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Chapter One Hundred and Fifteen: The Matter of Catalpa

Two SAS men roughly dragged the possessed Starry Knight out of the gaol. Next time the pair shared a pint with their colleagues, they’d brag about manhandling a mad superhero. For now they moved like they were escorting an angry bull made of glass. Allison Kinsey had forced Sir Cai to remove his host’s prototype spacesuit and don grey prison fatigues. The brown boy had taunted Sir Cai wearing the helmet. He didn’t put up much of a fight. Briefly forgetting Allison’s hold on his nervous system, Sir Cai was gripped with envy for the soldiers’ weapons. His new body’s memories told him what they were, what they could do. Suddenly, years of slaying giants with sharp points of steel felt like far too much effort.

Sir Edward, Jack Lyons, Dr. Death and the Catalpans were standing in the middle of the island. A pentagram of vine-thick power cables had been laid out on the grass and coated with salt. Each point was marked by a different contraption. A sparking box with crucifixes bolted to it. An electric boiler that reeked of frankincense and sage. A Japanese saisenbako wrapped with rice-chaff rope and plastered with paper seals embroidered with circuitry. In the middle, a silver half-sphere with a small dome rested on a bed of rock-salt, a thick cap floating magnetically above it. Sir Cai didn’t recognize half the devices, but he’d spent enough time in Myrddin Wyllt’s company to recognize magic when he saw it. He frowned. “You think you can exorcise me?”

“Something like that,” said Allison.

“I am no demon!” cried Sir Cai. “I am here on the authority of God!”

“Sure you are,” said Allison flatly. “You can let go of him now,” she told the soldiers. 

They obeyed. Without being told, Sir Cai walked towards the pentagram. He couldn’t get used to how the evil little girl compelled him. It wasn’t like strings tugged on his bones. His body simply aligned with her wishes. His will was as breath against rock. He wondered if this was how Anthony Peake felt. There was a moment of tension when Sir Cai had to step over the salted cables—like walking against a stiff wind—but he pushed through it. Dr. Death looked at Mistress Quickly. “We ready to start, Miss?”

Mistress Quickly nodded, not looking up from the repurposed television remote she was holding. “Go ahead.”

Dr. Death stepped into the pentagram. Mistress Quickly tapped a few buttons. The power cables hummed to life around him and the knight. “Sir Cai, I take it?” he asked the prisoner. 

“That I am,” Sir Cai answered sourly. 

Dr. Death flashed him a grin. “And here I thought you were called Starry Knight.”

“He was not worthy of his flesh’s might. What do they call you?”

“Dr. Death.” 

Sir Cai laughed. “You aren’t  the first young knight to try on a sobriquet too big for you, boy. Was ‘dragon-slayer’ and ‘ogre-gutter’ taken?”

Dr. Death whipped his pistol out from his black coat and fired a round into the air, before aiming it again between Anthony Peake’s eyes. “I consider it aspirational.”

Sir Cai flinched with everyone else, but was quickly smirking crookedly at the gun-barrel. “You think I’m a savage, don’t you?” He tapped Starry Knight’s temples. “I know that there is no magic in your hand. Just powder and blacksmithery.  And I know you people are too soft to strike down your brother.”

Dr. Death cocked his head. “Oh, right,” he said. “We hadn’t met before this, had we?”

Dr. Death squeezed the trigger. Blood sprayed out the back of Anthony Peak’s head. As the body fell, something grey and sharp flowed out of its mouth; a whirling cloud of blades that snapped and shrieked at Dr. Death. The good superhero staggered backwards. He had seen death (of a sort) many, many times, but this was still a surprise. Who knew ghosts were made of metal?  

Mistress Quickly stabbed a button on the remote. The half-sphere glowed. The spirit was dragged down towards it like flecks of rust to magnetic ore. Sir Cai’s essence let out a cry and lunged for Dr. Death, worming into his chest. The Crimson Comet moved to intervene, but Mistress Quickly put an arm out in front of him. “He can handle this.”

Dr. Death gasped, his body jerking and twitching like there was an angry cat lodged in his stomach. His face roiled, lips gurning. “…Oh no you don’t, buster!” 

Dr. Death brought his pistol under his chin and fired. Sir Cai’s essence once more screamed out into the air, carried by a spout of brain and bone. It circled in the air, desperately searching for a new harbour as the half-sphere again dragged it down. Within seconds, it merged completely with the metal. The cap fell down over the dome with a clang. The electric whir died down.

At the same moment, a wave of light and heat exploded from Anthony Peake’s body. The superhero shot upright like a child from a nightmare.  “I—what…” The superhero glanced up at the open grey sky, then down at himself. “Where’s my suit? What have you done with my—” His eyes widened when he spotted Dr. Death’s corpse. “Oh, God…”

Life returned to Dr. Death explosively. He yawned and stretched as the light faded. “Glad that worked.”

Peake shook his head. “What the hell is going on—” A tide of secondhand memory broke over Starry Knight. Laughter in his throat as flesh and bone cracked and burst. People who he’d helped set up tents and shared cups of tea with. “I—no I—what did I…”

Anthony Peake broke into confused, horrified tears. Ralph Rivers sighed and shook his head sympathetically. He sat down beside Starry Knight and patted him on the back. “I know, mate. It’s not your fault.”

Peake handled for the moment, Mistress Quickly checked her Carnacki battery, thumping it firmly with a closed fist. “If any of you’ve ever wanted to know how much the human soul weighs, I’d say about thirty grams? Still not lugging this thing around, though.”

Sir Edwards’ professional frown fluctuated like an EEG. “So, Miss Kinsey, what now?”

Allison watched Starry Knight weep. “I’ll need a map of King Arthur stuff in Great Britain. And hot chocolate.”

Billy, Myrddin, and Sir Bedwyr stood atop a waterfall on the River Trevillet, cradled by curved stone walls crusted with frost and moss. The moon was hiding behind heavy winter clouds. The water below almost glowed with darkness. It was so cold, Billy’s costume had grown long sleeves and trousers. Myrddin had made them stand all in the river. Billy’s ankles were numb. He didn’t dare complain.

“But Myrddin,” said Bedwyr, “I threw the sword away at Camlann, miles away!” He looked down over the lip of the waterfall. He could only tell there was a drop by the churning noise, but sound could tell you a lot. “I doubt the river here is deep enough for a child, let alone—”

Merlin raised his hand. “I assure you, good knight, that does not matter.”

Billy rotated his wrist, feeling the weight of Caledfwlch in his hand. “Excuse me, Mr. Myrddin?”

“Yes, my liege?”

“Why do I need a new sword? I just got this one. Isn’t it wasteful?”

“A prudent question,” said Myrddin. “Caledfwlch is but a tool to read men’s hearts”—the wizard recalled some Plato—“to sort gold from brass and iron. Otherwise, it is merely the memory of a sword King Gwenddolau once wielded.”

“Who’s that?” asked Billy.

Myrddin sighed. Perhaps his first king was lucky to be forgotten. He for one didn’t enjoy reading about himself. “A small king, your highness. A good man, but part of the problem. As I was saying, Caledfwlch is as fine a sword as any smithed by mortals. I doubt Excalibur was smithed by anyone. Certainly not by any mortal. You will need it for the work ahead of us.”

Billy nodded, though the super in him wondered how much of a difference one sword could make. Maybe it shot lasers. Myrddin banged his staff against the river bed. “Come on, Nimuë. I need the sword.”

The plunge-pool at the bottom of the waterfall glowed arsenic green as it came to a boil. A pillar of foam rose up through the darkness. A pair of slender, fungus white arms surfaced from the crest, followed by a head of long, muddy green hair. The woman’s eyes were bright red with black slitted pupils, like a frog’s. Her fingers were webbed. Her breasts were bare, her waist trailing off into the water. Billy wondered if she had legs. Mostly, though, he tried not to stare. Were Allison and Miri going to look like that one day?

The woman smiled, revealing rows of pike-sharp teeth. It looked like a smile, at least. Maybe she was just showing off. Sir Bedwyr fell into a kneel, eyes cast downward. In a low, gurgling voice, she said, “I see you’re up again, Myrddin.” She regarded Billy with bemused interest. “And you’ve found yourself a new saviour I take it? A handsomely curious specimen. I hope you haven’t poached a child of my kind.”

Billy looked down at the dark, green accented water. Somehow, he always imagined the Lady of the Lake being less… David’s granddad. 

“William is no fairy,” said Myrddin. “Though he is a wonder.”

Billy still couldn’t believe Merlin was impressed by him. 

“I thought not,” said Nimuë. “He has fur and he’s dressed. Nice costume, by the way.”

“Th-thanks,” said Billy.

Nimuë looked at Sir Bedwyr. “Rise, knight. Don’t tell me you’re still ashamed.”

Sir Bedwyr got to his feet, but didn’t meet Nimuë’s eyes. “I should’ve returned the sword at once. I lied to my king!”

“And then you did what he asked. Come, man, it’s been over a thousand years.”

“For you it has, my lady,” retorted Sir Bedwyr. “For me, it’s been less than a month.”

Nimuë frowned thoughtfully. “Hmm. I recall Sir Bedwyr entering a hermitage after Camlann.” She looked at Myrddin. “Tell me, Myrddin. Did you truly call up this knight’s spirit, or is he merely a memory?”

Beldwyr didn’t say anything to that. Myrddin grit his teeth. “You’re asking me questions? Why did you do it, Nimuë? Put me in the earth when Britain needed me? When Arthur needed me?” 

Nimuë smiled again, this time not showing her teeth. “It wouldn’t have turned out the way you thought, my love. Your vision might be deeper than most men, but that’s not saying much. And you always did think with your horn.”

Billy knew from the stories that Merlin and the Lady of the Lake were boyfriend and girlfriend. They never did a good job of explaining why she trapped him, but apparently, neither did she. Now, he was just surprised they were ever together like that. But then, David’s granddad had a baby with someone. Billy suddenly wanted to ask Grandfather Ocean if he was married. Myrddin put a hand on his shoulder. “This boy is worthy. Will you grant us Excalibur?”

“I suppose the same trick won’t work on you twice,” said Nimuë. She leaned forward to examine Billy. “Why do you want to be king, child?”

Billy stammered. “I—I just want to help people.”

Nimuë sniffed. She smelled no lie from the child. The fairy shook her head. “Where do you find these boys, Myrddin?”

“Fate delivers?”

Nimuë had no eyebrows. If she had, she might’ve arched one. “And you still blame me for how it all turned out. Very well.” She raised her hand. A silver sword handle materialized in her hand like frost in the air meeting to become ice. Its guards were fish fins, with a diamond clear as water set into the hilt. Nimuë plunged the handle into the water supporting her, pulling out a glassy, transparent blade. Nimuë twisted the sword, displaying the phrases engraved in gold on each side, not in English, but Billy could still read them: “Take me up,” and “Cast me away.”  Nimuë handed the sword to Billy. “Does it feel right in your hand, child?”

Billy flexed the sword. It was like air laced with silver—just heavy enough he knew it was there when he closed his eyes. “…It does.”

“Do you retain the scabbard, my lady?” asked Beldwyr. “My king might have lived on if he hadn’t—”   

“Of course I do,” answered Nimuë. She pulled a sapphire blue scabbard from the water, tossing it to Myrddin. 

“Is the scabbard important?” asked Billy.

“Vital,” said Myrddin. The wizard removed a small dagger from a coat pocket. “Behold.” He ran the tip of the blade along his open palm. It cut through the skin like velvet, but no blood escaped the wound. “So long as the scabbard is on your person, William, you shall not bleed.” He handed the scabbard to Billy. The moment it left his hands, his hand started bleeding. 

Billy tried to hand it back to Myrddin. “You can hold it till your hand’s better, sir.”

Myrddin shook his head. “No, my king. It is yours now.”

“Good luck, child,” said Nimuë. “We shall all need it.”

Billy looked up at Myrddin. “I’m ready to help. But is what’s coming really so… big?”

“I could show you, though it would not be an easy sight.”

“My friend Tom says it’s always good to know what you’re dealing with. He’s smart.”

Myrddin sighed. “As you command, my king.” He put his hands on the sides of Billy’s head. “Quisquis vera petit duraeque oracula mortis fortis adit. Da nomina rebus, da loca, da vocem, qua mecum fata loquantur1.

Great birds flew across the seas. Metal-phoenixes that would not rise again as they crashed to earth. Forests burned. Skyscrapers were stripped to skeletons as the humans they harboured evaporated. Eyeballs melted in their sockets. Flesh stripped from bone. And that was just the first minutes. First there was no summer, as the ash of millions and billions of dead fled into the sky, reaching in vain for Heaven. Then the sun’s rays, sharpened by thin air, turned the skin they struck into open, weeping wounds. Wombs soured, babies emerged from their mothers without bones or brains, or as tangled balls of flesh and limbs. Plagues dead for decades and centuries rose again.  Billions withered into living skeletons as they tore the bark from trees. Those who stubbornly clung to life prostrated themselves before a dark angel…

Billy didn’t even notice when he stumbled over the waterfall. Myrddin and Bedwyr almost followed trying to catch him. 

William!” cried the wizard.

Nimuë caught Billy, holding the boy in the clammy warmth of her arms. “You could’ve chosen a better spot to share, Myrddin.”    

Myrddin heaved with relief. “Are you alright, my king?”

Billy looked hard at the wizard. “Whatever we need to do, I’ll do it.”

It wasn’t hard for Allison to figure out where Merlin and the knights were. She just thought very hard about going to various Arthurian sites until the wizard put his hand over her third eye. It was a bit like hiding something from Superman in a lead box. The mere attempt at concealment gave him away. Tintagel was only her fourth attempt. Allison didn’t find that amazingly encouraging, though. She knew Merlin would be expecting them. Now the Catalpans, Jack Lyons, Bròn Binn’s detachment of SAS, and a few very bewildered local policemen were besieging King Arthur’s Castle Hotel. It was strange, Allison thought, having the army and police on side for once. 

Allison stood behind the police cordon, sirens painting the hotel’s brown Neo-Norman face red and blue like an indecisive artist, watching the windows for movement. She tensed at every shadow that flitted across the bright glass.  Going in guns and powers blazing was out of the question. They probably had the custodians hostage. More importantly, they had Billy. Jack Lyons periodically tried to coax them out via megaphone:

Please bring the child and the civilians to the front door. We only want to see they’re unharmed…” 

Starving the knights out didn’t feel like a winning strategy to Allison. They had Merlin. He could probably grow a fruit-tree in the middle of the dining room or something. But they had other options… 

Drina appeared behind her daughter, rubbing her shoulders. There’d been no convincing her and Mr. Barnes to stay back on the island. Not with Billy kidnapped. “Don’t worry, love. I’m sure he’s fine.”

“I know he is,” said Allison. “Billy’s still in pretty much all the futures.” Somehow, grown-up platitudes didn’t sound any less hollow when you knew they were true.

Drina let go of Allison and staggered backwards, crying out in alarm as Tom Long’s outline rose from the ground in front of them. Once his feet were safely out of the ground, the outline filled with colour. Not much, though. Allison had Close-Cut outfit Tom with his own super-suit: a jet black body glove with a splash of white over his right arm and shoulder and an empty circle on his chest. Tom had grumbled, but Allison said it was good PR. “Sorry Mrs Kinsey,” he said. His expression was even graver than usual. No surprise; he was alone.

“Where’s Billy?” Allison asked. “Is he in the hotel? Did they see you?”

“No, he’s in there,” replied Tom. His mouth twitched with consternation. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I tried to get him out, but he didn’t let me.”

“What?” said Allison.

“He said he wanted to stay! That he was helping Merlin or whatever his other name is ‘save England’.” Tom shook his head. “He wanted to make me one of his knights!”

“What’d you say?” asked Allison.

“That he was nuts, what else? Jesus, I know Billy’s… Billy, but he’s usually not that off with the fairies.”

“Excuse me, Tom,” said Drina. “But couldn’t you have, well, dragged Billy out?” 

“He said he would scream,” muttered Tom.

“He said he would scream,” repeated Drina, a touch flatly. 

Billy said he’d scream, ma’am.”

“Ah, fair,” said Drina. Hoping to reclaim some sense of authority, she added, “We better go tell everyone.”

As they made their way to the police work tent, Allison said to Tom, “You really should pick a superhero name to go with the costume. Helps leave a good impression on the normals.”

“Sure thing, Miss Lawrence.”

Quick as a snake, Allison pinched Tom on the neck. Hard. He winced. “Okay, maybe I deserved that.”

“He didn’t seem drugged?” asked Mistress Quickly. “Or bewitched or whatever?”

Tom shook his head. “Nah. Scared, maybe. Tired, definitely.” He quirked a shoulder. “I mean,  that makes sense. It’s way past his bedtime.”

“This is no time for jokes,” said the Crimson Comet. 

“I’m not joking,” retorted Tom.

Miri appeared above everyone. She looked just about ready to personally tear open the hotel. Somehow. “You said he looked scared. Are they hurting him?” 

“Don’t think so, Ghost-Girl,” said Tom. “Didn’t look like that kind of scared. Trust me, Miri. I’ve seen enough little kids get beat to tell. It was more like…” He looked at his fellow Institute children. “Remember when Bran and Sheilah2 stood up to Lawrence? It was a bit like that. You know. Determined.”

“Children are easily led,” remarked Jack Lyons. “Idealistic by nature. It’s not hard to believe our foe has a silver tongue.” Every child in the tent glared at Lyons. He smiled apologetically. “Present company excluded, of course.”

“What’s our next move?” asked Close-Cut. 

“Our next move is to get Billy out of there!” insisted Miri, loudly. “We didn’t leave everyone with the witch lady when they said they wanted to stay! And why do magic people keep picking on us?”

“Good question…” muttered Mabel.

The chief constable barged into the tent, declaring in a thick, Cornish accent “Some folks are coming out of the building!”

Merlin had changed considerably since Allison’s glimpse of him. Or, given how far she’d had to dig into the past for it, it might have been more accurate to say her information was woefully out of date. He strode out of the hotel’s front doors in a crisp suit. The only real tell that he was a wizard was his staff. A troupe of hotel staff staggered out behind him. Whatever Tom had said about Billy, these people were clearly enchanted, swaying on their feet and glancing around like there were birds flying around their heads. 

“We’re taking reservations for the spring…” drawled a maid. 

“I do not need these people,” declared Myrddin. “They are free.”

The staff started lurching towards the cordon. 

“I assume the Gypsy child wants to speak with me?”

Allison hooked her leg over the police tape, but her mother put a firm hand on her shoulder. “Excuse me?”

“Mum! He’s asking for me!” 

“Oh, that’s an improvement,” said Drina. “Now he’s asking.” 

“Would the lady feel better if I accompanied Allison?” asked Jack Lyons.

“If you accompanied us, yes,” replied Drina.

“A fair compromise.” Jack looked at Allison. “Your mother is a brave woman, Miss Kinsey.”

“Yeah…” Allison tried not to think about how bringing her mum turned out the last hostage situation, only for a groundskeeper to bump into her. 

“Damn rabbits…” 

The two Kinseys and Jack Lyons approached Merlin. Allison was very to the point. “Give us back Billy.” 

“William St. George is my king. I would not dare hold him against his wishes.”

Allison and her mother exchanged looks. Jack Lyons cleared his throat. “That may be, but there is the matter of the… unfortunate business in France. You killed nine British citizens. You are most definitely holding eleven more in bondage.”

Myrddin counted in his head. “Then Sir Cai is no longer among those who breathe. It is as the fates have told me.”

“Sort of,” said Allison. She called behind her, “Comet!” 

Ralph Rivers awkwardly ducked under the police tape, carrying Mistress Quickly’s Carnacki battery over.

“This is the holding cell for the entity you call ‘Sir Cai.’ Its inventor was… reticent to describe the conditions within,” said Jack Lyons, “but I’m led to understand they’re quite unpleasant. We have the means to extract the rest of your knights into such devices, unless you consent to send them on their way back to their appropriate netherworlds.  In light of your… reputed services to Great Britain, the Crown is willing to extend clemency towards you in exchange for further aid.“

Myrddin grunted. “Those people wanted me to kill millions more in the name of your ‘Crown.’ Now you demand the same.” He glared at the Canarcki battery. “You can keep him. Let Cai be your butcher.”

“Please, sir,” said Drina. “Billy is very dear to us. We just want to know he’s alright.”

“I am, Mrs Kinsey.”

Billy poked his head out shly between the hotel doors. The blue of his costume had turned tyrian purple. His cape had thickened into fur. Instead of a domino mask, he wore a gold coronet studded with sapphires. He stepped out into the night and gave a small wave. A blue scabbard hung off his belt. “Hi everyone!” He pointed at his head. “Do you like my crown? I made it myself!”  

Far back, Tom Long pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh, God.”   

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1. “Whoso braves the oracles of death in search of truth, should gain a sure response. Let the hidden fates tell through thy voice the mysteries to come.”

2. Formerly known as Metonymy and Artume.

Chapter One Hundred and Twelve: The Dragon of Bròn Binn

Arnold zapped the doctors and nurses to Catalpa immediately after the meeting. He had to demonstrate with some rocks to assure them he wouldn’t disintegrate them. After that, an early dinner was prepared for the Catalpans. Perhaps wisely, Sir Edward did not join them. Jack Lyons did, though. Billy made sure to secure the chair next to him. As it turned out, Billy had read all his books:

“Did you really fight Zeus?” he asked breathlessly

“That’s what I was told. I didn’t probe too deeply. All I knew was, a man with lightning for spit and an impressive beard was causing a ruckus at the Seven Stars1, and Mr. Collins—that was Sir Edward’s predecessor—wanted me to see him off. Said his presence in the United Kingdom risked a diplomatic incident with his wife.”

Billy tilted his head. “Mrs Collins?”

Jack laughed. “No, lad. Hera, Zeus’s wife. She has a temper.”

“Oh. I knew someone who was Apollo’s son.” Billy drooped his head. “He died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“What’d you do?”

“Well, we tussled for a while. Didn’t get either of us far. I suppose it wouldn’t, him being immortal. Eventually, we sat down for a few pints, and I arranged him a boat ride to Cyprus.”

“…So, you didn’t use the Royal Exchange’s weathervane to deflect his lightning back at him?”

Jack Lyons chuckled and ruffled Billy’s hair. Luckily for him, Billy was a rare child who didn’t resent such a gesture. “I’m afraid the good people at Blackie & Son2 sometimes took creative liberties, son.”

“Leave the poor man alone, Billy,” Ralph Rivers, now in plainclothes, said from across the long table. “He’s barely touched his dinner!”

Indeed, Jack Lyon’s beef wellington was nearly intact, bar a few polite bites taken from the corner.

Jack smiled, a touch wanly. “It’s no trouble, Mr. Rivers. I do not need much.” He looked down fondly at Billy. “And William here is delightful company.” 

Billy looked fit to burst.

Mistress Quickly hadn’t bothered changing out of her battle-suit. Her helmet sat next to her plate as she chatted with Dr. Death. “So, how long have you been a super?”

“Since I was fourteen.”

Mistress Quickly smiled knowingly. “Let me guess…” 

She and Dr. Death pointed at each other, saying as one, “There was a man!” The pair shared a laugh.

“Yeah,” said Dr. Death. “My dog was sick. My father told me I had to put him down. Happened right as I pulled the trigger. Dads can be right bastards.”     

“Don’t I know it,” said Maude.

They put Mabel and Allison in the same room that night. They also furnished Allison with files on Roundtable’s missing roster. She had to admit, as manufactured as the team clearly was, its individual members appeared to be legit, some with superheroic careers stretching back over twenty years. They were like the Monkees: a fake band with real talent. She was currently lying on top of her bed, looking over the file of one Metropole:

Real name unknown, answers to “Quinn Backerloo.” Homeless until approximately the age of fourteen, Backerloo claims to have been birthed by the city of London itself. This claim is still under investigation. 

His black and white file photo depicted a lanky, barefoot young man with long, light hair wearing a two-piece suit that appeared to be made of transit maps. 

“Heh.” Allison angled the file toward Mabel’s bed. “Reminds me of your costume.”

Mabel set down her pencils and looked up from the file of Animal Kingdom—a versatile shapeshifter with an unfortunate predilection for cheetah-print. She had taken to colouring in the file-photos after Allison was done with them. She squinted. “Looks a bit like Jesus. If Jesus was a bum.” She returned to her scribbling. “My suit’s better.”

“Agreed.”

Backerloo also claims to be able to “speak” to cities and towns. Again, this claim is being investigated. What is beyond question is Bakerloo’s ability to manipulate civic architecture. 

Allison dearly hoped she would get to try that. It sounded like LEGO’s cool older cousin that smoked.

Backerloo has expressed great discomfort in rural environs, and protested his inclusion in the expedition, calling it—and we quote— “Bloody pointless.” However, it was the belief of Ministry scientists that his unique abilities might aid in the unearthing of buried man made structures…

Poor git, Allison thought. People were mean sometimes. She tossed the file over to Mabel and picked another file off her nightstand. This one was for Dr. Merlin, the leader of the team:

Alphonsus Summers credits his occult powers to a summer spent in the Otherworld as a page of the faerie king Oberon3, having been switched with a changeling when he was eight years old. He claims to have ingratiated himself to the monarch, and negotiated his own return to the world we know. This claim has yet to be verified… 

Dr. Merlin’s photo was monochrome like all the others, but Allison could feel the purple radiating off his waistcoat.   

“Still weird,” commented Mabel, “sending all those superheroes to dig up dead kings.”

Allison shrugged. “It’s happened before, kind of. You know Himmler?”

“Swedish bloke, right?”

“Nah, German. One of Hitler’s mates. When our guys were beating up their guys in Italy, he sent their best SS goons in just to get a book by Tacitus about how cool Germans were.”

“Who’s Tacitus?”

“Roman guy. Wrote about Germans the way Lawrence talked about us.”

“Eww!”

“Not like that. I don’t think he ever even went to Germany4.” Allison threw Dr. Merlin’s file like a frisbee. “What colour do you think that guy’s vest is?”

Mabel examined the photo inside. “Purple. Definitely purple.”

“Knew it.”

Roundtable had their own flying strongman, of course. Or flying strongwoman, in this case. Gloriana (real name Clarice Foster) had the holy trinity of superhero abilities: flight, super-strength, and invulnerability, plus the power to summon weapons forged of golden light.  She was beautiful, but regally so, her tight, dark curls styled after the young Queen’s own. She wore a white body glove with shining metal shoulder armour and greaves, doubtless more for aesthetics than protection. A foil unicorn’s head was stamped on her chest. People like Gloriana were the holy grail of every government superhero program; not so much because of their strategic value as much as their symbolic worth. Everyone wanted to own a Flying Man.

You could always eat her, Alberto said inside Allison. Complete your set. Miri’s been lonely since we stopped talking. Allison felt the echo of a leering smile. Hell, I’ve been lonely, too. Could use a girlfriend.

Shut up

Allison tossed away Gloriana, replacing her file with one stamped “STARRY KNIGHT.” The name made Allison smile. Starry Knight’s file contained two photos. One was of a grizzled man with clearly greying temples in what Allison guessed was a flight suit. He did not look like the kind of man who called himself “Starry Knight.” The other photo depicted the exact point where a diving suit became a spacesuit. The technological equivalent of those clever apes whose great-grandchildren would be people. The chrome plated helmet did indeed have a certain knightly cast to it, with its sloping design and narrow, black visor. Its swollen, Charles Atlas chest was fitted with a hand-wheel you’d expect to find on a submarine hatch, and its body was studded with large rivets. A metallic cape flowed from its back.

If Starry Knight’s file was to be believed, the first human beings in space had been British5. The clinical language employed failed to conceal the writer’s smugness about that. Anthony Peake had been a flying ace in the Great War, afterwards becoming an early member of the British Interplanetary Society6. Three years later—after a series of fortunate bequeathments, donations by curious industrialists, and the enlistment of at least one retired supervillain—Peake’s experience as a pilot got him nominated for captain of an audacious attempted moonshot. Peake and his three crewmates were loaded into the Astral Victoria—Britain’s first space vehicle—and launched into the void by something called a “gravity catapult” with hopes of making contact with the Gatehouse7.

Four days later—whether due to human error, mechanical failure, or interference by the Gatekeeper themselves—the Astral Victoria plummeted from the sky into the Mediterranean Sea. Only Anthony Peake emerged alive—alive and changed

Mr. Peake is extremely hesitant to remove his spacesuit in company. While we initially speculated a physiological root for this behaviour, Dr. Hamish Clanranald8instead credits survivor’s guilt and possibly latent agoraphobia… 

Allison found herself overwhelmed with pity. She turned to the page detailing Starry Knight’s powers:

Anthony Peake describes his power as manipulating the geometry of spacetime. What this translates to in practise is the ability to warp both distance, and gravity… 

Something buzzed inside Allison’s skull. She closed her eyes, turning to the storm of futures:

Arnold, rising screaming into the sky… 

The Crimson Comet, struggling to take a single step… 

Trees twisting and stretching like tentacles from the soil… 

“Hey Mabes,” said Allison. “Chuck me a colour pencil?”

“Sure” 

Allison caught the purple pencil deftly, closing Starry Knight’s file and circling his supernym before putting it to the side. Just then, Drina Kinsey opened the door. She was wearing a Bròn Binn supplied dressing gown, her hair damp from the shower. She clapped her hands. “Right girls, time for bed.”

They both protested:

Come on,” whined Mabel. “We’re on holiday!”

“No, you’re not,” replied Drina. “We’re on a mission.” She still couldn’t believe she could say that with a straight face.

“I’ve still got files to read!” said Allison. “They’re important!”

“There’ll be time for that in the morning,” insisted Drina. “I know how fast you read.”

The girls relented. Soon, the lights were off, and heads were against pillows.  

…Hey, Miri.

Yeah, sis?

I’m gonna go exploring. Mind the fort, will ya?

Does this count as my turn? Because sleep is boring.

Allison rolled her eyes in the dark. 

I’ll give you two extra days next month if you sleep for me, okay?

Very okay.

With that, Allison stepped out of her body, joining the ranks of Bròn Binn’s ghosts. She drifted out of the guest room through the hallways of the Phare. She passed through janitorial staff, sending shivers up their spine. Given they lived and worked on Bròn Binn, they were used to it. Allison couldn’t help but check in/snoop on her fellow Catalpans. Fred and Arnold were already asleep in their room, the son having had to endure hours of his father’s ranting and raving. None of it had been aimed at Arnold, but Allison knew from experience that it could be hard to remember that. As unattached boys and non-pyjama wearers, Billy and David were rooming together.

“Jack Lyons is the coolest,” Billy enthused.

David had his pillow wrapped around his ears. “You’ve told me,” he muttered.

“You know he’s half-caste? Like you and Tom!” 

“Please don’t call us that.”

“You ever read Jack Lyons and the Fairy Mound?”

“I haven’t read any of them.”

“It’s a good one! So, one of Queen Victoria’s goddaughters starts acting strange—ahh!”

David threw his pillow at Billy. Allison giggled.

Ralph Rivers and Wally Grimsby were both reading in bed: the former The Sea Wolf by Jack London, the latter the latest edition of Vogue. Wally’s silk pyjamas were nicer than what most men wore to church. If he and Ralph’s beds had been an inch or two closer, they would’ve looked like an old married couple. 

“It’s just not right,” Ralph grumbled, mostly to himself. “Superheroes working for the government.”

“Didn’t you fight in the war?” Wally asked mildly.

“That wasn’t a permanent arrangement! And I was fighting for the free world, not some politicians.” The corner of Ralph’s lip curled. “Well, the free world and Finch.”

Allison was stunned. Ralph had managed to bring up Finch without bawling.

“Point is, superheroes shouldn’t be soldiers, or cops.”

Wally smiled. “Whatever you say, sheriff of Catalpa.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“I have got to take you to the British Museum after this,” insisted Wally. “I bet I could still get us a table at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand—”

“I have been to London before, you know,” cut in Ralph. He smiled. “I think the dockers still tell stories about Fran.”

“We could always find out,” said Wally.

Finch and Fran in one conversation. Allison silently thanked Wally for all his good work and moved on.

She didn’t find Mistress Quickly in her room. Worried she’d been dragged off to some interrogation room or quietly shipped to the Hague, Allison searched all over the Phare until she came to Dr. Death’s room. His black doctor’s jacket and Mistress Quickly’s battle-suit lay together on the floor like mating shadows. Their owners lay in bed together under the covers, sharing a cigarette.

“That was great, Miss Simmons.” Dr. Death glanced at his lover for the night’s abdomen. “You’re sure we’re safe?”

Maude laughed. “Don’t worry, Elderwood. My womb’s sealed tighter than Fort Knox.”

“Good, good.”

Mistress Quickly grinned wickedly. “I actually work a lot like a queen bee. I store it all up until I need soldiers and workers.”

Dr. Death blinked. “You’re kidding, right?”

Allison’s spectre grimaced. “Ewww!” 

Maude winked at her.

She fled through the ceiling as Maude cackled.

Allison found herself in Sir Edward’s study. The walls and bookshelves were lined with memorabilia from a long career in the civil service, the imperial pomp fading with age. Jack Lyons was having a meeting with the old spook.

“…They’re strange, but basically decent, I think. They all seem to follow the word of the Kinsey child, but at least she has a good head on her shoulders. I do wish you’d reconsider waiting to send Mr. Elderwood.” 

Sir Edward was standing behind his desk. “I understand your concern for these people, Jack. It’s laudable. But they are still criminals. Their… town is built around stolen property. Property of the Commonwealth, in fact. Dr. Death is an important state asset. If we’d only found him sooner, the King, God rest his soul, might still be with us. If things get hot in Berlin, he’ll be more important than ever.”

Jack Lyons smiled wryly. “I guess we can’t all be replaced.”

Sir Edward’s forever-neutral expression became a true frown. “Please don’t talk about yourself that way, Jack… how are you doing?” 

Jack sighed. “Going downhill, I’m afraid. With apologies to Mrs Bithers, food now has little taste.” He forced a smile. “Though that might just be my mother’s son talking.”

“Mrs Bithers retired in 1957, Jack,” said Sir Edward gently. “I believe she passed away a few years ago.”

“Oh.”

A moment of silence. 

“…When the Catalpans arrived, the music did nothing for me. You know how when you hear music, some tiny part of you tries to follow the tune? I could hear it fine, but it was all just… noise. I’m still functional. But I feel it coming.”

Sir Edward gave a small nod. “Hallucinations?”

“Nothing visual yet,” answered Jack. “Sometimes I hear my Priscilla, but she’s never hostile.”

Allison wondered what was going on. Was Jack Lyons sick? Allison supposed he had every right to be. The bloke was over a hundred. His song didn’t sound like it, though. His song didn’t sound like much of anything at all, unless you were very into espionage and fighting. If she had to guess, she would’ve called Jack Lyons a very out of date fifty, at best. 

“That’s good.” Sir Edward’s face softened slightly. “If you like Jack, we could send you home tonight. There’s a boat ready. Your replacement would be ready before the Catalpans wake. I doubt they would tell the difference.”

Do they think we’re blind? Allison asked herself. Or did all Englishmen really look and sound a bit like Lawrence?

Whatever the answer, Jack Lyons shook his head. “No. I’m not ready to drag another man into this. I need to see it through.”

“Very well,” said Sir Edward.

Allison was very confused. She spent an hour searching the Phare for an answer, but all she found were files and papers, which were hard to read when you didn’t have hands. She flew out of the tower house. The lighthouse the Phare took its name from spun a blade of light across the night sky, wiping away stars with its glare. Allison glided over worker cottages and storage sheds, containing everything from confiscated super-weapons to gardening equipment. There was a small cemetery near the island’s northern end. She was about to give up and head back to her body when she spotted a figure in white walking into what looked like a lone, concrete cupboard, barely large enough for a tall man. They closed the door behind them, and did not emerge. Curious, Allison swooped down right through the metal door. Carved stairs led down through a sloping tunnel of rock. Allison caught up to the figure she’d followed, discovering him a man in a white hazmat suit. Soon, the pair came out into a large, limestone cabin, overlit by a ring of flood lights. Scientists and workers in white and grey bustled around consoles and equipment. In the centre was a cube made of metal mesh.

Allison moved towards it, a phantom among dozens of white ghosts. She caught snatches of conversation:

“…Dragon is stable—”

“…Entering active period—” 

“…Containment intact—”

When Allison drew closer to the cube, she recognized it for what it was: a Faraday cage. A structure designed to block radio waves. The electric field running through it stained the ether. It was not designed to block psychic powers. Allison stepped through the metal. She screamed silently when she saw what was inside. An enormous, wingless mosquito made of blown red glass scuttled about the floor, its legs tinkling musically with every step. It could’ve been bad stop-motion. Its abdomen was swollen with bright yellow light and veiny with wires. Looking into it made Allison forget who she was. She was an old man looking out over a dark sea. She was a girl trying to find a bush big enough to hide behind. She was a little boy, being made fun of for his accent—  

Allison tore herself away, shooting out of the cage, up through the cavern, back into the night. Specifically, she emerged into the island’s cemetery. Jack Lyons was standing in front of a grave, arms over his knees. Allison moved towards him and read over his shoulder:

JACK LYONS

SON OF INDIA AND BRITTANIA BOTH, HERO OF THE EMPIRE

1860—1902     

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                     Next Chapter


1. A historical pub in Holborn, London, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666.

2. A British publishing house founded in 1809. After the introduction of compulsory education in 1870, the firm would find great success in educational texts and children’s books, leading to a contract with the British government to produce chapter books based on the “true adventures” of Jack Lyons. After the company’s closure in 1990, later attempts to revive the series would face stiff criticism for the books’ rampant racist, sexist, and generally Victorian attitudes.

3. The name “Oberon” is very commonly ascribed to fairy monarchs. While there are still scholarly holdouts, current consensus is that most of these reports concern different individuals, with Oberon either being a regnal name, or perhaps a title meaning something akin to “tribal chieftain.”

4. He did not. Though he can be slightly excused by Germany not existing at the time.

5. Obviously discounting the ancestors of the many humanish super-civilizations found across the Milky Way.

6. A non-profit British space advocacy organization founded in 1933, one of the earliest of its kind. The fallout of the Astral Victoria disaster would lead to the group disbanding only four years later.

7. Gatehouses: Monitoring stations established by the Throneworld of the Southern Spiral to survey primitive worlds within its sphere of influence. Usually built as space-stations, or very rarely within the atmosphere of their worlds, Earth’s Gatehouse is instead located on its relatively large moon.

8. The British offshoot of the alien being known as the Physician, destroyed in 1966 during the course of Joseph Allworth’s cull.

Chapter Ninety-Five: The Way to Catalpa

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.”

“It doesn’t.”

Lyman will be disappointed. “Go ahead then.”

Thomas raised his palms. He frowned. “You sure, man?”

“Just do it, kid.”

Thomas squinted.

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… 

“No…”

“When does it stop on its own?”

“A few hours? Maybe five?”

“Fuck!”

I want to hold your hand,

I want to hold your hand… 

“I’m really sorry, sir—”

“Just go!”

“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. 

“Afternoon, Valour.”

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.

“Yes…” 

“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

Daedalus.” 

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. 

Wallace scowled.

“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?”

“It’s stylistic!”

“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.”

“Hah.”

“Did you see what I did there?”

“Yes, Ralph. Yes I did.”

“It was a joke.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Because your name is Wally.”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you laugh.”

“I did.”

“You said ‘hah’.”

“Yes.”

“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.

Great, reporters

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. 

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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.