by Dan Swanson
While Ted Knight worked in his laboratory, Doris Knight showed Lily DeLuna around the observatory — Ted’s office, the reception room, a small, efficient apartment, Ted’s laboratory, the darkroom, a storage room, and the actual telescope room. They didn’t actually go into the lab, as Doris knew Ted would not like being disturbed, and Lily was already familiar with darkrooms. The only really interesting room left was the telescope room, which was where they ended up.
Lily was fascinated with close-up views of the moon through the big scope. Doris showed her how to set up the automatic aiming mechanism and the automatic camera, and they set up a photographic series of the moon. They talked while they worked, and came up with a surprise for Ted. Doris grinned to herself, as she had a second surprise all her own. They retired to the reception room to talk and wait for Ted.
Ted checked for them in the scope room, and was mildly annoyed that they had been using his observational equipment. He looked more closely, and everything was set up correctly — in fact, as meticulously as he would have done it himself, which mollified him. He didn’t really need a photographic series of the moon, but his current work didn’t actually have to be done tonight. He took a look through the targeting scope and realized just how beautiful the moon was tonight. Sometimes when his mind wandered among the distant stars, he forgot just how interesting things closer to Earth could be.
When he walked into the reception room, Doris and Lily stopped talking for an instant. They looked at each other and smiled. Ted knew something was up, but what? He knew Doris would let him know in her own time. So he told them about his investigations.
Ted had figured out how to open the power rod, and he was quite puzzled at what he found. There was a high-capacity rechargeable battery, some circuitry, and a nugget of metal. Part of the circuitry was a battery-charger, part of it controlled a flow of electrical current from the battery through the nugget, and the rest was similar to the energy-control circuitry in the gravity rod. There were controls for four functions, and he figured out how to activate and control each one. He then used the controls to run a very tiny current through the nugget and was amazed at what happened.
The tiny current through the nugget caused it to unleash a torrent of energy, much more energy than the battery was capable of supplying. Ted turned the current down even further, and the energy output fell. Where was this energy coming from? Ted cut the current and studied the nugget closely.
It was pretty interesting visually. It appeared to be a glob of an almost pure alloy of an unknown metal, with pieces of what appeared to be stone and iron embedded in it. And it had clearly been broken off of a larger mass. He tried to cut off a very small piece of the unknown metal, but he had no tools that would cut it. He didn’t want to actually take it out of the power rod, so he realized that, for the time being at least, he would have to be satisfied with knowing only that it was unknown on earth.
Allowing a tiny current to flow again, he studied the energy output closely. The unknown metal of the nugget was emitting energy from its surface, but not very efficiently. Only smooth surfaces emitted energy; ridges, scratches, and the sharp, broken edges did not. And no energy was coming from the impurities.
It puzzled Ted that Xnon had installed a battery and charger into the power rod. This made it dependent on outside sources of electricity, when it would be very simple to replace the battery and charging circuitry with a simple converter that would change a very small fraction of the energy output to electricity. He figured Xnon must not have spent a lot of time on this prototype, so, almost without thinking, he replaced the battery and charger with a converter. What he didn’t have any way of knowing without making some very precise observations over time was that, as the nugget released energy, it shrank.
The energy output was caused by the conversion of the matter in the nugget into energy, through a complex process that wouldn’t be identified until the mid-1970s by Stephen Hawking. Xnon had used a battery to extend the useful life of the nugget. Ted’s alteration to the power rod would lead to the nugget shrinking faster, and it would become useless as a power source in something less than an year, depending on how much Lily used the power rod. Hopefully she wouldn’t be flying in the sky above when it finally ran out.
The four powers of the power rod were a virtually impenetrable force-shield, flight, an energy-blast, and a light-beam. The force-shield turned on with the click of a button, and could only be turned off by holding that same button down for three seconds.
The flight power was turned on and off in a similar manner by a different button. The power rod carried its bearer in the direction the rod was pointed, and the speed was controlled by a thumbwheel.
The energy-blast and light-beam were armed by clicking different buttons, then the user set both the power and the focus with thumbwheels, and either clicked the same button again for a short burst, or held it down for a longer burst. If the user skipped setting the intensity and focus, the burst was released with the last settings that the user made. When Lily had released an energy burst in her apartment, she was lucky that it had been set for nearly minimum energy and nearly maximum dispersion.
If the blast or beam was armed and then not activated for five seconds, it was automatically deactivated. While the blast or beam was armed, it was not possible to change the settings for either the force-shield or the flight power.
These controls were very primitive compared to the gravity rod. And the maximum power output of the power rod was less than the gravity rod. But the power rod would work during the day, and Ted was sure that a sphere of the power metal, with no impurities, ridges, scratches, et cetera, would deliver much more power than this irregular contaminated nugget.
If only he could find more of this unknown power metal, or figure out how to make it, what might he be able to do?
“With the power rod, Lily, you can fly, generate a personal force-field, fire energy blasts, and release a beam of light,” Ted summarized for her. “You can change the intensity and focus of the energy-blasts and light-beams, which will allow you to produce a wider range of effects.
“The minimum intensity, wide focus energy-beam feels like a strong wind, while the high-intensity, narrow-focus beam can easily blow holes in a cinderblock wall. The low-intensity, narrow-focus light-beam is like a flashlight, the high-intensity, tightly focused light-beam can cut through two inches of steel, and the widest-dispersal, highest-intensity light-beam is like a five-million-candlepower searchlight.
“You can fly in the direction the power rod is pointed, and your horizontal top speed, unassisted by wind or gravity, will be around two hundred miles per hour. None of my tools was able to breach the force-shield. It’s sort of like a prototype gravity rod, except that it will work during the day.”
Lily was barely able to keep from jumping up and down with excitement. “Oh, Mr. Knight, that’s so great! I can’t wait to try it! What makes it work?”
“Please, call me Ted — Mr. Knight is my dad. And, well, it’s magic.” Lily could hardly believe what she was hearing, but Doris knew Ted very well.
“Ted doesn’t mean the same thing by that word that most people do, Lily,” said Doris. “Anything he can’t figure out is magic to him.” Ted looked annoyed, but he didn’t correct her. Instead, he continued as if Doris hadn’t interrupted.
“Anyway, before you use the power rod, you ought to get some practice with it.” Lily looked at Doris, who smiled and nodded her head.
“Ted, honey, what would you think about changing to Starman and giving Lily some lessons? We still have a couple hours of night.” Ted looked at Doris with a stunned expression on his face. He had thought of suggesting that, but he had been sure that Doris would remind him of his promise to retire. Doris laughed at the look on his face.
“Don’t get any wild ideas about coming out of retirement, you! It’s only for tonight! But you can see she’s going to take that power rod and run back into danger, and I would feel terrible if we let her go without the best training possible. And that means you, dear!”
Ted wasn’t about to argue. Earlier that evening, he had realized just how much he missed the adventure of being Starman. He might not be fighting crime tonight, but he missed flying, controlling those awesome powers, and wearing the uniform. “Thanks, dearest one! I’ll be right back!” He headed for the basement stairs before Doris could change her mind.
“Lily, you can’t fly around in that skirt! I’ll loan you a pair of slacks, and you can change in the apartment.”
“Thanks, Doris, but I brought some sweatpants, just in case. See you in a few minutes. Thanks very much; I owe you a big favor!”
Actually, thought Doris to herself, smirking, I should be thanking you for giving me this chance. She, too, headed downstairs, then entered the Starwoman room in the Star Sanctuary, hidden below the observatory basement. She unlocked her personal locker and pulled out a red and green bundle, then began singing softly to herself. “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay, my, oh, my, what a wonderful day! Plenty of starlight heading my way! Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!”
Neither Doris nor Lily were in Ted’s office when Starman returned. Ted figured that they were chatting while Lily changed. He was completely unprepared when he heard Doris behind him, asking in a very sultry voice, “Ted, do you think it would be OK if Starwoman joined you tonight?” He turned to respond to her and was absolutely stunned.
Doris was wearing a Starwoman costume, but not the costume that she had worn in the past, which was essentially identical to his own. There was no doubt that this costume had been designed specifically for Doris, and it left no doubt that she was a woman — and a spectacular woman, at that.
At least, he thought, his mouth hanging open, she kept the Starman colors! Ted couldn’t decide where to stare first. Doris was wearing a brick-red, skintight top, which left her shoulders bare and exposed a magnificent amount of cleavage. Red sleeves, starting below the shoulders, cascaded into green gauntlets. Ted’s eyes were next drawn to the nape of her neck, where she was wearing a ruby pendant adorned with a golden star. Her cape and helmet were unchanged from her earlier costume, but she had added a pair of dark red goggles.
Ted couldn’t keep his gaze from slowly sliding downward, but with a heroic effort, he wrenched his eyes lower — and once again, he liked what he saw. She wore a golden belt, tiny green shorts, thigh-high green leather boots, and a knee-length red loincloth draped under the belt, and she was covered almost enough to keep her from causing brain-lock in every male within eyesight… almost.
Every day, Ted realized how lucky he was to have married Doris. But occasionally he received a special reminder, and right now was one of those. He tried to say something, anything, but he was stunned and speechless.
“What’s the matter, Ted?” she asked with a coquettish smile. “Don’t you like it?” She twirled on her toes, and once again Ted couldn’t decide where to stare. But he finally found his tongue.
“You aren’t planning to out in public dressed like that, are you? It’s a toss-up whether the police would arrest you before or after the riot started! And then there’d be another riot, as every man around tried to get tossed into the same jail cell with you!”
“Why, thank you, dear,” Doris said contentedly. “Every once in a while, I like to remind you that you married me for more than just my brains and personality.”
What could Ted say to that? “I’m reminded of that each and every time I look at you, you vixen! But if you don’t mind me asking, why did you pick right now to flaunt the new you?”
“I guess I wanted to show off a little tonight.”
More than a little! Ted thought, but wisely didn’t say.
“Is that OK? Besides…” Doris continued as she stepped closer to Ted, lightly touched his shoulder, and then trailed her finger down over his chest and stomach, the path of that finger feeling like a line of living fire, “…you wore this tight uniform for years, showing off all your goodies, and all the girls just oohed and ahhed. Thought I never noticed, didn’t you? Besides, I’m showing a lot less skin than the Black Canary does, and you’ve never said a word about her costume!”
Ted was just about recovered. He realized she was really enjoying this, so he decided to add a little teasing of his own. “She’s someone else’s problem. Bet her boyfriend doesn’t like her running around almost naked like that!” He paused, as if for thought. “Sill, if you’d worn this costume back when we were dating, I might have married you a lot sooner!” Doris frowned, and Ted realized that might have been the wrong thing to say. He thought very quickly about what he might do to restore the mood.
He picked up a ruler from his desktop. “Anyway, let’s calculate the square footage of skin revealed by this outfit as a percentage of your total body area, and compare it with the same results for Black Canary’s costume. I’ll bet you’re showing off more than she does!” He started to measure her décolletage, but she impishly slapped his hand away.
“You watch those wandering hands, buster! In case you’ve forgotten, we’ve got a guest here tonight!” She paused for just a second. “You aren’t trying to imply you’ve measured Canary like that, are you?” Her voice sounded dangerous, but her eyes were twinkling.
Ted held up both hands, palms out, and managed to look hurt. “Honey, you’re my wife. I’d never touch another woman!”
Doris thought that the banter had gone on long enough. She had a point to make, and talking about the Black Canary was leading them in the wrong direction. “Don’t worry, Teddy bear! I’m only teasing you, see?” She stepped closer, leaned in, and kissed him.
Naturally, he slid his hands around her waist, pulled her much closer, and returned the kiss, with interest. Ted hadn’t realized it, but Doris had maneuvered him so that his back was toward the hallway Lily would have to use to return to Ted’s office. She peeked from under mostly closed eyelids until she saw Lily step quietly into the corridor. Without letting on that she had seen Lily, she closed her eyes, leaned into Ted, and turned up the juice.
Lily had no way to know that Doris had seen her. She stepped back around the corner, then opened the apartment door. She called out, “Ted, I really appreciate that you didn’t try to lie to me about being Starman.” And this time, she deliberately made a little noise as she walked.
As soon as they heard Lily, Ted and Doris reluctantly pulled away from each other. Ted whispered to her, “We have unfinished business, you and I!”
Doris only smiled sweetly in return. She casually stepped around Ted, so that she was standing between Ted and Lily when Lily entered the room.