It was September of 1965. To the great displeasure of Aleister Johnson, the Beatles’ reign at the top of the charts was entering its fifth week, with “Help” and “I’m Down” continuing to sit at number one, a stranglehold that would not be broken until the next month by Normie Rowe and his covers of “Que, Sera, Sera” and “Shakin’ All Over”. Across the sea, in what many Australians still called “the mother country”, King George VI once more lies on the brink of death, and soon children all throughout the Commonwealth will stumble over the lyrics of “God Save the Queen.”1
Earlier that month, an attack on the city of Jammu by the 12th Infantry Division of the Pakistan Army was cut short by the Flying Man calmly and orderly depositing the over four-thousand strong invasion force in the city of Islamabad. As he usually did when he intervened in military engagements, he seemed more disappointed than anything else.
Perhaps he would have been more pleased by the small cultural milestone being made at the New Human Institute. After months of preparation, the first all-posthuman production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest was being staged in the barn.
It had taken Mabel (director) and Elsewhere (executive and regular producer) longer than they had expected to line up all the pieces. They had a shallow, mostly disinterested talent pool, a play with frankly not nearly as many juicy parts as, say, Macbeth2, and the teachers and staff had adopted a very hands-off approach towards the whole business. As great as that was for things like creative freedom, it didn’t leave either child much recourse for maintaining order.
In spite of all this, the two of them had eventually managed to cajole, bribe, or threaten enough of their schoolmates to form a cast and crew, and now, every member of the Institute, young and old, had gathered to bear witness to the fruits of their labours.
Ariel wafted around Ferdinand as he led him through pastel sands and delicately brushworked palms swaying in an imperceptible wind, the vaporous edges of his person stirred and troubled by the young prince’s tail.
“Full fathom five thy father lies,” the spirit sang in a voice like a thousand fingers rubbing crystal. The fog that made up its form gave the suggestion of a young child, its gender impossible to determine. “Of his bones are coral made.Those are pearls that were his eyes…”
Every ebb and flow of the air threatened to scatter the spectre, but somehow it kept itself together, shifting and swirling around a pale blue glow, rainbows hanging in the mist it left in its wake.
“I think Mels is crying,” Mabel whispered to Elsewhere, her tone caught between sympathy and pride.
A few rows down, tears were, indeed trailing their way down Melusine’s face as she watched her son, her attention rapt. A couple seats down from her, Basilisk leant forward in his special chair, almost unblinking, shoving popcorn into his mouth with a spoon, his face bathed in the light of Ēōs’ free floating stage-lamps3. Despite Mabel’s prompting, Elsewhere did not seem to notice. He was too busy staring at their Ariel. He only took any notice of the girl when she stuck her fingers between his ribs, harder than was perhaps fair. He let out a quiet squeak, then looked at her, hurt. In response, she merely tutted at him.
The one advantage the The Tempest’s relatively milquetoast cast of characters offered the Watercolours and their Orchestra was that it barely mattered who they got to play them. Talos (over Maelstrom’s muttered complaints) had landed the role of Alonso purely on the strength of his mechanical mode’s perfect memory. Elsewhere had been very particular about the casting of Ariel. Mabel, though, was more concerned with the main lead.
“The ditty does remember my drowned father. This is no mortal business, nor no sound. That the earth owes. I hear it now above me.” His line completed, Prince Ferdinand smiled his friendly vampire grin, rocking slightly on his heels with his hands behind his back.
When Growltiger had expressed an interest in the production, Mabel had strongly considered recasting Caliban, but the boy’s lip had wobbled every time she brought it up, and Linus had threatened the children with musical numbers if he wasn’t allowed to play the monster. She had struggled for some time trying to come up for a use for the newest student, until Elsewhere had realized the subversive potential4 of casting him as the lead. As it turned out, Billy was an atrocious actor, but in a manner that only seemed natural and proper for a seven year old. Even Lawrence seemed charmed by his sheer joy at managing to remember his dialogue.
Mabel noticed. “I think Lawrence likes it!” she hissed excitedly to her producer. “Christmas matinee, Macbeth, for sure.”
“Isn’t that more a Halloween story? Witches and all?”
Mabel grinned wickedly. “Christmas, Halloween, they both have vampires.”
It took Elsewhere a moment to catch on. “…Wouldn’t that be Easter?”
Mum would have smacked us for that.
Prince Ferdinand emerged from the darkness behind the stage5, a log over his back. “There be some sports are painful, and their labor, elight in them sets off. Some kinds of bases are nobly underground.”
Mabel put her face in her palms, praying no one noticed.
“And most poor matters point to rich ends,” he finished, as though he didn’t understand half of what he was saying. He set the log down on a stack of its fellows, wiping his furred brow with pantomime exhaustion… then kept wiping for a few extra seconds while he struggled to remember his next line. Then he went on, stumbling through an interminable celebration of his ladylove until she finally made her appearance:
“Alas now, pray you, work not so hard,” Miranda said with the passion and conviction of every wannabe dramatist between Harvey and Avon Valley. She moved towards the prince, ready to comfort her love.
Myriad was honestly wasted on Miranda. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she performed with much more poise and self possession than any of her young castmates, her every half sung phrase and subtle gesture completely on point… until she actually reached her costar. Then whatever preternatural maturity gripped her evaporated, leaving two eight year olds in costumes knocked together out of spare curtains and bedsheets, trying not to giggle as they attempted to ape adolsecent affection, his fur tickling her cheek as his tail swished behind him.
You could only hope they enjoyed the moment, for the prince’s courtiers were even then conspiring against their liege with the dread Caliban: a conspicuously short, dark skinned Neapolitan butler6 and an ember-eyed jester trying not to laugh as a teenager slathered in homemade troll makeup leapt and pranced around them, hissing Elizabethan dialogue at them in a voice his director had described as being “like black jellybeans.” Every one of his grand, exuberant gesticulations was accompanied by a musical sting.
“That boy is having far too much fun,” Mrs. Gillespie opined, trying to hide a smile.
Lawrence grinned at her in the gloom. “Oh, don’t fret, Mary. Everyone loves being the villain once in a while.”
Mary’s smile sharpened. “Know this from experience, Doctor?”
“Yes, actually. Eton. A few of us got our hands on a bottle of the divinity master’s sherry, and we decided to do The Merchant of Venice. I was Shylock.” His expression glazed over with nostalgia. “We made a couple of third-formers be Portia and Jessica. Poor lads couldn’t say no.”
Mary chuckled, as much at Snapdragon silently begging Linus to tone down the mugging long enough for him to get a line out as the anecdote. “I think we were right not to recreate fagging here7.”
The play proceeded in much the same vein as it had begun, more the unrestrained cavorting of children than a serious production—a marginally more formalized game of pretend—broken up by occasional the special effect and attempts by some of the more actorly among them to do the piece justice. Through it all, Lawrence watched with grandfatherly contentment, marred only by the occasional niggle when the children did particularly severe insult to the bard’s work.
Not that Lawrence’s opinion of their efforts entered much into Mabel and Elsewhere’s thinking. It was theirs—that was all that mattered.
And sometimes, it really did all come together. Ariel manifesting himself to the king and his men: a living storm, all noise and fury; proving folly any human pretense of power.
And then there was their Prospero.
“Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling, of their afflictions,” the spindly old wizard with the young face demanded of the mist that pooled around the hem of his far too voluminous dressing gown, cotton ball beard shaking violently from his chin. “And shall not myself, one of their kind, that relish all as sharply passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?”
The real fun of Shakespeare is seeing how much you can change without altering a word. Here, Prospero came across less as a grand, magical tyrant, and more of a gone to seed company founder whose business had grown quite beyond anything he had ever imagined while he wasn’t looking—kept on by his cannier subordinates out of sentimentality and branding consideration. The sort of man whose grinning face would adorn the labels of mustard bottles for generations after his death. That’s not to say there wasn’t any danger to him. Sometimes, in between rounds of golf and shuttlecock, even the most irrelevant corporate figurehead might feel the need to remind themselves that they still had some power…
The casting of Prospero ended up being Mabel and Elsewhere’s most difficult creative decision. Both children agreed that the wizard needed to be something special. At the very least, he ought to be taller than his castmates. With Gwydion proving militantly uninterested in the production, and Linus already thoroughly committed to the role of Caliban, the Watercolours had once again found themselves short of options. Myriad had suggested one of the older girls be Prospera, but that was quickly dismissed as the kind of smart that was likely to get them slapped. Maelstrom had also tentatively floated the idea of asking Lawrence to play the Duke of Milan, but that seemed like the preteen amatuer theatrics equivelent of having your father be your date for the school formal.
Then, only a fortnight before their self-imposed opening date, salvation staggered into the barn.
“Really?” Elsewhere had asked, warily. “You want to be in the play?”
“Don’t tell me what I want to do!” Tiresias had slurred at the boy, almost losing his footing from the distraction. His cheeks were flushed with an odd hexagonal pattern. According to the Physician via Myriad, it was a throwback to whatever Enlilian tourist had introduced esper genes into his bloodline8.
“Whatever. Not like there’s anything else to do around here.” He pointed with drooping menace at the casting table. “Let me be the wizard-man, or I’ll…” He tried to find an appropriate threat in the wine fumes. “…Bite you.”
None of the Watercolours saw the harm in saying yes to the psychic. Truthfully, they hadn’t even expected him to remember he had wanted in on the production by dinnertime. But, much to everyone’s frankly ambivalent surprise, Tiresias not only persisted with his theatrical ambitions, he threw himself into the role. There had been some fretting over whether this constituted a breach of their pledge not to involve any grownups, but they decided that the difference between them and Tiresias was merely one of chronology.
They had no luck with convincing him he didn’t need to put on the pommy accent.
“Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel,” Prospero ordered, the child-spirit already coiling away into the darkness as he spoke. The sorcerer sat hunched in his throne now, only one of the orbiting stage-lamps still shining down him, its brothers glowing dimly like dying suns. “—I’ll break my staff, bury it certain fathoms fathoms beneath the earth.” His smile was manic, his eyes darting all around him, as though checking if God or Lucifer or any power between them were watching. “And deeper than did ever plummet sound, I’ll drown my book.”
“He’s so lying,” Mabel commented in hushed tones.
“What? Why?” Elsewhere asked.
“Who’s going to give up magic powers? Especially someone who did the kinda stuff Prospero did…” An ugly memory crawled out from its crevice. “Would Elsa?”
“Ugh, don’t remind me.”
“Still, would you?”
“…I don’t know.”
If there was one thing about The Tempest that disappointed Mabel and Elsewhere, it was that the one witch in the story didn’t even appear onstage. If there was another thing, it was that there wasn’t really a big liberation scene for Ariel. Prospero merely promises to release the spirit after just one more favour or two. Definitely a big mistake on Shakespeare’s part, the eight and the nine year old both thought.
Still, they had worked out a bit of staging they were both proud of. At the end, when the wizard sent Ariel ahead to calm the seas and stiffen the winds for Miranda and Ferdinand’s journey back to Italy, Prospero once again gave his assurance that—with the completion of this final task—the spirit would finally has his freedom.
The words thrummed through Ariel’s aqueous form like ripples or musical notes. With a rafter-rattling blast of thunder, the fog forgot his shape, spilling over the stage before sinking into the dirt floor, revealing a mahogany skinned little boy in a shift woven from ice crystals. He looked like he could have been one of the island’s long-gone natives. The boy wiggled his toes a little, clearly relieved to have them back, before shooting a worried look over at Prospero, as though fearful that the wizard might change his mind. The old warlock nodded back at him with an air of self-satisfied magnanimity. Returning the gesture with some hesitation, the former spirit took the prince and his love by the hand, and lead them out of the story. Miranda looked afraid, almost queasy. Understandable, for a girl leaving behind everything all she knew—
“AU!” Myriad screamed, wrenching her hand from David’s. “AU’s here!”
The collective hush of the audience was pure enough that the creak of the barn door was clearly audible when Mrs. Barnes stepped inside.
The entirety of the Institute turned in their seats to get a look at the interloper. The almost too-thin woman looked like she had dressed for church. Her hair looked like it was for a funeral. Examining the crowd, and then the children still onstage in their homespun finery, Myriad looking pale and panicked, Angela’s brow furrowed with genuine disappointment. “Did we miss the play?”
Elsewhere slowly rose from his chair, uncertain whether or not he was even allowed to. “M-Mummy?”
“Arnold!” The name escaped Angela like a cry of pain.
Arnold. It took the better part of a second for the name to register with the boy, like he was being called by a half-forgotten nickname. Then he was running down the aisles, wondering how he had managed to keep a straight face being called “Elsewhere” for so long. It was silly. Like a game of pirates that had managed to last for months.
Angela Barnes barely managed to stay on her feet when her son collided with her.
“I-I-did-you got my—” Arnold gave up on coherent speech, burying his face in his mother’s dress.
“Shhhhh. That can all wait.”
It was only then that Arnold remembered everyone else in the barn, the warring murmurs and loud, questioning shouting of his schoolmates suddenly audible to him. He wondered how the other students would cope with him of all people getting his mum back, with how they treated David. Then he remembered those poor, human boys from Northam. What the other children did to them. What he had done to them. Lightning flashed beneath the skin of his knuckles.
Except, nobody sounded upset. In fact, if any one sound dominated the din of the barn, it was cheering. Children crowded around the mother and son, trying to make their questions heard over everyone else’s, or just bask like sun-starved flowers in the presence of a flesh and blood mother. It didn’t matter whose they were. Parents coming to the New Human Institute was like finding fairies in the middle of Perth: who gave a damn who they were for?
Arnold didn’t appreciate the attention. Everyone crowding him and his mum, asking stupid questions about how she got there, or even if she was just part of the play. Worse were the endless congratulations. Did they think he might’ve missed how great this was.
Windshear and a couple of the other smaller children tried going for a hug, before finding themselves teleported to the back of the crowd.
Angela gazed reproachfully down at her son. “Arnold…”
The boy suddenly felt very childish. What was he worried about? That his mum might decide to trade him in? Gently, he stepped out of his mother’s embrace, turning to face the throng of other children. “Guys,” he said, “this is my mum.”
Mrs Barnes had steeled herself for a lot of things on her journey to the Institute. A horde of tiny, love-hungry superhumans was not one of them. They fell upon her like locusts. She just barely managed to resist hitting any of them.
Arnold was laughing at the sight when he felt something ram into the back of his legs. He didn’t know why his father’s rib-crushing hug surprised him as much as it did. How likely was it that he would pass on the trip?
He felt his father’s rough, day old stubble against his cheek.“Jesus, boy, you’ve grown…”
Arnold had heard the tone in his father’s voice before, when his mother had just managed to drag him screaming out of some reawoken wartime horror. It was a kind of gasping, raw relief that stung almost as much as the despair. It made the boy shake.
A young man in a collared shirt and olive and brown striped trousers wandered into the area of Arnold’s view that wasn’t taken up by his father’s shirt, a dishwater blonde holding a pudgy baby in a sunbonnet in tow. He beamed when he caught sight of the boy. “Oi, Arnie!”
He hadn’t recognized his eldest brother at first. Drew had already left home when Arnold was born, and one way or another had always kept himself too busy to visit much. He and Frank had always seemed felt like beloved cousins than true brothers—semi-mythical figures whose life and adventures were only attestable in ancient oral tradition. He clambered off his father’s chair. “Who’s the lady?”
Drew’s grin widened, pulling the woman and baby in close. “Hey, that’s my wife you’re talking about!”
Somehow, that made Arnold feel old by proxy.
The woman waved awkwardly at him. “Hi! It’s Sophie. Drew’s told me so much about you.” Under the circumstances, the junior Mrs Barnes couldn’t help but think the introduction was a little inadequate. She held out the baby, cooing, “Say g’day to your uncle, Jules.”
That hit Arnold like a dozen birthdays.
Drew pointed towards the back of the barn. “Christ almighty, that’s some good makeup. How do you get the tail to move? Fishing wire?” He smiled waggishly at Arnold. “That your little girlfriend up there?”
Arnold’s gaze darted around in the direction his brother had pointed, his eyes landing on Maelstrom, before shifting to Allison beside him, still trying to make herself heard over the racket. He went a bright, deep red, and did not respond.
Maelstrom—suspecting that this intermission might last the rest of the play—stepped off the stage, made his way sheepishly over to Arnold and his father, occasionally reducing himself to mist to slip through gaps in the crowd. He passed Mrs Barnes, who, having extricated herself from the mob of boys and girls vying for her attention, had struck up a one sided conversation with a still halfway bewildered Żywie:
“—Is there a Bible in your library? I know I can’t expect you to make him read it, but I would be a lot more comfortable if I knew there was one on hand…”
Maelstrom approached the two Barnes like a rabbit sniffing at a dead fox. Thanks to Żywie, David was used to a degree of photogenic refinement in the people around him. Even Lawrence and Mrs Gillespie shared in some of the benefit. Mr. Barnes had none of that. He was like a large, half finished sandstone sculpture, all chipped and windworn. He reminded the boy a little of Timothy Valour, albeit much more unreconstructed. He struggled to find any evidence of this man in Arnold—unless the tied off stumps were why the boy’s legs were so skinny.
Fred beamed when he spotted the child, revealing many slightly crooked teeth. “You must be David!” he shouted at a Lawrence-like decibel. He clasped the boy’s arm in both hands, shaking it vigorously. “You weren’t joking about the eyes, were you Arnold? Did you end up playing the ghost?”
The blush returned to Arnold’s cheeks. “It was a spirit, Dad…”
David was stunned. It was the first time a stranger had ever addressed him by the name his mother gave him. It was like the man had seen his secret self. He cautioned an uneasy smile. “It’s good to meet you, Fred.”
David remembered too late the attitude most outsider grownups held about first names, but Fred Barnes didn’t appear offended by the lapse in manners. He chuckled, quirking his head towards his son and said “I didn’t think he’d be so casual.” In fact, the general impression Fred had gleaned from his son’s notes was of a boy terrified of adults. “I like it.”
A shriek rang out from the stage, loud and distorted enough to kill and devour all other sound in the barn, making everyone in earshot feel like their bones were aging inside them; a thousand angry ghosts, all shrieking just out of sync with each other:
“CALM DOWN, CHILD!” Somehow, Lawrence managed to make himself heard over Allison’s cacophony.
The howling died down.
“Allison Kinsey,” Mrs Barnes said, rubbing her temples. “Never do that again while I’m alive.”
All of the babies, and even a few older students (and Therese Fletcher) had burst into tears from the shock. Allison’s eyes were wet, too, her breaths short and shallow.
“Now tell us, Myriad,” Lawrence said, slowly, “what do you mean ‘AU is here’?”
Fred Barnes looked at the headmaster, surprised he would use that silly nickname when the girl was so obviously distressed.
Indignation mixed with the fear in Allison’s face. “What I just said. AU. Is. Here. I can hear him, just barely.”
Angela glanced around the crowd. “Has anyone seen where Chen got to?”
The erstwhile wizard Prospero blanched. “Chen?”
Drew tried to process the realization dawning in him. “…He broke off from us when he got here. Said he wanted to look around the old place.”
“Oh, God,” said Żywie, flatly. “Oh, God.”
Lawrence roared, “You brought AU to my school?”
“We didn’t know!” Mr. Barnes shouted back.
Lawrence stormed over towards the other man, leaning down to eye level. “I sent out pictures! They ran in every newspaper in the country for weeks!”
“Pardon us for having better things to do with our lives than memorize the faces of your supervillain students!”
Lawrence raised a closed hand, drawing it back for a strike. Fred saw, and didn’t even flinch. Before he had a chance to do anything, however, Angela stepped between them.
“We’re sorry, we should have realized. He just told us he was a student coming back for a visit.”
“If he was a student, why wouldn’t he be here?”
Angela blinked. “He was a grown man.”
“Why are we standing around talking?” Allison whined. “AU’s out there and he’s going to do something. We need to go get him!”
“No, we don’t,” said Basilisk. “That’s for the grownups to handle. All you kids need to stay safe and together till this is resolved.”
“Mr. Basil’s right, Allie,” Angela said.
Basilisk nodded, then paused. “…How’d you know my name?”
Mrs Barnes reflexively started laying a plan of action. “The most responsible, most killable adults should stay here and look after the children. Sorry, love, but I wouldn’t want you going out there even if you had four legs.” She looked around at the oldest new humans. “Have any of you ever heard of Chen ever killing anyone?”
“…No,” admitted Melusine. As far as she knew, Chen was the only one of the original students, besides Basil, who hadn’t taken a human life.
“Then one of you might be able to talk him down. I’m sure everyone here would rather avoid a fight.”
A few children tried to voice their objections to that, but those evaporated quickly under the combined sternness of Żywie and Angela. The older students seemed to be to keeping their distance from the Barnes. Arnold wondered if they were out of practise dealing with regular grownups.
Allison watched the adults discuss the situation, calmly, for the most part—like someone had just spotted a rabid dog on the property and not the country’s most infamous posthuman criminal. Angela and the teachers were weighing the pros and cons of marching the children back up to the farmhouse9. Lawrence and Tiresias had retreated into their own hushed argument in a shadowed corner of the barn.
She felt Billy hugging her from behind, his chin unwelcomely tickling her neck. “It’ll be alright, Miri,” he tried assuring her, only to find himself a few feet back from her in a burst of greenish light. Myriad ignored him, even as his lip began to wobble. Arnold, glaring at her behind her back, moved to comfort him.
The girl walked over to one of the wooden walls, glaring at it determinedly.
And the wall became a door.
1. On October the 3rd, just prior to midnight, the King was administered lethal doses of cocaine and morphine, so news of his death would appear in the morning papers, rather than the less appropriate evening journals. ↩
2. They might have had an easier time of it if Basilisk had gotten around to showing the children Forbidden Planet.↩
3. The Watercolours had considered a number of lighting options. Lawrence had vetoed taking off the barn roof for reasons of rain and general practicality, candles were deemed a fire hazard, and setting up a generator and electric lights seemed excessive. One plan Elsewhere had come close to implementing was for Stratogale to lift Cardea high enough into the air that clouds wouldn’t be a concern, and then open a portal above the stage. It was at this point that Myriad suggested having Ēōs make light.↩
4. “Nobody else would do it!”↩
5. A black curtain or bedsheet would have like done the job just as well as a wall of dark, liquid smoke, but Artume had wanted something to do. ↩
6. Mabel had worked herself into a fit trying to justify to herself how an Aboriginal boy somehow ending up in the household of the king of Naples, despite Haunt repeatedly telling her not to worry about it: this wasn’t even the first time someone had tried passing him off as Italian.↩
7. Fagging: The practise of British boarding schools granting upperclassman massive amounts of authority over younger students in exchange for theoretical responsibility for their wellbeing. It is worth noting that World War 1 was waged in large part by boarding school graduates.↩
8. Amongst the nations and tribes of Enlil, there is no surer sign of poor breeding than non-geometric capillaries.↩
9. The big argument “against” was of course opening them up to attack. The argument “for” was of course proximity to tea. Also, biscuits.↩