Allison stared at the piano, trying to will it to collapse under the weight of her disdain. It wouldn’t have been the oddest thing she’d seen, or done, as of late. Regardless of her preferences, the battered old spinet stubbornly remained intact. Or at least as intact as when it was hauled into the observation room that morning. It had been drafted from a quiet retirement in a primary school music lab for the sake of today’s round of testing, but that wouldn’t have inspired much sympathy from Allison.
A copy of Bach’s Goldberg Variations lay open on the music rack. At least, that’s what it said on the cover. Allison couldn’t read sheet music; it could have been “Bah Bah Black Sheep” for all she knew. Still, she wasn’t leaving the observation room till she mastered the piece. By ear, if need be. She’d been at it for hours, and still hadn’t gotten past the first couple of measures.
There was a click. A tinny, weary voice filled the room. “Allison, we really need to push on here.”
The day had started off fairly well, at least when taken in context with the rest of Allison’s time at the McClare Demi-Human1 Containment Centre. She had been taken from her cell, escorted by the traditional pair of burly orderlies to observation room 6, and told to play whatever she felt like. She wasn’t a particularly musical child, but she could manage a few decent parlour ballads. Just being allowed to make noise made her feel a little better. Then she was subjected to an inexplicable phone conversation with a retired concert pianist from Vienna. Now she was remembering why she was never terribly interested in music to begin with.
She breathed in, then let out a sigh. “I can’t do it.” There was a whine to her voice that made her sound even younger than she actually was, but it couldn’t be helped. “Nobody here’s good enough.”
There was another click, and a sigh. “Look, I know this isn’t much fun. I’m not exactly having the time of my life here, either. But there are people we both have to answer to. If you cooperate, I’ll try to get you a bit of cake or something with your dinner, alright?”
He sounded genuinely contrite. Nobody at McClare ever enjoyed what they put Allison through, as far as she could tell. The doctors, the orderlies, even the armed men who had accompanied her the precious few times she had been allowed outside: they all seemed to regret how she was treated. They still went along with it, of course. She imagined they had all sorts of justifications for why.
Allison steeled herself best she could, and started over. She managed fifteen seconds before stumbling. A loud, angry sounding beep played over the speakers, making her flinch.
She did, with little improvement. A slipped finger, a wrong note struck, another reprimanding shriek.
“From the top,” ordered Dr. Carter, attempting joviality.
It went on like this until—after more than a dozen failures—Allison slumped onto the keyboard and wept.
In the darkened room behind the window, Dr. Stephen Carter lit another Winfield. Surprisingly enough, the fact that making an eight-year-old girl cry was becoming a fixture of his workday did not fill him with confidence for the direction his career had taken. He was often assigned to handle Allison Kinsey’s testing. Considering what some of the inmates at McClare could do, and what they had already done to some of his colleagues, he had to assume it was because someone liked him. Whenever he spoke to or even looked at the girl, he couldn’t help but be reminded of his own daughter at home. Sadly, this failed to create much of a rapport between the two. Mostly, he coped by trying to think of Allison in abstract terms. A thing that ceased to exist when he clocked off. For her part, he doubted she harboured much affection for him. She probably assumed he was the one who came up this nonsense with the piano. In truth, he didn’t design the experiments, only carried them out. He’d heard rumours about the one who did, but he didn’t put much stock in them. The only suitable domicile for the man—if that term was even appropriate—they described was a decrepit castle prone to lightning strikes, and he doubted Australia had any of those.
Dr. Carter was still vaguely surprised by how his life was playing out. He had never heard anyone talk seriously about superpowers before 1962. There were various more official terms for the phenomena, but “superpower” was the only one that didn’t make him feel as if he was inching closer and closer to old age whenever he said it out loud. Everyone knew they existed, of course. You’d have to had been raised in a bomb shelter2 not to realise that there were people out there with capabilities beyond those of everyday mortals. The thing was, that equally described many singers, or moderately successful athletes. Honestly, most superhumans were hardly more impressive. The only substantiated reports Dr. Carter could recall from his youth involved rubbish like cattle station workers manifesting the strength of two men, or schoolkids waking up with the power to manipulate the flow of baked beans.
Okay, that wasn’t quite true. You did have the occasional supervillain, even back then, but they almost always operated under the thumb of perfectly average criminal syndicates, comfortably out of sight of the general public. Those who didn’t tended to have brief, spectacular careers, before being either captured, or more commonly, disappearing with a few armoured trucks’ worth of pounds. It was generally agreed that any real, concerted effort to hinder their plans would just encourage them to stick around longer.
That may have been why the Australian superhero scene had all but died out by the early 50’s.
Wherever there were supervillains, superheroes almost inevitably emerged3. It was a conflict that in all probability started the exact moment there was more than one superpowered being on the planet at the same time, and would only end when either all superhumanity was completely annihilated, or when the tailors who made their costumes threw down their tools for the cause of peace and good taste.
Still, none of the great Australian vigilantes turned out to have much staying power. Lone Wolf, the Crimson Comet, the Raven; they all flourished and faded away within a fleeting niche between the end of one war and the beginning of the next. For most of them, secret identities meant it would never be known if they had retired, fallen in battle, or even given up and swelled the ranks of those they once fought4. Superheroes were an extremely private lot, despite what their choice of outfits might have suggested. For a few of them, it was debatable whether they were really superhuman at all, or just normal men and women who sought strength in anonymity and a gimmick.
When Dr. Carter was young, he always thought the serious superhumans, the ones that got comic strips and film serials made about them, lived in cities like New York or London, when he gave them any thought at all. Looking back, he suspected if he had been a resident of either of those places, he would have said they dwelt in isolated backwaters like the Australian Outback, or windswept monasteries carved directly into mountain peaks. Either way, you could usually afford to pretend they didn’t exist.
At least, that was the case until October 27, 1962, when the Flying Man made himself known, and the Cold War came to an abrupt conclusion. At the very least, the battle lines had been redrawn.
If any government agency had been specifically charged with monitoring superhuman activities before ‘62, Dr. Carter was fairly sure they would have been forced to beg the Dairy Board for office space. After a hastily convened Royal Commision, however, the newly established Department of Demi-Human Affairs had found itself burdened with more money than they knew what to do with. Some of which was used to lure Dr. Carter away from what he now realised was a perfectly nice do nothing position with the Western Australia Forests Department.
His internal rehearsal of that night’s ruminations at his local pub was interrupted by the small phone on his console ringing. Startled back to attention, he picked up the receiver. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Is Subject B within estimated range of Subject A?”
“Affirmative,” replied a lab technician on the other end. “He’s asking a lot of questions, though. Should I say anything?”
Dr Carter rolled his eyes. “He’s probably already guessed most of the important bits. Just tell him he’s about to make the easiest £800 of his entire life.”
“Got it.” He hung up.
When Allison’s sobs seemed to have subsided, Dr. Carter opened the intercom again. “Have you tried using your power?”
She glared up at the window separating them, her eyes still red with tears. “Yes. Of course I did. Why wouldn’t I?” Genuine anger had seeped into her voice.
He mulled over his response a bit. “I’m sorry. That was a stupid question. Could you give it another go, though? For me?” He instantly regretted that last part, even before he saw the look on Allison’s face. Nevertheless, she shrugged and tilted her head, as though listening to some note being played in the distance.
There were a little under a hundred songs in McClare Containment Centre. Allison could think of no better word for them than songs, though it was doubtful they could ever be recreated on the piano, or on any other man made instrument. Nor could any human voice hope to replicate them. Perhaps that was why the music produced through those means never grabbed her interest. The music people made on purpose could never compare to the music they made just by existing.
The nearest and clearest was Dr. Carter’s. In the past few weeks, it had grown as familiar as her own mum’s or dad’s. But she wasn’t interested in that song; she was barely interested when it was still new, really. There were forty-nine songs she was interested in, but not right that second. There was only one song she could hear that she hadn’t already sampled. She focused on it. There were, of course, the chord progressions and countermeasures that described such talents as walking and talking, eating and breathing; as unique and yet universal as a fingerprint. The song was long and fairly complex, so it was probably coming off someone old. A man, she guessed, based on the tenor. As always, there were large parts of the song she couldn’t parse. She thought that perhaps, rather than being things the person could do, it was everything that had ever happened to them.
Some of the melody’s ornamentation was familiar, but far more developed than in any other instance she had previously encountered. Music which described musical ability always perplexed Allison. For one thing, it never sounded anything like what the person actually played. Piano players, for instance, always put her in mind of wind chimes, light and delicate. She amended the new variations into her own song almost automatically.
Immediately, Allison’s posture changed. She suddenly became much more aware of her own breathing. Her expression determined, she splayed her fingers, cracked her knuckles, and played. And it was wonderful. Not once did she even glance at the sheet music, though it would have been perfectly legible if she had. Over the next forty minutes, Dr. Carter was treated to a calibre of performance that could only be the product of a lifetime of training and passion for the art of pianism. All from a tired, disinterested little girl not even ten years old.
Dr. Carter tried and failed to suppress a smile, then felt very grateful that there had never been any indication Allison possessed x-ray vision. The live music made for a nice break from routine, even if his appreciation of it was somewhat tainted knowing how little pleasure the performer was getting out of it. Moreover, he had proven once and for all that Allison’s ability was not based on actual soundwaves. Sure, it hadn’t been his idea, but he was enough of a scientist to take some pleasure in the simple act of discovery, or at least confirmation.
In some respects, he was right to be pleased. Superpowers often seemed to actively resist scientific inquiry. Dr. Werther, a former workmate of Dr. Carter’s at the centre, and as staunch an empiricist as you could hope to find, had always maintained that there would someday be a model which reconciled all superhuman abilities within the framework of conventional physics. Last Dr. Carter heard, he’d taken to burning other researchers alive, while screaming that Sir Francis Bacon lied to him. While floating, for some reason.
Before coming to McClare, Allison had been considered a genuine child prodigy by most who knew her. She certainly was good at a lot of things. Since her arrival, she’d displayed great competence in landscape painting, calculus, European history, cigarette rolling, and cocktail mixing. All reasonable talents for a bright, middle class child, but probably not all at once. They say it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practise to fully master any skill. Allison, it seemed, could cut that down to about three seconds of bugger all, as long as someone nearby had put in the hours. If Dr. Carter had been a more prideful man, he might’ve taken offence at the idea that Allison had likely assimilated his whole education just to stave off boredom. He didn’t see it helping much.
Sometimes, when his conscience threatened to overwhelm his well cultivated detachment, he tried soothing it by thinking of all the interesting, useful skills Allison had acquired thanks to the Containment Centre’s tests. How likely was it that she would’ve acquired such refined musical talents in a town like Harvey? It sounded hollow even in his own head.
Eventually, Allison concluded the piece. If she felt any sense of accomplishment, it was not evident in her expression, only bone-deep exhaustion.
“Dr. Carter, can I go back to my room now?”
“Not quite yet. We still have some follow up tests.” It actually hurt to look at Allison just then. “Sorry.” If he was going to be horrible, he might as well go all out. “You know, these tests could be a little more fun for both of us if you would be a bit more honest about your talents.”
Allison went white. “I am being open.”
Dr. Carter rubbed his temples, preparing for one more trip down a very well worn path. “Allison, I’ve read the report on your commitment to the center. It’s quite interesting, at least more so than Bach.”
She rounded on him. “Someone messed up. Or they wanted to make me look more exciting.” She halfheartedly kicked the piano. After a few solid decades of being an accomplice to mandatory music lessons, it barely noticed the abuse. “This is all you’re going get out of me. If you want to keep testing me, you’re just going to make me do stuff like this until I’ve learnt how to do everything.” She smiled without humour. “I don’t think I can play the spoons yet, but I’m sure we’ll get to it someday.”
As the orderlies escorted Allison from the room, Dr. Carter pondered what she had told him. She was right, really. After the conclusive results of today’s experiment, simply making Allison absorb new talents would no longer provide them with useful information. And if Dr. Carter stopped providing useful information on her, it was likely that he would be assigned a new inmate. Maybe the Scotswoman who insisted she was over 3,000 years old, and hurled lightning at anyone who suggested otherwise. That simply would not do. He considered putting in a proposal to perform some tests with Arnold Barnes, but even if his superiors were likely to take any idea of his onboard, there was no way in Hell they would allow Arnold and Allison to even be in the same state again.
On the other side of the country, in a facility so identical to McClare it made one suspect that a mad student of brutalism had stumbled upon the secret of architectural cloning, Arnold Barnes stood in the doorway of his cell, still vaguely expecting the rough hands of an orderly to shove him forward. He was leaving Roberts Demi-Human Containment Centre. For good, if Dr. Lawrence was being honest. It was the best news he could have hoped for. Well, being told he was actually going home would have been the best news he could have hoped for. Or maybe that he was going home, and that a great deal of the people he had met recently would be taking his place in his cell, and that its door would be confiscated, and duly replaced with spiders.
“Arnold,” said Dr. Lawrence, interrupting his fantasy, “we do have to get going now.”’
“I know. Not even sure why I’m not running out of here.”
Dr. Lawrence lay a hand on his shoulder. “It’s easy to forget what a good situation feels like. It can be a little overwhelming.”
The two of them walked down the hallway, past the mostly empty cells which surrounded Arnold’s. “Sir,” he said, “could you see about getting this friend of mine out? I think they have her locked up back home.”
Dr. Lawrence stopped for a second. “Hmm. What does she do?”
Arnold was a little taken aback by the question. He sort of expected to be asked her name first. “Um, most things, sir.”
Dr. Lawrence grinned. “Now whatever do we mean by that?”
1. Officially accepted term for any person or person-shaped entity possessing abilities or traits considered beyond the human baseline used by many Commonwealth governments between 1962 and 1971. The ability to say it with a straight face is often considered evidence of extra-normal ability.↩
2. Even then, at least one known supervillain was reportedly raised in a fallout shelter. Presumably he knew.↩
3. Some deeply strange people insist that it is in fact the other way around. Why criminally inclined super-beings should wait for someone who can actually stand up to them to appear before taking advantage of their particular skills is usually left unexplained.↩
4. One superhero, The Phantom Ranger, is said to have began his career in the hopes of landing a book deal and a movie option. His self published autobiography, Cape and Cowl, was remaindered, and adapted into a direct-to-DVD film thirty-six years after his death.↩