by Dan Swanson
In her brief glimpse of the kiss, Lily DeLuna hadn’t had time to notice many details. She had been expecting Starman, of course, but she had no idea the she was also going to encounter Starwoman.
“Oh, my! Doris, you’re a super-hero, too? I’ve never even heard of Starwoman before! And what a great costume!” Privately, Lily was a little surprised at the revealing outfit — Doris Knight had seemed sort of quiet when they had been talking earlier. But Doris certainly had the shape to carry it off.
“Why, thanks, dear!” said Doris. “We’ve always kept Starwoman’s existence something of a secret. I’m sort of like Ted’s secret weapon. So, do you like my new outfit?” She twirled again, reveling first in Ted’s reaction and now in Lily’s. “I just recently finished putting it together. You and Ted are the first people to see me in it. In fact, Ted thinks it’s a little too revealing, don’t you, darling?” She twirled again.
Before Ted could respond, Lily interrupted, “Isn’t that just like a man? Phooey!”
Ted Knight realized that anything he said in response would only get him into trouble. He wasn’t sure how he’d gone from the best kiss in his life to the floor of the coliseum, waiting for the lions to tear him apart, but he realized he was in danger. Perhaps it would be safest to change the subject.
“One of the reasons I built this observatory so far from town was that I needed a place where I could test modifications to my gravity rod without anyone watching. I set up a training grounds out back of the building. Let’s head out and get started, shall we?”
Doris winked at Lily, and the two of them turned to follow Ted out the back door of the building. When they got outside, Ted pointed to a path that led off into the woods. “It’s about a half-mile down the path, here.” He started walking. “Lily, for your first practice exercise, why don’t you use the flashlight setting on your power rod to light the way?”
Lily armed the flashlight, adjusted the focus to tight, and set the intensity to low, then held down the beam button to produce a steady beam of light. The path led off into a dense woods, and it also curved greatly, limiting their visibility to only a few feet.
“Umm, Ted? I’d much rather fly. After all, I am supposed to be training to use this thing!”
“Great idea, Lily! But we’re going to need to be able to talk to you while we’re flying.” He dashed back into the observatory. When he returned, seconds later, he was carrying a World War I leather aviator’s helmet with goggles. “Here, put this on!” he said, handing her the helmet. “Doris and I used to use these for training, back before I put radios into the gravity rods. It’s set for channel three, the one we normally use.”
Doris helped Lily don the helmet, and showed her how to change the channels and use the boom microphone. “Use channel fifteen if you want to talk to me privately,” she whispered. “We’ll start with the code word bear. If either one of us says that word on channel three, it’s a signal to turn to channel fifteen. OK?” When they had been playing various flying games with Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Doris had often used a private channel to Shiera Sanders to secretly come up with plans to confound Ted and Carter Hall.
Lily nodded, puzzled that Doris thought they might need a private channel. But she shrugged and figured that Doris might be planning to give her some private, girl-to-girl tips.
Ted had Lily turn on her force-shield, and advised her to keep it on until the training session was over. He then had her turn on the flying power, point the power rod up, and move the speed thumbwheel very slowly. She started to rise, very slowly, speeding up as she advanced the wheel. Ted lifted alongside her, and had her stop turning the thumbwheel. She continued to move slowly, in the direction she was pointing the power rod, now at a constant speed.
This was the most incredible experience Lily had ever had, even better than flying the biplane. She was moving very slowly, much more slowly than the biplane could ever fly, and she could change direction instantly, just by moving her arm. The power rod produced some kind of invisible field that carried her as she flew. Her worries about hanging from the power rod by one hand when she flew were groundless. And if she had to, she could let go — the rod continued to pull her along with it.
By now, Lily and Ted had reached treetop height. She was starting to get itchy to go a little faster, especially when Starwoman rocketed into the air and zoomed past her at what must have been a hundred miles per hour. But Ted was talking her through some slow, simple exercises, and she was a good enough pilot to know that she shouldn’t skip any of the early steps in training. She sure looked forward to turning loose, though.
Ted and Doris demonstrated landings, and then Lily tried. Landing with the power rod wasn’t any easier than landing a biplane; she had to swoop down and almost hit the ground, slow down quickly, aim the rod up so she was in the upright position but hardly moving, and then turn flying off, dropping a very short distance to the ground.
The first time she landed, she judged her speed incorrectly, and actually bounced, then fell and ended on her bottom. Her force-shield protected her, but her dignity was hurt. Ted lightly set down next to her and suggested, “You know what they say about landings — any landing you can walk away from is a good one!” He wore a big smile.
“What makes you think I can still walk?” she yelled back at him. “I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but they sure are stupid! I know the difference between a good landing and a bad one — and that was a bad landing!”
Ted and Doris had no problems landing; the gravity rods had an autopilot built into them, and landing was one of the standard functions. Lily was a little jealous, and this made her work even harder. Before long, not only was she was easily using her manual controls to land, but she also developed a considerable flair for it. She thought her manual landings were a lot more stylish than the boring landings of her instructors.
Lily adjusted her speed to a slow jog, and she and Ted flew down the trail together, ten feet off the ground. Lily had to be careful, because if her arm wavered up or down, up or down she went. She thought there must be some way to set a constant altitude, but they just hadn’t discovered it yet. Well, she would figure it out eventually.
Then Ted led the way off the path and through the woods instead. Even at this low speed, Lily had trouble avoiding bushes and trees. It seemed that every time she swerved around one obstacle, there was another one in her face, and she either smashed through bushes and branches, protected by her shield, or she bounced off, changed directions, and tried again. On the other hand, Ted was moving smoothly and easily avoiding everything in his path.
Her clumsiness made her mad at herself, but she quickly realized that Ted really was a good teacher. She was learning several lessons at the same time — how difficult it was to maneuver when flying with the power rod, even at low speed, how to change directions quickly and accurately, how important it was to plan one’s route ahead of time when flying amidst obstacles, and how effective her force-shield was at protecting her from minor collisions. Surprisingly, she also picked up another lesson, perhaps one Ted hadn’t even intended to teach — even the owner of a power rod would find that there were times when it was better to walk than to fly.
Lily hated not being good at everything she did. This occasionally led her to avoid even trying some things even when she thought they might be fun, and caused her to give her full attention to learning new things when she did decide to try them. Her biplane piloting experience gave her some reference points. In particular, she realized that whenever she tried to turn, she was going to skid sideways through the air, just a little, and once she figured that out, she was actually able to utilize the skid to improve her maneuvers.
By the time they reached the training area, she was managing to not hit anything — not with the same smooth skill and grace that Ted exhibited, but she knew that was coming. She suspected, correctly, that part of Ted’s ease was due to the sophistication of the gravity rod and its controls. Ted had several times commented on how primitive the controls of the power rod were, and he had also commented several times on how mystified he was about the nugget of power metal it used. She realized that she could have had a gravity rod instead of the power rod, but she never regretted her decision for an instant. She felt that she had some legitimate ownership stake in the power rod, while she would always feel as if the gravity rod was just on loan. Besides, as much as she liked and admired Doris, she had no plans to be an imitation Starwoman.
Ted hadn’t been out here since 1946, but someone else evidently had. Some boulders he had expected to see were smashed to dust, and some trees had been uprooted and torn apart, which Ted did not approve of. There were some scorched areas, showing evidence of recent fires, and there was a cave entrance in one of the nearby hills that had not been there before. It must have been Vic Valor, practicing with the powers built into his Valor armor.
Opening the concealed control bunker, Ted turned on the lights. Lily looked around her, surprised. Although it wasn’t obvious until the area was lit, there was a ring of fairly tall hills that completely shielded this valley from the rest of the world. Ted noticed her inspection of the closest hill.
“Years ago, a while after I bought this place and built the observatory, Doris and I used the gravity rods to alter the landscape. We took a couple of hills apart and used them to build some new hills and enlarge some of the existing ones. From outside the fence–” Here Ted referred to a chain-link fence surrounding the observatory grounds and some of the nearby woods and hills, all owned by the Knights. “–even with the lights on, nobody can see this place, except from above. You see, we needed a place to practice in secret, at night.”
Doris had been impatiently flying in patterns overhead. She landed nearby. “Are you two going to talk all night? C’mon, Ted — let’s play air-tag, like we used to do with the Hawks!” Years ago, Ted and Doris had shared a couple of camping expeditions with Carter Hall and Shiera Sanders in the Rocky Mountains. Couples that could fly could find campsites in places that had probably never before been visited by humans. They had developed several flying games, including air-tag.
Doris explained the rules to Lily. “Because the gravity rods allow us to fly faster than your power rod–” Or, she thought, faster than the Hawks’ wings, too… “–we play in a restricted area that favors maneuverability and agility over speed. So the boundaries here are the hills themselves; you can’t fly out of the valley. Whoever is it has to actually touch one of the others, who then becomes it. And you can’t hide out down in the trees when you’re not it. You have to stay out in the open where it can see you. Collisions don’t count as tags. If you’re it, and you collide with someone, you’re not allowed to tag that person. You have to tag someone else instead. Tags only count if they are made with your free hand or your power rod. Ted will be it first. Ready, set, go!” And Doris was gone.
Ted decided to give Lily some time to get better acquainted with her flight controls before he went after her, and with a whoop, he took out after Doris. Lily decided to try to keep up with him, and with her own whoop, away she flew. Doris moved quickly and gracefully, and Lily soon realized that, while Ted had an advantage in experience, Doris was the more agile of the two.
Time and again, Ted almost tagged Doris, but she would twist away, or veer into a sudden climb or dive, and Lily suddenly realized that this game was a lot like a dogfight. She had never actually been in a dogfight, but her father had taught her all the maneuvers and described, second by second, several of his own encounters, including the one in which he had been shot down and injured by the Red Baron. Lily knew each story by heart. She continued to experiment with her flight controls, meanwhile reviewing the various dog fighting maneuvers she knew, trying to determine which of them might be as useful to a gal with a power rod as they were to a fighter pilot in a biplane.
Lily couldn’t yet keep up with Ted and Doris, but, by cutting corners, she stayed pretty close. The playing field was a rough oval that enclosed about six acres, so she was able to keep them in sight. She was trying to figure out how to do a roll, and she twisted the power rod slightly. It nearly worked; she started rolling as she had hoped. But as she rolled, the direction the power rod was pointing changed constantly, and she ended up not only rolling but also flying in a pattern like a corkscrew. The constantly changing directions made her nauseous, and she immediately felt as if she was going to be sick.
Her right hand clenched convulsively on the power rod, and suddenly she stopped moving. She wasn’t falling, wasn’t flying — she was hovering. It hadn’t been a pleasant stop — going from wild motion to absolutely motionless had produced a pretty high gravity force, but only for a very short instant. She hung there, motionless, until her stomach had time to recover. Then she experimented until she figured out what it was that she had done. The speed control thumbwheel was mounted in such a way that, when she pressed on it, rather than spun it, it worked like a button. Pressed once, it stopped her instantly. She could then start moving again by spinning the same thumbwheel. Neat!
Suddenly, she heard Ted over the radio. “Got you!”
“Darn! I was sure you were going to zig instead of zag!” Doris replied in a somewhat crestfallen voice. Her next words were much cheerier, though. “Look out, Lily, it’s your turn now!”
As Lily looked around, she saw Doris whizzing toward her like a bullet.