by Doc Quantum, Drivtaan and Immortalwildcat
Jack Knight lay on the couch in Dr. Black’s office, an art deco penthouse with a skylight. It was several minutes before Jack could put into words what he had wanted to talk about. Most psychiatrists kept regular working hours for their practice, but Black was different. A session at three o’clock in the morning was not unusual. Jack liked him — he was a lot younger than most psychiatrists, and he was considered to be quite an eccentric. He would not have been caught dead at a regular shrink’s office, but he did not mind stopping by here whenever he wanted to get his thoughts in order. If nothing else, he appreciated the décor.
“Sometimes it seems like… like there’s this… ache inside of me. Sometimes it gets so… I don’t know… too hard to just, like, go on at all, y’know?”
There was a long pause. Finally, Dr. Black’s voice broke the silence. “Explain ‘ache’ to me, Jack. What makes you ache inside?”
“Shoot, I dunno. It’s not like I can explain it myself. I mean, I’ve done some pretty incredible things this year. I stopped smoking dope. I learned how to fight — well, I got a lot of help in that area — so I could protect not only myself but others. And I became a hero. (*) Huh. Well, a so-called hero. I don’t think I’ll quite qualify until I stop x-number of bank robbers, x-number of people from fires, and x-number of cats stuck in trees.” He chuckled nervously.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Starman: Stars Be My Destiny, Book 1: Sins of the Father, Starman: Stars Be My Destiny, Book 2: Zero Hour, Starman: Stars Be My Destiny, Book 3: Talking With Doris, and Starman: Stars Be My Destiny, Book 4: Homecoming.]
Dr. Black remained silent.
“Anyway, all this stuff kinda brought out a different side of me. I’ve never been like my dad or my brother, but lately I’m beginning to understand them a bit more. ‘With great power comes responsibility,’ and all that crap. I used to think it was all B.S. before, but I think I’m starting to really get what that means — on a personal level an’ all. Head knowledge to heart knowledge, I suppose.”
“And though you’ve accomplished many great things recently, you’re left with a feeling of… emptiness?”
“Yeah! That’s it. I feel like… so I’m here. Now what? It’s almost a let-down to reach the top. Except… I’m not really at the top. It’s like hiking up a mountain or somethin’. You head towards the peak, and each time you think you’re close to it, you realize that it was an illusion, and that what you thought was the peak was actually just a lower peak, but not the peak — not the highest part of the mountain. It makes me wonder, too — does anyone ever really reach the peak? I mean, some old guys — or young ones, too, I guess — might decide, ‘Hey, I’ve reached a peak, and though it’s not the peak, it’s good enough here. I think I’ll settle down.’ So they might think they’ve reached the peak of the mountain, but the truth of it is that they just gave up trying to reach for it. My problem is that I can’t figure out which is the better way — to keep reaching for a peak you’ll never, ever reach, at least in this lifetime, or find yourself a nice place somewhere lower down on the mountain, settle down, and set up camp until you die.
“I’m kinda at a peak right now. I’ve found a purpose in life, to use my abilities and equipment to help others. And I’m part of Infinity, too. I have to admit — they pay very good for what is pretty much a part-time job that may be dangerous sometimes, but most of the time it’s more a big adrenaline rush than anything. I can’t call it a job, because it doesn’t feel like one. And it’s part of that purpose in life I discovered in being the new Star-Spangled Kid that helps me understand my dad and brother a lot more. But I know it’s not the purpose of my life. It’ll do for now, but I know I can’t settle down and stay in this position. I’ve gotta keep moving, y’know?”
“What do you think may be the purpose of your life, Jack?”
“Hell if I know. I’ve been trying to figure out that one for as long as I can remember. I know it’s nothing to do with science — that’s more my dad’s and brother’s field. It might have something to do with collectibles. I have a bit of a knack with those. But it’s more like a hobby, something to pass the time. It’s not my life’s purpose. This gig as a mystery-man feels sort of like the same. I’ll do it for now, but I wasn’t born to be a hero all my life.”
“And this indecision about your future may be causing your restlessness? The aching in your heart?”
“Probably. It’s part of it, at least. And the whole mystery-man bit itself — it’s not a good fit for me, y’know? I keep on expecting someone else to realize how much of a fraud I am in this role and fire my ass out of Infinity. I can’t help, y’know, feeling like I got the job just ’cause my dad’s in the JSA. I mean, it makes me wonder whether the guys in Infinity really want me there, or just Starman’s kid. My brother was in Infinity for a brief stint before he went to the big time as a JSA member. Maybe I’m just fillin’ his place… keepin’ his seat warm.”
“Do you really believe yourself unworthy, Jack Knight?”
“Hell, yeah,” Jack laughed. “I mean, look at me. Would you believe I was a mystery-man — a frickin’ super-hero, no less?”
“Looks can be deceiving…”
“Sure, but I know how I feel inside when I’m facing down, y’know, Solomon Grundy or someone like that. It’s all I can do to keep others from noticing how much my knees are shaking and my stomach’s quivering. I tell you, it’s worse than having to speak about birth control to an audience of elderly nuns.”
“Tell me, Jack — have you ever considered that you’re not the only one? That perhaps your teammates in Infinity Inc., and even your mentors in the Justice Society, have similar feelings? That perhaps their knees likewise shake slightly whenever they have to face a danger that may very well kill them?”
“Yeah, right. I can’t buy that. Most of those guys have been doing this for years. Well… maybe some of the Infinitors might’ve felt that way a couple’a times when they first started out, but they’ve been at it themselves for long enough by now. If they do feel like I do, they’ve never said anything about it before.”
There was a pause before Dr. Black spoke once more. “Here’s something to consider, Jack — your teammates may feel exactly the same way that you do, expecting at any moment to be revealed as ‘frauds.’ They may also each see themselves as simply regular people posing as heroes.”
“Hmm. I’m not sure I really buy that, Doc, but it’s given me some things to think about, at least.” Jack Knight sat up from the couch and went for his leather jacket. “Thanks for your time, Dr. Black. You’re the only shrink I know of who keeps hours as strange as I do.”
Henrietta King gazed around at all the men waiting on her hand and foot. Whatever she wanted was hers for the asking.
“Tell me I’m beautiful,” she said to none of them in particular.
“You’re beautiful,” they all responded with one voice.
And she was. She knew it without having to be told. Long blonde hair, the body of a model, a face that could grace the cover of a thousand magazines — Henrietta had it all, and she knew it.
She glanced at them a second time, and a look of disgust appeared briefly on her face, followed by a knowing smirk. Every eye was on her, each one hungrily devouring her beauty.
“You want me,” she whispered, “but… you can’t have me.” She said aloud, “Tell me you love me.” No one answered.
“I said — tell me you love me,” Henrietta commanded a second time, her voice more forceful. Silence was still her only reply.
Jumping up from the chaise lounge upon which she lay, she screamed at them, “Tell me you love me!” When no one answered her, this time she fell to her knees.
“You can’t make them love you,” a voice whispered.
“Yes, I can. I’m Savant. I’m the daughter of Brain Wa–” Her voice faltered as she looked up.
Every man wore the same face, and slowly, as she watched in disbelief, they began to merge with each other until there was only one boy remaining.
“John,” she whispered.
Slowly, John Garrick approached her. “Their love for you was empty — mine would have been real.”
Before the words reached her lips, the water from the pool turned as black as the realm Darkling called home and began to rise up into the shape of a man. The monstrous figure before her was indistinguishable. What might have been a billowing cloak writhed as though it was alive. A hand-shaped extension of the darkness shot forth and grabbed John. As it lifted him into the air, she heard him speak one final time.
“I would have loved you.”
She screamed as the creature dropped him into its gaping maw. A blackened tongue licked rows of razor-sharp teeth. It looked at Henrietta and laughed as it faded away.
Henrietta King sat up awake on her cot. She clutched the blanket tightly as she peered around the small cell in which she now lived. With her back against the wall, she wept for the rest of the night.
Flying over Opal City once again, Jack Knight — known to the world as the Star-Spangled Kid — took the time to simply enjoy the sensation of flying through the air. It was at night that he felt most capable, and it was at night that he did the most thinking. Nighttime was also when the Starmen traditionally fought crime.
Although the gravity rod — the precursor to the cosmic rod — was originally functional only at night under the starry sky from which it drew its power, Ted Knight had long ago modified the various cosmic rods, including Jack’s cosmic staff, to work in the daytime as well as it did at night. Still, the rod and its owner were decidedly at their peak during the middle of the night under a broad expanse of stars.
The other Infinitors had gone out to Art Curry’s place on Santa Catalina Island for the weekend. Jack was invited as well, but he just didn’t feel comfortable with the whole deal. He was still the new kid on the block, and although the team always had a college mentality about it — with all the sleepovers and camping trips they went on regularly together — Jack had never had friends like them before. He wasn’t quite sure how to react to them. Roy Harper was cool, especially when they got to talking about old films, but he found he had little in common with any of the rest of them except for his newfound career. Strangely enough, a heroic career in common seemed to be all that was needed to bring that odd bunch together, despite their many differences. Anyway, he had decided to go home to Opal City for the weekend and visit with his dad. After believing he was dead for a year and a half, it was cool to have him back. They were getting along now better than they ever had before. Jack smiled as he thought about it. Things really had changed in his father’s absence.
A dark moving figure suddenly caught his eye. “Whoa — what the hell are you up to, buddy?” he mumbled to himself as he swooped down from the sky toward it. He unconsciously tugged at his star-spangled bandana and adjusted his goggles. It was neither much of a disguise nor much of a costume, really, since it was merely his usual faded blue jeans and a T-shirt, plus his special leather jacket — the effect with the bandana making him look more like the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses than a super-hero — and he was not too keen on keeping up the pretense of a secret identity, but as long as the Knight family wanted their privacy, it was necessary to disguise himself at least somewhat.
He alighted on a rooftop to watch the figure before making any moves, feeling as if he was Red Robin for a moment. He gasped as he saw the dark figure suddenly begin crawling up the side of an apartment building. It went straight up the building like a spider and climbed onto a patio on the sixth floor. From there, it stopped as if sniffing the air, then impossibly crawled upside down to an open window a few feet sideways. It crouched there, holding onto the wall like Spider-Man from the comics, and peered into the room from over the top of the window. By the time one hand had reached to the window as if to open it, Jack was already on the move, the cosmic staff in his hand.
“Hey, you–!” Jack Knight yelled as he flew across the street toward the apartment building. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The dark figure he had spotted moments before paused, and a portion of it turned toward him. He could not see it clearly — it was as if it was fading in and out of view. Gripping the heavily modified version of his father’s cosmic rod in both hands, the Star-Spangled Kid unleashed a bolt of stellar energy at the creature. The bolt missed, striking the balcony over which it perched. Coherent light splattered in the darkness, and the creature reared back from it.
“Don’t like that, do ya?” Jack recalled his rather telling him of the oath used by his old teammate, the Green Lantern. “And I shall shed my light upon the dark things, for they cannot stand the light…” Twisting the staff around in his grip to aim it better, Jack also twisted the oath to his own situation. “…the light of the Star-Spangled Kid!”
This time, the light-blast struck the creature full on. It came apart in hundreds of fluttering pieces.
“Whoa — what the hell was that?” As he watched, the pieces took on a life of their own, flitting through the darkness in and out of the stray bits of light cast from windows and the streetlights below. Upward they swirled, and Jack willed the cosmic staff to lift him higher to keep up. At the roof of the apartment building, the creature re-formed. Jack had an impression of a large body with a larger head. The head was bisected by a mouth full of rows of needle-like teeth, and the eyes above it glowed in the darkness. They briefly flared, and then the creature was gone.
Taking a quick pass around the rooftops, the Kid assured himself that it was truly gone and not merely waiting for him to leave. “Wonder what it was after down there?” he mused. Descending to the balcony, he peered inside. It was a fashionable apartment, the kind his brother or father would surely favor. What stood out, however, was the cluster of six or seven sleeping bags on the floor, where a group of young girls were obviously having a slumber party.
Sheesh, he thought, that thing wasn’t exactly what I pictured when Davey told me about panty raids at school.