Category Archives: Book Two: Titanomachy

The second volume of the story.

Chapter Thirty-Five: The Battle of the Rabbit Hatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A humpf. “Lunch is ages away then.”

“You hungry?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“Won’t she be mad?”

“You’re damn right I will be!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wild,” said Brit.

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

“Sorry, sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

Windshear growled and ran towards Allison and David.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t either.”

“It’s neat!”

Britomart blushed… then she swung her fists at David.

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

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

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

“What the—”

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

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

“How are you gonna get us down?”

Brit’s eyes widened.

“Brit?”

“Crap.”

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

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

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

“Have you met his mum?” Haunt huffed.

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

Soon they found themselves over the river.

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

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

The ice-manacles evaporated.

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut the door!” Mabel barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

David frowned. “No, I’m not!”

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

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

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

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

“But you still kissed me!”

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

“Not. Boys.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you have said no?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That… wasn’t great.”

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

“Yeah?”

“Could you go get my pants?”

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

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

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

He nodded furiously.

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

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

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

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

There was a knock at his door.

“Enter.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Panoply.”

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

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

“…What?”

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

“But we weren’t doing anything bad!”

“Not a very sincere apology I see.”

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

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

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

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

“You are such a sir!”

Without a word, Lawrence went back to his book.

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

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

“Stupid, mean—can’t even—”

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

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

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

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

“What for?”

“That morning, when Adam…”

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

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

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

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

Basil’s smiled widened. “Absolutely fine.”

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

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

Basilisk watched his son run down the hall.

He’ll be fine.


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

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Chapter Thirty-Four: Panoply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Żywie sighed. “Mine.”

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

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

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

A gash opened in the world, bleeding black.

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

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

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

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

Lawrence raised a hand. “Żywie—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why does the Physician get Adam?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It worried her David didn’t cry, though.

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

“Lucky, I guess,” Myriad said.

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

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

PANOPLY          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…I don’t know.”

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

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

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

“What’s it about?”

“Theseus.”

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

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

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

Linus laughed. “I guess they did.”

“…Linus?”

“Yeah, Phan?”

“Your folks basically made the world, right?”

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

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

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

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

“I still want to know.”

“Alright. You know the Grim Reaper?”

“Yeah?”

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

“I thought he was the thief god?”

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

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

“What’cha mean?”

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

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

“I would!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is your uncle kind?”

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

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

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

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

“Hmm?”

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

“Why would I want to?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iodine actually destroys cells, dears.

Trust me, babies feel pain.

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

“Oh,” said Elsewhere. “Why?”

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

“Believe them about what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So what does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you lying about Adam?”

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

Żywie got to her feet. “…What?”

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

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

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

“Phantasma, aneurysms can go undetected for weeks.”

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

“I—I make mistakes, too.”

“No,” said Elsewhere. “You don’t”.

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

“Seems pretty lucky to me,” Elsewhere muttered.

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

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

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

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

Dinnertime.

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

Mabel watched the woman go. “Eliza Winter!”

She stopped in place, not looking back.

Mabel inhaled. “Did you kill Adam?”

“…Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She burst into tears. Arnold soon joined her.

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

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

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

Alberto clutched the children tighter, hard against his chest.


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

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Chapter Thirty-Three: Still Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allison growled and followed suit.

David had never realized how porous the big house was. All the little nooks and crannies were like doors for him. Why hadn’t he thought of it before?

He dripped down towards the second floor, the droplets that were him evaporating into steam before they could hit the ground. Allison followed him, their mists intermingling in a deeply confused hug.

Once they had figured out whose water molecules were whom, they noticed Arnold leaning against a door, anxiously clawing at the wood as he zapped a ball into the air, over and over.

That confused Allison. They had their powers back. What was there to be miserable about?

David, for his part, simply saw someone being unhappy. The boy tried to think of what would make Arnold happy.

Then he remembered Linus’ song.

He materialized in front of the other child, and before he could say anything, gave him a kiss. It wasn’t a long one, but Arnold went pale before the end, nonetheless.

“It’s alright, you know.”

“M-Mael?” he asked, eyes widening as David and Allison ran laughing like mad towards the bannister, leaping over the wooden railing with no hesitation.  

On the first floor landing, splinters of ice reassembled themselves like a child attempting a jigsaw-puzzle.

Allison clutched David’s hands, bouncing on her heels. “What do you wanna do now?”

He grinned. “I wanna go outside.”

The pair burst out the front door, bounding down the veranda and into the lawn.  Left unattended in the chaos of the blackout, the grass blades now stabbed towards the sky like so many spears.

David savoured the warmth on his skin. The rays of the sun and the dirt under his feet were distant, pleasant memories, suddenly made real and vivid again. And he felt so fast. Like he could run to Perth and back without breaking a sweat.

He wanted water. Luckily the rising summer had yet to burn all the green from the world. Blades of grass, ants, and flies alike exploded, the moisture inside them pursuing David as he ran past. It didn’t matter. Their water was his.

The water clung to David’s hands. First like beads of sweat, then clear, glittering gloves, and finally crystal spheres bigger than his head. Without breaking his stride, he turned to face Allison, poking his tongue out.

Lashes of water slapped the girl in the face. Sputtering and fuming, she tried to to close the growing gap between her and David.

A red and blue diamond, split down the middle.

Nothing. Stupid Żywie, making her be weak.

Allison looked toward the ribbon of blue in the distance. All that water…

A great finger of water rose from the river, dwarfing the trees along its banks. Like a serpent, it reared over the grounds of the Institute, dragging its tail out the river and into the air, until its shadow was over Allison.

She let go of David’s song.

The entire mass lunged down onto the girl. The next second, she was fifty yards in front of David, glowing like the moon and frosted with ice.

“Nah ha!”

“No fair!”

Allison smirked. “I thought you said there weren’t any rules?”

David roared. The thousands of gallons of snow and ice-water rose behind him, and flew towards his friend.

The blizzard hit a dam of fire, hissing as it melted for the ground to drink, the steam lost in the air.

David’s song would always be Allison’s favourite, hands down. But who ever listened only to their favourite song?   

Arm in arm, the two children laughed. It was a good day. Then, David quirked his head.

“There’s a lot of people ‘round the dorm.”

“Yeah,” said Allison. “Like, halfa’ everyone.”

“Wonder why?”

Shrug. “Power-party?”

David grinned. “Wanna check it out?”

Mabel was sitting on the dormitory steps, her face flushed and threaded with tears, her breath heaving softly. Basilisk and Melusine were sitting either side of her, united in purpose. Children milled about uncomfortably, while Lawrence and Mrs. Gillespie comforted a weeping Żywie.

“Shush, shush, shush” the old woman whispered. “There’s nothing you could’ve done.”

“What’s going on?” David asked, recondensing after misting through the crowd.

Lawrence glared at the boy. “Maelstrom, this is completely inappropriate.”

For some reason, the voice itched at David. Made him want to hit something. He pushed the feeling from his mind, and asked again.

“What happened?” He frowned. “And why were we in Basilisk’s bed?”

Mabel was staring at him. “Why are you two so happy?” She pronounced the last word like it was the most dire accusation.

“Why shouldn’t we be?” David snapped, digging his heels into the ground.

All around them, children shuffled their feet and tried not to look at the water-sprite.

He stared at Lawrence. “Did you make Mabel cry?”

The old man looked like he was about to explode, and for a moment, David’s eyes flared arsenic green, but Melusine raised a hand. “David,” she said gently. “Adam passed away last night.”

Her son wilted slightly. “What?”

“She means he’s dead!” Mabel shouted.

David’s eyes were wide. “How?”

“An aneurysm,” Lawrence said. “There was a fault in the Quiet Room. It made you all lose your powers, but it gave poor Adam a brain bleed.” Tears began to escape him. “At least it was painless.”

David looked toward the crowd being parted by Allison’s elbows. “Allie?”

When she reached the front of the children, the girl looked back at him. “I—I can’t hear him anymore.”

Lawrence stepped towards David, putting a hand on his shoulder. “David, it’s time for you to go back inside.”

“But Adam’s dead.”

“Inside, now.”

No!”

Only a few of those watching were really surprised when Lawrence struck David, the back of his hand snapping the boy’s head to the side. He’d been impudent. It was a foregone conclusion.

“Your behaviour in the wake of this tragedy has been vulgar and childish, Maelstrom,” he said, his voice hard. “I should hope you’d know better.”

He swung his hand again, but all it did was disturb the mist left by David’s passing. The boy reformed as quickly as he had vanished. He met the old man’s glare not with anger, but contempt.

“Jesus,” Haunt whispered to Britomart. “What’s Mealy on?”

“Don’t know,” she replied, regarding the boy. “I think I like it?”

Françoise blinked. “David,” she said. “Where were you?”

Her father’s eyes stared back at her.

“I don’t know. But it was great.”

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Chapter Thirty-Two: Pharmakós

The Physician did not arrive at the New Human Institute in his usual dirty green Holden, but in an eight wheeler truck. From its trailer spilled out three identical men—Mr. Groove, Mr. Vibe, and Mr. Jam, their name-tags said—silent and sculpted like stone made flesh. For some ghastly reason, they were dressed like clowns. They erected a canvas tent for their master to work in, along with tables laden with snacks and cool drinks. Snacks and cool drinks that were edible to human beings no less. Although Lawrence wouldn’t have put it past the Physician to disguise his concoctions with brand name labels.

“In my country,” the Physician had explained to Lawrence, “we like to respond to public health crises with a festive spirit. Helps cheer the afflicted up, you know?”

Lawrence often wondered if the Physician was pulling his leg whenever he talked about his home. This time, though, he didn’t have the energy to question the doctor. So, he dressed the children up as nice as possible, and declared it a festival.

The students milled around the Physician’s tent, morosely picking at the sweets and sausage-rolls as they sweated in their sunday best, waiting for Żywie and the doctor to call them inside.

The alien was presently trying to stick what looked like clockwork Christmas beetles1 onto Ophelia’s temples, the toddler squirming and squealing in protest under the Physician’s writhing, worm-like fingers. For once, the discomfort appeared to be mutual.

Żywie looked up from her clipboard, frowning. “Do you want me to handle her?” she asked flatly.

“It’s fine, Miss Winter,” the Physician replied as he cautiously tried weaving his hand behind the girl’s head. She slapped it away, making the doctor visibly vibrate. Żywie gathered that was something like a flinch.

“What is with you and babies?”

“I had a bad experience with—”

Time popped. Sound and colour ran together, and for moment, the conscious and the subconscious swapped places. Every bird within a mile developed a migraine.

Żywie didn’t budge an inch. She took the grumpy baby into her arms. “Well, we know Ophelia has her father’s resistance. Didn’t even need to clap—” The healer cringed when she saw her colleague heaped on the ground.

The Physician’s bones didn’t sit right under his skin. Even under his periwinkle suit, they stuck out at odd angles. He looked less like a prone man and more like a mound of gravel and sticks poured into an empty human pelt. She caught a glimpse of something dark brown and formless trembling in the recesses of his suit, where another human’s eyes wouldn’t have had the clarity to see.

“Eugh.”

The Physician got back to his feet, his skeleton seeming to assemble itself as he did. “You know, I really do not appreciate your racism, Eliza.” There was an audible crunch as his ribs pulled themselves back into place. He straightened his jacket.

“It’s not that you’re different, John, it’s the fact you bother with this awful impression of a human being. It’s like a minstrel show for the entire human race. Trust me, we’d get along a lot better if you would just be a bug-eyed monster or whatever your lot look like at home.”

The Physician’s face split into a grin. “I sincerely doubt that, little doctor.”

Żywie’s mouth was a straight-line. “Mr. Jam.”

One of the Physician’s assistants poked his head inside the tent, his expression stolid beneath slathers of white face-paint and a red foam nose. “Yes, Miss Winter,” he said in the best Lurch impression the Physician could manage.

“Would you please take Ophelia back to her mother. Tell Stratogale she has a clean bill of health.” She plucked the child’s cheek, cooing, “Yes she does, yes she does!”

“Yes, Miss Winter.” The clown took the baby from the woman. Ophelia regarded him for a moment, before squeezing his nose and giggling.

Mr. Jam made no reaction. Unlike most clowns, he medically lacked anything resembling a sense of humour, which surprisingly was an advantage over the rest of them.   

Żywie watched him traipse off in search of their flying girl, her expression downcast.

“I wouldn’t worry about Mr. Jam,” the Physician said. “Half his brothers are babysitting your future lords and masters over in Canberra.”

“I still think it’s cruel what you put those poor creatures through.”

“Put them through what?”

“How old is that one?”

The Physician thought about it. “Oh, that. Eleven months.” A click that might have been a shrug. “They’ve never complained.”

“Hmm.”

Once they had recovered sufficiently from the Ovation, Basilisk gently led Myriad into the tent. Or as gently as he could, with how hard the little girl was digging her heels into the dirt.

“No!”

Basilisk grunted, trying to pull her a few more steps inside. “Come on, Miri. Żywie and the Physician just want to fix everything. You might be just what they need.”

“This is stupid! Take me back to David!”

“David’s napping, dear. I’ll be bringing him down soon, don’t worry.”

Angry tears. “I don’t wanna be here.”

Żywie stepped between Basil and Myriad. “I think we can take it from here,” she said, taking the child’s hands. The girl wilted like a flower at the healer’s touch.

“You sure?” Basilisk asked, eying his assistant with concern.

“Quite sure,” the Physician said, his tone clipped as always. “Go on, I’m sure one of her schoolmates is about to stick their finger in an electric outlet.”

“Back soon, Miri.”

“I don’t care!”

Basil sighed as he left. “I know you don’t mean these things, Allison.”

The girl glared at the Physician. With the blackout, there was nothing to distinguish him from anyone else, musically speaking. Not that it helped much. Getting to know the Physician was like grieving for a loved one. Necessary, sometimes even helpful, but never welcome.

The Physician clapped. “So, are you going to examine the patient, Eliza?”

“Sure, sure,” she said, resting a finger on the nape of Myriad’s neck.

“What are you—” Fast asleep.

“What was that for?”

Crouching, Eliza rested Myriad against the wall of the tent. “Because it’s less likely she’ll break our faces this way. And there’s something I want to discuss with you.”

“Oh?”

“Myriad has adopted my… structural alterations.”

“Ah. Good for her. Nice to see a child be so proactive about self improvement.”

Żywie groaned. “You don’t understand, John. I spent my whole life figuring all these out. And then this little girl just… alters herself, on a whim, without even telling a grown up.”

“I still don’t see the issue. You’re thirty-five. Nothing inside you has blown up yet, has it?”

“No,” the healer admitted. “But there’ve been some close calls. Adjustments made. I once went into cardiac arrest for a full day. Had to to force the blood through my veins manually while I adjusted for the mistake. Miri doesn’t have that luxury.” She brushed a stray lock from Myriad’s face. “What if she needs to adjust something, and I’m not there?”

“Have you found anything concerning?”

“No, she’s stable, far as I can tell.” Żywie sighed, then smiled slightly, rubbing the girl’s head. “I’ll say this about our Myriad, she doesn’t half-do anything.” She looked up at the other doctor. “I’ve been suppressing the changes, though. She isn’t well enough to be trusted with them. I would appreciate a second opinion.”

The Physician put a hand over where his heart would’ve been. “Eliza, I’d be honoured.”

The speed and ease with which he examined the child would have amazed any medic but Eliza. A pass over with a silver mirror infested with lights and wires, a few drops of blood slurped up by what looked like a tongue in a box, and a couple of things Eliza was glad Myriad was asleep for. Then he was done.

“I think she might have improved on your work, my dear.” His grin crept closer to his ears. “I like to think I had a hand in that. Still, all clear. I’m sure Allison will go on to lead a perfectly normal, healthy life. As many of those as she wants, in fact.”

“Oh. Good.”

“And you weren’t joking about her being thorough. She got right down to the germ-line. That would’ve taken some effort.” The grin was almost up to his earlobes by now. “I’m sure Lawrence would be thrilled.”

Żywie hadn’t even considered that. “You’re not going to tell him, are you?” she asked hurriedly. “You promised me, John.”  

The Physician raised a hand. “We have patient confidentiality back home too, Eliza. Still don’t get why you’re so secretive about these things, though. It’s just like those lies about infertility again. If you don’t want to have a baby, just tell Lawrence. If he presses the issue, give him cancer until he stops.”  

“You wouldn’t understand,” Eliza muttered.

“No, my dear, I don’t think I would.” The Physician stuck his Christmas beetles onto Myriad’s temples. “Would you wake her up please?”

Myriad sprung to life like Żywie had found her on button. “What happened?” she snapped.

“Nothing sweetie—”

“Don’t call me that.”

“…You just nodded off, alright.”

“I’m not a baby.”

“No one is saying you are, Allison,” the Physician said. He was fiddling with the knob of what used to be a portable TV set, its screen lit with swirls of colour that hopefully made sense to him.  “Now, would you do me the favour of trying to use your powers?”

The girl folded her arms. “I don’t have my powers.”

“I am aware of that, but seeing how your brain reacts to the attempt might yield useful data.”

“There’s nothing to hear!”

“Would you just—”

Myriad tore off the diodes. “No!”

She ran out of the tent.

The Physician made a sound like an exploding accordion. “This is just the most productive day, isn’t it?”

It at least went smoother after that. A child would come in, Żywie would sift through their cells looking for something she already knew wasn’t there, and the Physician made them playact their powers.

“Can I stop now?” Haunt asked as he walked in place against the tent wall.

Żywie looked at her partner. “I think so. What about you?”

“Yes, you can go now, Thomas. Hand the diodes back to Eliza on her way out.”

Then it was Maelstrom’s turn. Lawrence carried him down from the Big House like a babe in arms, setting him on his feet in the middle of the tent.

He stood there, swaying, his eyes darting around the tent like a panicked animal. “Z—Żywie? Dr. Smith?”

“Don’t blub, Maelstrom,” the boy’s teacher said. “You don’t see your brothers and sisters letting themselves fall apart like this2.”

Maelstrom suddenly stood very straight. “Yes, Lawrence,” he answered gravely. For just a moment, Żywie recognized him.

“I trust you’ll listen to what our fine doctors tell you?”

“I will.”

Lawrence nodded. “Good.” He turned to leave, but not before telling Żywie, “And don’t you baby him like Basilk’s been doing. We’ve brought Maelstrom up better than that.”

Żywie was going to say something, very loudly, but Lawrence was already gone, and there were more important things to attend to.

She bent down to look into the child’s dull, jeweled eyes. “Are you alright, honey?”

Maelstrom nodded hard, but the healer knew it meant nothing. Just him trying to please her. That was all that was left of him right now. With his headmaster out of sight, he was starting to shake as if he were stuck in a blizzard. Not to mention the grey tint to his skin…

“It must be awful, to only have a quarter of yourself at hand.”

Żywie stared back at the Physician. “What are you saying?”

He waved her off. “Nothing you could understand without a degree in practical metaphysics. Now, let’s not take up too much of our young man’s time.”

Maelstrom placidly let Żywie attach the beetles, not even squirming as they sunk their legs into his skin. A tap on his cheek, and Żywie learned nothing. Again.

With a squelch, the Physician pulled a canteen from behind his back. “Alright, David,” he said, unscrewing the lid, “I would like you to pull the water over to yourself.”

The boy squinted. “There’s water in there?”

The Physician glanced at the canteen. “Well, yes, of course.”

“…I can’t feel anything.”

Żywie squeezed his shoulder. “David, I know it’s hard, but this would really help us. And the other children.”

David stood a little straighter. Żywie needed him to be good.

He stared at the canteen. It was like trying to clasp air. No, vacuum. The boy tried to remember what water felt like, but not even his own tears could remind him.

“That—that’s enough, David.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Żywie hugged him. “No, don’t be. You tried your best.”

“It’s never good enough.”

Her grip tightened. “Do you want Mr. Jives to take you to Miri?”

A nod against her blouse.

The Physician didn’t see his henchman escort the child to his friend. He was occupied with the television screen. “It’s fascinating, neurologically speaking. It’s as if they aren’t even trying to…”      

He trailed off as he noticed the healer’s weeping.

“I’m so useless…”

The Physician wasn’t terribly literate when it came to human emotional expression, but enough people had burst into tears in his presence that he knew what it meant. “Oh now, what’s the matter Eliza?”

“You wouldn’t understand. I delivered that boy, John. I was the first face he ever saw.”

“…You assume I don’t have children, Miss Winter?”

The sobs subsided slightly. “Do you?”

“Oh, hundreds of them. And nieces and nephews, I suppose. Have I ever told you how odd it is English doesn’t have a gender-neutral term for that?”

“What are they like?”

“Children, Eliza, they’re just like children.”

“I can cure cancer. I’ve put babies with Downs and Tay-sachs right inside their mothers. I’ve woken the dead! I should be able to do something for these children…”

The Physician considered the woman for a second. “You would be a living saint on my world, you know that? The fact you haven’t cracked this only speaks well of the problem.”

She sniffed. “Thank you, John.”

The Physician’s grin returned. One thing he would never get about humans was how much they liked to dwell on moments like these. “Well, shall we call in Adam?”

It was the first up-close look the boy had gotten at their visitor. The closest comparison Adam could make was to the Sinclairs’ GP back in Kalgoorlie… if he had lost a lot of weight and kept the spare skin pulled back with laundry-pegs. He tried to resist the urge to scratch at the Christmas beetles. Żywie had assured him the resemblance was purely aesthetic, but sometimes he felt them rub their legs together…

“So, you want me to use my powers?”

“Exactly right, young man. One at a time, if you could,” the Physician said. He tried to snap his fingers, but the result was a wet scrape. “Actually wait just a moment.” He reached over his tool-table, tapping his speaker-starfish on its central ruby.

Roy Brown started belting out “Butcher Pete”.

“Hey everybody, did the news get around,
About a guy named Butcher Pete,
Oh, Pete just flew into this town,
And he’s choppin’ up all the women’s meat!”

The Physician’s smile was practically a crescent moon. “Begin.”

First, Adam lifted the tool-table over his head with a single finger. That should’ve impossible, according to Lawrence, although he hadn’t gotten around to explaining why. Then, he juggled suns like he was the great black hole at the centre of the galaxy, only for them to wink out as he exhaled Heaven. He winced as Eliza coughed up something black and the Physician rippled.  

After about ten powers, Adam became self-conscious. Even out of the other children’s sight, he felt as though he were rubbing it in somehow; like dancing in a polio-ward.

“Żywie…” three Adams said.

“It’s alright, Adam.” She shot a glance at the Physician… moving rhythmically in the corner, juddering and shuddering.

“Ever since Peter flew into town
He’s been havin’ a ball,
Just cuttin’ and choppin’ for miles around!”

“I’m sure Dr. Smith is almost done.”

Eventually, the Physician turned the music off. “Very well, Adam, you can stop now.”

Adam was busy pouring cordial through his hand, watching it spill out the other side as warm ice. He didn’t even know what the point of that one was. “You sure? I still have a few powers left.”

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. We’re done now. You should go play now.”

Adam headed towards the fresh air. He hesitated on the threshold, fingering the hem of the tent flap, then stepped out and disappeared into the sunlight.

Żywie sighed. “Who should we check next.”

The Physician’s only answer was to put on the Beatles. He slouched and slithered towards the door, his arms rolling and twisting to the sound of “Ticket to Ride”

The healer scowled. “And what do you think you’re doing?”

“I told you, we’re done. Now, I’m going out to enjoy the party I’m throwing, and I suggest you join me.”

Żywie watched him “dance” out into the dry grass.

“Oh, God.”

Lawrence sat behind his desk, waiting for either his old student or their visitor to tell him something. Żywie was half-slumped in her chair, like she were sixteen again and hoping against hope he didn’t know she had snuck off to Duke’s Inn for a few pints. The Physician, for his part, was sitting stock still, grinning. Lawrence was vaguely expecting dust to form on his teeth.

The old man raised a finger. “I—”

“It’s Adam,” the Physician reported cheerily. Żywie put her face in her hands, groaning softly.

Lawrence froze, then slumped in his chair. “Are you… are you sure?”

“Certain. Fairly obvious in retrospect, I must say. Surprised nobody figured it out before I got there.”

Lawrence’s gaze drifted slightly, avoiding the Physician’s eyes.

The Physician noticed. “Oh, Lawrence, I hope you didn’t bite their head off.” He lightly elbowed Żywie. “Even Eliza here might have a hard time fixing that.”

Both Lawrence and the healer gawked at him for a moment. The Physician reminded himself to work on his timing. “Still, yes. Adam is the one suppressing everyone’s powers.”        

“And you’ve ruled out a fault with the Quiet Room?”

“Yes, Lawrence, the null-chamber is secure, I checked it first thing. And I resent creatures who haven’t even figured out how to sneak around the light barrier questioning my handiwork.” He looked at Eliza as though they were sharing some private joke. “I swear, a barbwire fence is more troubling.”

Lawrence closed his eyes. “Tell me then, how is he doing this?”

“Lawrence,” Żywie said, “how would you describe Myriad’s power?”

“She looks at other new human abilities, and her power recreates them as best it can.”

The Physician nodded, “I think it was Picasso who said ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’3. Well, that’s nonsense. I would look into that Picasso if I were you, he sounds dodgy. Anyway, Adam’s power—his root ability—I think is similar to little Allison’s. But he doesn’t copy supers. I think his power looks at others, and uses them as points of inspiration for new ones. A bit like collage, I suppose.” He looked proud of himself. “Remind me, Lawrence, how many students do you have? Not counting Adam. And how many powers has he displayed?”

Lawrence latched onto that like it was a lifebuoy. “Thirty-two!” he gasped, as if it mattered. “Adam has forty-one powers! How do you explain that, hmm?”

The Physician was about to suggest it didn’t have to be a strict one to one correlation, but Eliza beat him to it: “We’re not the first posthumans Adam’s encountered, Lawrence. The Coven, AU raided his town, that poor boy they lynched afterwards…”

“That still leaves three powers unaccounted for!”

A thought struck the Physician. “The children inside your oldest girls.”

Lawrence shuddered. “Even if you’re right—”

“I am.”

“…How does it follow that Adam would be… sabotaging other new humans?”

“It’s a perfect defense mechanism.”

“Why would he need a defense mechanism against his own kind?”     

The Physician looked puzzled by the question. “Why do you humans make guns and tanks? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, I reckon. Adam gets upset—homesickness, loneliness, the breeding program, whatever—and his power tries to keep him safe. Everyone else being power-neutered stresses him out, so it keeps trying to do that.” He got up out of his chair and made for the door. “Still, you won’t have to worry about it for long.”    

Żywie twisted to keep track of him. “What do you mean?”

The Physician stopped. “Oh, I’ll be taking Adam off your hands.”

Lawrence sputtered. “You can’t—why?”

“Lawrence, this boy of yours can suppress all three Socii presentations, a demigod—don’t give me that look—sorcerers, and two elementals. At once.” The Physician’s voice grew shrill, like a kettle. “Then, he dices up their powers and makes new ones! Can you imagine the experimental opportunities?”

“But he’s my student!”

The Physician tilted his head. It looked like his neck had snapped. “Is he, though? He doesn’t strike me as an asylum find.” Lawrence could almost hear the crack of the alien’s grin as he cheerily wagged a long, spindly finger. “You know Timothy Valour doesn’t like you poaching.”

Żywie ran to the Physician’s side, putting her hand on his. “Please, John, think of the boy’s wellbeing.”

“Nonsense! He’ll be fine at my place. I’ll teach him to play checkers. And think of the powers my stock could teach him. He’ll be like the Flying Man come again!”

He started walking again, but Lawrence physically blocked the door. “I’m sorry, Dr. Smith, but I can’t let you do this. Adam needs to be among his own.”

The Physician’s eyes widened. “I just told you, he’ll be with his own kind regardless!”

“Not—not like that.”

The Physician lashed out like a viper, lifting the old Oxfordian a clear inch off the ground and setting him aside like he was made of paper. “Herbert, I’ve been very accommodating of you over the years. Face it, I’ve taught you a lot more about these children than you have me. I’ve let you keep a fair few experimentally interesting subjects. Myriad, all the ones you’ve bred.” He pointed back at Żywie. “Why, I let you keep her. And that hurt, trust me.” He pulled Lawrence in close, until the man could smell his cool, metallic breath. “But there is a limit.”    

He let go of Lawrence’s shirt, shoving the headmaster back. “I’ll be arranging a transfer of custody with Timothy, Lawrence. I trust you know what I shall be telling him if you don’t cooperate.”

The old man fell to his knees. “No, John. I’d rather you tell him about the girls than Adam! Think of what the DDHA would do with him!”

The Physician glanced down at him. “Yes,” he remarked casually. “I suppose that could get unpleasant.”

He stepped out of the room.

Lawrence wept. What else could he do? He wondered if this is was what it was like for Tiresias, when a future became impossible. Adam Sinclair was supposed to be the truest expression of what his people could be, vast and flexible. He’d already imagined his potential mingling one day with Myriad’s. To have all that snatched away from him, to not even get to Name the boy…

He was dimly aware of Żywie’s hands around his shoulders. He looked up at the woman.

“Oh, Żywie, what are we to do?”

It was the cheering that woke Mabel the next morning. Lorikeet dorm was filled with the sound of relieved celebration. And what sounded like an indoor cyclone.

“What’s going on?” she shouted over the howl, her hair whipping in the wind.

Where the door should’ve been, there was a black cloud, darker than space, lit only by flashes of green escaping from its mass. Elsewhere burst out of it, almost too bright to look at, the air swirling around him as it was struck by his power. He saw Mabel, sitting up bewildered in her hammock. “Mabes! The blackout’s over!”

Just for emphasis, he proceeded to banish the hammock out from under her.

Managing to catch herself, the girl instinctively manifested the lady astronaut’s sidearm. She was about to find out if the stun setting worked when she realized what she had done. She turned the laser over in her hand. “Oh, my God.”

She wanted to laugh. And cry. She’d been wrong, after all. And she couldn’t be happier about it. “Adam!”

She looked around the dorm for him, her eyes moving from fireworks to light-shows to rents in the world. To her surprise, Adam was still in his hammock.

Sleeping must be one of his powers.

She ran over to him, dodging Jumpcut’s repeated apparitions and Haunt rising from the floor, trying to look cool.

Mabel shook the boy. “Adam! Adam, wake up!”

No response. He felt still under her hands.

“Adam?”

She rolled him over. Cold sweat clung to his face. No breath rose from his mouth and nose.

Mabel screamed.


1. Genus of beetle commonly found in Australia and South Africa, no known association with the North Pole. Notable for their golden shells and abundance around Christmas.

2. Myriad was at least making other things fall apart.

3. It was actually W. H. Davenport Adams, and he didn’t say that either.

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Chapter Thirty-One: Blasphemy

She was an equation, faultlessly proven to be somewhere else. Then gravity snatched her out of the air—down into warm, wet darkness.

Mabel Henderson couldn’t tell up from down. Then something else plunged through the water, cutting a shaft of light in its wake, and she scrambled towards what she hoped was the surface.

She burst through a layer of old leaves and dead insects. Before Mabel could even think again, Billy surfaced a couple of feet away, gasping.

They were floating in a filthy, stagnant pond. Slowly evaporating in the heat, it was still deep enough that the children had to swim to keep afloat, even as its crumbling, curved mud walls jutted out above the water.  

Mabel remembered that day with the lads. His stupid bloody pool…

“What the hell, Arnold?”

“So where’s this elevator go?” Adams 1 and A1 asked as they followed Elsewhere through the halls.

“Where do ya think? The basement!”

Adam didn’t think he’d ever been in a house with a proper basement. He always thought only yanks and poms went in for them. “What’s so great about the basement?”

“Where Lawrence keeps his souvenirs. Like the Batcave. He used to know loads of supers and heroes and stuff. There’s mad scientist gear, one of the Raven’s guns, the Crimson Comet’s old wings, I think?” Quickly, he added, “What’s left of them, I mean.”  

Adam was pretty sure Elsewhere was lying. It wasn’t something he did well. Probably was planning on dumping a bucket of water or glue or something over him. Still, Adam couldn’t help but feel sorry for Elsewhere. He knew the younger boy was close to Myriad and Maelstrom, and some of the rumblings Adam had heard about his family…

Why not go along with it, Adam thought. Let the kid play his dumb joke. He still had his superpowers, what could happen?

Then they turned one last corner, and Adam reconsidered.

“Voila!” Elsewhere said, gesturing grandly at the silver slab set into the wall.

Adam 1 rubbed the metal, warm beneath his hand. Sure enough, there was even what appeared to be a call button next to it. “Huh. Okay. Kinda surprised it’s really here. Why didn’t Lawrence show me this when I got here?”

Elsewhere shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t want us touching his stuff?”

“So we’re probably not allowed down there,” Adam A asked, still standing a little behind the younger child.

“Probably. Still, who’s gonna care right now?”

Adam 1 nodded. “True.”

“So, we gonna take a look-see?”

Adam pushed the button. “Sure.”

The door slid open, and Adam 1 stepped inside. It was bigger than any elevator he’d been inside (not that that was many) with walls like fork-lightning trapped in obsidian. “Why aren’t there any buttons—”

He was cut off by the sound of the door closing.

Adam A tilted his head at Elsewhere, his fist slammed down the “call button”. “Wha—”

The boy disappeared in a puff of burgundy smoke.          

“Arnold Barnes!”

The child in question swung around to see Mabel glaring at him. She was soaked to the bone, bits of leaf and dragonfly tangled in her hair.

“Mabel!” Arnold cried. He glanced behind the girl. “Where’s Billy?”

“Having the hottest shower in the world,” she answered flatly, before shouting, “and you wouldn’t need to ask us if you hadn’t dropped us in your stupid, gross pool! Seriously, why?” She looked at the Quiet Room’s door. “You let him out right now!”

Arnold folded his arms. “How do you know anyone’s in there?

Mabel sputtered. “Because—because why else would you be here?”

“Then how do you know it’s a he?”

The girl stomped over to him, right up to his face. “Just let him go!”

Arnold’s eyes flashed lime. “Your powers just came back too, didn’t they? It’s him, Mabel. You know it is.”

“…Where’re all the others?”

“Baths.”

“Let him out now, before anyone notices.”

“Why?”

“Because…” Mabel couldn’t put it into words. Only images of crowds in dour clothing gathering to watch strange old ladies and touched children burn. “They’ll be mean to him.”

Arnold brought her in closer, pointing toward the ceiling. “But listen.”

Laughter, young and girlish.

“Allie’s my friend, Mabel. And so’s David. I don’t want them hurting.”

More voices joined the laughter, along with whispers of flame and wind. And splashing. Lots of splashing.

Mabel sighed, looking her friend right in the eye. “Arnold…” She shoved the boy to the ground and slammed the button.

Adam stumbled out of the Quiet Room. His face was pale, and he was breathing slowly and deliberately. “God, that was horrible.”

For a moment, Mabel had hope. She still felt the pressure of her power around her veins. Then Adam looked down at Arnold. “What the hell, Else?”

It was gone. She could hear groans from upstairs, only to be drowned out by a pained, angry scream.

“Allie!” Arnold cried from the floor, scrambling to his feet.

Adam glanced between the younger children. “What’s going on?”

Mabel grabbed Arnold’s hand and ran, hoping Adam would not follow. She pulled her friend into the library and whispered, “Please don’t tell the others. Not like this.”

Arnold tried to wrench his hand out of hers. “Okay, okay, just let me go! Allison’s screaming.”  

“Promise not to tell?”

“Yes!”

Reluctantly, she let him go, though she did follow the boy as he raced upstairs, past their disappointed, towel-clad schoolmates, up to Basil’s door.

When he opened it, Allison was twisting in Basil’s arms, screaming herself raw while David twitched on the floor.

“Not again!” she was screeching. “Not again!”

“Please, Miri—” Basil grunted, trying desperately to keep the girl’s arms in his grip. “It might be nearly over—”

She exploded out of the man’s arms, punching him in the nose and sending him to the floor in a groaning heap. Blood was seeping from his nostrils.

Allison didn’t notice. “I don’t want to be here!” she yelled as she stalked towards the doorway.

Mabel shut the door hard.

Arnold glared at her. “Mabel!”

“Did she look friendly?”

A pale fist punched through the door. It felt around for the door handle for a few seconds until its owner growled and pushed the whole thing over, wrenching it from its frame with a few metallic clicks.  

Mabel and Arnold managed to jump clear of the door a second before it landed on them. Allison was staring straight ahead, the corners of her eyes twitching. Her knuckles were bleeding, but she didn’t seem to care. “You’re not here. Get out of my way.”

They were about to obey as fast as possible when Żywie pushed past the pair. “Stay back, children,” she ordered them calmly.

She scooped up Allison effortlessly, even as the girl thrashed and clawed at the woman. Then, without loosening her grip in the slightest, she put a hand to Allison’s forehead, like she were feeling for a fever. Immediately, the child’s eyelids started to droop. She tried fighting it, but sleep found her as her teacher sung a German lullaby under her breath.

Once Allison was well and truly under, Żywie laid her down softly on the hallway carpet. Mabel thought she looked guilty.

Her attention turned to the two other children. “It’s alright, little ones,” she assured them. “Myriad is just asleep. I think she prefers that right now.”

“How did she do that to the door?” Arnold asked, his voice warbling.

“Adrenaline, dear,” Żywie said, “just adrenaline.” Allison attended to, she moved quickly but steadily over to Basil’s side. The man was still moaning, smoke rising from where his blood had fallen on the tortured wood. The healer took his hand, and he sighed.

“Don’t—she isn’t in her right mind,” Basil gasped.

“I know, Hugo,” Żywie said. “I know.”

As they watched, Arnold turned to look imploringly at Mabel. “We need to tell someone,” he whispered.

Mabel didn’t look back. She was too focused on David, still curled up in the corner.

“Mabel?”

She nodded.

Lawrence tapped the rim of his desk with one of his fountain pens, examining the two children sat before him. “So, before you tell me why we’re having this talk, might I ask how you two got into the state you’re in?”

Mabel and Arnold shared a look. The former was still damp and covered in detritus from the pool, and the latter hadn’t crossed the river again unscathed. By some silent agreement, Mabel went first. “About that, um, me and Elsewhere need to admit something. We kinda broke a rule today.”

The almost imperceptible hiss of breath escaping between clenched teeth. “How so?”

“Elsewhere and me”—she and Arnold had agreed in advance to leave Billy out of the picture—“we crossed the river today.”

Arnold had been unsure about leading with that little tidbit. Even a child (especially a child) could tell the headmaster was on edge. He had barely left his study since the blackout started, even for mealtimes. Arnold swore more of the red had gone out of his beard. It was the first time he had seen the man without a suit-jacket.

Still, Mabel thought the admission might win them some credibility.       

Lawrence swallowed sharply, like he was trying to force down bile. “I will say this, children, it speaks well of you both that you didn’t try to keep this from me. Oftentimes, the cover-up is worse than the sin.”

Here we go, Arnold thought.

“Nevertheless, I can’t emphasize enough how foolhardy that was.”

If there was one thing Arnold Barnes’ short life had taught him, it was that fessing up never spared you the lecture. It just knocked off some of the edges.

“…With how the river’s behaving right now, you’re lucky you didn’t drown.”

He had to say, though, Mabel was handling it like a pro. She nodded at all the right junctures, hit her mark every time with a “Yes” or a “I know”, maintaining a mask of solem repentance throughout it all. Arnold was beginning to wonder why the girl didn’t act in her own shows.

“…I should hope that you wouldn’t use this time of crisis and stress as a license to misbehave.”

Mabel sensed her opening. “We know it was still wrong, but can we tell you why we did it?”

Lawrence nodded. “Context is always important.”

Arnold’s turn. “So Mabel thought that if whatever was making our powers not work wasn’t inside us, it might be something around the Institute.”

“So I’m to take it you were attempting to test that hypothesis?” Lawrence asked. “Very scientific thinking.”

“Yes. Mabel thought if we walked far enough, our powers would come back on. And they did.”

Lawrence dropped his pen. “What?”

“Our powers,” Mabel said. “They came back once we were far away from the school. And they stayed till we came back.”

The hug was like being pulled into a brick wall. “Fantastic!”

Mabel and Arnold could hardly breathe, their faces buried in Lawrence’s sweat-misted undershirt. “Lawrence… too tight,” the girl managed to get out.

“I’m sorry, children,” he said, laughing as he set them down. “I can’t tell how relieved I am, children. And how much of a debt our school owes you.”

“…Ice cream?” Arnold said, his voice small.

Lawrence’s laughter came in shudders, like he was trying to keep back the tears of relief. “Sure, why not!”

Soon he was talking mostly to himself. “I’ll have to ring Valour, have him send teams. Water tests, soil work, dig up the whole bloody school till we find what’s causing this. And if we can’t, we’ll relocate. All the way to the NT if we have to! Might move you children in the meantime anyway. I hate to imagine the effects this continual assault might be having on the unborn—”

“That’s the thing,” Mabel interrupted. She really didn’t want to do this. “We know what’s making the blackout happen.”

Lawrence grabbed her shoulders. “What, girl, what?”

Mabel studied the old man’s face. He had a grin as wide as the world, like when her father first heard her read a sentence aloud. But there was something else there, too. A kind of pleading desperation she hadn’t known grownups could feel. “It’s Adam, Laurie.”

The bottom fell out of her teacher’s smile. “What?”

“When the powers came back for a sec today,” Arnold said, “it was cuz I pushed Adam into the Quiet Room—”

The smack came as hard and fast as the hug. Arnold began crying, soon to be drowned by Lawrence’s shouting.

“You cruel boy! You know what it’s like being without your powers! That room is only for children who do the worst sort of wrong! What did he do to deserve it, hmm?”

Arnold sobbed, “David and Allie were hurting…”

“And now you’re misnaming your brothers and sisters,” he hissed, before his attention fell on Mabel. “And this nonsense about Adam stealing your powers. Phantasmagoria, I never thought you would be so petty.”

Mabel had been leaning over to try and comfort Arnold, but that sent her to her feet like her chair was electrified. “What?”

“Just because our newest friend has proved immune to the blackout, you choose to believe he’s afflicting you. I would expect this from a New England Puritan, not a young posthuman.”

“I don’t think he’s doing it on purpose!” Mabel protested. “I don’t even think he knows he’s doing it!”

“Is it his shade then, working for the devil?” the man asked sourly.

“Lawrence,” the girl half-begged, “I don’t want to be right. Adam’s really nice and his powers are cool. But I think we are right, and we need to do something.”

“Whatever force is responsible for your kind’s existence would not create a child that preys on their fellows.”

Dimly, from the sore, wet place Arnold had retreated to, he was reminded of the way his mother or the sister who taught sunday school reacted to certain questions. Except they never sounded so threatened.              

Mabel growled in her throat. She wanted to throw something out the window. To push the chairs over. To tear all the pages out of all of Lawrence’s stupid books and shove them in his face. To dangle him over a dragon’s mouth till he shut up and listened to her. This was what it was like being a natural kid, she thought. All her wants just stuck inside her.

“…Maybe you’re wrong,” she said, quietly but resolutely. “Maybe you’re wrong about all this. Maybe there isn’t anyone in charge of us. Maybe powers are just things that happen to people. Or there is someone who hands them out, and they just don’t care. Maybe we’re evolving. Maybe evolution doesn’t care who it eats.”

The smack was as quick as it was expected. It was, however, far harder than she’d thought it would be. Her nose was bleeding.

Lawrence leant back on his desk, inhaling slowly. “The Physician will be here in two days. I’m sure his insight will be helpful. I think it’s time for you two to leave. Go see Żywie about your nose, Phantasmagoria.” He looked at Arnold, curled up in his chair. “If I hear about either you spreading these vicious rumours, there will be punishment. A stint in the Quiet Room seems appropriate.”

Mabel wanted to laugh at that. What set the Quiet Room apart from anywhere else in the Institute? Her hands shook even as she held them over her nose, and her breath was hammering against her chest. She was going to let it out when Arnold put his hand on her arm.

She met the boy’s grey eyes, streaming like storm clouds. They weren’t going to win this. People like Lawrence didn’t let you win.

“Yes, sir.”   

“Don’t be petulant, Phantasmagoria.”

As soon as she was out of earshot, Mabel screamed.


1. Adam Alpha was busy helping with the bathtime roundup.

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Chapter Thirty: Mabel Henderson’s On the Case!

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

Conveniently, Linus had stopped playing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl clung to her. “Linus?”

“…Yeah?”

“I can’t hear anyone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Annoying, innit?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And your other powers?”

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

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

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

Mabel mutely passed him the paper.

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

Mabel didn’t look at him. “Great.”

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

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

“Well, maybe you could draw me?”

A smile betrayed her. “Big-head.”

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

“No. Still on birdies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel only laughed at that.

“Yeah. Maybe clothes.”

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

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

“Says you.”

“And it’s not that curly.”

Mabel grinned. “Artistic license.”

“…What’s that mean?”

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

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

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

Almost imperceptibly, Adam shook his head.

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe you should lie down,” he said.

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

“We know, Windy, we know.”

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

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

Either way, she took after her father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Phantasmagoria?”

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

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

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

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

“…She gave you what?”

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

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

Melusine didn’t answer.

“Mels?”

“…Tell him I’m here, will you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miri…”

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

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

“…She’s really fast.”

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

“What do you think is wrong with them?”

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

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

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

“I said don’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miri!” Mabel cried.

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

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

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

“Yeah. What about Adam?”

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

Mabel’s eyes widened. “Basil?”

“Yes?”

“Has anyone left the Institute since the blackout?”

“…No.”

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

“Wait, Phantasma, what are you thinking?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… This feels so weird.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe we deserve it.

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

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

“…Sure.”

The girl frowned at him.

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

“Promise it might help?”

“Promise.”

Arnold hesitated for a moment, then nodded.

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

“Yup,” she nodded. “Totally.”

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

“Mabel?” Arnold asked.

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mabel!” Billy cried.

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

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

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

Mabel looked at him. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other two just looked at him expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Sponge-cake?”

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

“…A supervillain tried to kill us5.”

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

“I still think we shoulda charged for tickets.”

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

For some reason, Arnold stood a little bit straighter.

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

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

“What’s up?” Mabel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Spacey!”

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

“I’ve missed you…”    

Reflexively, the astronaut stroked her tormentor’s hair.

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel looked at the astronaut.

“…What?”

The girl walked slowly past Arnold.

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

“Poor thing,” said Billy.

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

Both of Billy’s friends looked at him.

“…No.”

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

She vanished in a blast of green light.

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

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

Then he ran.      


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

2. “So so.”

3. Including Miss Fluffers.

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

5. As Lawrence had insisted afterwards.

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

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Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Reefs of Sound

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

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

“Like this?”

“…No. Nothing like that.”

Scribbling. “This?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You power-cheat as well, Maelstrom.”

“Do not!”

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

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

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

But they were still so mad at everything.

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

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

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

He shrugged. “I didn’t, either.”    

“How many powers is that now?”

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

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

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

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

“See? Useful.”

Definitely alright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Howdidyougetyourpowers?”

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

“…How did you get your powers?”

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

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

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

“Which one?” Adam asked.

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

“You ever meet him?”

“Few times. It’s been years, though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure did,” Windshear answered dizzly.    

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

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

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

Haunt shouted, “No!”

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

“Why the fuck would anyone need that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam shrugged. “So far. Food’s nice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-I didn’t mean to.”

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

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

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

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

Adam didn’t answer.

“Here, I’ll get you a drink.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Chapter Twenty-Eight: Adam and the New Humans

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

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

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

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

“… Lemonade?” he tried.

“No.”

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

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

“Cousins? It’s just—the eyes. Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you mad at her?” Adam asked.

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

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

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

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

Huh, so she did have a proper name.

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

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

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

“…I dunno.”

“Have you asked?”

“N—no.”

“Well, maybe you should.”

“I wasn’t trying—”

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

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

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

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

“You promised not to talk about it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, he realized: Allie was hitting him.

Allison was hitting him.

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

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

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

Definitely.

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

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

“And I’m not?”

“…No!”

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

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

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

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

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

Like wolves fighting with their claws sheathed.

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

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

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

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

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

Those concerns, as things turned out, were unfounded.

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

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

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

“… Cuz he’s a doop.”

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

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

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

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

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

“… Sometimes.”

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

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

“… It was a lot of hurt.”

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

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

“Do either of you want to lose that?”

Both children belatedly shook their heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page seventy-two.

“…You need to set an example…”

Too many to count.

“…And in front of strangers, too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“January,” Adam’s mother admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam raised an eyebrow. “My song?”

Lawrence opened his mouth—  

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

“Well, what does my song sound like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam hadn’t even considered that possibility.

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

Does he just walk around with that in his pocket?

“Burn it,” the man ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d you—”

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

“I was asleep when they got him!”

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

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

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

“Woah…”

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

“Oh. I’m sorry—sorry—”

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

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

The Sinclairs both frowned at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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Chapter Twenty-Seven: The New Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You brushed your teeth, right?”

Adam made a face. “Yes1, Mum.”

“Packed your cricket gear?”

“Yep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she kept looking at him like that.

“Yeah,” he said, hollowly. “I know.”

He came in April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the local economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam obeyed. “Is something the matter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody saw the Jameses again in Kalgoorlie after that.

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

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

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

“Yes, Adam.”

“How was that merciful?”

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

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

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

The nun nodded.

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

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

“…Why did Jesus pick Lazarus?”

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

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

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

The Carmichael girl piped up with, “Doggies?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Child: An Inquiry Into the Race to Come

Dr. Herbert Lawrence, Ph.D

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

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

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

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

“I try, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His parents told me their son was pulling the wedding rings off of passersby when he wasn’t a year old. Even with all I’ve learned—From John12, from Żywie, from all the posthumans I have ever known—I still can’t begin to guess the whys and hows of AU’s power. More things in Heaven and Earth and all that.

I can’t blame the boy for being willful at the start. Pulled from his home, dragged around the country by an old Englishman like a puppy on a tether; a life chopped up into hotel rooms and guest bedrooms. I can tell you, it took me some getting used to as well.

I can’t stress how glad I am we both pushed through it, though. I never had children of my own, nor a wife; not uncommon in academic circles, regretfully. So many men like me cut themselves off from the young, from women, from anyone remotely different from ourselves. It can have, I fear, a calcifying effect on the soul. Our personalities run the risk of becoming settled, fossilised.

That’s not to say that childishness was the only virtue in AU’s company. Even as a boy, he had a way of cutting to the point of things. Fond of a barb, for certain, but never I think entirely without kindness.

If AU ever reads this, I hope he understands I never meant for things to turn out the way they did.

Adam checked the book’s copyright: 1958. AU wouldn’t make his supervillainous debut for another six years. He felt vaguely cheated, not that the book didn’t offer other attractions:

I had never heard the word “superhero” when AU and I first encountered them. To my recollection, that term only started being bandied around in 1940 or so. Looking back, it feels strange it took so long for someone to come out and say it. For decades, we called men like the Crimson Comet “adventurers” or “masks” or even, God bless us, “mystery men”. Then two Jewish cartoon writers took the word from the tip of our tongues, and the dialogue became much less tortured, if very loaded.

It must have been 1936 when we first met Ralph Rivers13 I had been told of a  Sydneysider super calling himself Jack Jupiter—doubtless derived from his fascination with lightning strikes.

From that trivia, you good readers might already have surmised that Jack was what many laymen in their ignorance call “mad scientists” those posthumans whose gifts manifest as impossible insight into scientific theory and praxis. Historically these remarkable individuals have enjoyed a great deal of scorn and ostracization from regular folk, even more so than other posthumans; likely for the same reasons the public has been wary regarding scientific advances. So often I have seen such miracle workers14 caricatured as manic, bitter souls, smothered in layer upon layer of malicious ego.

Sadly, poor Jack very much lived up to the stereotype. I had managed to arrange an interview with the man at his workshop in Padstow, and the next thing AU and I knew, we were trussed up in a drafty warehouse, listening to Jupiter threaten the Lord Mayor over the phone with the detonation of every wireless set in the city.

“Jupiter,” I tried imploring him after he slammed the receiver down, “This is a dire waste of your powers.”

Protests. He had no powers, he insisted, just a scientist. A sadly common delusion among his breed, I’m afraid, but a child playing at Einstein would have produced more coherent equations; and been able to explain why the great bronzed spider he had curled up in the centre of the warehouse specifically needed a bolt of lightning from the actual sky to come to life.

I kept trying to get through to Jupiter, despite AU’s continual imploring for me to keep my peace (perhaps the wiser course of action, I will admit) which only resulted in that addled soul raising the offspring of a trident and a tesla coil to my throat.

I was fairly certain I was facing death, then. Part of me thought there was a fittingness in dying at the hands of my life’s study. The much larger part was screaming.

That was when the wall exploded.

Photos, or even those ghastly comics they put out, can never capture the weird, lurid glory of the Crimson Comet. The ridiculous red of his costume, still bright even with the layer brick-dust and drywall. And those great, gold-cast wings, scalding the air with their glow. The man was where giant met archangel. But most amazing of all was his face. Mechanical men were closing in around him on all sides, their eyes aglow with their master’s spite, and it was as if he didn’t know what fear was. In fact, I could swear he was smiling.

You’ve no doubt seen the newsreels, or the pictures. I don’t need to tell you how he fared against Jupiter’s machines.

If Adam had one bone to pick with this Herbert Lawrence, it was his clear disinterest in action.

In this book, I will say many things about the superheroic tradition. You might come away with the impression that I consider it a… maladaptive institution, or even a waste of posthuman potential. And you’d be right. But that’s not to say that many superheroes aren’t fine men or women. And none more so than Ralph Rivers.

Over the years, we grew quite familiar with each other. Even before the Institute, where he was always welcome, his humble flat was similarly open to me and AU.

It was Ralph, over a few pints at his local, AU safely stashed with his sister at home, who first told me about what John Smith would later call “the Asteria presentation”:

He was nine years old, when he became a posthuman, he told me. Asthmatic and runtish, his classmates smelt weakness the way our kind’s young are wont to. One day, they had him against the wall, and then:

“There was a man.”

I cannot tell you how many times I would hear those words, good readers. He was a giant, Rivers said, with stars for eyes, whom the night sky followed half the day too early. He tried warning his menacers of the giant, but they laughed it off, a half-simple boy trying to make them turn around.

“I thought he was God. Still not sure he wasn’t.”

And when the giant looked at him, he was filled with what felt like the Holy Ghost.

“Except I don’t think the Holy Ghost would’ve let me break Pete Jenkins’ jaw with a slap.”

So he wasn’t alone, Adam realized. No less than the Crimson Comet had seen the giant, had been changed the same way he had.

“I’m not proud of it, Lawrence. I think, in the end, these powers are for us to help people. Killing—I’m not going to say it never needs doin’—that’s a job for guns and bombs. A mystery man, they shouldn’t have to resort to that.”

We sent this man to war. God help us.

Oh. So that was why. He had failed. Taken the easy way out. Killed when he could have done anything—literally anything—else. The man with the stars in his eyes had found him wanting.

Adam closed the book, hurled it back under his bed, and finally started trying to forget his sun.

Spring had revived well by the Saturday morning Jenny Sinclair roused her son early.

“Did church change days?” he asked blearily.

“No, no, nothing like that” his mum answered, an anxious smile playing across her lips, “we have guests. They’re here for you.”

That was all she would tell him till he was up and presentable, and pushed, still on autopilot, into the kitchen.

Around the table, a large, bearded man in a green suit and tie sat waiting, flanked on either side by a beautifully carved blonde woman with eyes like shards of ultramarine, and a young man whom adolescence seemed to cling to like cobweb. Next to his uneasy looking father, meanwhile, were two sullen children, their eyes unmistakably those of the woman’s.

Like the sea in summer.

It was like hearing a word he had only seen written. “…Dr. Lawrence?”

As the doctor’s eyes widened at the recognition, the younger man to his right leapt up from his chair, strode over to the young Sinclair, and shook his hand, all smiles.

“Tiresias! Pleased to meet ya, Adam.”


1. But not well.

2. Perhaps reflecting the theatricality that afflicts most of his kind, AU was prone to building specialized “showcase pieces” for each of his gold raids. The fact the Kalgoorlie Elephant included silver—an element AU was known to have no special power over—shows the trouble he was willing to go to.

3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most calls made to the DDHA from Kalgoorlie concerned Aboriginal persons.

4. Peter James’s status as a demi-human would later be confirmed via autopsy by Dr. John Smith, a medical advisor for the DDHA. “Yep, link present and accounted for. Would’ve been easier to tell if they had left me more of his brain.”

5. Also known in one southwest church as “Kinseys”.

6. There were no known nun supervillains at the time. At the time.

7. Which was strange, as most of the comics burned were at least ostensibly opposed to supervillainy.

8. Despite the keen edge of Occam’s razor, suggesting a mythological hero or monster was simply a superhuman often earns one sideways looks in academia. As Dr. Bartholomew Finch, a prominent voice in superhuman studies put it, “When ya specialize in anything, whether you’re talkin’ medicine or history, you run the risk of putting everything a little interesting down to your own bugbear. Sometimes, sensory overload is caused by autism, not telepathy. And sometimes, our great, great-whatevers just had functioning imaginations… or they really pissed off Athena.”

9. By Robert Graves.

10. Adam was always a little foggy on whether Doc Savage was real or not.

11. She was interrupted at the last second by her frighted husband, and explaining your actions and getting on with it had not yet been invented. Others say Thetis dunked the infant Achilles in the River Styx, bar the heel by which she dangled him. This is generally considered apocryphal, as even forgetting that Achilles’ nigh-invulnerability was an invention of the poet Statius, the anecdote implies the notion of turning the baby around was beyond the goddess. 

12. Lawrence was too polite to not use the Physician’s proffered name in anything meant for public consumption.

13. The identity of the Crimson Comet was quietly revealed to the public in 1951. Given that the hero mostly worked in construction in his civilian life, this was not met with much fanfare.

14. Lawrence would always regret never finding a “mad scientist” for the New Human Institute, but such powers tended to escape the notice of the DDHA.

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Chapter Twenty-Six: The Most Startling Superhero of All!

Adam Sinclair sat by a rack of sundresses in the women’s fashion section of Boans Department Store, while his mother tried on what felt like every scrap of fabric in the place. Tea-towels included, probably.

Sinclair family holidays were never grand affairs. Every January, with more regularity than the seasons themselves, they would hitch up their Carapark toaster1 to the Holden and park themselves over in Dunsborough or Margaret River for about a fortnight. Maybe even Rottnest, if Mr. Sinclair’s bonus was good that year.

Pleasant enough, in Adam’s eyes, except that at the end of the Great Eastern Highway lay the city of Perth. This might not have been a problem, or likely even been a plus… if his mother hadn’t used their annual getaways to stock up on new clothes.

Adam was running his hands through the hems of some cheap floral blouses, bored out of his mind, when he noticed the hush spreading through the store. It started on the ground floor, and infected the shoppers who peered over the bannister to see what was the matter, only to quickly back as far away from the precipice as they could. The boy tried to get a look for himself, but his father had his hand on his shoulder, pulling him in close. In the sudden quiet, the boy could even make out the faint ching of one of the teller machines being opened.

There were voices. Young ones, full of merriment, echoing through the petrified store. The shoppers might as well have been especially lifelike mannequins.

Adam heard cabinets being opened, and another voice, this one plaintive and appeasing. Then a snap, almost lost in the screams.

Mr Sinclair’s arms tightened around his son.

Someone was coming up the escalator. Four someones, in fact. The youngest might have been seventeen, the oldest less than thirty. One, an ivory blonde girl in a fur boa that shared an unfortunate resemblance to a swollen caterpillar, rode on the bannister. Next to her was someone Adam recognized immediately:

“That’s the Fox—” His father clapped a hand over his mouth before he could finish. If the bespeckled, bored looking man in the too-big, orange zoot suit and matching wide-brimmed hat heard his name being used, he didn’t react. Too occupied with the pound notes he was counting, perhaps.

“We don’t have time for this,” he grumbled. “Still have three shops left on the rounds.”

“Aww, don’t be like that,” a boy further up the moving stairs called back. He looked around eighteen, maybe older: it was hard to tell given how short he was. He wore a leather vest covered with unfortunately identifiable stains, the cleanest thing on him the red neckerchief that lay untied around his neck. He had an arm around a somewhat older, dark-haired lady with a pageboy cut and a white flapper dress. As he smiled at her, his flat face, framed by shaggy, lank black hair, scrunched up briefly. “You’re always talking about getting our name out there.”

If the Coven still needed to get their name out by this point, then in all odds nothing would help. The cabal had shared dominion over the headlines with AU for well over a year now.  AU was definitely the more spectacular villain, but unlike him, they left bodies in their wake. When they made the papers, sometimes the Sinclairs wouldn’t even let their son look.

“We could call it a double date!” the woman in the flapper dress added.

The girl with the boa—Vixen, Adam wanted to say her name was—leaned in close to the Fox. “I want a new dress,” she cooed.

The Fox looked like he was considering pushing her off the escalator while he had the chance. “Fine,” he sighed, “but make it quick.”

Once upon the second floor, the Coven started circling towards women’s wear, wandering through motionless, terrified shoppers like a clutch of Gorgons. Now and then, the boy with the neckerchief would twig a nose or pull an ear, laughing whether their owners kept their composure or squeaked in fright.

The Fox rubbed his temples. “For God’s sake, Redcap.”  

Adam couldn’t decide if he was excited or terrified when the quartet stopped near him and his father. His mother, hopefully feeling the change in the air, hadn’t stepped out from her changing booth.

Pageboy spun a dress carousel, watching the resulting blur of colour thoughtfully. She raised a hand, snapping her fingers. “Attendant!”

Silence. A few more insistent fingersnaps. “Attendant!”

A Boans girl emerged from behind the perfume counter, picking her way towards the supervillainess. Adam thought she had to be the bravest woman in the whole world. “Y-yes… ma’am?”

Pageboy removed a few dresses from the rack. “Which of these do you think would look best on me?” Her question sounded casual, like she was asking her sister on a normal Saturday shopping trip.

“…That one,” the Boans girl said, pointing to a white gown broken up by blue, swooping wrens. She screwed her eyes shut, clearly expecting a trick.

The woman thought about it for a second. “Interesting choice. I’m already wearing white.”

“…But you’re gonna wear white again, surely?”

  The villain shrugged. “Fair cop.” She strode over to the row of changing rooms, and pulled aside one of their curtains.

Crouched low to the worn, well-trodden carpet, still in her underclothes, Mrs Sinclair stared up the other woman. Her eyes darted from the skull and crossbones tattoo on one shoulder to the skeletal hand clutching a heart on the other2 before settling on her bleached irises. “H-hello,” she stammered. Looking back, Adam could swear in the mirror behind her his mother was standing. Maybe it was the angle.

The tattooed woman smiled. “Recognised me, have you? Sorry to interrupt.”

From the linoleum walkway, Redcap and Vixen both laughed. The Fox just rolled his eyes. Their compatriot pointed back at the boy. “Don’t look too hard, Red. We all know how you like older women.”

He grinned. “Not that old.”

Turning back to Mrs. Sinclair, the villainess said, “Don’t worry, ma’am.” She uttered the last word like she was addressing a long mummified widow. “None of us mean you any trouble. That I know of.” She jabbed a thumb in the direction of the other Coven members. “My friends are their own people.”

The other woman smiled queasily. “I’m sure you don’t. I mean, all that stuff they print about you, it has to be lies—”

A grin. “Oh, it’s all true. But that’s business, just like all that stuff downstairs. Right now, I’m here to try on some dresses.” She raised her voice, addressing the whole store. “No different from any of you.” She quirked a shoulder, before adding at a more conversational volume “Well, I’m probably not paying for any of mine, to be honest.”

“Well how is that fair?” Redcap shouted. He glanced around at the other Covenanters, the Fox jerking back from him like he was infectious. “We don’t want these nice folks thinking we’re snobs, do we?” The young man ran towards the bannister, screaming “As of now, one time only, 100% percent off sale at Boans! Don’t bother the checkout lady on your way out, she’s nursing a broken arm!”

The Fox raised a hand. “No, no, absolutely not3.” His voice rang with an odd authority, like he was a septuagenarian judge handing down a doom, and not a twenty-something super-criminal of vague powers in a baggy suit. “Everyone is to remain in the store until ten minutes after I and my companions exit the premises. No one will remove anything from the store without paying—”

“No!” Redcap shouted. “You’re not going to spoil this for me!” He spun on his heels, pointing at a portly, bearded fellow trying to hide amongst a forest of trench coats. “You, garden gnome!”

The man gave up on his hiding place. “Yes?” he whimpered. No one held it against him, except, maybe, Redcap himself.

“Take something, and leave.”

The Fox sighed and pulled out a heavy, silver fob watch.

“I’m fine, really,” the object of Redcap’s attention said.

Redcap frowned while raising an eyebrow. “You won’t be if you don’t do as I say.”

As the unfortunate stood there and looked for something to shoplift, the white-eyed lady shot Mrs Sinclair a look of conspiratorial glee, as though sharing a joke only they of all the women in the world could hope to get.

Eventually, the fat man settled on one of the coats he had hoped would conceal him. Draping it over his left arm, he started making his way towards the escalator, glancing left and right at the other shoppers as he passed. His face looked apologetic, whether for leaving them to the Coven’s tender mercies, or for playing along with this mad child’s panto at all.

For a second, he made eye contact with Adam. The boy tried to nod encouragingly without moving his head.

As the man walked, he started to sweat. The perspiration was joined by tears. Then red started leaking into the saltwater.

As screams rose around him like a cresting wave, the man bled from every pore, blood spilling from his mouth like wine from a drunkard. Still, he kept walking, till he collapsed face down onto the escalator, the stairs carrying him away like a funeral barge.

“I love you,” Adam’s father whispered to him. “Me and your mum love you so much.”

The Fox looked disdainfully at the younger super. There was nothing like disgust in his eyes, Adam saw. Just the arrogant contempt of an older brother failing to be impressed. “And what was that for?” he asked, cooly.

Redcap grinned, saluting the other villain. “He didn’t do as you said, bossman.”

At the changing booths, his girlfriend asked Adam’s mother her name. Casually, as though the man she had just watched die had never been anything but an early, morbid Halloween decoration.

Shaking, she answered. “Jenny. Jennifer Sinclair.”

The woman extended a hand. “Fey,” she said. “Fey of Femurs4.”

The laughter that escaped Jenny was the kind you sometimes hear at funerals. There was a snap, and the laughter tapered off into a ragged scream.

“Mummy!”

It was then Adam saw him. Towering over Redcap, Vixen, and the Fox, there was a man.

Everything was all wrong. Wet bone was jutting from his mother’s arm. That poor man heaped at the bottom of the escalator was dead, all because he had done what those freaks had told him to. And didn’t Boans have a ceiling? And why was it night already?

The Coven had all turned to look at Adam. Fey of Femurs was wearing a smirk that spoke of angry, wounded pride. Adam was surprised. Did you really pick a name like that if you didn’t want people to laugh?

The bone-warper was saying something, but if any sound was coming out of her mouth, it didn’t reach Adam. Probably just a threat pretending to be a bad joke. What mattered to him right then was why the man with the starlit eyes wasn’t doing anything. Why wasn’t anyone stopping people like the Coven from going around doing whatever they wanted?

Adam stepped out from his father’s arms. It was surprisingly easy, like he was being held by a ghost.

“Ooh, we have a brave one here.”

The man made a shoving gesture. Adam followed suit.

“That’s not how you pray, kid.” Fey extended an arm, only to frown, seeming surprised to find her hand at the end of it.

Adam pushed his hands forward. For a second, he held the sun at his fingertips.

When the glare died away, you could see through Fey of Femurs’ chest. It didn’t bleed much. There was just the smell of charred meat. She blinked a few times, her mouth opening and shutting like a fish gasping for water, and then she fell.

“You little—” Someone knocked down Redcap before he could finish. The spell was broken; people were running for the exit, a few even leaping from the bannisters, some having to avoid the droplets running from the freshly melted hole in the store roof.

Adam wasn’t done yet, though. He ran at the prone Redcap, flipping him over and using one hand to pin him. The other was saved for punching him in the face.

“You. Hurt. My. Mum!”

His strikes were those of an angry amatuer. There shouldn’t have been any force behind them, yet every blow shattered a few more of Redcap’s teeth. One of them went through his cheek.

In a corner of men’s wear, the Fox was shouting into a makeup compact, a panicked Vixen hanging off his shoulder. “Super on the premises! Evac! Evac!”

Redcap winked away like a television being turned out, leaving Adam’s fist to crack into the floor. The solid wood gave way easily, while the lino covering it bent and wrapped around his hand.

The Fox followed not a second later, leaving Vixen clawing at the empty air. “Hey!” she shouted, realizing her predicament. “Heeeeeey!”

Adam felt hands around his waist lifting him up, holding him close to the chest of someone large. He pushed away, falling back to the floor. Someone yelled. His father.

He grabbed his son by the hand. His wife had her good hand wrapped around his forearm. “We have to go!”

They were gone before the DDHA arrived.  

It was evening when Alberto had the vision. He had been sitting in his room, enjoying a private, liquid desert while rereading his childhood copy of Cuore5 for at least the sixtieth time. It was one of the only possessions he had managed to hold onto when Lawrence and the others had snuck him out of  Milan.

By all rights, he should have hated the story: a sappy, patronizing, thinly veiled morality tale of an Italy almost thankfully wiped away by the War. But nostalgia was a hell of a drug, and as a grown man, Alberto could appreciate the irony of the work of an avowed socialist being devoured by little wolf cubs across the country. Still, not the most thrilling of tales.

Maybe the vision had come to save him from the book. They were never dramatic, unless they involved fairly immediate threats to his person. It was more like the low whine of tinnitus, or the flashing of scales just beneath the surface of a deep, black lake.

He rolled his eyes: yet another sneak preview of a possible future student. He got those a lot; new enrollments sadly being the main delta of change around the Institute. Before the DDHA had almost put Alberto out of a job, these visions had been the main source of new supers for Bertie’s collection. The psychic let the old man think it was some kind of power-focused clairvoyance, which he seemed to believe, despite knowing full well his usual range. Thus Alberto was allowed to curate the combination of students that aggravated him the least. It was how he had gotten Windshear for bugging Maelstrom, Metonymy for restocking his favourite vintages, and—not to mention—Phantasmagoria for bugging Lawrence.   

Alberto wasn’t completely selfish, though. He had helped the Institute avoid some whoppers, too. Like the boy whose only power as far as he could tell was expelling porcupine like quills from his skin. And he thought he was tough! Or would have thought he was tough, Alberto wasn’t sure on the grammar. And then there was the girl who saw through all lies…

He shook his head, trying to dispel that never-memory. The esper didn’t particularly feel up to dealing with a new kid, but for want of anything better to do, he wandered down the hypothetical like a spelunker following a cave-line.

“Oh.” He grinned. Maybe he ought to give Lawrence a heads up after all.

When he felt like it.


1. So named due to their looking like the chrome appliances of a very chic giant.

2. This being before we started tattooing even our most milquetoast pop-stars.

3. The Fox would not have gotten as far as he had if hadn’t realized a protection racket required its targets to retain an income.

4. Fey of Femurs, mid-20th century Perthite supervillain. First known member of the Coven to be killed in action.

5. Or Heart.

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