The three days between the demonstration and the NHI party’s flight home were not unlike a dream for Myriad. A long, meandering dream, with even less structure or meaning than is typical for that species. The kind where you remember the waking world enough to dearly wish to return there, but not quite enough for it to do so under your power. Canberra had little to offer children, being almost a child itself; birthed from the mind of Walter Burley Griffin and groomed for the business of government.
There were museums; and libraries; as well an endless procession of scholars, scientists, and other learned people—almost all men, to be honest—dropping by the Valour household to impart their wisdom to Herbert Lawrence’s wunderkind. One thing Myriad noticed, apart from each man’s utter resolution that their chosen field was the one on which all life and human civilization hinged upon, was how old most of her visitors were. Hardly one of them seemed less than fifty— and most were much older. She might have written it off as simply the natural outcome of all the time and effort it took human beings to become truly good at anything, if it weren’t for the faint look of desperation in many of their eyes. She wondered if they saw her as something of an immortality project: a fresh, sturdy vessel to carry some part of themselves a few more yards down time’s river. She was tactful enough not to inform the men about how much of their precious, hard won knowledge her power was discarding as simply incorrect1.
She took their songs into herself with feigned enthusiasm. Once, the suite of new knowledge and skills might have excited her, but now, after McClare and the Institute, it was like returning to a diet of bread and water after tasting meat and fruit for the first time.
Lawrence wasn’t having the best time of it, either, preoccupied as he was by the question of William St. George. Through a couple of furtive phone conversations and a tense lunch at the Hotel Kurrajong had gleaned him some small trivia about the boy, though less than he had expected, given its source was the child’s father. As Bryant had admitted, unable to meet Lawrence’s eyes, they mostly left their son in the care of his nanny. For a man of Lawrence’s age and breeding, that seemed like the most normal aspect of the whole affair.
Lawrence found William’s predicament almost philosophically terrifying. He had learned to accept the odd physical abnormality among his students. Sometimes, he even found the odd dash of inhumanity aesthetically pleasing. But the hearth inside Snapdragon’s eyes, or the odd blue lowlights in Britomart’s hair couldn’t prepare him for the kind of atavism he had seen in that photo.
He had discussed the matter with Tiresias, to little good. In lieu of advice, the psychic had only his usual low humour to offer.
“Look,” he had said, “you’ve been worried about the other children picking on Maelstrom. If we take on this boy”—he tossed the photo back at Lawrence—“I doubt they’ll have any energy left over for him.”
Not for the first time on that trip, Lawrence wished he had brought Żywie instead. She was, in a sense, the reason he was even considering Bryant’s offer. Much as William did not fit his usual criteria for new students, there was no reason to think their resident healer couldn’t change that.
There was also the matter of money. The Lawrences were an extremely well-to-do branch of what passed for the petty aristocracy in Australia, and Herbert had been the sole heir of their wealth. Coupled with the generally reliable prognosticative talents of Tiresias (the esper could always be counted on for anything that maintained his own comfort) the New Human Institute was in no danger of running low on funds. Still, its headmaster was not so rich that the sum St. George was willing to pay wasn’t tempting. Lawrence was sure they would need to accommodate many more students in the near future, and the nursery would need expanding. All that, in exchange for what was ultimately a small kindness…
And so, Lawrence accepted Bryant St. George’s offer, and his cheque, watching the other man collapse into a pile of guilt-tainted relief from the other side of the table. He could almost see the albatross around his neck stir and take flight.
That had been decided on the morning before the NHI party’s departure from Canberra. Lawrence had chosen to save the news that Maelstrom and Myriad would be gaining a new brother till after dinner that evening, with their whole group plus the Valours gathered in their blue damask wallpapered living room, scrims of snow melting sullenly as they clung to the window frames.
Lawrence had expected the children to have questions, or to maybe even react with fear to William’s photograph. What Myriad homed in on, though, surprised him.
“I just wanna go home!”
Myriad sat trembling with childish rage and resentment, sandwiched awkwardly between Maelstrom and Therese Fletcher on the Valours’ burnt orange sofa. The Valours themselves had fled the room as soon as they recognised the signs of an oncoming superpowered tantrum. Valerie was in a mad dash for the fallout shelter2, and Timothy left apologetically in an attempt to dig his wife back out again. Maelstrom had attempted to pry open his friend’s clenched fist and thread his fingers through hers, only to be met by a grip that threatened to crush his knuckles.
Lawrence stood with his back to what passed for the Valour family’s library. The single bookcase may never have seen the works of Chaucer, Stapledon or Wells grace its shelves, but nonetheless, he found the presence of books comforting. His arms were crossed almost defensively. “And we will be, child. We’re just picking up a new student on the way.”
“It’s boring here!” Myriad shouted, her face flushed with an wild, aimless anger. “Again and again, just nothing but tired, grumpy old men who are just CONVINCED that their songs should be saved and it’s so DULL! And with every one of them that turns up, I get reminded just a little bit more of how beautiful everyone was back home!”
Lawrence tried to take the insult to his friends and colleagues on the chin. “I don’t see how that pertains to what we’re talking about, Myriad. Our new student lives in Albany; we won’t be spending any more time here in Canberra than we already were. Just means we’ll be taking a slightly longer route to get back to the Institute.”
Myriad wrenched herself from the sofa, standing to look Lawrence dead in the eyes, her cheeks now traced by the wet paths of tears. “Don’t lie! The train to Albany is overnight, there and back! And it’s even slower in a car! And we’ll be taking the truck so people don’t freak about the weird kid, won’t we?” She spat the last two words like she was capping off a murder accusation.
Lawrence sighed. “That is true, Myriad.”
Myriad brushed her fist across her eyes, trying to wipe away her tears with little success. With surprising quietness, she asked, “Could you maybe drop me off at home before you go get this boy?” She glanced at her friend, trying to avoid having his ribs broken by the armrest, before adding, “Maelstrom, too, if he wants.”
Tiresias’ hand shot up. A cloud of clove laden cigarette smoke exploded from his mouth. “And me!”
“I’m sorry, children,” he looked straight at Tiresias on the last word, “but that would entail a two hour detour in the other direction.” He attempted a smile. “Besides, I think it would do young William some good to meet a couple of his future schoolmates.”
The anger reared up in Myriad again, hot and bright, like it had been bathed in molten gold. “You lied to me! You said I only had to do that stupid show, then you made me talk to all your boring, dumb, old friends, and now you’re dragging me to some dumb whaling town to pick up some new boy—and you lie and grownups always act like I won’t know when they tell me things that aren’t true—”
Therese Fletcher wondered if she should say something. She always felt like she was in danger of tripping over some unspoken boundary with the children. Her training had relentlessly hammered in the importance of maintaining a professional distance from her students, but that had been before she got caught up in the closed off, strangely intimate little world of the New Human Institute. She had always envied Mary Gillespie’s ability to simultaneously occupy both the role of school teacher and universal grandmother, without compromising either. However, for her, it was difficult to discern whether she was meant to be a primary school teacher or a sister at an orphanage.
Erring on the side of maternalism, she placed a hand on Myriad’s shoulder. “It’ll be alright, Miri. You’re going to have a new friend in just two sleeps!”
The sudden physical contact and her tone of voice somehow all at once reminded the girl of her mother, the nurses at McClare, and Żywie’s wires. Myriad slapped the hand away, her eyes burning blue with fury. The woman flinched from her. “Don’t touch me—”
She felt a sharp clip across her ear. After a second of stunned, almost Heisenbergian uncertainty, Myriad broke down in choked, high pitched sobs.
Lawrence stood resolutely over the girl, expression sombre, his arms folded once more. “I’m disappointed in you, Myriad. I might have expected this kind of childishness from some of the other students, but I thought better of you.” His brow wrinkled with anger. “When we pick up William, you will be pleasant, open, and a good example of what a posthuman child is meant to be. Are we following?”
Myriad nodded, trying to blink back tears.
“And we never, ever threaten baseline humans with our powers.”
“Now apologise for that display.”
There was a slightly ritualistic offering of apologies to each member of the group in term, answered with mumbled acceptances. Or, in Tiresias’ case, a magnanimous, slow spoken proclamation of forgiveness; like a king handing down a pardon.
“Now, off to bed with you.” The old man threw a glance Maelstrom’s way. “You can follow her in ten minutes.”
Myriad tried to stifle her weeping as she made her way back to the room she and Maelstrom were just shy of accustomed to, though, nobody would have seen or heard her, barring God or maybe the Flying Man, from whatever perch he surveyed the world from. She managed to hold it together till she passed the staircase down to the cellar:
“—Please come out, darling. Even if she was going to start something, there’s water in the shelter!”
She collapsed on top of the duvet, surrounded by some other child’s things. She felt shaken, numb with loneliness, and the last few useless dregs of anger, clinging to her like droplets at the bottom of a glass. She started trying to hum some of her schoolmates’ songs—even some of the ones without names or faces attached that she had heard at the asylum.
Eventually, David lay down beside her. He did not turn out the light as he entered the room. The Valours had been kind enough to allow Myriad to keep it on to ward off her night thoughts, and her friend hadn’t complained. If she had the presence of mind in that moment, she would have loved him for it.
It hailed sideways outside.
“So, what’s it like at your school?”
There was very little to separate William “Billy” St. George from any ordinary boy his age, apart from his marked resemblance to a humanoid tiger. At a distance, the short, black and orange fur that covered most of his skin might have been mistaken for body paint, or an all-covering tattoo; and the slightly elongated canines were only really evident when he grinned—which, granted, was often. The architecture of his face, though, was human enough, and his eyes were a typical mud brown.
It was all a bit of an anticlimax.
Really, the most remarkable thing about the child was the striped tail that protruded from the base of his spine. Myriad found herself tracking its path as it twitched and swished through the air behind its owner.
She had been surprised by Billy’s song, too. She’d worried all throughout their trip down south that the boy would not be musically unlike the Physician: alien and inimical. As it turned out, though, his song was no more strange than that of any other posthuman. Unsurprisingly, given the diversity of powers Lawrence had spoken of, Billy’s song was something of a medley, making heavy use of what Myriad thought sounded like an electric guitar being played in a realm where the distinction between colour and sound was looser. If his song were to somehow be played in the physical world, the best venue for it would be a vast plain of powdered glass.
“…Fun,” she answered, a little late. “It’s not at all what I thought boarding school would be like. I think you’ll like it there.”
“That’s good,” Billy replied, flopping back onto his bed, grey, wintry sunlight pouring onto his belly from the window above. “How many other kids live there?”
“About thirty,” said Maelstrom, idly spinning the antique globe that rested on the tiger-child’s dresser with one finger, its fawn seas lapping at the coastlines of slightly inaccurate3 continents while great serpents and leviathans swam through their depths. He was mostly trying to keep his hands busy, lest he start kneading them in front of the new boy. He was already mildly embarrassed by his open envy at Billy owning his own bed. Plus, it was his first time in another child’s bedroom, and he found the concept of a truly personal space mildly exotic.
A look of almost dreamlike delight spread across Billy’s face. “Must be great.”
Maelstrom plucked a book off one of the shelves; some hardback children’s novel Lawrence had probably read when he was their age, almost falling apart with age and use. It opened—the binding almost audibly straining—onto a black engraving of a horde of schoolchildren at play. “Yeah,” he said, frowning. “It is.”
“Are you two cousins or something?”
“Why’d you think that?” said Myriad, before realising she was still attuned to Maelstrom’s song. Reluctantly, she blinked away the blue. “Nah, that’s all him,” she pointed at the other boy. “I don’t really have my own powers, so I borrow other people’s.”
“She’s being modest,” cut in Maelstrom, looking up from the region of the globe its makers doubtlessly called “Darkest Africa”, ready to defend Myriad’s honour, even from herself. “Seriously, we live with dozens of other new humans, and Miri can use all their powers whenever she wants. She’s like, a post-posthuman.”
Billy frowned with curiosity. “I heard your teacher—the big bloke with the beard—using that word? What’s it mean?”
“Another word for super,” Myriad said.
The corner of Maelstrom’s lip curled in thought. “I guess it is, but it’s more than that… hmm…” He tried to remember how Lawrence once put it. The old man had countless poetic turns of phrase for describing the evolutionary process, and sometimes they ran together in Maelstrom’s head. “It’s like, humans invented—he knows what I mean, Miri—fire, and then they became the fire.” He clapped, as though remembering some vital detail. He pointed at Myriad. “She doesn’t have to learn things!”
Myriad smiled bashfully, suddenly very interested in her shoes. “I do, really. I just learn from other people… automatically.”
“I think she knows everything already; she just needs to meet people who know something before she remembers it.”
Billy looked totally bewildered by the concept, which was not helped when Maelstrom pointed sharply at him and asked “What are you really good at? Is there anything you know a lot about?”
Billy had to think about that. His short, circumscribed existence hadn’t offered many opportunities to acquire any special wisdom or rare skills—apart, of course, from the ones that had brought these strange children to his home. But he hadn’t needed to cultivate any of those. He could sing a little over a dozen of his nanny’s favourite Irish folk songs, off key; he’d recently managed to change his bedroom lightbulb all on his own, without his nanny even knowing it had blown to begin with; and he was fairly certain he could identify every beetle, spider and other crawling thing within a mile of his house. Eventually, after some umming and ahhing, he went with “…I’m a good swimmer.”
Not exactly the definable and unique skill Maelstrom had been hoping for, but it would have to do. “Well now so is Myriad.”
Said good swimmer suppressed a giggle. She had of course already been an excellent swimmer for some time, thanks to Maelstrom. He’d been able to swim before he could walk.
Billy decided to take Maelstrom’s word for it.
They were mostly silent for a little while, the Institute children not quite past being surprised every time their eyes fell on Billy, and Billy still not accustomed to other children, period.
Somewhere between mortified and elated by Maelstrom’s adulation, Myriad explored Billy’s room: her manner unfortunately reminiscent of an anthropologist pawing over a native hut as though its occupants weren’t even there. It seemed the boy read a lot, although judging by the amount of half-pound adventure novels and comic books, this was less a result of natural bookishness and more often having little else to do else to do. To her quiet horror, The G-Men was well represented on his shelves, along with a few issues of a short lived series about the Flying Man—not that it was brave enough to be upfront about it. The comic and its eponymous hero were both titled Captain Diamond4, and his chest insignia was solid red instead of half-purple, but the inspiration was clear. Myriad assumed it was meant to be furtively read by young boys with the same kind of taboo breaking excitement as stolen gentlemen’s magazines. Regardless, she couldn’t see the real Flying Man being majorly inconvenienced by a grown man who voluntarily styled himself “Baron Betrayal”5.
There were also a fair few framed pictures adorning his walls. Most were of the elder St. Georges, only twice with their son. In both preserved moments, their smiles were brittle, not quite reaching their eyes, while their son wore an expression of pained joy: the sort that is close kin to—and in many ways worse than—despair. It reminded Myriad of the constructed, confectioned families that she saw in advertising catalogues, if the child had somehow been convinced he and the other models were actually family.
Turning away from the photos, Myriad asked “So, what exactly are your powers. Lawrence mentioned something about you turning invisible?”
Billy grinned. “Yup!”
And with no fuss or fanfare, Billy vanished, like a spectre winking out of a scene in some piece of early fantastic cinema.
Maelstrom’s reaction was mild, to say the least. In his experience, children disappearing from a room was almost more normal than them using the door. Besides, he could still feel the water that made up most of Billy’s being. Myriad, on the other hand, peered closely at the space she intellectually knew the tiger-boy still occupied. When she strained her eyes, she could see that dust motes weren’t drifting through the pocket of air quite as they should. It was the sort of thing you would only notice or pay any mind if you already had reason to suspect there was some unseen presence there in the room with you, and even then it was only discernible in a certain light.
Lawrence was vherment that some guiding intelligence was responsible for the manifestation of superpowers in the human race. He often waxed poetic about this hypothetical entity casting a sideways glance, from somewhere outside of linear time, at all the possibilities of an unborn new human’s life: carefully considering which gifts to bestow. If he was right, then Myriad couldn’t decide whether that being was uncommonly kind or bitterly sarcastic. “Can you see when you’re like this?”
Billy reappeared. “Yes. Shouldn’t I?”
Myriad shook her head. “I think the way you turn invisible works by bending light away from you. None of it should hit you in the eyes.”
Billy’s tail undulated slowly, as he turned the girl’s words over in his mind. “…Isn’t that a good thing? Getting the sun in my eyes hurts.”
Myriad had to keep her eyes from rolling at that. “I’ll try and explain it better later.”
William’s experience with other children outside of his personal fantasies was nil, but he had interacted enough with the odd tradesman and the gardener to tell when someone thought he was being slow. Hoping to dispel that notion, he tried to think of something insightful to say. “I can speak when I’m see-through, but for some reason nobody can hear me.”
“You probably muffle the sound waves before they get very far.”
Billy shrugged. “You’re the genius.”
Myriad wasn’t sure how to take that compliment.
“So what else do you do?” asked Maelstrom. “Lawrence said you had a few powers.”
Billy twisted his foot demurely in the off-cream carpet. “I do, but they’re not really inside things.” He made a doomed attempt not to let his thoughts stray back to the incident with the cat6.
“Then show us outside.”
The three of them rushed out the room and down the stairs with the casual impatience of children, past the two leather sofas and the mahogany coffee table at which their elders were taking afternoon tea.
In accordance with some unconscious yet universal social etiquette, the NHI staff had all piled onto one of the couches while Billy’s nanny sat alone across from them.
“It’s good to see your tykes getting along with Billy.”
Beatrice Sullivan was a dark haired, round faced young woman with a loud smile, whose casual demeanor Lawrence thought would have better suited the mistress of the household than staff. Not that he blamed her for it; he highly suspected Mrs St. George had never called the small, out of the way grey brick house she and her husband had stashed her son in home. “That it is.” He brought his delicate, blue china cup to his lips, making a contented sound. “The tea is excellent, Miss Sullivan.”
There were fervent nods of agreement, even from Tiresias, who usually couldn’t be bothered extending compliments to non-fermented beverages.
Betty laughed. “Don’t give me any of the credit, Doctor. All I did was boil the water. Doesn’t even say anything about my taste: Mr. St. George was the one who ordered it.”
A brief hush fell over Lawrence and the others: the usual response whenever Betty sung her employers’ praise, which was once or twice more than seemed appropriate. Therese suspected it was a habit she had cultivated for her charge’s sake; rose tinted glasses were preferable to the alternative. “So,” Therese said, searching for a safe subject in the primordial brown of her tea, “you’ve been looking after Billy how long?”
Betty’s expression grew nostalgic. “All his life. I’ll tell you what, when his parents told me he had some special needs—” She laughed guiltily. “I was half-afraid of him at him at first, if I’m being honest. But then I realised he needed the same things as any other child. As for the things he can do, well, everyone’s heard stories. I just figured he was going to grow up to be the next Crimson Comet.”
Lawrence refrained from informing Miss Sullivan of what actually became of Ralph Rivers.
“Didn’t think I was going to stay on as long as I have, but every day made leaving feel like more of a crime. He knew me, you know? And they had already gone through four nannies…”
“That’s an impressive commitment, Miss Sullivan,” Lawrence said admiringly.
“Please, don’t flatter me. I’ve had free room and board for nearly eight years, and Billy’s as sweet a boy as you could find.”
Tiresias cocked an eyebrow. “It certainly is an interesting arrangement. I’d have expected a parent to want their boy closer to home.” His tone indicated he expected no such thing.
“The St. Georges moved us out here when Billy got old enough to start getting underfoot… try not to judge them too harshly, Mr. Moretti. They’re handling this a lot better than I suspect most people of their stature would. It’s a minor miracle they didn’t drown him at birth.”
Tiresias restrained himself from adding “like kittens?”
“When was the last time you had a holiday?” Therese asked.
Betty smile dimmed a little in intensity. “Children don’t pack themselves away into a corner for two weeks every year. Still, I’m thrilled this opportunity’s come along for Billy. He tries not to show it—I think he’s worried I’ll be offended—but it’s been a lonely life for him. You could start a whole new school with all the imaginary friends he’s dreamed up. Once told me he met a witch in the woods, who let him wish for friends in exchange for a single hair. ” She shook her head fondly. “I blame C.S Lewis.”
Tiresias finished his tea, setting down the cup emphatically. “And what do you plan on doing with yourself once William is in our care? I imagine you’ll have a lot of spare time. Maybe pop off over to the Gold Coast. You must have some pretty serious back pay accumulated.”
“I prefer to keep busy. The St. Georges were nice enough to set me up with a secretarial job at some mine of theirs or another.” She laughed again, a little hoarsely. “This was supposed to be something to tide me over till I could find typist work!”
And then Betty started weeping.
“Oh, God, I don’t know. It’s like trying to imagine a day when the sun doesn’t come up! It throws everything off-kilter. And I don’t know how Billy will cope with so many other people, and then I just wonder if I’m just not letting go…” She buried her face in her hands, no longer able to put her dread and anxiety into words.
Lawrence felt a stab of pity for the poor women. By the look of her, she had spent most of her adult life cooped up in the countryside, with neither friend nor lover nor any other kind of adult companionship, devoting herself to the deformed child of parents too vain or cowardly to love him themselves. He couldn’t imagine a more lonely life for a human being. He was almost tempted to offer her a job just so he knew she’d have someone to talk to.
To everyone’s surprise, it was Tiresias who made the first concerted effort to comfort Miss Sullivan, over Therese’s vague assurances that everything would turn out alright. Stepping around the coffee table with his long, lanky legs, he sat down beside the nanny, gently brushing aside her hands to look her in the eye. “Look, lady, I can’t promise you that Billy isn’t going to be sad another day in his life. I don’t know what his toff parents pay you, but I’m sure that honesty isn’t above your salary. And I’m definitely not going to tell you people will never give him shit about how he looks.”
There was something off about Tiresias’ voice, Lawrence thought. It was like the ever audible sneer was missing from it—or he had acquiesced to let Betty Sullivan in on the private joke he always seemed to be enjoying at the world’s expense. Except he seemed to be keeping one eye fixed on the Oxfordian.
“What I will tell you is that everyone at the Institute knows what it’s like to be different. Maybe not exactly the same kind of different, I’ll grant you, but at the end of the day, people out there don’t care about that. People out there are arseholes, and the thing about arseholes is that they have a way of barging into the bubbles of decency we carve out for ourselves; wouldn’t it be better if Billy had some backup when his pops?” He flashed her a rakish grin. “I know we would appreciate the extra hands.”
Slowly, Betty nodded. Wiping away tears with one shaky finger, she almost looked surprised by the wave of relief crashing over her. “Has anyone ever told you have an odd way with words?”
“When God was casting the silver tongues, he cut corners and gave me a pyrite one.” The esper stood up, still grinning. “Shall we go check on the kids?”
Lawrence looked uneasy. “Yes. That might be a good idea.”
Betty smiled. “I imagine Billy’s showing them his trees by now. He’s very artistic, in his way.”
A little beyond the boundaries of the back garden proper—a veritable refugee camp for English flora and landscaping—the children stood in the shadow of a copse of wattle trees. At least, they had been trees in life. In death, however, they were something altogether stranger. Each was warped in entirely different ways. One bent at the trunk, a section seeming to have collapsed upon itself, plunging the lush green canopy down towards the ground like a prostrate worshiper. On the opposite edge of the clearing, a tree was simply missing a chunk of its core, a hole seeming to have been bored straight into it. Unusually, though, the wood lacked any drag marks, burns or splinters where the wood should have bent or warped. It was smooth, shiny, almost polished, the edges bevelling away into an alcove resembling a throne. One tree, oddly, had a section that seemed to be made from molded gold, marred slightly by a set of long, deep claw marks in the soft metal. Another was perfectly formed and intact, but its substance had been replaced with clear glass; which nonetheless still preserved the whorls and grain of the wood. Its transformed, diffractionated blossoms shattered the bleak winter sun where it struck them, throwing out rainbows. They chimed whenever the breeze blew through them.
The vast majority of the trees, barring one or two, were dead.
Maelstrom looked around the grove with unguarded wonder. “It’s like fairyland…” He ran over to the throne-tree, parking himself regally in it like he was prince of the elves. “I am Oberon!” he crowed. “Hear me, my fairy subjects!”
Myriad was grateful that the boys at Harvey Primary couldn’t hear her friend. Cocking her head curiously at the clear tree, she shifted to ice. She could have passed for a native of the world the tree ought to have grown in. She willed flecks of her index finger to fall away till it was sharp enough to cut flesh, and then ran it down the tree’s trunk. All that accomplished was grinding the digit down to a nub.
“Wow,” Billy said, wide-eyed. “You can turn into glass?”
Myriad giggled, the sound echoing out from every frozen molecule of her body like a ghost fiddle, reverberating off the leaves of the crystal tree like bells in the wind. The colour flowed back into her features, like food dye diffusing through water. Her finger reformed quite nicely. Idly, she pondered how the mass she shed was replaced. Fat deposits? It would certainly explain a lot about Melusine’s figure. “Ice,” she corrected Billy. “And I think this might be diamond.”
“Really?” the boy asked, tail waving excitedly. “I thought it was just glass. Shouldn’t the edges be all sharp and sparkly?”
“They don’t come out of the ground like that,” Myriad explained patiently, junior geologist on top of everything else.
“How do you do all this?” Maelstrom inquired from his seat of arboreal power.
Billy beckoned the other two to him. “I’ll show you!”
He cupped his hands like he was begging for water. In them, a small globe of what looked like mercury bloomed into existence. Its surface was so perfectly reflective, Myriad almost felt less real than the slightly curved version of herself looking up at her. She hoped they weren’t breathing in actual mercury fumes.
“You ever dipped your hand in sand?” Billy asked aloud. Not waiting for an answer, he continued, “You can sort feel it all between your fingers. That’s kind of what it feels like when I’ve got something in this. And if I remember what something else felt like…” The mercury evaporated, revealing a perfect sphere of cloudy quartz, contaminated by faint purple and green veins of what Myriad thought might have been alexandrite, like trapped wisps of coloured smoke. “It changes into that stuff! Mostly. Or it melts.” He swallowed. “Like Mummy’s wedding ring.” He handed the orb to Maelstrom. “Here, keep it.”
“Thanks,” said Maelstrom, admiring his present. “So, what did this used to be? I didn’t see anything in your hands.”
He shrugged. “Air, I guess.”
Maelstrom whistled, impressed. “Ex Nihilo is not gonna like this.”
Billy looked at Myriad. “I can make you one too, if you like.”
“Maybe later. So, you have one more power?”
Billy scratched the back of neck apprehensively. “Uh, yeah. Is it okay if I don’t show you near the trees? It’s kinda… breaky.” He gestured to a side of the clearing where, sure enough, one of the wattle corpses lay. It had once been formed of some sort of crystal, but now it lay, shattered along the ground. Just enough remained of the trunk, however, to make it clear what it had once been.
The Institute children followed their new acquaintance to a more disposable copse. “Are you two tougher when you’re made of ice?”
They both nodded.
“Then be ice.”
The two nodded, wordlessy shifting into their ice forms, eyes fixed on Billy; their utter stillness making him suddenly feel both watched and strangely alone. For his part, he turned to one side, facing just a little away from them, and opened his mouth. What followed could have been called a sound, but doing so failed to truly express the scope of it. An immense front of sonic force burst from his mouth, ripping grass from the ground by the root. The shockwave met a twisted, stunted jarrah tree, and it exploded, sending wooden shrapnel hurtling in all directions. Much to Billy’s momentary alarm, Myriad’s frozen shell teetered like it had been caught in the wake of a cannonball, before falling to the floor and cracking in two at the midsection. He raised a hand to her, his eyes going wide in shock, before she reformed, grinning.
“That was amazing!” she squealed, human once more.
Billy heard a sound like two very small glaciers slamming into each other. When he looked in its direction, he saw Maelstrom was applauding him. A sizable splinter was lodged in his right eye like a cocktail stick, which he removed perfunctorily before reassuming his flesh and blood, his lips curling into a broad smile as soon as they were able. “I’m glad you made us go icy first,” he said playfully. “I bet any naturals would be bleeding out their ears right now.”
“I assure you we’re fine,” said Lawrence, the other adults in tow behind him. “I think it’s time we got you packed and ready, William.”
Speaking truthfully, the polite thing to do would have been for William and Betty to have packed his bags long before Lawrence and the others arrived to pick him up, but nobody could blame them for trying to postpone the inevitable separation as long as possible. A pair of brown leather samsonite train cases were loaded with so many clothes, toys, and books, the NHI headmaster almost suspected Beatrice harboured a secret space-folding power. Most of it would have to be shared with the other children, of course, but Lawrence figured that conversation could wait.
Betty’s delaying tactics were many and varied. Billy’s travelling clothes were fussed over to within an inch of their life, his luggage checked and rechecked. Long speeches were given on the importance of bathing twice a day and wearing a hat; all interspersed with admonishments that Lawrence feed her boy right.
Eventually, though, after a protracted afternoon tea and some last minute visits to the smallest room, Beatrice Sullivan found herself on the lawn of the little house, watching a massive, lost Englishman load the rented Volkswagen van that would carry away the child she had more or less raised single handedly.
Betty turned to her charge, standing beside her as they watched the old man handle the trunks with surprising grace for his age and size, and placed her hands on each of his shoulders. The boy looked away from the van, his eyes meeting hers. He managed to suppress a sniffle with some effort.
“You take good care of yourself, okay?” Betty murmured, the words coming out somewhere between a terse command and a mumbled request.
The boy didn’t trust himself to answer, and so merely nodded, blinking his eyes a few times to clear them. After a few tries, he managed a single word without letting his voice crack. “Hug?”
Wordlessly, the young woman pulled the boy in close, her cheek pressed gently against the back of his head.
“Mummy and Daddy always said my fur felt weird to touch,” Billy mumbled, his words coming out just a little oddly with his body pressed against his carer. “But you always pretended not to care. Thank you for that.”
“Shush, you,” she replied taking a quick breath with a sound like a vacuum cleaner jamming. “I like the fur. It makes it feel like I’m hugging a teddy bear.”
“… Love you.” The boy managed, saying the words out loud for the first time.
“Yeah, me too.”
“…And we’re done,” grunted Lawrence, tightening a strap around the last of Billy’s luggage. He turned to face Miss Sullivan, his brow flushed with exertion. “We should be ready to head out once Alberto is finished with whatever it is he’s doing.”
“I meant to mention, Doctor, Billy doesn’t agree with bee stings.”
“It’s okay, Betty, they hardly ever get past my fur anyway.”
“And he sometimes gets hay fever during the—”
Lawrence held a hand up reassuringly, trying to ward off further warnings. “It’s alright, Miss Sullivan, allergies don’t tend to last too long against our medic.” A lot of things don’t, Lawrence reflected. Maybe I should send Miss Sullivan a photo once Żywie’s finished up with him. “Now where has that boy gotten to?”
“Hold your horses, Bertie, I’m coming,” Tiresias called as he strode across the lawn, waving a bottle of wine in one hand. “Say, Miss Sullivan, do you mind if I take this with me? I haven’t tasted a good Amarone since I was ten.”
Miss Sullivan giggled. “Call me Betty, please.”
“Only if you call me Alberto,” Tiresias responded with a grin. .
Lawrence made an almost imperceptible noise of exasperation. He found that his student had two modes to him: schoolboy mopiness, or drifting through the world aloft an updraft of undispellable irony and snide bemusement. He wasn’t sure which he found more trying.
“Granted, gladly. And sure, take it. The St. Georges send me a couple of bottles every Christmas.”
Tiresias bowed slightly. “Grazie.” He exaggerated the accent, just a touch.
“Shame we don’t have the time to enjoy a glass of it together… will we?” For some reason, Betty felt the need to conceal her smile behind her hand. Yet, she was blushing, and felt no need to hide that.
Seeing this, the psychic took a quick peek at the nanny’s underlying mental machinery. Her flirtations were born mostly from the fear of loneliness—a stalling tactic she wasn’t even aware she was employing—but there was some genuine attraction underlying it all, and he couldn’t help but be flattered. He also couldn’t help but notice the irritation rising inside Lawrence like acrid smoke. The old man always overestimated his mental privacy.
If those monks charged anything, they’d be liable under the Trade Descriptions Act7. He held his thumb and index finger to his temples in the standard esper gesture, his mouth set in grim line, his eyes still twinkling. “The future is a storm of change, Betty. But it looks very nice.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
Before Lawrence could try and hurry things along, or at least beg the two of them to be a little less secondary school about it, Allison poked her head out from one of the van’s windows, the very picture of righteous indignation. “Let’s go already!”
Betty Sullivan followed the van as it trundled down the driveway, still waving as it rounded the first bend in the country road, only making her way back to the house she had thought of as “hers” (or maybe “ours”) for years once the dust and sound it had kicked up subsided. She would need to call her employers to inform them their son had been picked up without issue, but that could surely wait an hour or two. She suddenly felt a pressing need to dispose of more of that wine. Or maybe head out to the Regent Theatre and catch a showing of The Sandpiper. Or Saint Mary’s Church, to confess some sin she wasn’t sure she commited, or even what its name was.
She was walking to the kitchen when she noticed the farewell gift William left for her on the table. He made trinkets for her constantly, and she kept all of them. She would have even if they were balled dirt clods—which, in a sense, many of them were. This one was a rose bulb, woven from silver and gold thread. Beneath it lay a note in his tight, laboriously neat hand:
Thanks for everything.
Betty Sullivan smiled to herself. “We really did have too much time on our hands.”
By some measures, the return journey to the Institute was more of an ordeal for Myriad than the detour to pick up William was. It wasn’t that the company was any worse off for his presence; Billy was a surprisingly, almost exhaustingly gregarious little boy, and he approached the whole trip with an astronaut’s enthusiasm. As the other two children gathered, apart from the occasional day trip to a particularly lonely stretch of Peaceful Bay, and some excursions into Albany proper under cover of invisibility, the child had seen almost nothing of the world beyond the woods surrounding his home. Every mile down Albany Highway—made silver and shining by winter rain and moonlight—carried him deeper into undiscovered country.
The problem was his song. Myriad had been musically deprived for a little over a week by then, and while she did have Maelstrom’s song—which by now was as comfortable and familiar as a favourite set of clothes—to keep her from feeling totally human, she was craving variety. Billy’s song offered that in spades: while David was the absolute master (or at least, co-regent) of one aspect of the universe, while William’s powers were fascinatingly generalist in their purview. One controlled, the other created. She kept imagining herself twisting the stuffy, recirculated air of the van into ribbons of quartz, reverting her window back to the sand from whence it was blown; or maybe, just maybe, making the stale bags of crisps she and the boys were subsisting on fresh once more.
But what would attuning herself to that song do to her? It was always a bit of a crapshoot whether or not Myriad manifested the more visible peculiarities of other posthumans. Her eyes always turned Barthe8 blue without fail when she used their powers, but she could still speak with her own voice when she assumed Reverb’s. This inconsistency drove Lawrence to distraction, though Żywie was more philosophical about it:
“Nature is almost all edge cases, little one,” she had said with a shrug.
As for the girl herself, right at that moment, it made Myriad want to scream. Specifically, she wished to scream loud enough to shatter concrete.
There’s no reason I couldn’t play his song, she tried convincing herself. I don’t turn into a grown woman when I use Melusine’s powers, or a boy with David’s. She shot a glance at Billy, whose eyes were darting back and forth between the window and his sunset diary—in his isolation he had cultivated a depressingly vast array of hobbies—trying vainly to document the incongruously bright orange dregs of daylight’s westward retreat in the face of a charging umbral host. She almost psyched herself up enough to play his song right then and there—not to do anything with it, just to feel it within herself—but the image of her fingernails curving into claws, or her spine erupting from under her skin was vividly persistent. It’s perfectly safe to try… when Żywie’s in shrieking distance.
Instead of laying over in a motel for the night as they had on the trip down, Lawrence insisted they sleep in the van. Everyone grumbled about it, with the two of exceptions of Therese Fletcher, who voiced her complaints on a wavelength only Tiresias could pick up, and William, for whom it only enhanced the adventure. Even if he knew he was the reason they were playing at homelessness for the night.
Pressed between Maelstrom and the tiger-boy in the dark, blankets up to their chins, and trying not to kick Tiresias awake, Myriad asked “Billy, you’ve always been able to do the things you can do, right?”
“Yup,” he answered, half-dreaming, not entirely .
“You remember your dreams much?”
“Anything… pop up a lot?”
There was a contemplative silence in the van, disturbed only by the dull roar of Lawrence’s snoring. Myriad thought the boy had simply drifted off to sleep completely, until— “…Falling. Falling and changing.” The last word was prolonged by an unfortunately timed yawn. It lent William the unintended air of a strongly medicated Hammer horror headliner.
Well, that’s new.
They arrived back at the New Human Institute late the next day. For Billy, passing through Perth was like showing a landlocked child the sea. WA’s capital may not have made anyone’s list of great metropoli9, but to William it could have been Rome, Paris, and New York all at once. More than a few children in passing cars would have difficulty convincing their parents of what they saw peering at them from the window of a VW.
Myriad’s schoolmates’ songs reached her long before they were in sight of the New Human Institute, instantly rousing her from a bout of travel sickness brought on from riding in the tray of the truck, and the soggy, petrol station chips10 she had devoured while Lawrence reacquired the Institute’s ute11. They were the chimes of “Greensleeves” playing on an ice-cream van’s speakers in the distance: a promise of infinite joy. They existed parallel of each other, somehow not devolving into cacophony as they approached the way that many songs made of sound would when being played at once. She felt like a child raised by wolves—or maybe paintings—hearing speech for the first time, or someone who had went their whole lives without some desperately vital vitamin finally being allowed to eat her fill.
As soon as it was close enough, she grabbed hold of Snapdragon’s song, thrusting her hand out over the side and unleashing a stream of phosphorescent red and yellow sparks that drifted in their wake like the Milky Way set ablaze, eliciting a lot of oohing and aahing from Billy, who crawled over to her side to get a better look.
“Aren’t you worried about starting a bushfire or something?” Despite the cautiousness his words implied, his tone was one of utter delight.
Myriad smiled, primly. “It only burns when I want it to.” In demonstration, she allowed a fountain of fireworks to flow from her fingertip over the three of them, sadly without the characteristic whine of the real thing, but with plenty of popping and crackling.
Billy instinctively went to pat out the embers that settled on his jacket, earning him some laughter from Maelstrom and Myriad. Soon enough, he was laughing, too.
If AU had invaded and burned, or possibly gilded, the New Human Institute since Lawrence last checked in on it, everyone was being very civil about it. The students and staff were all assembled around the chewed up patch of dried mud the truck usually summered in, Mary Gillespie and Linus enthusiastically waving a “welcome back” banner. Also waiting to greet the party was a contingent of what were doubtlessly Mabel’s creatures. A giant, vaguely reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln and dressed in suspenders and stovepipe trousers loomed over the crowd, flanked by centaurs, who, at a deafening trumpet blow from the giant, fired a volley of arrows in salute. Overhead, rather more fireworks than Myriad had produced exploded cheerfully.
When the truck came to a stop, Myriad heard someone shout “They’re in position!”
There was a crack, and a shower of confetti rained down over the truck.
“And who’s going to clean that up?” Tiresias snapped as he gratefully clambered out of the Ute’s cabin, before slinking off to a less glaringly festive corner of the campus.
Myriad jumped off the truck, slowing her descent with a well timed gust of wind. Maelstrom bothered with no such precaution. Both children were soon fallen upon, Maelstrom being enveloped by Melusine and Mabel’s arms, while Elsewhere ran up beaming, a broadsheet under his arm.
“You were in the paper!” he shouted, holding up the five day copy of The Australian. “Not even just this one! The West Australian did a story about you guys as well!”
“And The Northam Advertiser,” added Mabel proudly, breaking away from the hug.
“Called you both ‘local children’. Never going to see them admit that again,” Melusine said, still embracing her son, pride, bitterness, and absolute relief warring in her voice.
Myriad took the paper from Elsewhere’s hands. The front page was dominated by a photograph of what Bob Jenkins had dubbed her cathedral , grainily rendered in light and shadow. She had seen it the day of publication, of course. Lawrence had trooped out to the nearest newsagent first thing in the morning to purchase up a copy. She had no doubt that another had already been framed and hung up somewhere in the big house. Still, after the days of stress and longing, and all the business with Billy, it felt odd being reminded that the Parliament House demo wasn’t even a fortnight behind them.
Out of some irrational urge to check if Jenkins hadn’t somehow retroactively broken his promise, she turned the page to the main body of the article. She soon found what she was looking for, printed in bolded italics on the rough paper:
The little girl sends her love to her mother and father, in hope they might read this.
Myriad looked up. Most of the other children were starting to cluster around the triumphant returnees, eager for tales of the outside world, while a few were trailing Tiresias as if he were a beloved, if grumpy, housecat. The air was thick with their songs, and Myriad found herself rapidly cycling through them, not holding onto any one for more than a second or two, just to assure herself they were there if she needed them. Then she started laughing. And crying.
“Ah, Miri,” said Elsewhere, sounding worried. “Are you okay?”
“I-I think I am.”
“Something wrong, Allie?” Billy asked, leaning over the side of the truck tray.
Almost as one organism, everyone looked at the boy. Somehow, he’d gotten lost in the general excitement. Or he’d been too busy staring at the giant to make himself known.
“…Hi! Could someone help me down?”
1. Having personally met the Physician (and Żywie), the biological sciences were culled with particular stringence. ↩
2. Perhaps surprisingly, the production of fallout shelters saw an uptick after global nuclear disarmament. Though, as some would later reflect, it was unlikely the Flying Man would be stopped by a door handle.↩
3. Almost as inaccurate as most modern globes. ↩
4. The K.G. Murray Publishing Company put out eight issues of Captain Diamond before retiring the title due to public outcry and—so it was rumoured—a personal visit to their offices by the Flying Man himself.↩
5. In the period between 1962 and 1966, there were very few credible reports of the Flying Man engaging other superhuman beings—with the major exception of the Arkwright Incident of August 1963. If there were more, no camera or eye had been attentive enough to capture them. ↩
6. It had taken his nanny and parents some time to assure themselves it wasn’t some twisted act of resentment on Billy’s part.↩
7. He should have found monks on a higher mountain—this being the main barometer of monk quality.↩
8. Françoise’s and the first half of David’s surname, legally speaking.↩
9. At least before the middle part of the 21st century.↩
10. There was enough vinegar in her blood to drive jellyfish to extinction. ↩
11. Billy politely remained invisible for the most part, though not enough to prevent Crackbone Pete from being smug for weeks.↩