The train journey was enjoyable enough. Allison spent most of the time watching the landscape flow past their window. What could charitably be called a city quickly gave way to countryside. As nations went, Australia was still young, or so the people in charge of it those days liked to tell themselves; the southwest a little more so than some other parts of the country. Yet all things seemed equally ancient under the February sun. Paddock fences that had only been erected the day before looked like they had burst from the ground thousands of years before humankind was even a nasty rumour. Newness, is by definition, a fleeting state of being in even the most forgiving conditions, but in that kind of unrelenting heat and light, it was almost purely hypothetical. It didn’t help that it was a Sunday1.
Early on, they passed through Harvey. Allison kept catching familiar snatches of music, which lingered only long enough for her to remember how much she missed them.
She was glad when they finally left the town behind.
Allison kept drifting back to her parents. She wondered if they were ever told why their daughter hadn’t come home from school that day. And even if they were, did they know she was heading somewhere better? And if they knew all that, what she was–what she had always been–would her absence even be unwelcome? She hated herself for entertaining the notion, but it refused to leave her.
Arnold’s parents weren’t far from his thoughts, either. He mostly worried about his father. Frederick Barnes might not have been quite as unstable as the good people of Harvey made him out to be, but even Arnold knew he wasn’t exactly well, either. The war had left him crippled, in chronic pain, and reliant on his wife’s income to keep the family afloat, and the other blokes around town had not been in any hurry to let him forget it. As if he might have liked not being able to provide for his own family. All he could give his youngest son was his love, and he did so in spades, even as he openly claimed that love was a business best left up to women and small children.
Arnold imagined his father would be writing letters. The West Australian probably had a cabinet dedicated to Frederick Barnes’ protracted demands that his son be returned to his care, that Robert Menzies be sacked, preferably literally, and that the Flying Man be shot and stuffed for getting everyone so worked up in the first place. The cabinet closest to the shredder, probably, but still.
Both had asked if they could go home. Of course they had. Repeatedly. Dr. Lawrence and Françoise in turn had gently but firmly explained all the reasons that couldn’t happen. The government had formally removed them from the custody of their parents. Dr. Lawrence could only take them because of some deal he had with the DDHA. And even if they could go back, did they really want their families to have to live with the kind of fear and suspicion they would attract? Then there was also the matter of learning to use their abilities safely.
These were all sound, sensible arguments (though Allison couldn’t help but wonder how the ability to be very good at things could hurt anyone by accident) but they offered little solace.
Dr. Lawrence seemed intent on keeping their minds too busy to dwell on such dark thoughts. He had endless questions about the children’s lives, families, and powers. Could they remember a time when they didn’t have powers? Did they know of any relatives with similar abilities. Were any of their grandparents from a specific Siberian village? Did their mothers make a habit of lingering near glowing, whispery minerals?
By tacit agreement, Arnold went first. Whether for Allison’s benefit, or a desire to avoid repeating himself too much, it looked like Dr. Lawrence had refrained from questioning Arnold too deeply about his powers before now. “I only found out about this,”–the veins on his right arm pulsed with green light–“a couple of Christmases ago. There was something in the shops I wanted–can’t even remember what the stupid thing was now–but there was no way Mum could ever afford it. And Father Christmas never drops round our place2. I just… I wanted it so much, and the light shot out, and it was gone. I don’t think anyone saw, but it took a while to make it stop doing whatever it wanted. I didn’t even know I was teleporting–is that the word?–stuff until I found the bloody toy in the bushes. I thought I was just blowing stuff up. Still want to know where our cat went.”
Dr. Lawrence nodded, eyes alight with fascination. “And no one else in your family can do this?”
Arnold shook his head. “No. I mean, far as I know. Mum could just be too good a Christian to do it, I don’t know.”
He looked at the boy quizzically. “Can’t remember anything ‘weird’ happening before your power manifested?”
“Like being bitten by a radioactive moving man?” added Françoise, not looking up from her copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason–and the Mills & Boon novella concealed within it. She and Alberto had mostly kept their silence during the journey, the latter occupying himself with some Italian comic with a bloke in an all concealing black outfit in the act of stealing a no doubt priceless jewel on the cover. Now and then, he’d pause to take a swig from a flask.
“Nah, nothing like that.” Arnold replied.
Comic books would have you believe that those demi-humans who did not have the strange fortune of being born with their gifts acquired them in the wildest of circumstances. Brave explorers were bestowed unimaginable power by ancient Tibetan spirits3. Disgraced scientists tested improbable chemical and radiological treatments on their awkwardly named wards. Noble idiots explored what should have been left alone, lest the communists find someone stupid enough first. One-in-a-million industrial accidents seemed to occur with disturbing regularity.
This was all perfectly accurate, but failed to represent the unfortunate situation faced by a great number of demi-humans. For every one that could trace their powers to one big, obvious event in their lives, there were perhaps two or three who never could. They might have been bitten by an alien mosquito left behind by interstellar students on their gap year, or been the victim of some familial curse so ancient, even its speaker’s ghost had forgotten why it was in such a bad mood, or even had their name drawn out of a hat as part of a bet on Olympus.
“Hmm. And you can’t teleport yourself?”
Arnold glared at him. “No. If I could, why would I have needed you to come and get me out?”
Dr. Lawrence closed his eyes and gave a small smile. “True, true. What I find fascinating is that you seem to have bypassed most of the usual limitations of teleporters. Most others I know of need to have been somewhere in order to teleport there, or are limited to line of sight. You appear to only need the basic idea of a place. And you’re not limited by touch. You said you once teleported something to the Gatehouse, correct?”
“I think so4. When I tried teleporting something to Timbuktu, the light just wouldn’t come out… where is Timbuktu, anyway?”
“Mali. And all that in exchange for not being able to move your own person. The universe sometimes seems to have a sense of fairness, doesn’t it?”
Allison found it amazing how casually Dr. Lawrence discussed the intricacies of what she could only consider magic. It was like witnessing the parting of the Red Sea, only for the Israelite next to you to start musing about its impact on the Egyptian fishing industry, especially in light of the looming labour shortage.
Dr. Lawrence turned his attention towards her. “Now, Allison, tell us what you can do.”
Allison looked away from the window. “Oh. You don’t know already?”
“Only what Arnold told us. Apparently you can do ‘most things’.”
Arnold looked a little abashed, being reminded of that.
Alberto cleared his throat. “There’s also McClare’s file on you, but I wouldn’t trust those tossers to identify the amazing power of breathing. They were still convinced Arnold here was lying when we got to him. Did they get anything right?”
She sighed. “Most of it.”
He grinned wolfishly. “And the speculative parts?” He went to take another drink from his flask, when it was suddenly consumed by what looked like lime flames.
Allison shook the flask, which had appeared in her hand, attempting to match Alberto’s expression. It was an admirable failure. “Yep!”
Dr. Lawrence applauded, while Françoise contented herself with a golf clap. Alberto reached over and snatched his flask back, scowling. “No need to show off.”
“Brilliant!” bellowed Dr. Lawrence, making everyone present all the more grateful for the privacy of their little compartment. “Fantastic!”
Allison smiled. Nobody had ever complimented her power before, unless Dr. Carter’s half-hearted encouragement to get on with it so he could go home counted. Sure, people had been praising her myriad talents ever since she could remember, but it was hard to muster any pride in them, knowing that most, if not all of them rightfully belonged to other people.
“It doesn’t last,” she explained. “I mean, stuff like being able to play the spoons or jump rope really good stays with me forever, but superpowers just kinda fade if I can’t hear the song they came from. I can maybe hold on to them for an hour if I really try. But thank you, Dr. Lawrence.”
He beamed. “Please do call me Lawrence, Allison. Or Herbert, if you want to be cruel.”
Françoise looked bothered by something. “Could it be generally acknowledged how little sense this makes.”
Alberto raised an eyebrow. “Less so than any other power?”
“Yes! Think about it, when our newest student here absorbs some everyday talent, her body and brain surely has to change a little; muscle memory and all that. Except when Allison samples what we arbitrarily call a superpower, her ability apparently deems it necessary to actively undo those changes after a while.”
Allison had never thought about it that way. “Well, superpowered songs always sound way more, I don’t know, interesting? Complex? No offense, Lawrence.”
He chuckled. “None taken. When you’ve made a study of posthumanity as long as I have, you learn to accept how far fall short you fall of greatness.” He sighed wistfully. “And it’s a privilege to be confused by superpowers, Françoise. Never forget that.”
“As for anyone else in my family being this way, my dad’s brothers and sisters are good at a lot of things, but not that many. No idea about mum’s family, she had to leave them all behind in the Old Country.” Allison’s mother had never gotten around to explaining which Old Country she actually hailed from. When she tried picturing it, goats featured heavily.
She glanced at Françoise, who was still fuming over the universe’s refusal to at least break its own rules elegantly. “Um, what exactly can you and Alberto do?”
Françoise was about to answer when Lawrence shushed her. “Be patient, dear. We both know a practical demonstration will be much less dry.”
The other three looked at Lawrence like he’d just thrown a kitten out the window. Ignoring them, he waved one hand at Alberto. “Ti-Alberto here is your standard grab bag psychic. A little psychometry–that’s knowing an object’s past through touch–some clairvoyance, mind-reading.” He saw the look on Allison’s face. “Oh, don’t fret, Alberto’s taken an oath to never breach another human being’s mental privacy without their consent.”
Allison looked at Alberto warily. “On my life,” he said flatly, taking a long draught from the flask. His tone and expression gave Allison little confidence that statement was true.
“More importantly,” continued Lawrence, “he has a wonderful knack for sniffing out posthumans. Our little operation would never have gotten this far without him.”
If Alberto appreciated the acknowledgement, he kept it to himself.
“Well,” said Lawrence, lifting Allison from the back of the rickety Holden Ute and setting her down beside Arnold, “what do you think?”
The New Human Institute was beautiful. If, in the months and years to follow, you asked either child to describe the place, that would be the only constant. A large brick homestead, practically a manor house, overlooked acres of sloping plains thickly carpeted with dry grass, thirstily awaiting the winter rains. Gnarled eucalyptus trees dotted the landscape, interspersed with a number of small cottages and other outbuildings. The most obvious natural boundary to the property was the river that ran along its northernmost edge, before snaking off into the bushlands that boxed the Institute in on all sides.
What struck Allison most deeply, though, were the songs. There were fewer than at McClare, maybe thirty in total, but it was definitely a case of quality over quantity. The DDHA operated on a strict better safe than sorry policy, imprisoning any demi-human they could get their hands on. Sure, one of Allison’s fellow inmates could only make flowers sing, but who knew? If he were allowed to roam free, he might very well set national secrets to a tune and have a potted plant in the Kremlin serenade Leonid Brezhnev5. Allison did not yet completely understand the grammar of superhuman leitmotifs, but she understood enough to know that the Institute’s student body was largely made up of exactly the kind of demi-humans people worried about.
At the moment, it looked like playtime was afoot at the Institute. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was more than a little surreal. A menagerie of beasts composed of smoke and fire pursued ecstatic children through the grass. One young girl seemed to be leaping in and out of gaps in the air. Animated toy soldiers stabbed at the ankles of the unwary. A gaggle of teenagers observed all this dispassionately, from about thirty feet up in the air. None of the baseline grownups keeping an eye on everyone seemed at all alarmed by what was going on.
Allison couldn’t bring herself to respond. No answer she could think of could encompass even a fraction of what she was seeing. It would be like trying to swallow a whole watermelon in one go.
“I like it,” said Arnold, matter-of-factly.
“Glad to hear it!” replied Lawrence. “Anything stand out?”
“It’s not Roberts Containment Centre.”
“Hah! Fair enough.” Lawrence looked the two children over. Neither of them looked particularly healthy. They obviously hadn’t been eating or sleeping right for quite some time, and were awfully pale. Most of the demi-human sanitariums Lawrence had seen were content so long as their “patients” weren’t actively dying. “How about we get you two checked in?” he said with all the cheer in the world. He might have even dug into some of the Moon’s reserves.
He led the group up towards the farmhouse. Occasionally students would run up, fly up, or resolve out of light in front of them, and greet them.
“Yes, yes, glad to be back. Arnold here’s an external teleporter, Allison’s a little harder to explain. You can ask her all about it later. Now, off you pop.”
The boy who had ambushed them squinted at Allison, and blinked out of existence. There was a loud crack as air rushed to fill the empty space.
“Lucky,” muttered Arnold.
Lawrence tussled Arnold’s hair, still grinning. “Look at it like this: Jumpcut can only do line of sight, you just need the ghost of an idea of where you want something to go.”
He muttered a bit at that and kept walking. Allison on the other hand stopped in her tracks. “Jumpcut?”
She received no answer.
When they arrived at the farmhouse’s veranda, a game of chess was in progress6. The players were a wiry black man with his head shaved, and a short, thin lipped woman with nut brown skin and a rather aquiline nose, her hair a frizzy brown mass that seemed to exist in a state of benign neglect. To Allison’s shock, the man was dressed completely in leather. She found herself counting down the seconds till heatstroke took him, but he stubbornly remained alive. The woman was dressed much more appropriately for the weather, but Allison couldn’t help but think bright orange was an odd colour for summer.
Their songs made for a stark contrast. The woman’s was of a sort Allison had not yet encountered before. It was an intricate one, with a lot of what she decided resembled violin more than anything, albeit played underwater, with elements of what sounded distressingly like piano chords. She had held off on sampling any of Lawrence’s students so far, partly out of politeness, partly because she had learned from experience what tapping into an unknown power could bring down on her, but she was looking forward to trying this one out; even if it did remind her of the Devil’s own instrument. The man’s song, on the other hand—Allison felt terrible thinking this—was one of the most boring she had ever heard, at least compared to the other demi-human songs she had encountered, assuming it even was in fact anything but a baseline tune. The one thing that stuck out to her was a discordant strain that ran through the tune, but even that she’d seen in a few other grownups back home.
“Basilisk! Żywie!” boomed Lawrence as they approached. It was then Allison decided that at least three sets of parents were all in on a very protracted practical joke. Arnold had a similar idea, though he was imagining a government incentives program aimed at strengthening the bullying industry.
The man—both Arnold and Allison assumed he was Basilisk, though they had no solid reason why—waved at the group dismissively, frowning in concentration at the chess set. It looked like he was winning by a wide margin. Allison was only as good a chess player as about half the population of Harvey and everyone at McClare combined, which as it turned out wasn’t all that great, so she assimilated the more mundane parts of his song, snagging Xhosa and Afrikaans in the deal, too.
The woman looked utterly resigned to her loss, as though she had known it was coming since the beginning of all things. “Hello, Lawrie. New students make it here intact?” Her accent uncomfortably reminded Allison of her mother. She nodded at Françoise and Alberto. “Melusine, Tiresias.”
Okay, make that at least five sets of parents.
“Mostly,” said Lawrence. “Before we give them the grand tour, could you look them over quickly?”
She moved to stand up when the man raised a hand. “Queen to F7. Mate.”
The woman looked down at the chessboard. Her King was cornered in F8. “You bastard,” she said, calmly. For some reason, she moved the man’s pieces. He, or maybe they, did indeed achieve mate. The man laughed. It sounded like the noise a cat made when it was informing a mouse of its dinner plans. “Don’t fret, Żywie, I’ll let you play white next time.” Well, that settled that, unless they were somehow both Żywie, which wouldn’t have been the strangest thing Allison had heard that hour.
Both of them stood up. While Alberto’s leanness gave the impression of someone who never quite finished growing, Basilisk seemed more like he tightly coiled. He had something of a dancer’s buil, although Allison couldn’t hear a hint of that in his song. “Pleased to make both your acquaintances,” said Basilisk, flashing them a reserved but genuine enough smile. “I would shake your hands, but I imagine you’ll want to touch something or other in the next few hours.”
Allison tilted her head at this.
“Basilisk’s bodily fluids corrode nearly everything. The only substance truly immune is living flesh, but things that used to be alive hold up better,” Lawrence explained.
Ah, so not only were they ignoring the elephant in the room, but also pointing out a flock of invisible pink dragons Allison hadn’t even noticed. Although, now that she was was expecting it, she could smell a faint acrid scent coming off Basilisk. “Okay.” She turned to Żywie. “What do you do?”
“To make a long story short, healing. Which it looks like you two need a bit of. So, who’s first?”
Allison and Arnold glanced at each other. A conservation composed entirely of narrowed eyes and micro-expressions played out between them7>:
What? I got you out of McClare, fair’s fair.
What are you so scared of? You’ve known these people longer than me.
Yeah, by like, a couple of days. And one of them is Alberto.
Why would they drag us all the way up here just to turn us into donkeys or something?
Because I’m sure Melusine, Basilisk, and Żywie aren’t into anything weird. And donkeys?
I don’t know! Fine, I’ll go first.
Allison stepped forward. “How do we do this?”
“If I could take your hand for a second? Right, thank you. Now, this will most likely be… less than comfortable. Try not to to be alarmed.”
Allison felt like hundreds of tiny wires were spreading from Żywie’s hand into her veins, reaching every corner of her being. It should have hurt like hell. The fact that it didn’t somehow made it worse. She wanted to pull away, but her body didn’t seem to be listening to her.
“Please try not to squirm. Let’s see what the damage is. I’m not going to ask how you got the concussion, but if you somehow get another one, don’t worry: falling asleep won’t kill you. Concussions don’t actually work like that. Now that’s a nasty recessive, think we can safely dump it. Vitamin D deficiency? In high summer! Never took you outside, I shouldn’t wonder. Used to see it in my village after long winters. You at peace with your freckles?” Allison was allowed to nod. “Good on you. Your maternal grandparents didn’t have much to eat growing up, did they? If I adjust your DNA methylation a little-there, you should end up with another inch or two when all’s said and done.”
She went on like this for a few minutes. Allison only understood about a quarter of it, but it was enough to leave her in awe of the woman.
When Żywie seemed satisfied with her handiwork, she finally looked Allison in the eye. “Your hair. I’d hazard a guess that isn’t how you normally keep it?”
“I can accelerate its growth a bit. A few days versus a couple of weeks.”
“That’d be pretty great, actually.”
“Then we’re done.” She felt the wires retract. Żywie let go of her hand. She felt better then she had in weeks; maybe ever. “It should taper off by Wednesday. If not, come find me, or convince someone to put on a production of ‘Rapunzel’. Arnold?”
It was much the same with Arnold. Apparently he was at a high risk for prostate cancer later in life. Or had been, anyway.
“Why can I taste lemon lollies?”
Żywie smiled, before letting go of his wrist. “Makes me feel more like an actual pediatrician.” She headed towards the front door. “Afraid I can’t join you on the tour, lesson plans need finishing. Do make sure these two get extra helpings at dinner, Lawrie.”
“Amazing, isn’t she?” said Lawrence, once she was inside.
“Yeah,” said Arnold. “Is it bad I never want her to do that again?”
“Plenty of other students have expressed that sentiment. You’ll get over it. I certainly wouldn’t look as good as I do at this age without her. Come along everyone.”
They started exploring the house. It was a three story Georgian building and most of its rooms had been converted into classrooms. Aside from those, it also boasted a library at least as decent as Harvey’s.
“We don’t have a very even distribution of ages here, so we mainly just try to teach what needs to be taught. Luckily, a few of my baseline peers have stepped up to the task. Basilisk and Żywie both have teaching degrees, but it’s still an immense help, ” explained Lawrence.
“It’s not as bad as all that,” said Basilisk. “There’s something to be said for letting different age groups mingle. I think year levels are a prudent suggestion that’ve gotten a little fetishised.”
Luckily, Allison and Arnold had long discovered that great strategy for dealing with grownup opinions: nodding. No matter what.
On the first door by the second floor landing, a small gold plaque read simply “Physician.”
“Is that Żywie’s office?” asked Allison.
Lawrence gave her an odd look. “Oh, no, certainly not. Why would Żywie have a medical degree? It’d be like sending a bird to aviation school.” He laughed, but it sounded forced.
“Who’s the physician, then?”
“Oh, just someone the government has pop around occasionally to make sure you’re all in good health. With Żywie around he has little reason to be here on a day to day basis. He should be here tomorrow to look at you two, though.” He scratched the back of his neck, and then eagerly suggested they take a look at the garden.
It did not disappoint. A few students and teachers tended to rows of corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and various other miscellaneous produce. An Ayrshire cow grazed with noble indifference.
“This was a working farm once,” said Françoise. “The original owner struck rich in Ballarat, moved out here for a seachange8. The house was brought here brick by brick from England or something silly like that. Both his sons died in WW1, poor thing, and he…” She looked at Arnold and Allison, and seemed to reconsider her words. “He died.”
Alberto mimed a gunshot wound to his head.
“Yes, a tragic accident,” said Françoise, cooly. “Anyway, since he had no heirs to speak of, the land and property went to the crown.”
“Who then sold it to me for a song in 1953,” finished Lawrence. “I’ve tried to keep the agricultural tradition alive as best as I can. We’re far from self sufficient, but I like to think we’ll get there someday. Some of our students have powers conducive to farming. You’d be astounded by what Żywie can do for a pumpkin’s size and nutritional value.”
“We even tried selling our produce at the Royal Show a few years back,” said Françoise.
“Nobody seemed very keen on an apple-pumpkin hybrid grown by a flesh-witch from the hills,” said Alberto, sourly. “They liked my cake, though9.”
Basilisk frowned. “Ease up, Tiresias. You never complain when we cook up some appkin.”
Okay, if nobody else was going to shoot that elephant, Allison would. “Um, Lawrence, could I ask you something?”
She didn’t know how to phrase it politely, so she didn’t. “Why does everyone here have names like they’re from a cartoon?”
Everyone looked at her for a moment. A long moment. Even the gardeners turned their attention towards them.
Alberto—Tiresias—was the first to speak. “Three days, eight and a half hours. You owe me five pounds, Melusine.”
“Oh, surely we were counting from when we actually got here.”
“You never said that.”
Lawrence glowered at the two of them. “Gambling is a filthy habit, Tiresias. And what’s important is that she asked. Shows initiative. Yes, Allison, here at the Institute we like to take on new names. Names that reflect the truth of a person.”
Those were definitely words arranged in a sentence. Pity they didn’t make any sense. If Allison was reading Arnold’s song and expression right, he concurred with this assessment. “What do you mean?”
“Hmm, how best to put it? Tell me, do either of you know why you were named as you are?”
They thought about it. Allison had heard two conflicting stories. Her father maintained that she had been named to settle some feud between her second cousin and her great-aunt. Her mother liked to tell her that Allison was the name of the protagonist of the book she learned English from, languishing in a displaced persons camp, in a country that no longer existed. She didn’t feel up to telling either version.
Arnold beat her to it. “Because an Old Testament name was what everyone was expecting. Least that’s what Dad says.”
“I think my mum and dad just liked Allison.”
Lawrence sighed, which as usual sounded like a mournful bear. “See, that’s my problem with names. They tell you nothing worth knowing about their owners. You know, some cultures don’t even name their children till they’re of a certain age. Others acquire and shed names all throughout their lives. Here, on the other hand, at best your parents named you for the dead, or for some value they hoped you’d embody. At worst, they just picked some random sounds they thought sounded nice.” He chortled. “Although, maybe even that’s better than if they just went with whatever the midwife’s name badge said.”
Allison thought she was starting to understand. “So the students here get names to do with their powers?”
“Did you pick a new name?” asked Arnold.
He laughed. “There’s nothing remarkable about me, Arnold. Might as well stick with ‘Lawrence’. Still better than Herbert.”
Allison perked up. “Do we get to pick our own names?”
Lawrence’s expression became very sober. “Afraid not. I’m sorry, but if I let eight year olds start picking their names, I’d have thirty ‘Far-Out Thunder Kings’ running around.”
Allison could see the point. Still, some input might have been nice, or at least a veto. She dearly wanted to change the subject.
“Excuse me,” she said, very primly. “I believe Melusine promised us a demonstration.”
“Actually, Herbert did, but who’s quibbling?” she replied. “Shall we head down to the river?”
The party made their way down to the water, Françoise taking the lead. A few other students, apparently sensing an incoming diversion, joined them.
When they were at the riverside, Françoise raised her arms skyward. Her song rose to a crescendo. After the train, when Allison and Arnold had been trying not to let Alberto sulking in the corner spoil the novelty of having a hotel room mostly to themselves, they had argued the toss regarding whether Françoise’s eyes actually glowed. In retrospect, they saw how silly they had been. Now her eyes were glowing.
Thick tendrils of water rose from the river’s surface, swirling around around Françoise’s hands. She stepped out onto the river itself, in a blasphemously good impression of a certain Galilean agitator10. As she did so, starting from her bare feet, her body began to change into solid ice, as though she were the handiwork of a deeply talented, deeply lonely sculptor. Even as her eyes turned to frost, they still retained that peculiar internal glow. Humanoid, feminine figures emerged out of the water, dancing around Françoise like she was a maypole, before collapsing back into the river that made up their substance. Watery comets circled around her, shifting from liquid to ice to steam in rapid succession.
It was then Allison knew which of Dr. Lawrence’s students she’d be sampling first.
When her display had run its course, Françoise returned to the shore, flesh and blood once more, and bowed. She was met with applause.
“Hydrokinesis, everyone!” shouted Lawrence.
A young, dark skinned boy ran up to them and embraced Françoise. “Melusine!” His accent was quite odd. The description that seemed most apt to Allison was “European”. Just in general, European.
She returned the hug, stroking his hair. “Oh, I have been gone too long, haven’t I?”
Arnold and Allison both found something far more interesting to look at just to their left. He was quite clearly Françoise’s son. Maybe it was the absurdly pretty eyelashes, or shape of their mouths, or the waviness of their hair, or the very defined cheekbones, visible even through the boy’s baby fat. Maybe it was that they were both dressed in the same shades of blue and green. Or it could have been the unnaturally blue eyes that somehow looked even more out of place in a child’s face. Even the parts of his song relating to his demi-humanity were almost identical to his mother’s. Like a slightly different interpretation of the same piece, by a less steady artist.
“Hello, Maelstrom,” said Alberto, jovially.
“Oh, hi, Tiresias,” said Maelstrom in the appropriate tone with which to greet Alberto. He broke from the hug and ambled over to Basilisk. “Hey,” he said, much more cheerfully.
Basilisk threw an arm around him. For whatever reason, this earned him a sharp look from Françoise. “Great seeing ya, mate.” He gestured at Arnold and Allison as if he were presenting a new car. “Have you met the new students?”
Maelstrom stepped up to the pair, assuming an expression of absolute dignity. Or so he hoped. “No I have not. Welcome to the New Human Institute.” He extended a hand, which Arnold and Allison each took apprehensively. “…Lawrence didn’t say there were two of you.”
Lawrence smiled roguishly. “Allison here was something of an unexpected acquisition. Thought you would appreciate the surprise.”
It appeared he did. “Phantasmagoria! New kids!” he shouted.
An auburn haired, slightly pudgy girl pushed her way past the small crowd that had amassed around the group. She was clutching a ring binder with a picture of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building set against the Brooklyn on the front. She glanced at the newcomers, and then at Françoise. “Ohhh, did I miss a Melusine thing?”
“Yes,” said Basilisk, “and I’m afraid you might have to wait up to half an hour for another display.”
Alberto, Lawrence, and the assembled children laughed. Françoise did not.
“Well, I think we’ve shown you everything we need to today,” said Lawrence. “I’ll leave it to you kids to fill in your classmates on everything we don’t know about the place.” He chuckled. “I’ll see you all at dinner.”
The adults all climbed back up the hill. Before he went, Tiresias—Allison figured she should get into the habit early—slapped Maelstrom on the shoulder, a little too hard. “Real good to be back, boy.”
“He has his good days,” lied Maelstrom.
The other students were regarding Allison and Arnold warily. It surprised the latter that the first thought to cross his mind was that none of them knew anything about his mum and dad. It felt guiltily liberating. Allison was trying to decide once and for all whether riffling through another person’s talents without their knowledge was rude or not. Sadly, that etiquette guide was not likely to be written anytime soon. Either way, Allison now knew how to assemble a ship-in-a-bottle.
In what felt like either the fourth or fifth year of this, Phantasmagoria broke the silence. “So, what do you guys do?”
Arnold’s answer was straightforward enough. “I zap things to other places.” With that, he hurled some of his green flames at a small boulder that lay half submerged in the water, where it was consumed. It reappeared a few seconds later in one of the hallways of Roberts Containment Centre, but that was a secret between Arnold and some very confused staff. There were approving nods from the other children.
“Not bad, not bad,” said Phantasmagoria, still acting in her role as the students’ undemocratically unelected mouthpiece. “And you?”
“Lawrence called me a ‘psychomimetic’.”
Phantasmagoria arched an eyebrow. It had taken her ages to get that down pat.
Allison pointed lazily at the river. There was a splash with no apparent source. “I copy people. Normal stuff forever, powers not so much.” Maelstrom and Françoise’s blue eyes now stared out from her sockets.
“Wait, you steal powers?” said an older boy, frowning.
Allison’s eyes widened at the accusation. When she had first realised that most people couldn’t hear each other’s songs, she had briefly wondered if she actually leached skills from people. Her fears had been assuaged when it became clear that her mother was not becoming a noticeably worse cook, and when she learned her father had in fact been promoted at the bank since her birth. Still, not something she liked to contemplate. She definitely didn’t want other people contemplating it. “No, no, I just borrow them, really.”
Phantasmagoria stared daggers at the boy. “Shut up, Snapdragon. Allison clearly didn’t steal Melusine’s powers. She plagiarized them. Big difference.”
This appeared to satisfy Snapdragon. “You guys from the asylums?”
“Yeah,” they said, almost in unison.
Many of the children made sympathetic noises. “Which ones?” asked a girl who might have been six.
“We both would have gone to McClare, but they didn’t want her,”—he pointed a thumb at Allison—“copying my power. I guess they thought we might use it on each other or something. So they sent me to Roberts.”
“I was at Roberts!” said the little girl. “That’s like on the other side of the country.”
Arnold grinned, smugly. “What can I say? I’m a dangerous man.”
The students began comparing notes on the various superhuman detention centres which now dotted the country. They argued over which was worse: the completely apathetic doctors and scientists, who just wanted to bugger off back home as quickly as possible, or the really enthusiastic ones who worked extra hours without pay to determine how your power influenced different subspecies of beetle.
Allison noticed that Phantasmagoria didn’t seem to have anything to say on the subject. Neither did Maelstrom, but that wasn’t much of a surprise.
There were of course demonstrations of powers. Snapdragon, as it turned out, was the one producing the fire elementals during the free for all. The little girl could manipulate air with some precision, which she proved by knocking Maelstrom off his feet. Twice. One boy, who went by the name Abalone, produced a richly textured, iridescent protective barrier.
As might be expected, most of the displays were followed by Allison trying out the power herself. Some of them were more fiddly than others.
“What should we do now? Ooh, maybe we could show Allison and Arnold the obstacle course?” said Maelstrom, like a scout leader sent back in time to his own childhood.
The other students looked at him like he had suggested they all go drown themselves in the river. If children hate one thing—and they hate many things—it’s someone trying to prescribe fun for them. Especially another child.
Slowly, students started wandering off, in search of other ways to occupy themselves before dinner. Eventually, Allison, Arnold, Maelstrom, and Phantasmagoria were left alone.
Phantasmagoria took Allison’s hand. “Okay, you showed me yours—and everyone else’s—so I’ll show you mine.”
She led them to a particular tree overhanging a river and set her ring binder on the grass. It was filled with old pulp magazine covers and illustrations. Dozens of strapping astronauts brandished various makes of raygun and blaster. Scores of mechanically unlikely rockets blasted off towards unknown stars. Legions of hideous monsters menaced beautiful, unwisely dressed women. The phrase “full length novel” was applied very generously many times. Amazing Stories, If, Thrilling Wonder Stories, The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and many others were all represented. If either Arnold or Allison had been more well versed on American speculative fiction publications, they might have wondered how Phantasmagoria imported all of them. She opened it to a cover depicting a woman in a red skintight bodysuit and a fishbowl that was presumably meant to shield her from the vacuum of space, protecting a prone man while firing on some unseen foe on a moonscape.
“Lawrence says my power is called tridimensional enhancement. Whatever you call it, it means I can do this.”
The space adventurer from the cover, sans her male comrade, appeared crouching on the grass beside Phantasmagoria. She was clearly three dimensional, and blinked and breathed like any other woman, but still looked as though she was made of brushstrokes. It unnerved Allison a little.
“Lawrence likes it better when I make ‘mature artwork’ real, but the sci fi crap is way more fun.”
“Aww, but the paintings are soooo pretty,” said Maelstrom.
“Yeah, but I’ve made it rain rose petals so many times, I don’t even feel sorry for the Romans anymore.”
“Excuse me,” said the painted woman, making Allison and Arnold jump, “what am I doing back on Earth? And where has Captain Harker gone?”
Phantasmagoria had no idea if the man on the cover had been called that. Even when she hadn’t read the story an illustration originated from, they still tended to come with their own backstories. She was just surprised the woman sounded British.
“He’s fine. Well, no worse off. Could I borrow your gun?”
She handed it over to Phantasmagoria without hesitation, but didn’t look happy about it. “That really isn’t for children your age11.”
“I know,” she replied. Taking aim at a branch she deemed unworthy, she pulled what passed for the trigger, and watched it go up on flames. It was allowed to burn for a few seconds before it was extinguished by a rather improbable wave. “Thank you, Maelstrom.”
“You’re welcome, Mabel.” The name had already left his mouth when Maelstrom realised his mistake. “I’m so sorry,” he turned to the children sat beside him, “forget what I said. Please.” His tone was pleading.
She sighed. “It’s alright. Look, Lawrence’s names are fun, but I think ‘Mabel’ describes my power fine. It is my power, I am Mabel, therefore, it is Mabel-ish.”
They shrugged. “Makes sense, I guess,” said Allison.
“Let’s just keep it between us, okay?”
The pair mumbled their assent.
“Wise decision,” said the illustration. “If my name was ‘Phantasmagoria’, I’d probably wander off before anyone got halfway through saying it.”
With that, Mabel cheered right back up. “Quiet you. Anyone want to try the raygun?”
Maelstrom declined. He’d known Mabel long enough to grow bored with most varieties of actualised fictional energy weapons.
Something was niggling at Allison. “Yeah, let me have a look at it.” She turned the gun over in her hands. It felt like actual metal and plastic, despite all appearances. She wondered how Mabel knew what the other side looked like. It was practically identical, sure, but you technically couldn’t tell by looking at the cover. “Do you know if these things have nuts and bolts and stuff inside them?”
“Yes, they do. The grownups once managed to open one up. It dissolved before they got a good look at it, though.”
“Is there a diagram or something inside the magazine?”
“Not that I’ve seen.”
“…Do you know how to build a raygun yourself?”
She laughed. “If I did, you would have gotten one at the door.”
“This makes no sense.”
“Melusine has an idea,” offered Maelstrom. “She says that Mabel’s power might reach into other dimensions for things that look like the pictures she’s using it on.”
“Oh, so you’ve kidnapped me in the middle of a vital mission,” said the space adventurer, who was now sprawled on the grass beside Arnold, her fishbowl resting on her lap. They ignored her.
Mabel shook her head. Allison got the definite impression that she and Maelstrom discussed this often. “That still doesn’t explain why my stuff still looks like drawings. Or why I can’t do photos and movies.”
Arnold looked at the illustrated woman, who scowled at him. “But that’s a person.”
“I’m sitting right next to you, kid.”
“Like, are you making her say these things for a laugh, or is she doing it all herself?”
“You know, I was against corporal punishment of children when I woke up this morning.”
“Eh, maybe a little of both. I don’t think it matters so long as she does what I say,” replied Mabel.
“Are you ignoring me because you don’t want to deal with the implications of my existence?” asked the woman.
Allison still had questions. “If you brought a picture of a steak to life, and then ate it, what would happen?”
“Dunno. Never been brave enough to try it. My stuff disappears when I stop thinking about it or I fall asleep, and if I had eaten pretend food long enough ago that it had made into more of me…” She shuddered. “I mean, look at what happens when I make the gun go away.”
The woman went pale. “No, wait a minute, I think we should establish whether or not I’m a real person before you–”, she, the fishbowl and the gun vanished without ceremony. The tree branch stopped smouldering, though it remained blackened.
“…I wanted to try the gun,” said Arnold.
Mabel rolled her eyes. The space-adventurer reappeared. “Captain–oh, this again.”
And so Arnold wildly fired a space-age weapon centuries beyond the 20th century into the sky, giggling like a loon. It was definitely infectious. The space-adventurer looked on in horror.
“Show us something else!” demanded Allison giddily.
“Encore!” added Maelstrom.
Mabel flicked smartly through the binder. “There, this should do nicely.”
A bumpy, metal, pepper pot looking thing, about as tall as the children, appeared behind Arnold as he made war upon the clouds.
“SEEK. LOCATE. DESTROY.”
Arnold shrieked and started running, trying to land a shot on the thing as it glided after him. Eventually, he decided to just teleport it away. It did not reappear.
“Huh,” said Allison. “I guess your power does just blow stuff up, if it’s pretend.”
It went on like that for hours. Allison tried Mabel’s power for herself. Her song put her in mind of the music they played at Anzac Day ceremonies. Hordes of monsters were spawned from Mabel’s pulp art collection and were gleefully slain with gadgets from the same source. Rocks, leaves, sticks, and fish were teleported into the living rooms of people Arnold and Allison didn’t like. They splashed about in the river for a while. Despite some initial misgivings about doing so in their clothes, it turned out Maelstrom could quite effectively extract the moisture from them. According to Mabel, it had taken him ages to get over the fear that he might instead extract the moisture from their owner’s bodies.
For the first time in weeks, Allison noticed that she was happy. She was sure she had been at least a couple of times in the last few days, but it was the first time she wasn’t too distracted to notice.
Afternoon faded into evening. After a while, the children heard a bored, teenage voice without any identifiable source declare that it was time to wash up for dinner.
Allison was deeply relieved to find out that the Institute’s showers were partitioned into stalls. The fact they were co-ed gave her some pause, but she wrote it off as Lawrence simply being progressive, which was her parents’ default explanation for any odd idea or behaviour, ever. The fact that they got proper baths every fortnight definitely helped her look past it.
Dinner was wonderful. Aside from Allison finally letting herself eat her fill, Françoise, as it turned, out was a marvelous cook. Or at least a great kitchen supervisor. As she saw it, cooking had only ever really been practised in the south of France, with all foreign attempts being sad approximations. Alberto disputed this, but only halfheartedly. He sat apart from the other adult students, for whatever reason. Most of the vegetables had been grown in the Institute’s garden, genetically coddled and pampered, and occasionally twisted, by Żywie.
Dinner was held in the manor’s dining room. Through what Allison almost decided was some kind of space warping power, all forty-three staff and students managed to crowd around a fine jarra table. At the head, Lawrence enthralled the students sitting closest to him—Allison and Arnold included—with stories about him and Żywie travelling across war-torn Europe looking for others like her, and eventually finding them. They both got the idea that most of their new peers had heard these tales many times before, but the joy was clearly in the telling. The house was filled with noise and company.
After dinner, they were treated to a bit of amatuer theatre by the Watercolours—namely, Maelstrom and Mabel, still known as Phantasmagoria in front of the grownups. It involved a six by ten foot body of water suspended over the lawn in front of the house, filled with mermaids. It was one of the most spectacular things either Allison or Arnold had ever seen in their lives, but it was clear none of the other students were particularly impressed.
The students were divided into groups of ten and led to some of the outbuildings. To save on space, the student dormitories were furnished with hammocks rather than beds. Allison didn’t mind, it was still better than sharing a hotel bed with Arnold. She snored, he kicked and whimpered, so the annoyance at least evened out. The dormitories were also mixed-gender, but after the showers, that hardly registered. Allison was just grateful that their dorm had a nightlight and a clock. McClare had taught her to cherish the telling of time.
Barring the aforementioned hotel stay, neither Arnold nor Allison had ever shared a room with other children. Allison didn’t mind the breathing of the other students, though. It drowned out the world’s.
1. Some scholars of the multiverse speculate that Sundays were originally a species of temporal parasites, which feasted on what life and energy is left by the end of the week.↩
2. It is a common myth that Father Christmas delivered gifts to all the good little gentile boys and girls. This is hardly the case. In fact, aside from generally spreading goodwill towards men and peace on Earth, he only left a few physical gifts for a few children every year, for reasons only truly known to him. As intelligence agencies the world over once said, Santa plays the long game.↩
3. It’s important when bargaining with supernatural beings to keep their age in mind. Otherwise, you might end up like poor Eric Schlozman, more widely known as Captain Swastika, defender of all living things.↩
4. The Gatekeeper never did find out who kept strewing empty coke bottles around his home.↩
5. This fear was completely baseless, as the Soviet Union had been dissolved for nearly five years by the time the CIA poached him.↩
6. Many people have compared politics to chess, apparently on the assumption that politicians always act according to a predefined set of moves, and are polite enough to do so in turns.↩
7. What follows is but a rough translation.↩
8. His first mistake: Picking somewhere inland.↩
9. It was a nice cake.↩
10. He liked to tie ice chunks to his feet and attempt to walk across Lake Tiberias to protest unfair taxes on luxury exports.↩
11. Atom-shredders should only be used by children ten and up.↩