so… wounded. Resigned. Like I’d taken a knife and cut open an old scar.”

“I know the feeling.”

“Helen, could I ask how it all turned out? Paris, Troy.”

“There are whole epics about that, Stephen.”

“But they’re not you.”

“That they aren’t.” Helen took a deep breath. “Ilium was beautiful. The very grain of the buildings and walls were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Everywhere I looked, there were icons of gods whose names I had never heard. The gods I did recognize, they almost could’ve been different divinities altogether. For the first time, I knew how small my world truly was.”

“Sounds like when I went to London. I felt like a complete rube.”

“Paris’ family—the royal family—they never really liked me. I can’t blame them. They knew what I’d bring. The people loved us, though. The darling prince and his divine foreign lover. I think I was their Princess Margaret for a while.”

“Princess Margaret?”

“Don’t give me that look, I didn’t spend the last three thousand years in a cave. It was good for a while, what Paris and I had. Or at least it seemed that way from the inside. We’d make love till the walls of our chambers had disappeared under waves of shadow, or we’d go into the countryside, and he would show me where he once pastured his sheep. For a while, I thought it might last.”

“Then your husband came after you, didn’t he?”

“Not completely ignorant, I see.”

“I did go to school, you know.”

“True. And, yes, Menelaus did come for me, along with the rest of Greece. I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Menelaus’ throne was in question. An alien might have had a claim to one of our kingdoms. And Troy had riches beyond avarice. Heracles sacked it, long ago, and my people loved nothing more than emulating him. I don’t think you can could imagine what that war was like.”

Dr. Carter frowned. “I’ve lived through a world war, Helen.”

“Were you a soldier?”

“…No,” he admitted.

“Even if you were, I don’t think you’d understand. The war you remember was this distant, mechanized horror. Normal life died wherever it touched. It couldn’t happen that way in Troy. The Greeks were far from home in a land that did not love them. If they tried burning the fields or slaughtering all the cattle, they would starve too. So standards formed. Days where both sides would go about their lives; sacrifice, bury their dead. And that made it all the more terrible.”

Stephen blinked. “Sounds mighty civilized where I’m sitting.”

“Maybe on festival days. But it made war tolerable. And tolerable wars never end. It’s nothing but bodies and bitterness.”

“It broke Paris. His family hated him now as much as they did me. They muttered about old prophecies and dooms. He would rant and rave at me about how he should have taken the other offers. I didn’t know what he was talking about then. Now, I still don’t think it’d have made a difference. Fate has many paths, but they all lead to the same place.”

“Did you ever… you know, fight?”

“…Sometimes. I tried to hold back, but those were never good days. For anyone.”

“And then the horse?”

“There was no horse.”

“Wait, what?”

“There was no horse. It was poetry.”

“You’re telling me Troy and the gods are all real, but the Trojan horse wasn’t?”

“A thing can be true without another thing being true.”

“What happened then?”

“Come on, Carter. We’ve gotten drunk together over that book. Who is the god of horses?”

Carter thought about it. “Poseidon.”

“And what was his other domain?”

“The sea.”

“And…”

“…Earthquakes.”

“I woke with the shaking of the world. The walls were tumbling down, the Greeks pushing through their own terror and confusion to storm the city. And I walked among them, burning all who offended my gaze. And then Menelaus found me.”

“All at once, I realized what age was. This memory of a man, a decade removed. He saw me, bright with glory, my hands black with the ashes of Greeks, and still he approached me. That was when I realized.”

“Realized what?”

“The awful, terrible truth. All those reasons I thought of for why Menelaus had come for me, and it all boiled down to this: because he loved me. And I still loved him. And so we went home. We were both selfish enough to break a land over our knees for our own desires, and we got to go home.” Tears started trailing down Helen’s face. “Did you know how many villages were razed to the ground because of us, Stephen? How many sons the king of Troy had left? My daughter grew up without both her parents, because of our greed. Because he couldn’t let go. Because I was young and stupid. ”

Dr. Carter reached to wipe away Helen’s tears. They were warm like raindrops in the sun.

“Thank you for listening Stephen. Even if you don’t believe me, it’s good to be heard.”

“I do believe you.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

As Helen watched, the scientist got on his knees and crawled beneath the table. She felt arms wrap around her ankles. A story she once told the man rang again in her ears. Her father, the King of Sparta, receiving a supplicant.

“To be honest, child, I’d rather have had a knife to my throat.”

“Helen, me talking to you, being your friend, or whatever it is I am to you… has it made your life better? Made this place more bearable.”

“Yes, Stephen.”

“I’ve missed so many chances to be kind. To do the right thing. This place… it’s wrong. And I went along with it because I couldn’t be bothered to stand up for the people here, or even just not take their money. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of being so bloody pointless.”

Helen stroked his hair. “It’s never too late.”

“There was a girl. Before we started talking. Allison, she was called. I was sort of in charge of her. I never did anything to help her, until this doctor fella came asking for her. Said he was going to take her somewhere better. I signed off on it—didn’t have a choice really, but I hardly cared. Now I’m hearing things… there’s some men waiting outside. Important men. They want your help.”

“And they asked you to try and convince me.”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

She stood up. “It’s alright, Stephen. It’s time my holiday came to an end.” She started walking towards the door. “May I give you some advice?”

Dr. Carter looked at the goddess, still lying under the table. “Please.”

“They dug up Troy decades ago. More of it remains than my own home. Resign from this place. Go to Troy, and leave an offering.”

“To the gods?”

“No. To the people who died there, because of the decisions of people freer than them.”

“Then what do I do?”

“Try to be better.”

Helen knocked on the door. “I’m ready to talk.”

The man who opened the door was greying, battle-worn; his face knitted with tiny scars.

“Hello, Helen.”

“Hello, Timothy.”


1. A nickname that predated Stephen Carter by an age.

2. One wonders whether or not the years spent shepherding in the hills counted as luxury.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Forty-Nine: Formicarius

DDHA Inspector Ronald Vanhurst nursed his mid-morning cup of tea in the corner-booth of the Camel Stop Diner while skimming The West Australian, trying not to think too hard about what he expected to find later that noon.

He glanced over his newspaper at Agent Louis Becker, who appeared to be consuming his toast and black coffee in the gaps between Vanhurst’s eyeblinks. The inspector decided to break the ice.

“Says here the Flying Man dropped in on the South African Parliament yesterday.”

That instantly caught Agent Becker’s attention, while Inspector Vanhurst just as instantly realized he had picked the wrong small-talk subject.

“What’s he done now?” the American asked in his cool, yet interrogative, Midwestern manner.

Ronald sighed softly. The poor inspector’s life the past few weeks had been a river of unwelcome news. First he drew the office shit-stick, condemning him with having to make the bi-annual inspection of Timothy Valour’s pet experiment. Then he got word that the old bloke in charge of said experiment was using it to run some crazy teenage breeding scheme, almost immediately followed by the news that Northam had been attacked by supervillains, one of whom was still at large, and that the Institute was apparently in a state of anarchy. So now Ron’s box-ticking mission had turned into the bastard child of a reconnaissance mission in hostile territory and a child welfare visit—as performed by a man trained to inspect safety railings in tinning plants.

And then, finally, there was Agent Becker, his DOPO1 shadow for the trip.  

Still, he started it. “Apparently he told the South Africans they were giving the blacks back the franchise, or else everyone in the country would wake up with their colours swapped.” Ron chuckled. “Think he could do it?”

“He’s overplaying his hand,” Agent Becker said authoritatively. “If he’s so unstoppable, why did he bother being quiet when he took out the nukes?”

Vanhurst shrugged. “Maybe he was bored? Maybe the Flying Man is just what happens when you can do anything and don’t have anything better to do.”

Louis shook his head. “He has to know he’s not unique.”

Ron raised a greying eyebrow. “Know a Flying Lady, do ya?”

“Nothing and nobody is special, Vanhurst. If there isn’t already another Flying Man out there, someone will invent him eventually.”

“Then how will we handle that bloke?”

The DOPO agent’s voice was steady and grave, like he was sitting in on a policy meeting instead of brunching in some also-ran country town. “We’ll deal with that when we come to it.”

Vanhurst scoffed. “Because that worked out so well for your lot with the Soviets.”

Agent Becker allowed himself a shrug. “We’re still here, aren’t we?”

Ron let out a grudgingly affirmative grunt. Inspector Vanhurst could understand why the DDHA was trying to cozy up to their American cousins. The world was changing. Mother Britain had been hemorrhaging power and territory since the war, while America kept on rising in the world like it had designs towards the letter “u.” What Vanhurst couldn’t figure out was why the boss of bosses wanted him to show some random DOPA bloke what was shaping up to be one of their biggest fuck-ups?

Then again, what did the DDHA have to show for themselves besides fuck-ups? The Americans had Pendergast, while Australia had one mad old queen and a lot of bitter prisoners that hadn’t figured out their cells were made of paper yet.

Agent Becker was grimacing at something. “There’s something not right about this town.”

Ron followed the American’s eyes towards a pair of young boys running around with comfort-blanket capes tied around their necks, laughing as they weaved around the legs of a fuming ginger bus-boy.

Vanhurst leaned over the table. “Gonna let you in on a secret, mate.” He made a big show of looking around the diner, screened his mouth with his hand and whispered, “They’re not really supers.”     

Agent Becker didn’t smile. “That’s not what I mean. Look around. At the people.”

Smiling. Laughter. Two sets of clearly embarrassed parents, but even they seemed more amused than anything else.

Ron looked back at Becker. “They’re kids, Louis.”

“It doesn’t make sense, Vanhurst. My intel said the Northamites weren’t on good terms with the sorcerers.”

“Demis, Becker.”

Magically empowered individuals,” The agent insisted. He pointed at the blackboard menu hanging behind the diner-counter, bordered by chalky, pastel wreaths and surprisingly well-detailed koalas2.  Specifically, he was pointing at a sandwich:

THE NEW HUMAN     

Vanhurst tapped the busboy on the arm as he passed. “Excuse me, can you tell us what a ‘new human’ is?”

“It’s new,” the red-haired teen explained. “Pretty much two sandwiches inside another sandwich. It’s free if you finish it all… lookin’ to order it?”

“Nah, just curious.”

The busboy wandered off, muttering something about finchy time-wasters under his breath.

“Why would they name a sandwich after a school for sorcerers if they didn’t like them?” Agent Becker asked rhetorically. “It doesn’t add up.”

Inspector Vanhurst rubbed the bridge of his nose. To be honest, he’d been a little intimidated by Agent Becker at first. With his black suit, glasses, and military-neat haircut, the American looked like he immigrated from a world built out of blurry photographs and strung together with red-string. After spending the better part of a morning and a two hour drive in a rented truck with the man, Ron was beginning to suspect that if fortune hadn’t blown Louis Becker towards DOPO, he’d probably be busy building those worlds himself.

“A bunch of supervillains attacked here a few days back. Apparently some kids from the Institute warded them off. They’re probably just… appreciative.”

“I don’t buy it,” said Becker. “Bigots don’t distinguish between good and bad actors. That’s what makes them bigots!”

“Bigots?”

“Well, that’s what they are.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I’m suggesting,” Becker whispered, “that it’s not outside the realm of possibility for the NHI sorcerers to have cast a spell over Northam.”

“So you think these people are prejudiced against ‘sorcerers’?”

“It’s a matter of record.”

“So clearly that means the victims of this prejudice have bewitched their minds with black magic.”

“…Life is complicated.”

The inspector checked his cheap quartz watch. It was time for them to get going. The sorcerers were waiting for them. “That it is, Agent Becker, that it is.”

Dr. Herbert Lawrence was knocked out of his fretful, hungover dreams by a hard punch to his side.  

The children were gathered around the old man’s bed: Stratogale, Ex-Nihilo, Reverb and Myriad. Reverb had the dressing gown they had dyed and sequined for Prospero slung over her shoulder, while the youngest girl was carrying a bundle of rough rope.

Stratogale was hovering a few inches above the floor, a yellow paper-crown on her head. “It’s inspection day, Laurie.”

Lawrence sighed. “Trust me, child, I know.” A weak, despairing rictus spread across his face. “Queen of the festivities, are we, Stratogale?”

The girl slapped him hard. It took Lawrence a second to realize he was still alive. How easily could Stratogale have sent his head flying into the wall?

“It’s Sadie, Bertie. This”—she tapped at the crown, before removing and slipping it over—“I was just keeping it warm for the king of the festival.”

“We got the idea from your mate Graves’ book3,” Lana jeered.

Lawrence remembered what his friend said became of those ancient ceremonial kings at the end of their reign. The idea was colourless; removed, like the weather forecast for a far-flung city.

Mavis’ manufactured voice echoed like a priestess in a cavernous temple. Allison, prepare the king for the procession.

Allison giggled and saluted. “Yes, ma’am!”

The little girl set about binding Lawrence’s hands in an expert handcuff knot. She was naked, bar a thin layer of dyed frost and a feather tucked behind her ear, her face streaked with acrylic paint like some ghastly picture-book Indian.

What was left of Lawrence despaired for Myriad. Not too long ago, he had believed she was the beginning of a cognitive revolution. Now, he realized, the girl was nothing more than a child wearing adult knowledge like her mother’s shoes and lipstick.

He didn’t resist when they pulled him to his feet, draped him in that butchered wizard’s robe, and started marching him down through the house.

Mary, Cormey, and Melusine were in the kitchen when they passed, the nereid keeping watch over the teachers with a cup of black coffee.

Bryant went ballistic when he saw Lawrence trussed up. He jumped out of his chair. “You ungrateful little shits!”

Lawrence and Mary locked eyes for a moment. The old woman said nothing. She looked so tired.

Cormey tried running to the headmaster’s aid, but Françoise blocked the man with her arm.

“For God’s sake, Mels, do you want Mael thrown into McClare?”

Fran smirked. “Bryant, if David doesn’t want to go to McClare, nobody’s taking him to McClare.”

Tiresias was waiting to open the door for the procession. “All hail the king!”

Lawrence managed to muster a question for his former student. “How do you see this game turning out for you, Tiresias?”

The psychic closed his eyes and put his fingers to his temples, groping the air with his other hand. “I see… a penthouse… on the Gold Coast… full of beautiful women…” He opened his eyes and grinned. “And you know what, Bertie? I think they’re all over twenty-one.”

It took Lawrence a moment to realize Tiresias wasn’t kidding.

He’d won.

“Did you get the sign?” Sadie asked cooly.

Alberto clapped. “Oh, yeah!” The esper picked up a wooden placard threaded through with the same rope that bound Lawrence, hanging it around the old man’s neck. “There. Now everyone knows who did what.”

A throne waited for Lawrence in front of the house, carved from rough grey iron. Well, “carved.” Lawrence had no doubt it was Ex-Nihilo and Growltiger’s handiwork. He was mildly surprised a pyre hadn’t been built around the thing. Disappointed, even.  

Haunt was waiting beside the chair. He was in the white dress shirt and pressed slacks he had worn for his and Britomart’s Naming, his usually wavy hair drowned in pomade.

“Think the inspector will be here soon?” he asked the girls.

Myriad crooked her head. “I there’s a couple new songs getting closer. Too fast for feet. Wonder who the other bloke is?” She looked up at Sadie. “Can I go play now?”

Sadie ruffled her hair fondly. “Sure, kiddo.”

The child bounded off like a gazelle. Lawrence watched her go. How many learned men lay forgotten and neglected within that painted savage?

The teenagers shoved him down into the throne, before Haunt stepped in front of his teacher, regarding him like a squashed bug with human insides.

Lawrence smiled wanly. “I haven’t seen you this well dressed in years, my boy.” He jerked his head in the direction Myriad had run off. “Certainly making more of an effort than some of your brothers and sisters.”

Tom Long kicked Lawrence in the shins. “Just trying to make a good impression, your highness.”

The leftover scotch in Lawrence’s system dulled the pain. It might also have dulled the shock when he realized his legs had been sunked into the throne. He looked like a half-finished statue.

“And we don’t want you spoiling the surprise for the inspector.”

Reverb wrapped an arm around Lawrence’s shoulders, her voice a child’s parody of sultry:

That’s why us girls are gonna keep you company while you wait.

Lawrence’s ears were wracked with drill hisses and a thousand wasps. He futilely struggled against his bindings, desperate to cover his ears.

Lana told Tom, “Go wait with the others while I try to remember how to make mustard gas or something.”

Tom nodded. “I hear ya, bosslady.”

He joined the other children gathered around the Institute gates. A bedsheet banner with “WELCOME INSPECTORS” painted in bright, colourful letters hung from poles of gold light over the dirt-trail.

Booms like prowling thunderclaps closed in behind Tom, and the sky darkened above him. He looked up and nodded. “David, Allie.”

The craggy ice-titan whose shoulder Allison rode on waved, making a sound like wrestling mountains. “Hi, Tom.”

A white van4 trundled up the road. Before coming to a stop in front of the gate. A middle aged man in a khaki vest and shorts climbed out of the driver’s door, followed by a much younger passenger in very square sunglasses and a black suit. The best thing you could say about it was that it hid the sweat-stains.

Inspector Vanhurst blanched at the sight of the ice-giant. Agent Becker’s hand went instinctively for his hip, trying to find a gun that wasn’t there.

“Oh, lighten up fellas,” Bran said near the front of the crowd. “It’s just David.”

Vanhurst managed to compose himself, flashing his best youth pastor smile. “Good afternoon, children. I…” He trailed off for a moment. The children were smiling too much. They looked hungry. He took a deep breath. “I’m Inspector Vanhurst”—he gestured vaguely at his companion—“and this my friend Mr. Becker.”

Agent Becker,” he corrected.

“Sure, fine. Anyway, we’re here to…” Vanhurst didn’t know how to explain it. “—We’re here to speak to your teachers and headmaster. Is that okay?”

No, that was awful. He sounded like he was asking permission.

The children mobbed the two men, chattering and fighting for their attention. Tom pushed his way to the centre of the mass shook their hands.

“G’day, I’m Tom Long. Don’t know if they gave you fellas a student list, but I’m not on it.” He grinned broadly. “I’m one of the kids that got to go on a picnic with the babies when your lot came a callin’.”

“Me too!” Mabel chirped through a conjured megaphone.

Vanhurst blinked. “Wait, then where’d you come from?”

“What, me? Lawrence bought me off the Coven.”

The inspector’s eyes went wide. “The Coven?”

That caught Agent Becker’s attention like a bomb blast. “A coven? Your school principal dealt with mages? Were they psychic or ritualistic?”

Vanhurst sighed. “It’s just what the local supervillains call themselves.” He hoped to God nobody mentioned the Witch of Claremont.

“Yeah,” said Tom. “He paid them like, a million pounds or something for me.”

“…Your headmaster buys kids?”

“Sometimes,” Tom replied casually. “Few of us Laurie just found on the streets and never told your lot.”

“One of us died last month,” Mabel interjected, her voice shaking in a way that probably wasn’t the megaphone’s fault. “Did Lawrence tell you that?”

Agent Becker looked at Vanhurst. The confusion practically burnt through his sunglasses. The inspector just shook his head.

Allison let down from the walking ice-sculpture, landing on and clinging to Agent Becker’s back like a spider-monkey.

“Argh—” He caught himself. “Hello, little girl.”

“He punched me once. In the face. With a big metal glove. Then he pulled me by the hair and locked me in a dungeon!”

“…A dungeon?”

“Pretty much! Didn’t even have a bed! Or a toilet! Even McClare had a toilet!”

“Sorry to hear that, young lady… about the dungeon, I mean, not the toilet.”

The ice-giant cracked at the mid-section, David bursting out out of it like Phanes from the cosmic egg. He landed at the agent and inspector’s feet. “Yeah, I was pretty much never happy when I listened to Lawrence. Got better when I stopped, though. Wanna see me make it snow?”

“Uh, sure,” answered Vanhurst. Christ, he thought. And the DDHA had told him to expect secrecy.      

From his grasping throne, Lawrence watched as David turned his giant into a blizzard. He wondered what his father would think, seeing his son minstrel for rootstock humans like that.

In the thousands of times he had pictured this day, Lawrence had imagined himself in a state of mind shuttering anxiety, like a man with three sixes on his hand come Judgement Day. Instead, he felt like lead plunging to the bottom of the sea. Inexorable, but indifferent. When he fell, he would make no sound. He would’ve said T.S Eliot was right, if the children weren’t cheering at the end.   

Linus walked out of the house. “Hey.”

Hey, echoed Mavis. How’s Mels doing?

“Still keeping an eye on Cormey, really. He keeps ranting about ‘Laurie’s vision’ and the future of the species.”

“God,” said Sadie. “He’s such a lickspittle.” She looked at her headmaster. “Isn’t he, Lawrence?”

He didn’t answer.

“I knew kids like him back in real school,” Lana added. “The ones who were always dobbing on everyone.” She laughed. “They always took it the worst when it was their turn.”

What about Mrs Gillespie?

Linus shrugged. “Don’t think she knows what to think anymore?”

Mavis scowled. What else is new?

The party drew close, Inspector Vanhurst trying to shoo away the children like overly friendly flies while Agent Becker tried drilling them for their sorcerous secrets.

“Look, kids, it’s great you’re being cooperative, but I really need to speak to your—”

The inspector stopped in his tracks when he caught sight of the king of exhibition. A bedraggled, half-entombed old warlock with a “rapist” sign hanging around his neck.

“Good God,” whispered Agent Becker. “Where’s his legs?”  

Sadie floated forward, pointing at her seven-month baby bump. “See this, gents? This wasn’t an accident. Me and my sisters? We weren’t being ‘careless’ or ‘sluts’.” She stabbed her finger at Lawrence. “It was him! Because he wanted some new baby-dolls to play with! And he couldn’t keep them safe.”

The inspector shuffled his feet. “Well, that’s terrible, miss, but…”

“We knew,” Agent Becker said flatly.

…What?

“Miss Winter confessed everything. Then Miss Fletcher fell out of the headman’s mirror and confessed it all again.”

Lana shook her head slowly. “What?” Then she realized what the inspector had said and glared at Lawrence. “You said they were looking for Zy!”

Lawrence quirked his shoulder weakly. “Why worry you all?”

Lana smacked him.  

Vanhurst’s shoulders drooped. “…I think we need to talk.”

“This is a travesty, obviously.”

Sadie nodded from the other side of the library table. “You don’t have to tell us that.”

Linus cleared his throat. “I don’t wanna to be rude,” he pointed at Agent Becker sitting next to the inspector, “but should he really be here?”

“Don’t mind me,” the American answered, “just an observer.”

The remaining human staff of the New Human Institute hadn’t been invited to the meeting. In fact, they had been gently but firmly encouraged to stay in their rooms for the duration. Mary and Lawrence put up no resistance, but Bryant Cormey had already barged in twice, before being seconded in the dark dimension.

“So what happens now?” asked Melusine.

Vanhurst said, “Well, if it were up to me and Becker here, Dr. Lawrence would be heading to the police station,” he allowed himself a smile, “but it seems like you’ve got him well under heel.”

Plus, you don’t try to take a tiger’s meal off them.

Lana cracked her knuckles. “You got that right.”

We don’t care about Laurie, Reverb said, her voice a steady iron string of sound. What happens to us?

“You said Zy—Eliza talked with Tim Valour,” added Sadie. “Did she have our babies with her? Where are they?”

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss that.”

God, why didn’t he just tell them he didn’t know? He sounded like Becker!

“That’s not a good enough answer, Mr. Vanhurst.”

Alberto swirled his glass of merlot. “Don’t get so worked up, Sadie.” A sip. “Did Eliza ever strike you as a baby killer?”

Sadie looked at Ophelia’s father like she was considering half-orphaning her.

Ronald Vanhurst threw his hands up. “Look, I’m sorry I don’t have all the answers, but can I at least try and give you some of them?”

Sadie folded her arms. “All right.”

The inspector went into pitch mode. “Before New Years, you and your schoolmates will be transported—comfortably—to new accommodation.”

‘New accomodation’ doesn’t mean the asylums, does it?

Vanhurst shook his head. “Nothing of the sort. The DDHA is establishing their own schools.” He forced a chuckle. “I hear they’re calling them ‘academies of tomorrow’. I assure you, after graduation”—he looked at Fran and Alberto—“not that I expect all of you to be there long, you’ll be well compensated public servants.”

Fran and the eldest students shared looks that might as well have been telepathic.           

“Afraid we can’t take you up on that offer,” answered Linus.

That wasn’t part of the script. “You—you can’t… what?”

“We’re not going,” Lana replied plainly.

“But you have to go somewhere!”

“Why?” asked Sadie. “Regular folks don’t get told where to live by the government5.”

“But they still need somewhere to live!”

“We’ll stay here,” said Linus. “We have money—plenty, in fact. The neighbours are fine with us now.” He smiled. “We’re not against working—”

Alberto cut in, “Speak for yourself.”

“…But we’ll do it on our own terms.”

Fran’s eyes glowed. “Me and my son will not be your pets.”

Agent Becker looked Linus in the eye. “Don’t you want to serve your country, boy?”

“I thought you were just an observer,” Lana said sourly.

Linus smiled softly. “I’m not even allowed to vote, Agent Becker.”

Funny, said Reverb. You won’t draft ladies, but as soon as we have powers…

Vanhurst looked around the table, exasperation burning the colour from his cheeks. “Kids, even if this worked—and it won’t—what about all the little kids? Who’ll take care of them?”

“We will,” said Linus.

Fran looked hard at the DDHA man. “They’re our responsibility now. Our family.”

We’re not handing them over to the bastards who shoved them in the asylums in the first place, who gave them to Laurie.            

Vanhurst shook his head. “It won’t work. I’m sorry, but it won’t. The DDHA, they aren’t going to allow you to… squat like this.”

Fran scoffed. “Allow?”

Agent Becker looked taken aback. “That’s seditious talk, ma’am.”

A broad, Southern accent washed over the library. Y’all better mind y’all business, yankee!

“Excuse me,” said Alberto. “Is this a package deal? Because I’d be game for it.”

Fran and the students all looked at the esper.

“Seriously?” asked Sadie.

“Why not? I’ve spent thirteen years at this bloody school. My résumé is basically empty. Don’t get me wrong, I support you guys but… well, I just want to leave. Go new places. Make some money that wasn’t given to me by an old Wellsian Nazi.” He turned to the inspector. “If you’d give me a lift back to head office or wherever, I’d be willing to leave now.”

Ronald rested his chin on his hand dejectedly. “Sure, why not. At least I’ll have something to show.”  

Alberto got to his feet. His expression was oddly sombre. “I’ll get myself packed then… Sadie, I’ll try to look up Ophelia. Get word back to you.”

Sadie didn’t look at him. “Thanks.”

The psychic put at a hand on Fran’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine, right?”

The water-nymph stood and kissed him. “Of course I will.” She smiled. “You of all people shouldn’t have to ask.”

Alberto looked back at the inspector. “Right, time to start loading the whites into the van. Cormey better not be helping himself.”

Lawrence and Mary Gillespie sat together in the old man’s study. Dark was creeping in, and neither teacher could be bothered setting out candles. Soon, all they could make out was each other’s outlines, and a few snatches of moonlight off the surface of their drinks.

“You lied to us.”

“What good would it have done telling you?”

“What good did keeping quiet do?”

“Point.”

“Alberto’s gone. Didn’t even say goodbye.”

A grunt. “Not unlike him.”

“Why should he have, Lawrence? All we did was keep him cooped up here like a battery hen. At least out there he can do some good for his kind.”

For a moment, Lawrence considered telling Mary what Alberto had done to her. What they had done to her.

No. She loved that boy. She loved them all. Let her keep that, at least.

“Nothing makes sense anymore.”

“I know.”

“Except that’s the thing. I can’t remember why they used to make sense. I think about the stirpiculture and… your words, Lawrence. All those explanations and justifications. They don’t connect anymore.”

“My dear, sometimes we have to wait for history to work out the rights and wrongs.”

“I can’t think about history anymore, Lawrence. All I can think of is how my Frank would look at me…”

“Mary—”

“But then I think, if you lied about this, Laurie, what else have you lied to me about.” Mary leaned forward in her chair, a blade of dusty, pearly light revealing the tears running down her cheeks. “Lawrence, I am going to ask you this only once: how did Adam Sinclair die?”

“…An aneurysm. Poor Adam’s death, it was unavoidable.”

The old woman stood up, her face returning to the darkness. “You should go, Lawrence.”

“What? Why?”

“Because you leave the children so distressed. Because I can’t trust you anymore. And because I love you, Lawrence. They’re coming for you. And I don’t want to see you dragged off in chains.” Mary started off towards the door. “Fetch me a candle and I’ll pack you a bag.”

They said nothing to each other until they were outside, under the unchallenged country-stars.

“Goodbye, Mary.”

“Goodbye, Lawrence. I wish I knew your heart better.”

Mary watched her old friend walk away into the night. Before he had gone completely from her sight, she spotted some silhouettes by lorikeet dorm.

It was the girls, along with Linus and a pyjama-clad Elsewhere—Arnold, Mary reminded herself.

They were talking:

You sure you have to leave?

“Yeah,” answered Sadie. “I need to find Ophelia. I can’t just wait for Alberto to give me answers. To give us all answers.”

“Eliza would never hurt the babies,” insisted Linus.

“No, she wouldn’t… and I’ll believe that as soon as I’ve seen them with my own eyes.”

Elsewhere rubbed his eyes sleepily. “Where do you wanna go?”

Mary was running towards them, her nightgown billowing in the warm, humid air. “Wait!” She stopped in front of Sadie, panting. “Lawrence… he’s gone. You don’t have to go.”

“Oh, Mrs Gillespie, it’s not about him. It’s about our kids.”

Mrs Gillespie moaned, “You’re all leaving me…”

Lana stroked the teacher’s face, drawing away tears. “We’re a school, Mary. Supposed to happen.”

Mary looked at Sadie with wet eyes. “I’m sorry, child. For all of this. Can you ever forgive me?”

Sadie took Arnold’s hand. “Arn, I need you to send me to where Ophelia is. Can you do that?”

Arnold groaned tiredly. “I think so. Might be kinda tricky.” The green started sparking under the boy’s skin.

The flying girl looked back at Mrs Gillespie. She smiled softly. “I’ll try, Mrs G. Someday, I’ll try.”

There was a flash.

In the space Sadie had stood, Mary Gillespie fell to her knees, and wept.

Gently, Linus helped the old woman to her feet. “Come on, Mrs Gillespie, let’s get you a cup of tea.”

And so, Mary’s students led her to their fire.   

Inspector Vanhurst didn’t think he shared any kinship with Agent Becker or the New Human Institute’s telepath. Then they got called up in front of their bosses.

The three men sat awkwardly in plastic chairs that felt designed for primary schoolers, the DOPO-DDHA joint committee glaring at them like a parliament of owls.  

The DOPO attache released a gout of cigarette smoke. “Would you say these children are no longer amenable to human authority?”

The inspector glanced at Becker and Moretti, before tapping his microphone and answering, “I suppose?”

Timothy Valour sighed. “I think we’ll have to take steps.”


1. The Department of Psychonautics and Occultism, the American governmental body consolidated in the 1960s to oversee superhuman affairs.

2. Blackboard menus are a common victim of frustrated amateur artists.

3. Specifically the section of The Greek Myths in which Robert Graves relates his theories regarding the role of kings in a pre-Hellenic matriarchy, with the ironclad certainty of only the truly mistaken.

4. Rented, much to Agent Becker’s disappointment.

5. Unless they were Aboriginal, of course.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                      Next Chapter

Chapter Forty-Eight: The Prime of Miss Therese Fletcher

It was a cocktail of career babysitting and Blackboard Jungle1 that lured Therese Fletcher into teaching. She was the sort of girl who tried to keep her baby-dolls on a regular feeding schedule, and lingered at the children’s table long after the grownups had invited her into their company so she could “look after” the younger kids. There was something about the idea of helping children grow up into their best selves that inspired her.

Admittedly, it would have helped if she’d ever developed the ability to say no to anything more willful than a tree, but passion is always a good start.  

She managed to snag a job at St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School fresh out of university. Not that it was hard. Even fifteen years after the war, Australia was still hungry for teachers. A lot of women went into the field merely to pass the time waiting for a husband, or in the misguided belief it would somehow train them for motherhood, or simply because it was a respectable job for a lady with plenty of holidays. Many men meanwhile Miss Fletcher came to discover became teachers solely to avoid the draft, venting their bitter misplacement on generations of students.

Therese, though, she did it all for the kids.

Her first day on the job, she stumbled into her classroom a full five minutes after the morning bell. “Sorry, sorry,” she said as she plonked down an armful of handouts and spare stationary, “possum died in my car.”

As the rows of students exchanged confused glances or tried to stifle laughter, Therese remembered what company she was in. “I mean—I meant to say—good morning!” She picked up a stick of pink-chalk, writing out her in cursive name on the chalkboard. “My name is ‘Miss Fletcher’,” she said a little too deliberately, before turning to face the children. “I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of fun together!”

Her students new chorused, “Yes, Miss Fletcher,” sending the woman’s soul aflutter. She spotted a scholastically green Granny Smith waiting on her desk. A black-haired, freckled little boy near the front of the class was grinning.

She beamed. “Whichever of you did this shouldn’t have.” Just to show how much she appreciated the gesture, she took a bite out of the apple… only to wretch as the hot mustard hit her tongue, her sputtering and coughing almost drowned out by laughter.

Those children made Therese Fletcher’s life utter hell for the entire school year. She still cried the day they graduated grade-two. It didn’t matter if they stuck tacks on her chair or coined a whole alphabet of unflattering nicknames. She was there for their benefit, not the other way around.

The year after Therese’s professional debut, the United States and the USSR nearly destroyed the world, before the Flying Man remade it all together. There was nothing all that special about Miss Fletcher’s dread and fear during the Cuban Crisis, save maybe for how keen it was. Even she classified herself as “wobbly.”  An art critic would’ve said her actual memories of those days were more impressionist than representative.

What stuck with her was what happened after.

She had been pouring herself a coffee in the St. Mary’s staff-room when she asked the breakfasting grade-three teacher (one of the draft dodgers), “Is Liam Michaels sick?”

Mr. Ferguson’s hot cross bun hovered in front of his mouth. “Huh?”

“…Liam Michaels,” Therese said slowly. “Boy in your class. Black hair, plastered with freckles?  I taught him last year. Haven’t seen him around the yard lately.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Ferguson. “You didn’t hear? The freak-finders got him.”

Therese frowned. “The what got him?”

A shrug. “That new ministry or whatever it is the government set up to round up the supers. The DHDA2 I think it’s called. Not surprised that little shit was one of them.” He smiled at Miss Fletcher. “Think he zapped the mustard into that apple he gave ya?”

Therese didn’t answer. She was too busy trying to figure out why the government would fear a child.

The end came while she was on lunch monitor duty. The sun was beating down on the school green hard enough that Therese thought she could hear the grass drying under her feet. A boy and a girl were arguing their case over some kind of soccer foul, but it was like trying to listen to crickets argue. She was so tired.

“And then he said it didn’t count if he used someone else’s hands… are you alright Miss Fletcher?”

The teacher began to sway. “Sharing is caring, kids…”

The children managed to catch her before she hit the ground. They even helped drag her to the nurse’s office. That bemused her in the exhausted corner of her mind she had retreated to. Wasn’t this supposed to be the other way around?

The nurse sent Therese home with orders for a blood test. She had been expecting something simple. An iron deficiency, maybe.

She hadn’t expected leakumeia.

An old, nearsighted GP to prophesied her doom like he was cancelling his weekend in the country. There was no question about Therese staying on at St. Marys. Even if she could in the state she was in—even if they would let her—she wouldn’t force children to watch her whither.

A strange democracy of appearance ruled St. John of God’s oncology ward. All kinds of people entered that place: men and women, the young and old, the ugly and the beautiful. But they looked the same in the end. Bald and frail, reeking of death and disinfectant, with plastic IV vents peeking out from under their sleeves. A forest of barren trees, holding on through their last winter. People had always told Therese she had very large eyes, but now they seemed bulguous and fly-like set in her nearly naked skull. She began to recoil from mirrors the way a vampire would.

For six months, strange men did things to Therese she didn’t understand, clumsily trying to burn and poison the rogue cells inside her while hopefully leaving some of Miss Fletcher intact. Sometimes, they managed almost managed to get it all, but it always returned, mutated and more virulent than ever. Darwinism in action, she imagined herself explaining to her class.

Many times, Therese wanted to tell the troupes of doctors and nurses to just leave her alone; let her spend her last few months able to keep a mouthful of spag-bol down.          

She didn’t, of course. That would be making a fuss.

Eventually, the doctors themselves conceded defeat, pumped Therese full of morphine, and told the nurses to keep her comfortable until the end. It was a relief, honestly. Between long stretches of dreamless, opioid-induced sleep, Therese wondered if any of her students would remember her. It was an odd thing, being a teacher. For a year, you’re the one of the most important grown-up in a child’s life. Then, they’re gone from yours.

One day (she had lost track of things like morning or night) her mother crept into her hospital room3. The poor woman’s face was shadowed by worry like it always was, but there was some other emotion else playing across her features like light through stained glass. “Therese, honey, there’s someone here to see you.”

“You can have the fruit-basket.”

“No, luv, it’s not that. She says she’s an… an alternative specialist, and she’s interested in your case.”

Therese made a vaguely affirmative croak. Her mother looked out the door. “You can come in.”

The orange cloak the hook-nosed woman wore almost made Therese think she was hallucinating. She was surprised to notice that she carried a leather purse instead of a doctor’s bag.

The woman smiled gently over her, introducing herself in a soft teutonic tone, “Hello, Therese, I’m Eliza Winter. Some people call me Żywie, long story.” She looked over at Therese’s mother. “Mrs Fletcher, it would be a great help if you could fetch me some coffee.”

As the elder Fletcher scurried off, Żywie lay her hand on Therese’s arm. “Alright, let’s get started with this.”

Therese was wondering if the woman was some kind of faith healer, when what felt like warm water rushed into every corner of her body, like someone was running a hot bath inside of her. If this was the Holy Spirit, she liked it.

“Wh—what are you…”

Żywie shushed her. “It’s alright, friend. Right now, I’m just seeing what the damage is.” She hummed to herself. “I’m surprised you’ve hung on so long in this state. You must be a real fighter.”

Therese was glad she didn’t laugh. That would’ve hurt like hell. “Blame the doctors.”

Żywie chuckled. “If you say so. Tell me, Therese, what do you do with yourself?”

“I was a teacher.”

“You are a teacher,” the healer corrected, her smile brightening, “so am I.”

“Primary or secondary?” Therese wheezed.

Żywie tilted her free hand. “A bit of both. We’re a small school, not quite big enough for more than one class yet. It’s getting crowded, though. We’ve hired some help, but he’s just one man. Bit intense for the little ones, I think. High-school teachers, you know?”

Therese nodded weakly. “I do. So smug, too… Miss Winter?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Are you a super?”

“…Yes. If I sounded hesitant, it’s only the times we live in. I’m sanctioned, but some patients react badly. Is it a problem?”

“…No?”

“Good to hear. Our school teaches supers. Used to just be for children whose parents couldn’t handle it, but since the sanctioning laws…”  Żywie shook her head. “We have a lot on our hands.”

Therese coughed. “How can people do that? ‘Sanctioning’ children…”

“Damn straight, Miss Fletcher.” Żywie lifted her hand. The water left Therese, but not the warmth. “You’re probably going to fall asleep in a sec. Everything will be alright.”

“If you say so…”

When Therese Fletcher awoke, Żywie was gone. Not only that, but Therese felt better. Refreshed, even. Sleep hadn’t done that for months. And her scalp was itchy—was that hair? How long had she been asleep?

Before she could process any of that, her mother was crushing her shoulders in a hug.

“It’s a miracle, a bloody miracle!”

“Wha—Mum!” Therese was surprised by the strength of her voice. She’d just said almost two whole words and hardly even felt winded. “What happened?”

“That woman—the lady in the silly hood—she fixed everyone in the hospital?”

“What do you mean ‘fixed’?”

“Cured! Healed! Didn’t matter if someone came in with cancer or a broken leg or a bloomin’ cold!” The old woman pressed her face against her daughter’s chest. “You’re better, Therese. You’re better…”

Therese didn’t know what to say. She felt like time had been rewound six months. Like the cancer had never happened at all. She spotted an envelope resting on her bedside table. “What’s this?”

Her mother remembered herself, picking it up and handing it to Therese. “The lady came back. Told me to give you this when you woke up.”

Therese looked at the letter. It was sealed with red wax, indented with a Galapagos finch in flight against the letters “NHI.” Tilting her head, she opened it.

Therese Fletcher,

Congratulations on a splendid recovery. In light of this wonderful news, your experience as an educator, and your open-mindedness towards the needs and happiness of posthumanity’s children, we would like you to consider taking up a teaching position at our New Human Institute in the Avon Valley. Room and board provided for, salary starts at £5,000 a year. Our card is enclosed.

Best wishes, Dr. Herbert Lawrence, Ph.D

“What’s it say?” asked her mother eagerly.

Therese set the paper down on her lap. “I think I have a job.”

            

Dr. Herbert Lawrence helped Miss Fletcher down from the ute’s cabin, the young woman blushing slightly from the chivalry of it.

“Well, what do you think?”

The Institute stretched out before Therese like all the kingdoms of the world. Waves of gold grass rippling in the summer breeze, dotted with buildings and islands of miracles. Tigers stalked machine-boys, girls dug their way to China while fending off whirlwinds of fire that somehow left no mark on the ground they crossed.

“It’s wonderful, Lawrence,” Therese answered. “Uh, sorry about the car-sickness. Never coped well with country roads.”

Lawrence laughed, dabbing at his collar with a handkerchief. “Think nothing of it, my dear.” The old man looked out over his playing students. “We are both only human…”

Wundabar!”     

Żywie, a bald, dark-skinned fellow in all leather, and a brunette, vested young man with a full, but closely trimmed beard were marching towards the truck.

The healer hugged Therese. “Good to see you, Miss Fletcher!” She looked the woman up and down. “Notice any irregularities?”

Therese shook her head. “No, nothing like that.” She laughed nervously. “Honestly, cancer might the best thing that ever happened to me!” She took the black man’s hand and shook it. “You must be Basilisk.”

Basil winced. “Pleased to meet you, lady… you probably shouldn’t have shook my hand.”

Therese withdrew quickly. “Oh, sorry.”

Basilisk smiled. “Eh, just don’t touch anything important for a while.”

“No need anyway,” said the bearded man as he hoisted Therese’s luggage from the tray. He beamed at her. “I’m Bryant Cormey. It’ll tell you what, it’ll be nice having some baseline company around here. Well, I suppose there’s Lawrence and Mrs Gillespie, but they hardly count.”

Lawrence chuckled. “Please, Bryant, I don’t deserve that. Mary, maybe.”

“I’m nothing special,” said Therese. “I’m just amazed Lawrence is willing to pay me what he is…”

“To be fair,” said Żywie, “you don’t get sick-leave.”

A little boy was running full pelt towards the adults. Even yards away, Therese was struck by the blue of his eyes. She remembered what she had skimmed of The New Child.

She leant forward. “Hello! You must be Maelstrom!”

The boy ran past her without stopping. “The pterodactyl’s loose!”

“…What?”

The only answer Therese Fletcher got was talons wrapping around her shoulders, carrying her off screaming into the sky.

After Stratogale managed to rest her from the pterodactyl’s clutches, and Tiresias donated some of his stronger drink, the NHI staff were somewhat surprised that Therese Fletcher didn’t reconsider her new position at the school.

“Kids will be kids.”

Her hands shook when she said that, but she seemed to mean it.

It was eventually decided Therese would mostly cover science at the Institute. It was a subject she took to well, even if her new students quickly developed a special delight in bringing up the ways they violated scientific principles as was she explaining them.

“Every chemical reaction needs fuel—yes, aside from your flames, Snapdragon.”

“While Haunt’s powers are very interesting, as a general rule, two objects cannot occupy the same place at once.”   

Tricks helped. One day, she topped off a class by sucking an egg into a beaker with one of Żywie’s precious Dunhills.

The children actually clapped. For just a second, Therese felt like a superwoman.

“Thank you, thank you. I want three new facts about heat from each you by tomorrow.” She looked over the garrison of little heads. “Ex-Nihilo, could you please stay behind for me?”

At the back of the classroom, the teenager shared a dubious look with Stratogale and Reverb, only to shrug and say, “Sure.”

Once the room was empty, she sighed. “What’d I do?”

Therese stepped out from behind her desk to sit in one of the too-small plastic chairs next to Ex-Nihilo. “Nothing, sweetie.” She eyed the girl’s belly. The baby wasn’t showing much yet, but it was unmistakable to anyone not raised in a monastery. “It’s just… look, I’m not a nun. I know teens experiment—not that I’m judging—and we all slip up some time. I mean it’s 1963! It doesn’t have to be the end of the world. In fact, I’m glad people here aren’t making a big deal out the situation.”

Ex-Nihilo shook her head slowly. “What are you talking about?”

Therese put a hand on the girl’s leg. “Nothing really. But if you ever want someone to chat to about… options, I’m here.”

Realization struck Ex-Nihilo’s face. “Oh, you don’t know yet, do you?” She stood up. “This wasn’t an accident.”

“…You got pregnant on purpose?” Therese asked. “For the love of God, why? Did some boy in town say he’d marry you? Because for one thing, you are way too young—”

Ex cut her off. “You don’t get it.”

Therese almost recognized the look on the child’s face. A lot of it was guilt, or maybe shame, but she remembered a sliver of it in her mother, the day Żywie came to see her.

“I’m pregnant because it was my turn.”

She slammed the door behind her, leaving Therese alone.

“Oh.”

Lawrence heard a timid knock at his office door. It probably said something about the Institute or his life that it sounded relatively novel to his ears. “Enter.”

Therese Fletcher crept into the study like she was sneaking up on a sleeping pope. “Evening, Lawrence.”

The good doctor grinned at his newest hire. “Ah, Therese! How was class today?”

Therese settled in one of the leather chairs. “Good, good. So, I’ve noticed that Ex-Nihilo is… you know”—she covered her mouth and whispered, as though a goblin crouched in the corner might overhear her—“in the family way.”

“Ah,” Lawrence folded his hands on his desk, “I am aware.”

“I didn’t think you weren’t. It’s just—she said she got pregnant on purpose. Because it was ‘her turn.’ Is Ex-Nihilo… well?”

“I assure you, Therese, Ex-Nihilo is in fine mental health. I wouldn’t have had her participate in our stirpiculture if she wasn’t.”

“…Stirpiculture?”

Lawrence sighed. “I suppose it is better we have this conversation now rather than later.”

And so, Lawrence explained his stirpiculture. It wasn’t the easiest sell, to say the least, but whenever Therese felt an objection well in her throat, Lawrence already had a rebuttal ready.

“It is a fact that girls more than three years Ex-Nihilo’s junior successfully bear and rear children in cultures all over the world, and that’s without the assistance and care of our Żywie.

“The artificial delineation and prolongation of childhood is very much an invention of my parents’ generation…”

“I did consider in-vitro, but sex is both natural and an important bonding agent of human relationships. In fact, bonobos…”

He sounded so sure of himself. So so at ease with the idea. Therese couldn’t imagine feeling that certain about what to have for breakfast, let alone what Lawrence was talking about.

“…Do you understand, Therese?”

Therese nodded shakily. “Yes. It’s just a lot to take in.”

“I can imagine. Feel free to come back if you have any more questions.”

“I will.”

Therese Fletcher walked out of Lawrence’s study like she was waking up from a dream—the kind you couldn’t decide whether you liked it or not, and would only stop turning it over in your head like a sharp, shiny toy when sleep took you again.

She bumped into Mrs Gillespie on the staircase. The old lady smiled at her like an old friend. “Ah, Miss Fletcher. You weren’t checking in on Dr. Lawrence, were you? He’s such an interesting conversationalist in the evening.”

Miss Fletcher said, “Yes, he is. He was just explaining stirpiculture to me.”

Mary Gillespie frowned sympathetically, hugging the younger teacher. “Oh, I know it can be a bit of a shock at first. I helped set it up and even I didn’t know what to think of it for a while. But it’s a noble goal, I assure you.”

“Lawrence was very clear on that,” said Therese. “It still sounds rather… drastic.”

Mary didn’t answer for a moment. “…My husband died fighting in the Great War, Therese. Because dusty old treaties written by dead men said he must. My sons and grandchildren died twenty years later because of decisions they had no part in. Because of hatred and prejudices older than nations and empires. History is like a madman adding story after story onto a house with no foundations. Eventually, it all comes crashing down. If these children are going to thrive, if any of us can, they need a fresh start. A clean slate. Do you hear what I’m trying to say, Therese?”

“I think so.”

Therese Fletcher skipped dinner that night. Instead, she drank alone in the little cottage assigned to her, already accumulating the thin film of dust that constitutes a home.

Stirpiculture. Such an odd word. It sounded like something a marketing executive would use to sell maternity wear. Knowing what it meant didn’t make it any less strange.

Therese knew the outside world would scorn it. But then, the outside world was imprisoning children in windowless, concrete caves, all because of accidents of birth or chance. Because of the actions of a man whose name they didn’t even know, who just wanted to world to not be on fire. What right did the outside world have to judge anything here? What right did she have? Herbert Lawrence was an Oxford educated psychiatrist. He’d braved the battlefields of Nazi-occupied Europe, and kept the Institute alive in a time when supers were less popular than Frankenstein’s monster. Therese Fletcher had three years of teacher’s college and less than eighteen months experience reminding eight year olds how to spell their names.

And then there was Mary. Thirty years of teaching, all that loss. What did Therese’s past have that could compare? Her father? She barely knew the man. Cancer? Death was only inconvenient to the people you left behind. Nothing next to a child.

No, she was a child next to these people. God, she wasn’t even twenty-five. How could she argue with them? The children were happy and healthy. Wasn’t that what mattered?

Therese sipped her wine. Her fingers were throbbing.

Therese Fletcher awoke only when the summer stuffiness and the sun against her eyelids made sleep unbearable. She’d taken the batteries out of her alarm clock days ago. Still half-dreaming, the teacher staggered over to her cottage’s kitchenette, slammed the kettle down on the stove, and started trying to light the damn thing. It took Therese nearly a full minute to remember Lawrence had cut off the gas, too.

Sighing, she pulled her dressing gown over her pyjamas, picked up the kettle, and ventured out into the fresh air in search of hot water to caffeinate.

The weather outside was glorious. The sky was a perfect blue, with just enough clouds that it didn’t seem harsh or barren. Insects dipped and dived in and out of the long grass like tiny seagulls hunting for fish. Now and then, a wave of cool air broke over Therese.

For the first few of days of what she had started thinking of as “the anarchy” Therese had stayed in the big house with the other teachers, as Lawrence had implored them to. For their safety, he insisted. But there was something about the atmosphere in there. The house felt tinier than it had before, and everyone was so on edge, like they were those Japanese soldiers hiding in their jungle boltholes because they didn’t know the war was over.

In the distance, a cohort of children waved at her. “Mornin, Therese.”

“Morning Tom!”

When Therese first emerged, she’d half-expected the kids to carry her off for sacrifice like Ann Darrow, but to her surprise, the children treated her much the same way they always had. Namely, they sometimes remembered she existed. Therese knew she was nobody’s favourite. But that was alright.

She found Mels and Alberto (the former felt much less attachment to her human name than the latter) sitting around an extinct bonfire, nursing cups of coffee. The psychic was holding an ice-packet to his temple.

Therese smiled. “Good night?”

Alberto groaned. “Don’t think so loud…”

“David and Louise fell out of the sky and Al here helped the children share stories last night.” Fran said, pouring some coffee for the teacher. “It was nice.”

Therese took the proffered cup gratefully. “Aw, sorry I missed it.”

Alberto added, “Mabel came clean about Circle’s End.”

“Oh.” Therese could remember when Lawrence and Mary first explained where Mabel had come from. Much to her shame, she hadn’t been able to look the girl in the eye for weeks. “How did the other children take it?”

Fran shrugged. “I think they’re still processing the idea. I mean, it was only last night.”

“Honestly,” said Alberto, “some of them are just impressed Mabel managed to kill that many naturals.”

Therese winced.

Mels put a steadying hand over hers. “Kids, they don’t know what they’re saying.” She shrugged. “Or thinking, I guess.”

“I mean,” said Alberto, “Morality or what have you aside, most of us would have to get up very early in the morning to kill hundreds of people.” He looked at Fran. “Well, you and David probably could. Tom would just stick his arm out like he was riding in a car and run right through us. Bella could whip up a cyclone, too, I bet. And I guess I could make everyone think there was a stampede or something and send them off a cliff like a lemmings…”

Fran was about to tell Alberto to shut up, but Therese was laughing. She regarded the teacher curiously.

“…What? It’s funny.”

“So how’d you do it, Fran?” Alberto asked.

“I’d drown you all” Melusine said flatly.

“Real creative. Therese, how’d you kill us all?”

Therese jerked back slightly, apparently surprised she was being consulted. Then she grinned conspiratorially. She felt like she was back at one of her teenage slumber parties. “I’d wait till Mels was asleep and light a grass fire!”

Mels blinked.

That was limp, wasn’t it? Therese thought to herself.

Alberto however was nodding. “Pragmatic. I like it.”

Therese felt strange talking to Fran and Alberto like this. Weren’t they supposed to be on different sides? Or at least Fran was, she honestly wasn’t sure whose side Alberto was on anymore.

Since when were there sides?

Melusine grinned slyly at Therese. “You know, a little bird—Sadie sent it—told me Cormey’s got a picnic-blanket laid out on the hill.” She arched her eyebrows. “I think he’s waiting for you.”

“I can confirm it,” Alberto said. “Cheeky bastard pilfered my booze.”

“Oh—is he?” Therese stood up. “I should get going. Nice talking to you two.”

Françoise and Alberto watched the human woman run back to her cottage, smiling.

“She can do better,” said Fran.

“Agreed.”

⬗  

Therese Fletcher and Bryant Cormey lay together on their checkered blanket, white-wine bubbling away in hand, watching the children downhill go about day. It was a little like watching early man attempt medievalism, if early man was into witchcraft.

Therese was in a brown and cream dress she had agonizingly selected as nice, but not showy. She’d never been sure what she and Bryant were to each other. They’d done… things together, especially in the last couple of months, but Therese couldn’t quite decide if that was because of anything besides loneliness and availability. It wasn’t as if there was a big market for human women under sixty at the Institute. Still, her mother always told her not to let an opportunity slip past her.  

Therese stretched out luxuriantly. “God, the sun’s nice today.”

She could feel Bryant nodding against her side. “At least there’s that. I swear, this bloody power-cut will do my head in. Trying to sleep in the house… you remember those convicts who spent months in the bottom of ships?”

“Oh, it’s not so bad. I think it’s rather relaxing, in a way. Reminds me of a book I read once. Earth Abides4. About a plague that wipes out nearly everyone.”

“Cheerful.”

“You know, it almost was. Everything fell apart, but people just kept on going. Doing what they needed to, being decent to each other. Pennies into arrowheads and all that. It made the end of the world sound so peaceful.”

“That’s from the Bible, ‘Earth Abides’.”

Therese knew full well it did, the book itself said so, but men loved flattery. “Is it? I always fell asleep in church.”

“ ‘Men come and go, but the Earth abides.’ ”

“Sounds more like Proust than Moses.” She rolled over to face Cormey. “You know, if you’re so miserable up in the house, you could always bunk in my cottage…” Therese hoped her grin wasn’t too schoolgirl.

“I still don’t like you sleeping alone out there, Therese. Not with the children running wild. You’re not even wearing your null-fluid!”

Therese laughed, blushing. “You’re talking like they’re going to murder me in my sleep.”

Cormey went very vocally silent.

“Oh, Bryant, really.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time for a few of them.”

Therese sat up, glaring at her colleague. “Tom and Mabel were accidents and you know it.”

“Tom and Mabel?”

She sighed. “Haunt and Phantasmagoria, I mean. My point still stands.”

“What about those idiots from town?”

“One, that was mostly Mels. Two, they made up. Three, they were strangers. The kids know me.”

“How well can mortals know gods? The ones in the old stories certainly dropped their favourites when they felt like it.”

“I don’t think I’d go that far…” She lay back down, eager to change the subject to something more productive. “You ever see yourself having kids?”

“Nah.”

Therese found herself slightly disappointed. “Why not?”

“I mean, what would be the point?”

“Does it have to have a point?”

“With the new race coming, I think it ought to be considered whether any of us having kids is in the best interest.”

Therese raised herself by her hands, looking right into Bryant Cormey’s eyes. “What are you saying?”

“You’ve heard Dr. Lawrence and the Physician, more new humans are being born every year, even forgetting naturals who make the change. Any children I had wouldn’t be able to compete! Why do you think Lawrence never married?”

“I just assumed it never happened for him…”

“With that kind of dosh? Give me a break. He just knows there’s no use cluttering the world with dead-ends. Our genes are like a candle in Times Square, Therese. That’s why I had Żywie fix it up for me.” Bryant smirked up at Therese. “Shame she didn’t do the same for you. All the fun, none of the burden.”

A sharp, bitter slap across his face.

Therese looked at her hand like it’d come from someone else. She hadn’t struck another human being since she could remember.

Bryant was rubbing his cheek. “What was that for?”

Angry tears blurred Therese’s vision. “You just said you thought I should be sterilized!”

“Therese, it’s nothing personal. You’re a lovely girl. It’s just evolution. Our time’s over. Why waste our lives bringing up useless eaters—”

Therese punched him in the ribs, over and over. “Children are not ‘useless eaters’!” She stood up and started walking away, but not without looking back at Cormey. “And I like candles.”

Allison and David were playing tag across the skin of the river, raising pillars of water and suddenly freezing patches to try and trip each other up. Allison had the lead, leaning hard on Żywie’s legacy within her and about seventy years of collective track experience.

Ten legs behind her, David growled, his eyes broiling like sea-form.

A flat tooth of ice shot up from the river two inches from Allison’s nose. She leapt over it, landing facing her friend. Poking her tongue out at him, she continued running backwards… until the water parted beneath her feet.

“No fair!” she shouted from the bottom of a dry well with watery walls.  

David grinned from the edge of the hole, his arms folded. “Fair’s for humans.”

“…True.”

David spotted someone them watching from the shore. He frowned. “Huh. Therese is looking at us.”

With a rare use of Sadie’s song (too much like the world’s biggest show-off) Allison hovered to the surface. “She is. Why?”

“Dunno.” He tilted his head. “Looks sad.”

Allison forced herself to listen to the baseline woman’s ordinary song. “Sounds it.”

David started walking towards dry-land. Allison rolled her eyes. Sometimes David could be so boring. Still, she followed.

David blinked when he got close enough to see his teacher’s face. She was smiling. “What’s the matter, Therese?”

Therese startled. Since when could Maelstrom do that? Did her blood look upset or something? She composed herself quickly, putting her smile back on. “Oh, nothing’s the matter. I was just watching you two play.”

Allison stepped off the water and huffed. “Don’t lie, I can hear your song.”

Therese looked at the two children, their strange eyes boring into her, and she sighed. No tears. Hers was a dry misery, echoing through her like wind over an extinct lake. “But I was happy just then. That’s the problem.”

Allison sat down sullenly beside her. “That sounds dumb.”

“Didn’t want to say, but yeah,” said David.

“You don’t understand. You two… everything’s gone wrong, and you’re happy because everything’s gone wrong, and you being happy makes me happy and—” Therese’s head drooped. “I don’t know what to think anymore.”

“So, dumb,” said Allison.

David patted the lady on the arm. “It’s okay to change your mind sometimes. I did.”

Therese laughed joylessly. “God, I’m useless. Can’t even keep my stupid bloody feelings from a couple of nine year olds. That’s half my job!” She rapped the side of her head with her knuckcles, repeating “Useless, useless, useless!” before pointing a thumb at Allison. “Look at Myriad! What have I ever done for her?” She turned to address the girl. “I used to read a book every night just so you might pick up something from me! Did you ever notice?”

“Not really.”

Therese groaned into her hands.

“I don’t think you’re useless,” said David. “I used to think I was useless, and I’m pretty sure I was wrong.”

Therese’s fingers parted just enough for her to look at the boy. “Of course you’re not useless. You’re basically a god. You were Lawrence’s golden boy.”

“Eww. Please don’t. That still makes me feel kinda gross.”

Allison shrugged. “I don’t mind you.”

“You don’t?”

“Not really. Most of the other grownups, they know I know more and they still try to tell me things. You didn’t.”

“But telling you things is our job.”

The child shrugged again. “You didn’t try telling me what I had to be.”

Therese’s back straightened. “Kids, can I ask you something?”

David and Allison looked at each other, before shrugging and nodding.

“How did you honestly feel about the married days? From the start. Before all this.”

David answered first. “It was kinda just how I thought it was always going to turn out. But I didn’t like looking at Mabel or Allie or Louise or all the other girls and thinking about it. It made playing with them feel weird.”

“Just seemed kinda yuck,” said Allison. “Babies and all that.”

Therese nodded. “Do you think the other kids felt that way?”

“Mostly,” David answered.

“I kinda think it got worse when it was happening.” Allison chimed in. “Didn’t really think too hard about it till it really started, you know?”

The teacher got to her feet. “Thank you. That’s all I needed to know.” She looked down at David. “You never really liked being called Maelstrom, did you?”

“Nope.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t listen enough to figure that out two years ago.”

With that, Therese Fletcher turned and headed back towards the house.

Therese could hear Lawrence and Mary arguing through the walls. Plaster-muffled voices teetering on the crumbling edge of civility, so full of tension it’d be a relief if they just started screaming. They made her feel young, like the child of a marriage one pen-stroke away from divorce. Her fingers ached like they’d gotten caught in a car door, but that didn’t matter.

The only phone at the New Human Institute resided in Lawrence’s study. The teachers were free to use it, of course. Hardly a week went by where Therese didn’t talk to her mother or order something from a catalogue. But Lawrence was always in the room. Usually reading or scratching away at paperwork, but always there. It was one of those little things she’d never considered much. Like why the children didn’t have shoes.

Therese picked up the receiver, hoping to God Lawrence hadn’t cut the phone line along with the other utilities, and started dialing. Each digit felt like a syllable of some dark spell.

A rattling, toneless voice said, “DDHA helpline, how may we be of assistance?”

Therese took a deep breath. “I would like to report abuse at a demi-human containment facility.”

“…Wait, do you work at an asylum?”

“No! I mean, yes, sort of.”

“Ma’am, this line is for the public’s convenience in reporting demi-human sightings and incidents. Internal issues are to be taken to your supervisor or head of staff.”

“My ‘head of staff’ is the problem—”

Therese was knocked to the carpet. The phone dangled from its cord in front of her face.

“Hello? Ma’am?”

Lawrence grabbed Therese by the shoulders, pulling her up to his face. Boozy breath hissed out from between his teeth. “You faithless cunt.”

“I—I”

“Get out.”

“What?”

Lawrence dragged the woman by the wrist out of his study. “Get out!”

Therese staggered after the old man, struggling to keep her footing.

“I should have guessed it’d be you, Therese. You always were weak. Pale. Like a ghost that hadn’t bothered to die. This, after we saved your life!”

Therese stopped dead in her tracks, pulling her hand back. The old man’s grip was weaker than first seemed. “…But you didn’t save my life, Laurie. Eliza did. And she left you.”

Lawrence smacked her, the sound drawing Mary up the stairs. “Lawrence, what’s going on?”

“Miss Fletcher was trying to undo us, Mrs Gillespie.”

Therese had already recovered. “Mary, you’re a far better teacher than me. You were a mother. You can’t still think what we’re doing is right.”

Mary stuttered, rubbing her hands. “Therese, dear, it’s complicated…”

Miss Fletcher glared at Lawrence. “I used to think so, too. I think he just uses very complicated words. But he’s right about one thing. I was weak. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop being weak if I stay here. ”

Lawrence pointed at the staircase. “Then go. Get out of my school.”

Therese started walking. “I don’t think this has been a school for a long time, Laurie.”  

She stopped for a moment next to Mary. “Look after them, please.”

“Therese, dear, we can talk about this—”

Therese smiled sadly. “No, we can’t.”

She made it to the first floor just in time for Comey to step through the door.

“Therese! I’m—I wanted to say I’m sorry for—”

Therese kissed the man lightly on the cheek. “It’s alright, Bryant.” She stepped through the door. “Look me up if you come to your senses. You’re too good for your own rubbish.”

As she shut the door behind her, Bryant glanced up the stairs to see Lawrence scowling down at them.

“What the hell just happened?”

Alberto strolled cackling out the library. “Oh, my God, that was fucking priceless.” He looked up at Lawrence. “Guess that’s one less salary you got to pay. No great loss. I mean, it was just Therese Fletcher.”

Therese Fletcher trudged along the grey mortar of the Great Eastern Highway, luggage in hand, her thumb outstretched. She wasn’t too worried about not getting a lift into Northam. It was only two o’clock. Time to think.

What was she going to do? She had money at least. She could probably stay with her mother for a while. God, how was she going to explain everything to her?

…Maybe that could wait till after she found herself a flat.

Therese stopped walking.

Wait, had she actually left the children? Because Lawrence said so?

Therese turned around. The night wind suddenly shredded through the thin fabric of her dress, and the stars shone coldly down on her.

The teacher dropped her suitcase and flung her arms around herself. “What the—”

There was a man, standing at the edge of the trees that girded the road.

“Hey!” Therese called out. She tried to think of a follow up question. “…Do you know what happened to the sun?”

Without a word, the man turned and walked into the trees.

Normally, every one of Therese Fletcher’s instincts would be screaming to not follow.

That night (if night it was) she didn’t listen.

As Therese walked, she noticed something off about the trees. Their trunks appeared to have gotten thicker since she last noticed, their canopies almost triangular, like a storybook. And the grass felt strange. It crunched beneath her feet.

She looked down: snow. She didn’t think that happened in WA besides at Bluff Knoll.

Therese glanced back up at the man she was following. He was dressed for winter, in rough blue jeans and a brown jacket with white fleece poking out the collar. “Uh, excuse me, sir?”

The man didn’t answer, his pace staying steady. For reasons she couldn’t name, Therese kept following.  

Eventually, after what felt like miles of forest (was there even a forest around the highway?) the man stopped at the lip of a pond—barely greater than a puddle. He finally turned to face Therese.

There was stars in his eyes.

Therese approached him slowly, looking over his shoulder down at the pond. Her reflection gazed back, more perfect than if it lived in silver.

“…What do I need to do?”

The man pointed into the water.

“Oh.”

She dove, right into the reflection.

Therese Fletcher crawled out of the tiny bathroom mirror, squeezing through its square corners and grunted as fell stomach first onto the linoleum floor.

“Ughhh…”

Timothy Valour opened his bathroom door, calling behind him. “I’ll be down in a…”

Miss Fletcher smiled dazedly up at him.

“Hi, Tim!” She remembered her business, and her smile vanished. “We need to talk about the Institute…”

“…Sorry, Val, we might have to cancel the reservations.”          


1. A groundbreaking 1956 high school drama that featured a young Sidney Poitier as the ringleader of the exact kind of class he’d be saddled with about a decade later in To Sir, With Love.

2. The Department for Helping Destroy Apples, presumably.

3. Mr. Fletcher had died during the early stages of the Second World War. Sometimes, in the worst parts of her treatment, his daughter forgot that.

4. The only work of science fiction from American historian and English professor George R. Stewart.

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Chapter Forty-Seven: Origin Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louise raised her hand. “I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bull.”

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

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

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

“Then how can you remember all that?          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rude gesture was the only reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that you?” David whispered to Louise.    

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“It’s a shame they were right…”

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

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

Five years later, the girl wept again.

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

Louise nodded weakly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of them was clearly Tom.   

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

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

“…Mum did mum stuff.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Okay,” Tom said slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alberto quirked a shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadie shrugged. “So so.”

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

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

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

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

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

Allison smiled and shook her head. “Nope.”

Tom smiled back. “Me neither.”

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

“In fact, I feel like steel.”

And with that, the wall became a door.

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

Reverb asked, Where was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just some old couple.”

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

“And Louise.”

That caught people’s attention.

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

“Because I was always sick back then.”

“Oh. Why?”

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

“How’d you get better?”

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

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

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

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

Little Louise threw a rock into the clouds.

“…Better powers.”

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

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

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

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

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

“My Earth parents weren’t great.”

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

“Jesus Christ, Louise!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I wasn’t an easy kid.”

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

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

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

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

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

A close up of a piece of scrap paper

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

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

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

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

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

“And I sorta had a friend.”

“But one night…”

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

“She’s ill all the time, Gerald.”

“Imagine, all that pain…”

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

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

“Poor baby…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you trying to smother her?”

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

“You’re about to kill Louise!”

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

“I’m not leaving her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lay off him.”

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

“Then why do you do it?”

“I don’t know.”

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

Tom blinked at the psychic.

“Can we get back to the story?”

“Sure, sure.”

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

“Hey, hey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lotta antihistamines.”

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

“Knock yourself out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright kid, jeez.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But then…”

“Fifty thousand pounds6.”   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

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

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

“It really was,” said Tom.

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

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

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

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

“Did they take the bid?” Mabel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

2. With real dragons, courtesy of Mabel.

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter                                                                                                        Next Chapter

Chapter Forty-Six: The Girl Who Fell to Earth

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

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

Lawrence’s eyes narrowed. “Gertie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What, protecting people from mean fucks?”

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

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

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

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

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

“If the shoe fits…”

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

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

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

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

“But—but you said…”

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

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

“Must you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s the full-moon,” said Bella.

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

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

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

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

The boy reformed next to the rock.

“Hey.”

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

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

Louise blushed slightly. “Whatcha doing over here?”

“Seeing if you’re okay… are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She found herself at the end of her recollections.

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

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

She felt a hand resting against her own.

“Course I do. It’s true, right?”

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

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

“Feels crappy, doesn’t it?”

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

“But we’re not like them.”

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

“What?”

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

“…No?”

That was all David needed.

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

He vanished.

“Wait, where’re you—”  

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

“David!”

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

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

“So, what the hell are we doing?”

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

“Aren’t we already doing that?”

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

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

And with that, she leapt towards it.

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

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

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

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

The shape the cloud assumed went unrecorded by history books.

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

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

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

David giggled wildly. “You bitch!”

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

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

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

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

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

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


1. Especially in the opinion of Fredric Wertham.

2. It used to be gold.

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

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

Previous Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter