Chapter 9 – The Imperial Dynasty of America Wants You!
"There is a whole secret cult of evil men (a man of your mystical erudition will understand me when I link them with Hastur and the Yellow Sign) devoted to the purpose of tracking them down and injuring them on behalf of monstrous powers from other dimensions."
- The Whisperer in Darkness, H.P. Lovecraft
Pear Valley, Northern California
Norton's Café was not the typical hangout for retired military professionals, or older people for that matter. The café's usual patrons were the kind any coffee shop attracted - college students, a few locals, but especially tourists happening to visit the historic Gold Rush town located only an hour's drive from the state capitol. The café, like the rest of the small semi-rural town (it was just close enough for commuters to be able to live comfortably and avoid traffic), thrived primarily on the tourism trade. Fudge and t-shirt and antique shops lined the downtown where it was located. Also, as Norton's was an "independent" coffee house (i.e. really anything other than a Starbucks) it was furnished according to the tastes of the owners. It had old and frayed comfortable couches and chairs, and long tables so its patrons could sit there for hours enjoying their lattes and enjoy their Internet surfing on their tablets and laptops, socializing with friends, or doing homework or working on their jobs. A small raised stage was at one end of the cafe, offering a venue for live music.
However likely or not, Norton's Café was where U.S. Air Force Colonel (Ret.) Steve Trevor found himself on a late Saturday afternoon, sitting alone at one of the empty tables. He idly fingered a half-finished cup of black coffee, which was his drink of choice now, or rather by default, staring down at the inky liquid. He avoided looking at any of the people coming in and out, wary of being recognized as the Steve Trevor, Justice League liaison (ex-liaison) and Wonder Woman's ex-'boyfriend.' 'Ex' seemed to the suffix, or prefix, to his name lately, he thought ruefully. However, no one seemed to give him a second glance. Either they didn't recognize him, or didn't care. That was more than fine with him. He found that the only 'ex' that really concerned him now was being out of the military. That was a fuck-up entirely of his own doing.
He was "on the wagon" now, as the saying went, although he still didn't think he had a 'problem.' He'd only had the one incident, but in his profession another very true saying was, "one and you're done." He'd been pulled over by the cops just before turning onto the street leading to his apartment, and though he'd blown just at the legal limit, it was enough…for him. The armed forces were suffering from budget cutbacks like any other federal branch of the government, and were looking for any excuse to cut troop numbers. Anyone who'd had even a hint of legal trouble about him or her was first out the door, and it didn't help that Trevor had made many enemies, especially high-up during his tenure as liaison with the Justice League. In the end, it had come back to bite him in the ass.
From then on, it was all smooth rolling straight downhill. "It's tough luck," the Substance Abuse Counselor assigned to his case (a Staff NCO) told him regretfully. "Ten, or even five years ago, this wouldn't have been a big deal but this is a different military now. I remember when we had plenty of functioning alcoholics on the job, and nobody cared, so long as they got the job done and showed up on time..."
"I'm not an alcoholic," Trevor had glared at the man, who only shrugged apologetically.
"Well, it doesn't matter. You have a record now with the police so it's automatic. We can get assign you a class, but even those are all filled up through the next month. The best we can do for you is to expedite your retirement paperwork, so you can be out before you get looked at for a court-martial."
And so it had begun, or ended, rather, after just over 20 years in the service. Trevor made no move to fight his forced retirement, behavior that puzzled his fellow officers, as much as himself. He was lucky he'd made it to that mark, otherwise he'd been gone absent his pension and benefits. But he was getting tired of it, all of it, all the pointless wars, the back-and-forth between him and the Justice League. And Diana…well, he had not spoken to Diana in months, almost a year, he'd guessed. He also felt strangely absent any emotion one way or the other. Perhaps that was one reason he'd chosen to hit the bottle rather than think too deeply about it. He found he just didn't care anymore. She was going her own way, and he was going his. Maybe that was for the best, anyway.
Yet Trevor couldn't help but feel a little bitterness - it finally became clear to him that he had outlived his usefulness and it was the realization had come to others much earlier than to him, was what rankled him. He had received an honorable discharge despite his DUI conviction, and even that, even with his stellar service record, was only possible due to the intervention of certain friends he'd still had in high places. So he retired, and decided to wash his hands of it, despite an offer of a position by Amanda Waller. After she'd outlined some of her ideas and plans to him, he'd ended up declining. There was something about her, her quiet and understated antagonism and cynicism, that made him suspicious of her motives, which he suspected were not entirely altruistic. She seemed disappointed, and he wondered if she was the type to take no for an answer.
He thought not.
But he didn't care. He couldn't care less that he'd become an object of mirth for the idiot shows like TMZ and Daily World. What did matter now was deciding what to do with the rest of his life - he couldn't live on the slight pension offered military retirees, and he couldn't think of himself as ready to join the AARP. His sister Tracy had moved up here to northern California to get out of the city, to get the kids into better schools. It meant her switching jobs and taking a lower-paying position, so that now she was struggling to get by. She didn't say so outright but he knew she was relieved that he was out of the military and harm's way, even though it meant that he couldn't financially support her as before. Just that alone gave him some impetus to find new work, and keeping her in mind (after all she'd been through) he'd decided to stay in the area, for awhile at least, help look after the kids. But he soon found he was restless, and needed something to do, besides babysit and dust the furniture for the umpteenth time.
Which was one of the reasons why he was in this café.
On Saturdays, local musicians provided live music, but since Trevor was an outsider here, he didn't know any of them. It didn't matter, it was awhile since he'd gone out to hear music and just kick back (without being at a bar). He supposed the last time was when he'd taken Diana out...but he pushed the memory back out of his mind. He'd come here to relax and not to think about the past.
There was just the one musician up on stage now. He was a short man, dressed in faded Levis and an old-fashioned gingham long-sleeved shirt, as if trying to fit the look of the Gold Rush era. He didn't look like most contemporary singers, with his collar-length lank black hair and rather protruding eyes, but he played very well. He had been setting up when Trevor first entered, and for the past half-hour just played acoustic instrumental guitar, nothing he'd recognized. Some of the people in the café glanced his way and listened politely, or ignored him as they stared at the activity on their smartphones; he was just part of the ambiance. Trevor did the same as he waited , texting Tracy to let her know where he was, reading the news.
At some point, the musician playing guitar on the stage decided to switch from playing instrumental guitar to singing vocals with it, in a good baritone voice, in a rather unusual melody and lyrics. Trevor looked up from the tiny screen on his phone.
The cloud waves surge, with Hali's tides,
The twin suns drop, from uncanny skies,
Darkness weaves its spell in Carcosa.
Black are the stars, strange in the night,
And strange moons shine in their realm of night,
But not as strange as dim Carcosa...
Trevor listened with half an ear, but he was intrigued by the lyrics. It didn't seem to be the usual run-of-the-mill ballad so popular today with the kids. Perhaps the guy was doing some old tune from the 1800s, to match his costume...
The Hyades will praise the King,
With melodies that none shall sing,
In the silent streets of low Carcosa.
The song unsung, the words undone,
All those who turned away from her two black suns…
And who shall care in lost Carcosa?
Black are the stars, strange in the night,
And strange moons shine in their realm of night
But not as strange as dim Carcosa...
Carcosa. Carcosa. That word seemed to stir something in Trevor's mind, but he couldn't pin it down. Sounded like a place in France. He had been there once...but didn't recall a place named Carcosa. No, he'd heard it somewhere else, but he couldn't remember. It was tickling just at the edge of his mind, which was irritating as hell...
"Steve! Steve Trevor!"
Trevor turned around to see a tall man looking down at him in a gruff yet friendly manner. He was perhaps in his late fifties yet still had the physique of a healthy man twenty years younger. His hair was close-cropped to his skull in the military style (as Trevor's still was) but his was totally white. Instead of making him look aged and decrepit, it gave him an impressive look of dignity and hard-earned knowledge. He extended his hand and Trevor took it, feeling it squeezed in a strong, yet not overbearing way, and released.
"Colonel Robardin," Trevor said respectfully. "It's an honor to meet you."
Howard Alan Robardin was a legend in the Air Force Special Forces community, which was smaller than the other branches, and while it was not as popular or legendary as the SEALS or Green Berets, they had an impressive record of service and success. Robardin had spent thirty years of his life dedicated to that community. He'd retired years ago (before the creation of A.R.G.U.S.), and had a well-deserved reputation for assisting other veterans transition to civilian life, with a special interest for those suffering from stresses and other issues. Despite his own years in clandestine 'black ops,' Trevor had known of him through his reputation only, this was the first time he had met him face-to-face. Robardin had walked in very blank and classified spaces indeed.
"Call me Howard. The honor is all mine," Robardin sat down across from him, putting a large paper cup with a tea bag string hanging out of it. "What're you drinking?"
Trevor smiled, a bit ruefully. He'd once read a well-received article Robardin had once written for a veterans' magazine, about his own struggles with alcoholism and recovery.
"Just black coffee."
"You should try tea. More healthy for you," Robardin's voice still held the gruff traces of command, although slightly gravelly now due to age and perhaps some undisclosed illness. "I drink it all the time, now. Green tea, with honey. Best thing in the world," He fixed Trevor with his steely, unwavering gaze. "But how are you?" Although Trevor had faced tough superiors before, somehow this man made him feel like a boot airman. But it was not in an aggressive way.
"I'm doing well. I just moved to this area with my sister...I am...was...planning to take it easy for awhile."
Robardin grunted. "Easier said than done. You'll soon find sitting on the couch and watching the idiot channels more trying than anything else you've done. You'll try to find things to fill up your time, spend time with family, but even that creates its own problems. You turn into a third wheel. You realize your family's an old hand at coping with your absences, and all of a sudden now you're home all the time. It can be hard for them to deal with, bringing home your problems."
Trevor shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It was hitting little too close to home, what the old man was saying. Once he'd helped Tracy unpack and get every situated just where she'd wanted (or thought she wanted), he found that he had alot more free time on his hands than he expected. He'd found himself getting underfoot more than once, and more than once he'd snapped at her and the kids when they did or said something that startled him...
"It's not a problem," Trevor said, a trifle uneasily. "I mean...I'm not...I don't have PTSD if that's what you're..."
Robardin shook his head emphatically. "I'm not a psychologist, and no, I don't mean to say that you have. But any veteran can feel a sense of loss of place and purpose when he or she separates, no matter how long they've been in. Especially when they fully become a civilian again, and realize that no one gives a whoop about what they've done or seen. Why should they? We don't want them to know any more than's good for them," he gazed knowingly at Trevor. "And no doubt you've seen more than most."
Trevor shrugged, although he didn't feel as noncommittal as his gesture implied. "I did my job."
"Of course you did, son. And no, we didn't expect thanks or a pat on the back. Hell, I'd be happy with a disability check! But I've worked with a lot of vets that struggle daily. Everyone's different. But I must say I'm glad to have heard from you. You're a legend in the community."
"Of course I'm not."
Robardin laughed. "That's what they all say! No one in our 'business' says it about themselves of course, it's for others to say. It's like saying you're a saint or a great artist. No one calls themselves 'hero' either, except maybe for those weirdos in the costumes."
"You don't care for the Justice League?"
"Whatever they call themselves is up to them, I'd say. And I would say they're doing a piss-poor job of stopping disasters, if that's what their 'mission' is. Hundreds of people drowned in that debacle along the seaboard! Tell me," Robardin leaned forward across the table. "Have you ever heard of Delta Green?"
Trevor shook his head. He'd thought he'd studied up on many special ops outfits, but he'd never heard of this one, if that was what it was. "No."
"See? No one still knows, and you've been in as deep as most people. Delta Green was a special force that was first organized back around the turn of the last century, after the Philippine Insurrection. That's another thing most people don't know, that we were at war with the Philippines. It was a nasty business, just as bad as anything in Iraq or Afghanistan, but no one remembers now. Anyway, alot of other nastiness came out of it, and out of that Delta Green was born. Delta Green was active during both World Wars, all around the world, and it's thanks to them - and the Russians - that we're not all speaking German...or other languages."
Trevor stared at the formidable old warrior. "Are they still active?"
"Oh no! No, Delta Green was deactivated after a bad...incident in Cambodia. So that was that. But they were in decline even before that clusterfuck. No, most of those guys - and it was an all-male outfit - are either all dead or in the nursing home."
Robardin laughed. "No! I wouldn't rate to polish their boots! No, I wanted to be but...actually, now that I come to think of it, I believe the last man died about 10 years ago. He couldn't remember what he ate for breakfast or the names of his grandkids, but he never forgot a thing he did when he was with Delta Green. And let me tell you," Robardin's voice suddenly turned, becoming strangely chill and cold, suggesting the kind of operative he had once been. "If Delta Green were around today, there would never have been no Justice League, or the problems these 'superheroes' supposedly prevent. They knew how to take care of problems."
Trevor found himself at a loss for words. Why had he brought this up? For some reason he had an urge to just get up and walk out of the cafe, and not look back.
Then Robardin smiled and the chilly glare was gone. "Well, that's old history. No doubt, you don't think you're a hero either."
"No, I'm not."
Robardin leaned back in his chair, fixed him with a gaze that seemed to pierce right through him. Trevor suddenly wondered just how much the old man knew about him.
"You're thinking, what does this old man know about me?"
Trevor was silent.
"All I know is what I see. I don't judge a man unless I look him in the face. I tell you I see a man who's loyally served his country, and been cashiered in the name of economic and political expediency. You didn't deserve what happened to you."
The way Robardin said that, made Trevor unable to look him in the face. He glanced instead in the direction of the strange musician, but he'd stopped singing, and was just playing instrumental guitar again.
"I came here because you said you could help me."
"Indeed, that's up to you. Would you be interested in helping your fellow vets?
"Of course I would be."
"When I retired, I was probably where you're at now, wondering what to do with myself. I was doing ok, but I felt something was missing. I'd hoped to find a quiet, remote spot to retire to, so I moved up here. Actually, I was further up north, in the Pacific Northwest. I found a little valley, an artists' colony, which would have been ideal, except," Robardin winced. "I wasn't an artist, just an old soldier! I didn't really fit in. So I left, and came back down here. But I never forgot it. Then I thought, why not become an artist myself? You have heard of art therapy?"
Trevor was nonplussed. "You think I should...?"
"I have a small theater company in town. Amateurs, but all vets. We do plays and things like that for the local community and the tourists. Shakespeare, all that fun stuff. But I've been thinking it's the time to branch out, be more avant-guarde, whatever the word is. This year, we're going to put on an old play, The King in Yellow," Robardin looked closely at Trevor. "Have you ever read it?"
He shook his head.
"I've read it, which is no mean feat, let me tell you, I think it's probably the most rare play in the world! And I've read it all the way to the end! It's a little strange, but it's very cathartic, in its way, and it could benefit people if they saw it performed, live."
"You want me to act in play?" Trevor was astonished. "But I'm not an actor."
"None of us are! As I said, we're all amateurs. But for now, if you wanted to help build the sets, costumes, all that, it'd be something to do, to get you out of the house. There' be a small stipend, too. Would you be interested?"
Trevor thought for only a moment. He knew he was starting to aggravate even Tracy with his hanging around the house all day long, and she was always suggesting he get involved in something. It would do, anyway, to take his mind off...
"All right, I'll do it," Trevor shrugged weakly. "But I don't think you'd care for my acting talents though."
But Robardin beamed, reminding Trevor of his first meeting with a military recruiter, all those years ago. "Don't worry about it! You'll be fine," he showed his teeth, this time, as he smiled. Like a shark, but there was no malice in it. "You will be more than fine. Welcome to the Imperial Dynasty of America!"
"That's the name of our theater company. Named in memory of the Emperor Norton, whom this cafe was named after. Have you heard of him? No? Just like so many, he's been forgotten too! Back in the 1800s, he was a failed businessman in San Francisco, who disappeared without a trace one day. Then, he came back. When he did, he proclaimed that was was the true and rightful King - or Emperor actually - of America. A guy like that, if that happened today, he'd be prescribed so many meds he'd be like a zombie on one of those cable shows. But then a strange and wonderful thing happened. People began to treat him as if he really were the Emperor of America. Boxes at the theater and opera were reserved for him. He ate at all the finest restaurants in the city without charge. Policemen saluted him on the street as he walked past. He ordered a bridge to be built from the city to the land across the bay When he died, there was a huge funeral procession. When they went through his possessions afterwards, he had no money to speak of, and left no clue as to what had happened to him. But they eventually built his bridge. It still stands today."
"So," Robardin stood up and spread his hands, as he made to leave. "Even madness can be instructive, and leave great legacies. Perhaps we are all 'mad' from what has happened to us in our careers, you and I, Colonel Trevor, but we can leave a great legacy to be remembered by." He shook the younger man's hand warmly. "Take care, and I'll call you later in the week with our schedule."
Trevor resisted the automatic impulse to salute as the older man left. He was slightly bemused, as to what had just happened. But surely, it was for the best, to get his mind off things.
He glanced back at the stage, as if seeking confirmation, but the musician was gone.
For those of you who have read "The Red House" Colonel Robardin is the 'Will Richardson' of this story. Poor Trevor. Since this is AU it's deviated obviously from the New 52 storyline. What if he never joined JLA? There's another principle bad guy to be introduced in a later chapter (this is really stretching on, but thanks for reading, if you're still there). Batman gets to chat with him. Also if you've read RH, then you will recognize the play as one of Mrs. Oates locked up and forbidden books in the basement of the Smallville Public Library. There's a reason why it's there!
Is the mysterious musician similar to a certain guide that guides the Amazons in the prologue? I think so.
The song he sings is by the band Stormclouds and can be found on their King in Yellow CD.
Delta Green was a Call of Cthulhu RPG series, and centered around a type of X-Files/special ops group that went rogue. I've borrowed it for this story's background.
The Emperor Norton was a real person, read his story on Wikipedia! He was also featured in one of Neil Gaiman's Sandman stories.
Next chapter we'll get back to Superman and the Amazons. We learn what the heck Vanessa Kapatelis is doing on Themyscira.
Thanks for reading so far and reviews are appreciated as always!