Chapter Two: The Message in the Flames

After the business with the piano, the tests somehow got even more tedious. In Allison’s opinion, this was a miracle warranting far more scientific scrutiny than anything her power did. Although “power” was a term she still felt odd about being applied to any aspect of herself. Along with the German vocab and sight-reading exercises, there were intensely personal questions about one Eduard Keller, the man Allison had talked with on the phone that morning, and whom she rightly assumed was the source of her new status as a virtuoso.

Anecdotes from Keller’s childhood were left unfinished for her to complete; she was given questionnaires on his phobias, neuroses, obsessions, and deepest regrets1; she was tasked with a series of short essay topics, ranging from how his father never liked him much to how his mother never let him be a man. The format, coupled with the cheap plastic desk she had been furnished with, put Allison in mind of her classroom back at Harvey Primary; if Miss Rossi had suffered a nervous breakdown, and decided to share the wonderful news with her pupils via the medium of quizzes.

Allison was sure it was mostly lies. Especially the parts about giving private performances for Hitler2, or sailing to Tasmania in a tea chest3. Keller’s song gave her no insight into whether or not there was any truth to it, despite its seeming absurdity. Her understanding of the music was limited purely to what its subject could do, not who they were, or anything they might have done. Or, as was significantly more prominent in Keller’s particular case, what had been done to them.

She had tried having fun with these tests at first. For want of any real answers, she’d spun wild narratives about her subjects. Mathematicians from Perth met otherworldly dooms at the hands of Doctor Who, Melbournian horticologists coveted the Magic Pudding, and American historians served with distinction in the Great Emu War4. Seven Little Australians and Blinky Bill were repeatedly and shamelessly plagiarized.

She’d expected some kind of response from the people in charge. A rebuke, a warning, some kind of punishment. She had gotten no such thing, not even after a description of some obscure landscape artist’s first crush had ended with Dr. Carter being devoured by the Giant Devil Dingo. In fact, the amount of personal questions on the written tests had only increased. She had considered that maybe Dr. Carter, or whoever else read the tests, found her jokes as diverting as she did. This idea disheartened her, and she had taken to simply answering the questions with a perfunctory “don’t know!” or even a large scrawled X when her patience was exceptionally thin. The proud test-taker within her cringed, but pride in her own abilities was something she didn’t have much of these days.

During the written tests, an absolute boulder of an orderly sat in the corner of the examination room, far more engrossed in his black and white Superman reprint than the child he was meant to be watching. Allison was surprised by his choice of reading material. Aside from him being a grownup–or at least carved in the image of a grownup–she knew that newsagents had stopped stocking Superman comics years ago, assuming they even still published them. After all, there was speculation that the Flying Man had modeled himself on them. It was the cape. And the flying, but most agreed he probably would have done that anyway.

She wondered, briefly, if bringing up the Flying Man somewhere would garner some response from them-in-charge. She decided against it; she was pretty sure half the staff were already convinced she and her fellow inmates were either working for, or somehow born from, the Flying Man. It didn’t help that almost all the inmates in McClare had been small children when he had first appeared.

There was no shortage of theories regarding the young age of most identified demi-humans. Pretty much one per scientist, interested layperson, and uninformed idiot, really. The most straightforward generally took the position that there had been a change recently in the environment, something that acutely affected children. Nuclear tests copped the blame, but then, so did water fluoridation. In some circles, it was also posited that the apparent surge in demi-human populations was a legacy of World War 2 supersoldier programs5.

Other theories suggested there was some intelligence responsible for superpowers. Oddly enough, the identity of this being, whether they be men from Mars, God, the Devil, or whichever government you feared most, seemed to make little difference to their supposed motives. As for why they chose to mostly bless children with such unearthly gifts, there were two main schools of thought. One was that the flying saucers or whatever wished to lift mankind up to a new and glorious plateau of evolution, and so granted the most innocent amongst them the tools to do so. The other school of thought also supposed these entities were trying to steer human society in a particular direction, but was mostly held by people with actual experience with children.

Allison knew little about any of these theories. If anyone had asked her, she would have said the reason McClare mostly housed children was that they weren’t as good at hiding. It probably didn’t help that Australia had some practise locking up children for even more arbitrary reasons.6  

 Aside from the cliff-like orderly, a trio of nurses were also watching Allison. At least, she thought of them and the rest of the female staff at McClare as nurses, though she had never heard them addressed as such. They seemed to be trying to drown out Allison’s existence with conversation. They were huddled around a copy of Women’s Weekly, which was at least more age appropriate than the male orderly’s reading material, in Allison’s unvoiced opinion.

“Excuse me, ma’ms, I’ve finished,” Allison said, a little more timidly than she intended.

The three women looked up from their magazine, while the orderly did his best impression of someone prepared to deal with possible superhuman violence. It was a painful balancing act of trying to look as intimidating as humanly possible, while avoiding doing anything that might actually scare the child. It was not a resounding success. After a moment of silent deliberation, the maybe-nurses seemed to elect the middle member of their trio to respond.

The small, dark-haired woman gathered up the worksheets, eyeing Allison like she might explode before she made it out of the room. Admittedly, that wasn’t without precedent. Once she was gone, the other two stood up from their chairs.

“Shower-time, Allison,” said the more solidly built redhead.

She shuddered a little. “Alright.”

The redhead and the other nurse, almost disappointingly another redhead (although with a more slight build) each took one of Allison’s hands, and led her out into the hallway, the orderly following at emergency tackle distance.

If there was one skill Allison was surprised to have acquired at McClare, it was the ability to navigate its halls. If she hadn’t heard their songs, she would have assumed that the staff consisted entirely of unfortunates who wandered in, got lost, and found themselves uniforms. She couldn’t imagine that any building that large was built so uniform by accident. Maybe it was to deter escape attempts.

What really impressed her, was how effortlessly the nurses ignored her, even as she walked between them. They might as well have been carting around a filing cabinet.

Showers at McClare were usually the worst part of Allison’s day. The only way they could have been more distressing was if the staff had put a piano in there with her, but it probably wouldn’t have agreed with the moisture. The facilities had most of the expected indignities. The walls were constructed from the kind of institutional grey brick that could only aspire to almost looking clean, even if scrubbed hourly by all the janitors in Christendom. At best, the water was tepid, and at worst, it almost convinced Allison that McClare’s doctors were trying to freeze her until they knew what to do with her.

What was missing was the other inmates. When she had first arrived at McClare, and realised that she would probably be allowed to bathe at some point, she had expected it to be a grim, communal affair. Originally, she had been relieved that this was only half true, but then she noticed that she wasn’t seeing any inmates outside the shower rooms, either. Not even in the hallways. If it weren’t for their songs, she might have started to think that the other inmates were an elaborate joke being played on her7. It was disconcerting, to say the least. She couldn’t imagine what it was like for the other children.

The slighter nurse turned on the shower. “I think that’s hot enough,” she lied. “Strip off, dear.”

Sadly, Allison’s isolation did not afford her any privacy. It seemed that McClare mandated its inmates be watched at all times outside of their cells. Even in the showers. She stripped as quickly as possible, made a silent prayer to the gods of indoor plumbing8 that the water would be bearable today, and stepped under the showerhead.

To the nurses’ credit, they seemed to be making every effort to only theoretically watch Allison. They stood within eyeshot of her, but were focussing very intently on the movement of each other’s lips. She was deeply grateful the orderly was only required to stand outside in the hallway.

While Allison showered, the nurses chatted. They pondered whether working for a semi-classified facility would leave a gap on their CVs, or if the slight one would even be able to get another job after she got married that winter. On that note, they also bemoaned how poor their pay was compared to Stephen Carter and the animate slab of concrete standing outside, even though they had to deal with the demi-humans just as much–if not more frequently–than the male staff. They debated how much of a waste of money the Space Race was, and whether the symbolism of stepping on the Moon was even valid knowing the Gatehouse was already up there. At one point, one of the nurses looked like she was thinking of asking for Allison’s opinion on something or other, but thought better of it.

Allison tried to scrub herself clean as best she could, despite the soap being lowest-bidder rough. She hadn’t looked in a mirror in weeks, something she suspected was for the better. Her skin had gone paper white from lack of natural light. Once a week, the staff shaved her head, mostly to prevent lice. She actually thought that was for the best, even if it did make her look like a boy. Her old chestnut curls were something her mother had always been rather proud of, and she hated the idea of them getting manky.

She hoped she at least didn’t look as bad as she felt. She always felt vaguely ill these days, and hungry. It wasn’t that McClare didn’t feed her, or that the food was completely unpalatable, she just never ate all she was given. A full stomach was less comfort than the idea that someone, somewhere might be annoyed. She needed to have some small measure of control over her own life, even if all it amounted to was the ability to make her life a little more miserable than it needed to be. There were worse superpowers9.

“Time to dry off, Allison.”

The nurse’s tone reminded Allison of her mum. That bothered her. “Okay. But could you turn around? Please?”

The nurses acquiesced without comment. A set of clean clothes lay folded on the shower bench, but Allison tried not to wonder how they got there. The nurses hadn’t stopped talking long enough for either of them to procure them. She did notice, however, that the orderly looked as though he was trying to keep guilt from showing on his face as they made their way to Allison’s cell.

When they reached the cell, they shut the door behind her with no farewell. As places to be incarcerated went, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been10. It was a small, windowless room, with an appropriately child sized bed, chair and desk, all tightly bolted down. Her toilet was also in the room, set against the left wall. She had wet herself before she managed to adjust to that.

Lying on the desk were the three books the centre had deigned to provide Allison with, one of which was still open at her place, which she sat down to continue reading.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she read very fast for her age, and therefore had consumed The Wonder Book of Do You Know and Shackleton’s Argonauts within a couple of days of receiving them, so she was trying to pace herself with The Sword in the Stone, with little success.

She envied Merlin a little. From where she was, only being able to remember the future seemed like the better deal. If the future contained something besides this, great. If not, well, she wouldn’t have anything to compare it against. Although she had no idea how Merlin ever managed to finish a book himself.

Dinner was eventually deposited through the slot in the door, Dr. Carter having evidently failed to procure her any cake. Allison forced herself to eat nearly half of it.

After finally reaching the part where Merlin and Madam Mim had it out—which just seemed unfair on Merlin’s part—the lights cut off. She jerked in her seat. Bedtime was upon her.

She jerked in her seat. Bedtime was upon her.

Since earliest childhood, Allison had possessed a strong fear of the dark. In the absence of light, she swore she could hear the world breathe. And as the world breathed, it did so more and more laboriously. The walls seemed to close in around her, and the warmth drained from everything. The universe was a living thing, and it was dying. She could save it, but she just didn’t know how.

She tried to dispel the sensation, bolted to her bed, and opened her ears to her fellow inmates’ songs.

All songs were beautiful, even if they belonged to the dullest people ever born. Thing was, so were snowflakes, and you don’t see Eskimos wandering around in starry eyed wonder during blizzards. Songs and snowflakes may both be utterly unique and individual, but they are unique and individual in mostly the same ways. The songs of other demi-humans were another thing altogether. When she had first heard a power’s leitmotif, it was like being exposed to polyphonic symphonies after having only ever listened to one man play the triangle.

She honed in on the song of one inmate in particular, a delicate little tune with a lot of what she thought of as bells, and tried her best to reproduce it. Suddenly, her cell was filled with familiar noises. Her mother welcoming her home after school, a radio serial mostly consisting of the Phantom punching pirates, her dad complaining about the outcome of a match, of what game she wasn’t even sure; even Miss Rossi trying valiantly to make her year two class understand basic multiplication.

She would have gone for a power that allowed her to create light first, but the only inmates who could do that did so by lighting stuff on fire. That seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

As she often did on test days, she considered the possibility of escape. With the powers of dozens of other demi-humans to play with, getting out would not have been all that difficult. As for afterwards, she knew how to do an awful lot of things. For one, she was pretty sure she knew how to drive, if she could contrive some arrangement with the pedals. As for where she would drive to, she knew enough languages that she could order lunch in every diner in Europe, and even a few beyond.

If she did escape, part of her knew that going home would be a mistake. They’d look there first. As for fleeing further, she guessed most countries treated demi-humans much the same way as Australia. And she would still be an eight year old girl, without her parents, in a strange land. It might have been doable, but it honestly didn’t seem any better than what she had now.

And if it wasn’t doable, if the people who built McClare caught her again, she had heard stories about what happened to demi-humans they decided couldn’t be handled. The most pleasant involved lead. The worst involved scalpels.

She kept both her actual and metaphysical ears peeled for anyone approaching her door. She figured her best strategy for getting home was to allow Dr. Carter and his ilk to bore of her completely, and she doubted that would ever happen if they knew just how much she could copy.

Just as she began drifting off into welcome sleep, a green flash flared in the centre of the cell. A small piece of notepaper wafted onto the floor. She scurried out of bed, picked up the paper, and tried to read it before the glow completely faded. It was a short, perfunctory message, written in a childish scrawl.

It’s taken me five six seven EIGHT!!! goes to get this bloody thing to go away. Hope it got to you OK. Sorry about all this. Will get better. Promise.

-AB

Allison wanted to be angry at the note’s writer. She wanted to thank him, too. She wanted to believe something was going to change, and soon. Mostly, though, she just wanted to figure out how to hide it, lest whoever woke her up the next morning wonder where it came from.

Destroying it was out of the question. That would feel like destroying the promise, as if it had never been made. She eventually settled on hiding it inside The Sword in the Stone, hoping they didn’t decide to cycle out her books early, and crawled back into bed, trying to believe what it said.

The next few days were spectacularly uneventful. Allison was amazed it was possible for so little to differ in that amount of time. There weren’t even any tests. She wondered if McClare had finally decided they had gotten all they could from her, but figured that feeding her would cost them less than the petrol they’d use taking her home.

The note had become something of a totem for her. When she tried to enjoy its hiding place, she would often flick ahead a few dozen pages to reread it. She started to try and discern hidden meaning in the thirty words: codes that, if deciphered and followed, would guarantee her freedom. She agonized over whether the crossed out numbers had any significance.

Without the light torments of Dr. Carter, time began to slip from Allison’s grip. Meals, showers, and bedtime provided her day some shape, but she had no way of keeping track of the hours between. They all congealed into one painfully extended moment. Without a window, even the sun couldn’t give her any hints. If a genie had offered her one wish, there was about a fifty-fifty chance she would have asked for a clock.

She heard the song long before its maker made it to her door. It was brassy, and seemed to almost fade in and out as she listened to it. It was very familiar to her. For starters, she had heard it grow and change nearly every day for three years.

She turned to face the door, her body starting to twitch with nervous energy.

She was sure it didn’t take as long as it felt like it did for her door to open. If it had, surely the whole centre would have crumbled into dust. The sun would have swollen red, evaporated the oceans, driving humanity to extinction, and leaving the Earth ready for a new, more vital civilization. Maybe geckos.

The man who opened the door had a rich song, for an everyday human being, at least. He was wearing a green checkered suit and was as broad as some of the farmers Allison had known back in Harvey. His beard was full, and although greying, still had a fair amount of red in it. He looked as if he could have pulled the metal door off his hinges if he felt like it.

There was definitely pity in his eyes, mixed with something Allison couldn’t quite put her finger on. Fascination, maybe? Expectation?  

There was also a young boy, about Allison’s age, with sadly roughly the same haircut, standing behind him, dark haired and narrow featured. Though it didn’t seem like something he had much experience with, he was grinning at her.

“Allison Kinsey,” said Dr. Herbert Lawrence. “I believe we have much to discuss.”  

Despite herself, Allison found herself smiling, too.


1. Given that his best paying job in twenty years was allowing a small girl to absorb his competency as a human being, there were a few of these.

2. Herr Keller did in fact once perform for Adolph Hitler, albeit in a village pub in 1926.

3. The HMAS Tea Chest being the cargo vessel on which Keller arrived in Australia in 1943.

4. All glory to the Democratic Emu Cooperative of Campion.

5. To their eternal disappointment, the Nazis’ most formidable superpowered operative was a bottle-blonde.

6. Most children’s songs Allison had heard within McClare had a similar tonal shift when they were brought in. Some did not. She had never seen any, but she presumed from what her parents had told her these songs came from half-caste children.

7. This might actually have been true if she was being held in the Kimberley Demihuman Asylum, which only housed one inmate for its entire operational lifespan. Although, she wandered in and out.

8. Most of these can usually be found in Rome.

9. But not many.

10. Panopticon, a galactically distributed periodical focusing on dungeons and other prisons, put out an Earth edition in 1965, it would have been lucky to receive two and a half iron manacles. To put it another way, it was halfway between the oubliettes of Ostech, where executions are carried out over the course of decades, and the pleasure catacombs of Enlil, where political prisoners appeal to have their sentences extended unto perpetuity.

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