In some respects, 1966 was a much better year for the DDHA than 1965: they’d gone nine months without their headquarters blowing up. Someone should have hung up a sign. Someone had hung up in a sign, in fact. Timothy Valour took it down.
Tim Valour was currently stationed in the former New South Wales Premier’s office in Parliament House, Sydney. After Kirribilli House had been rendered permanently transparent, Sir Robert Askin had graciously offered Valour and his people exclusive use of the parliamentary districts for the increasingly unforeseeable future.
Of course, the Parliament of New South Wales hadn’t met in person for nearly a year now. No Australian parliament had. From what Valour had heard, governing bodies all across the globe were shying away from gathering in one place these days. Not when Arnold Barnes was out there. The conference call was rapidly becoming the new bedrock of democracy. Perhaps “the office” was on its way out—for the important people, at least.
Timothy Valour had no illusions about his importance.
The DDHA chief regarded the young man sitting in the chair in front of him sternly. The boy was distressingly normal looking. He was maybe twenty, with what Valour considered long, shaggy hair on a man. His clothes looked like he’d come directly from a construction site. For all Tim knew, he had.
Tim picked up the form his secretary had brought him ahead of the meeting. “You weren’t exactly exacting about your powers, Mr. Ulles.” His eyes flitted down to the paper. “All you wrote is ‘Psychic.’ ”—Valour clicked his tongue—“…‘Maybe.’ Care to elaborate, Tommy?”
Thomas Ulles kneaded at his sweaty singlet. “It’s hard to explain…”
“Is it now?”
That’s what they all said. Ever since the DDHA and the Australian Defence Force had belatedly started their recruitment drive, Tim’s office had played host to a parade of fraudsters looking for a government paycheck. He’d interviewed every shonky medium and palm-reader on the Eastern seaboard. Being double jointed or a “pretty good” shot with a bow and arrow had nearly eclipsed university and homosexuality as potentual escape routes for draftable males.
Tim didn’t know why they bothered. They’d just be sent to Europe when things finally got hot…
Tommy gulped. “I’m sorry, Mr. Valour. Never been good at talking about myself…”
Tim sighed. “Let’s start simple. Can you read my mind?”
Tommy shook his head. “No can do, sir.”
Of course he couldn’t, thought Tim. None of the “psychics” he’d interviewed could do anything so simple as read his mind. Too easy to test.
“Let me guess,” he said. “You’re an empath?”
Thomas raised an eyebrow. “Pardon, sir?”
Couldn’t they at least do their research before bothering him? “You can read my emotions? Tell me whether I’m happy or cross, yeah?”
Tim got a lot of would-be empaths. Probably because—as far as Timothy could tell—a half-decent empath was indistinguishable from a regular man who looked at people’s faces when they talk.
However, Tommy shook his head again. “I don’t think so.”
“Then how are you ‘psychic’? Come on, boy.”
Thomas clutched his hands together. “Maybe I’m using the wrong word. It’s something I… do to people.”
Timothy blinked. That was something. Usually the fakers didn’t claim to have an effective ability. “Go on…”
“It’s really hard to explain.”
Timothy leaned back in his high backed chair. “Could you demonstrate?”
Thomas narrowed his eyes. “You mean… on you?”
Tim shrugged. “Long as whatever it doesn’t kill or cripple me.”
Lyman will be disappointed. “Go ahead then.”
Thomas raised his palms. He frowned. “You sure, man?”
“Just do it, kid.”
A jaunty pop-song blared inside Tim Valour’s head. Not in his thoughts, inside his skull:
Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something,
I think you’ll understand,
When I’ll say that something…
Timothy clapped his hands over his ears. It didn’t do anything to shut out the noise. “What the fuck are you doing to me?”
Thomas threw his hands back at, this time defensively. “I don’t know, man! I just… put songs in people’s heads.”
I want to hold your hand,
I want to hold your hand…
Tim snarled, “How hard was that to say?”
“I’m sorry, man!”
Oh please, say to me,
You’ll let me be your man…
“Can you make it stop?”
It’s such a feeling that my love, I can’t hide
I can’t hide, I can’t hide…
“When does it stop on its own?”
“A few hours? Maybe five?”
I want to hold your hand,
I want to hold your hand…
“I’m really sorry, sir—”
“Am I out?”
“Talk to my secretary and piss off!”
Tommy Ulles scarpered out of the office. Timothy Valour put his head against his desk and breathed rhythmically. Thankfully, after a few repeats, the song subsided to a merely infuriating musical tinnitus.
How does Allison Kinsey stand it?
The desk intercom buzzed. “Mr. Lyman is here, sir.”
Reluctantly, Timothy jabbed the talk button. “Send him in.”
Tim’s head was still resting on the desk when James Lyman slipped praying-mantis like into the office. He’d known the DOPO attaché long enough that he no longer feigned dignity in front of him.
Timothy grunted in acknowledgement.
Lyman sat down in Ulles’ vacated seat. “Rough day?”
Valour looked up miserably at the American. “A tradie stuck a Beatles song in my head.”
Lyman raised a salt and pepper eyebrow. “You mean he hummed it…”
“No,” Tim hissed. “He put the song in my head. By squinting.” He pointed at his temples with a shaky, manic grin. “I can still hear it, James.”
Lyman’s narrow face lit with understanding. “You mean he used a power?”
Tim scowled. “No, he trepanned me and stuck a record in my head. What do you think?”
James leaned forward urgently. “How did he do it? Did it seem sonic or psychic? Is it just that one song, or the whole Beatles catalog? What about other artists—”
Tim groaned. “For God’s sake, Lyman. My ears are still ringing!” He pointed at the door. “Thumps has the kid’s details. You go chase him up if you’re so intrigued!”
Lyman glared daggers at his Australian colleague. It might’ve frightened softer, more settled men. “You’re telling me you let a potential asset wander out onto the street?”
“We have his phone and address. But I somehow doubt Captain Earworm is going to take down Moscow.”
“Never write off a sorcerer,” insisted Lyman. “For all you know, that boy is the perfect com-jammer.” The corner of his lip curled. “Besides, not like you Aussies can afford to be picky.”
They really couldn’t. In the nine months since Allison Kinsey and her supervillain army had forced Valour to abandon the asylums, he’d only managed to enlist eleven “occult operatives” for the FWA1. Maybe three of them were what you’d call superhero material. But what did the Yanks expect? Press-ganging was nigh-impossible. Even if more and more supers weren’t hying themselves to Catalpa every month (and even if they weren’t supers) there was nowhere to detain them. You couldn’t even stack stones where the asylums had stood, and the Circle’s End facility was still listed as “missing.”
“Of course not,” Tim said flatly. “Wouldn’t do for us to miss our quota…”
“Don’t pretend the dominos won’t fall on you, Tim!” snapped Lyman. “The Fulda Gap2 will be bleeding out by Easter. The Soviets have us cornered for conventional forces. They killed the Flying Man. With a nuke3.” He tapped his finger on the desk for emphasis. “The only way we keep Europe is shoring up our occult assets. And all your sorcerers are bottled up at the end of the world, plotting and scheming God knows what.”
Tim smiled sourly. “That reminds me, what’s Penderghast up to?”
Lyman’s lips tightened. “Howard Penderghast is far from our only high grade sorcerous asset. Head office is sending you another magical consultant this month, in fact. Clement Strangefate4. Real up and comer, I’m told.”
“Lovely,” said Valour, wondering if all wizards came from the same, stupid country. “Is that all you’re here to tell me?”
“No.” Lyman closed his eyes and folded his hands. “I’m sure you’re aware Catalpa is planning another mass-abduction in Perth this week.”
“Mass-abduction.” That was the official term for Catalpa’s recruitment drives. Tim supposed it wasn’t inaccurate, though it reminded him of when the Yanks tried calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” back in the Great War.
“Given you and your department’s involvement in the Catalpa affair, I and our colleagues at ASIO5—”
Tim groaned. “Not another infiltration, Lyman. It never works!”
There’d been numerous attempts to infiltrate or perform reconnaissance on Catalpa—a difficult prospect, given both the difficult terrain, and its inhabitants. Black ops teams attempting to penetrate the settlement on foot had found themselves stranded in the middle of Bunbury or Brunswick. Paratroopers were thrown back into the holds of their planes. Powered spies had been returned with only recollections of strange children’s theatre productions to show.
James Lyman tensed and splayed his fingers, taking a slow, deep breath. “If you would let me finish, I was going to tell you about the new tack we’re taking.”
Valour folded his arms. “I’m all ears.”
And so, James Lyman explained his latest plan. It didn’t take long.
Tim looked blankly at the American. “You bastard.”
“Hard times call for hard measures. I would argue there’s a touch of kindness in it, even.”
“It still won’t work.”
“The strategy’s been vetted by ten pediatric psychologists and psionic experts. It’s the best we’ve got.”
Timothy Valour turned on the intercom again. “Thumps, get me gin. Fast.”
I want to hold your hand…
Ralph Rivers adjusted his costume in the mirror. That was one upside to shacking up with a fashion designer: there was always a decent mirror lying around6.
The metal pack on Ralph’s back unfolded into the angular, art-deco wings Mistress Quickly had built for him. Red electricity crackled across their surface.
Good, they were on straight.
Ralph frowned thoughtfully at the superhero in the mirror. More days than not, he still felt odd going out as the Crimson Comet. At first, it’d stirred up memories of the war, but nearly a year of good times in the suit had soothed that. It wasn’t even that he was fifty-fucking-six and dressing like a circus-angel. It was something else.
Ralph Rivers felt… fake. He might be dressed like a superhero, but truthfully, he hadn’t put in any daring-do since the Sydney march. Most of his costumed activities lately consisted of rounding up children at night and breaking up bar fights. Sure, in Catalpa, both of those duties often involved fireballs, but they weren’t adventures. Ralph felt like the imitation Father Christmases who tossed out wax paper lolly-bags from on top of fire-engines.
It was a selfish thought, Ralph knew, wishing for danger. But it wasn’t as though the world beyond Catalpa couldn’t use a man of his vocation…
Behind Ralph, a circle of paper-partitions dissolved into bright hologramatic debris, revealing Close-Cut decked out in his latest creation:
The old man spread his arms grandly. “What do you think?”
Ralph smirked and regarded his boyfriend in the mirror. He was wearing a chrome three piece suit with subtle rainbow iridescence mixed into the fabric.
“Honestly, Wally, you look a bit underdressed.”
Wallace frowned, his handlebar moustache contracting like two snakes rearing to strike. “You mean I don’t look gauche.”
Ralph turned to face Wally. “I’m pretty sure “gauche” is the definition of superhero…” He blinked in thought. “What does gauche mean?”
Close-Cut sighed and reached into a suit jacket, pulling out a dark blue domino mask he applied to his face. “There. ‘Superhero’ enough? Not that I am one.”
Ralph strode over and kissed his boyfriend. “Getting there.”
Wallace smiled, eyes flitting down at Ralph’s Crimson Comet suit. “I don’t know why you won’t let me design you a new suit. That thing’s more ‘out’ than me.”
Ralph laughed. “Careful there, my sister made me this. You’ve got to at least meet my family before slagging off their work.”
Wallace raised his hands placatingly as Ralph adjusted his lapels.
“Now now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure your sister’s a lovely girl. But most heroes are supposed to move past the homemade pajama suit stage at some point. I’m sure she’d understand.”
“I can’t change the costume,” Ralph growled, before flashing the other man a grin. “More than two colors would make the comics harder to draw.”
“So that’s why I only got to appear in one issue,” Wallace murmured. “I was too much.”
“Yeah,” Ralph agreed. “Two decades of ‘Too much.’” He leaned his shoulder against the wall, casually ignoring the slight flicker as fine filigree wallpaper momentarily gave way to factory brushed polysteel.
“I do wish you’d stop leaning on things.”
“It’s a house. That’s what it’s for.”
“You make it so obvious we live in a dump.”
“Instead of living in a dump with fake lighting?”
“Is it ever not with you?”
Wallace sighed. “I still don’t know why you’re dragging me to this.”
Ralph grinned. “Says the man who made a new suit for it. Think of it as a date!”
“A date to pick up refugees from a park.”
“Hey, King’s Park is nice!” Ralph’s smile grew wistful. “Lawrence used to let me take Fran there, back in the day.”
A quiet fell over the bedroom. Wallace had never met Françoise, but you didn’t date Ralph Rivers for six months without hearing a great deal about her.
Ralph couldn’t let it stand:
“You know it’s the biggest city park on the planet?”
Close-Cut raised a trimmed eyebrow. “Is it? I’d have figured it was Central Park.”
Ralph shrugged. “Allie told me.”
“You know, that girl could tell us anything she liked, and we’d probably buy it.”
Both men laughed.
Ralph’s comm-watch beeped.
“Are you and Mr. Grimsby ready to be picked up, Mr. Rivers?”
“Just a second,” answered Wallace. He picked up a fine blackwood cane topped with a bronze eagle head and stood beside his partner, composing himself. “I hope it starts raining soon so I can switch to the umbrella. Much easier to contrive defensive options.”
“I remember,” said Ralph fondly. “Right, Blancheflor, showtime.”
“Prepare for transport,” warned the distant machine.
The universe briefly turned inside out.
Wallace stumbled as the world righted itself. The pair were standing on a raised metal viewing platform forty-nine feet feet in the air. A spiral staircase twisted under it—a wrought steel double helix.
“How does one ‘prepare’ for that sensation, precisely?” Wally asked, fixing his mask. “I never could tell.”
“Shut up, you big wally.”
“Did you see what I did there?”
“Yes, Ralph. Yes I did.”
“It was a joke.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Because your name is Wally.”
“Then why didn’t you laugh.”
“You said ‘hah’.”
“But that’s not laughing.”
“It’s what your pun deserved.”
Mistress Quickly had fenced off the parkland around the DNA tower with force fields earlier that morning. The stubb-nosed pylons currently protected some sixty or so refugees waiting to be picked up. Most of them were pointing and murmuring up at Ralph and Wallace, but whatever they were saying was drowned out by the crowd amassed beyond the fence:
“Hang the bombers!”
“Kick out the kidnappers!”
“Flying saucers go home!”
That last one perplexed Ralph: wasn’t that what they were trying to do?
“This the NDF thing you told me about?” Wallace asked mildly.
Ralph frowned. “Mhmhm.”
It is a sociological inevitability that any and every minority group will inspire at least one hate-group. It had taken longer than most for supers to attract one—whether because of their relative scarcity, or because picking on black or gay folks carried less of a risk of lightning. But Catalpa’s recruitment drives had provided the scared and stupid with regular gatherings of superhumans. Thus, like cancer seeds, cells of the Natural Defense Front7 had metastasized all over the country. The Crimson Comet had rumbled with them at a few pick-ups before Mistress Quickly came up with the pylons.
Ralph Rivers looked out over the tide of humanity lapping at the fence, the frontmost rows pressed against the glassy force fields like bottom feeders sucking at aquarium walls. One protest sign caught his attention:
“Flush out the nest!”
The Crimson Comet clenched his fist. Sometimes, Ralph wished Maude wasn’t so clever…
Most of the refugees had their eyes fixed up at Ralph now. About half of them were clearly homeless folk. Catalpa got a lot of those. The bulk of the rest were young people, teens and twenty-somethings. One woman was pregnant: far too pregnant to be seeking out Nurse Pritchard. The most spruced among them was a lady struggling under the weight of a blonde beehive, chatting avidly to a terrified looking woman in a very conspicuous hooded jacket. A young lad at her side was toting a camera case.
Ralph couldn’t say for certain if any of them were super or not, but he was willing to wager the lone unaccompanied little boy in the homemade superhero costume was, or at least wanted to be. Sometimes it worried him how few children made it to these.
Wallace nudged him in the side. “Ah, Comet.” He gestured down at waiting refugees. “You planning on addressing our future subjects?”
Ralph shook himself. “Right, right. And don’t call them that!”
Ralph pressed a switch on the rim of his com watch and spoke into the grill:
“Testing, testing, one, two, three…”
The Crimson Comet’s magnified voice rang out all across Kings Park, managing to momentarily dim the chants of the NDF.
“Ah, good. Hello everyone, Comet here. Glad you could make it.”
Ralph never enjoyed this part much. Too much public speaking. He was half-hoping he could get Wally to give the speeches.
“We’re a minute off from pick-up, and I want to make one thing clear—this isn’t a one way trip. Everyone in Catalpa is free to leave whenever they wish.”
We’re not a cult, we swear, Ralph imagined himself saying.
“Now, I’m sure a lot of you folks have seen pictures of this in the papers or on the tellie, and yes, it is a bit… dramatic. But I swear on my mother, the tractor beam is completely harmless.”
Most of the refugees didn’t look assured. A couple were even shooting glances at the fence.
Wally chuckled. “Smooth.”
Ralph covered his com-watch and glowered at his boyfriend. “You know what’s definitely going to put people at ease? Watching a supervillain laugh from a high tower—”
His voice carried more than he’d like. Ralph realized the refugees were still watching him. Some of them were laughing. Somehow, this made him feel better.
He turned back to the people and cleared his throat.
“Brace yourselves, folks.”
A few seconds later, a warbling mechanical groan echoed through the sky.
A red-hulled flying saucer topped with a silvery, geodesic dome and rimmed with navigational lights shimmered into existence over Kings Park. The crowds let out a familiar litany of gasps and screams as the thing crept through the air towards the DNA tower.
Wallace rolled his eyes and wondered; how many of the people on the other side of the fence had come to boo hiss at the freaks, and how many had come to gawk at Mistress Quickly’s new mobile-bunker?
The saucer’s shadow soon fell over the DNA tower. An iris-hatch on the bottom contracted to let a bright, yellow beam of light shine down over the cordon.
Every blade of grass stood up very straight.
Ralph spoke into his watch one more time:
“Okay, folks, here’s the fun part.”
Ralph and Wally both found their feet rising from the platform. Soon, the refugees followed, up into the sky. Some thrashed and screamed. The probable-reporter’s equally probable cameraman struggled to keep a hold of his case. The little boy was somersaulting in the air.
One fella looked down at the crowds below, and flipped them the bird.
Ralph sat reclined in thin air, enjoying the novelty of non self-propelled flight. Wally stood with stately dignity beside him and raised his cane over his head.
Ralph smirked up at him.
Wally sighed. “See, this would’ve been fabulous if I’d had my umbrella.”
Everyone soon passed through the saucer’s hatch, entering into a space-age hanger. The floor reformed beneath them, and they were set down softly back on their feet.
They soon noticed the group of women standing behind a row of snack laden fold-out tables in the corner.
“Tea, anyone?” asked Sarah Allworth.
1. Free World Allies, a common term for the United States and its allies during the 1960s. ↩
2. An area of lowland terrain providing an easy route through the German mountain ranges. Gained massive strategic importance when Germany ended up split right along it. ↩
3. In late 1966, the Soviet Union still claimed the Flying Man was destroyed while interfering with a nuclear meltdown, much to the confusion of nuclear engineers the world over. ↩
4. Not his real name. Most wizards, even patriotic ones, tend to avoid giving their true names to the government. ↩
5. Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. ↩
6. The Mirror Mistress would agree, much to Close-Cut’s annoyance. ↩
7. The Natural Defense Front—originally founded “to assert the rights of normal citizens in the face of superhuman belligerence” in March of 1966—would fold in the 1980s after extensive legal battles with a preexisting environmentalist group. ↩
1 thought on “Chapter Ninety-Five: The Way to Catalpa”
Hi everyone, sorry for the delays. No real excuse but “life in general.” However, we also updated our new serial, “Wise Blood”. You can check out its second chapter over on Royal Road: