by Dan Swanson
Lily DeLuna had noticed something odd about Vic Valor during their interview after he captured the saboteurs. She had watched Valor move, and his awkwardness reminded her of a teenager who had grown several inches in the past year and still hadn’t adapted to his new size. She realized that this might be a side-effect of his suddenly and unexpectedly gaining super-powers when he arrived on Earth, but now she was curious, so she had started watching him much more closely.
She knew that everyone at the Opal City Register was jealous of her sudden rise to prominence, and that most of them attributed it solely to her extraordinary good looks. They figured Valor was trying to get her into bed, and was granting her these exclusive interviews as part of his plan. Lily recognized that her beauty did give her a potent tool in dealing with men, but she was determined that she would succeed on her merits, not because of her looks. She definitely found Valor attractive, but she wasn’t going to let that attraction interfere with her reporter’s instincts. She sensed something strange about Valor, and she was going to get to the bottom of it.
What she could see of Vic Valor’s expression never changed. He never smiled, and he never frowned. His helmet-mask covered most of his face, but in the lower half of his face, the only things that moved when he talked were his lips. Last night, she had even asked him about it.
“Xadamites don’t express our emotions the same way humans do,” he had explained. “Instead of smiling or frowning, our skin color changes as we feel different emotions.”
“I didn’t notice your skin changing color during your story,” countered Lily. “It seemed to me that you were angry when you spoke of the tear gas attack on the helpless emergency workers, and excited when you described capturing the saboteurs, but your facial color never changed.”
“You are certainly very observant, Lily! I’m flattered by your interest. No, you wouldn’t see the changing colors; Xadam’s sun emits light which is mostly in the infrared spectrum, and that’s where our eyes are most sensitive. The colors we see are invisible to human eyes.”
This explanation was certainly consistent with everything else she knew about Vic Valor, so she dropped the topic. She was curious how those colors appeared to him, and a little sad because she would never know. But she realized that Valor must have the same problem in reverse — he probably could not perceive the colors that humans could see. Look at the ugly brown color of his costume, and those awful yellow armbands — nobody who could see those colors would ever put wear them together. She wondered how he saw his own costume, and then it occurred to her to wonder what her own fashionable clothes looked like to him.
What seemed strange to Lily was that, although she couldn’t read Valor’s face, she thought she had been having no trouble with his body language, or with recognizing emotions in his voice. His voice and his body language had indicated anger, excitement, and satisfaction at various times during his story. It seemed curious to her that Valor’s people’s visible expressions of emotions would be so different than those of humans, but his voice and body language seemed to be identical to what she expected. Maybe she was over-analyzing, though. Who knew how an alien should react? She was pretty sure she would see Valor again tonight, and she was going to see if he was interested in spending a little private time together. She looked forward to learning more about him.
Lily had also noticed that there were some differences in the stories as reported by Valor and the stories describing the same incidents in the Evening Gazette. She knew that if you asked a hundred eyewitnesses to describe the same event, you would get a hundred different stories. Some witnesses would directly contradict others, and both would believe they were telling the absolute troth. The differences in the Register and Gazette stories could probably be reconciled by considering the different points of view of the witnesses who told the story. But when the time came around to hand out the Pulitzer Prize, Lily didn’t want to miss out because someone had given her a slanted view of the facts. She was going to find out the truth, whatever it was.
Lily DeLuna was distantly acquainted with one of the airport saboteurs. They had been in some of the same freshman classes at Opal City University. It wasn’t exactly a first-name relationship, but Lily was pretty sure this guy would recognize her, and probably tell her something. She decided to stop at police headquarters and talk to him this afternoon, before she went to work. She was pretty sure that whoever was in charge of visitors would let her in to see him, even if she wasn’t on a police-approved visitor list.
Ted Knight actually had business at the airport the day after the sabotage. Not long ago, Doris Knight had been introduced him to Donna Watson’s husband Tim, and after the two got to know each other a bit, Tim Watson had approached Ted with a business proposition.
Tim had been a fighter pilot during World War II. He had flown with the Army Air Corps’ Red Tails bomber escort group in Europe. The Red Tails had never lost even a single bomber to enemy fire throughout the entire war. Ted realized that he had met Tim’s younger brother in 1945, when he had stopped a late night fight between two groups of kids. It was a small world.
After the war, Tim had remained in the army, working as a flight trainer until his recent honorable discharge. When he re-entered civilian life, he had realized that he wanted to continue to train pilots. So he was in the process of starting his own flight school.
Because of his color, Tim was encountering significant resistance to starting his own business. Opal’s banks were reluctant to give a loan to a person of color, and Tim needed a short-term loan to get started. He had asked Ted to invest in his proposed flight school.
Ted had started flight training in the Army Air Corps during the early months of World War II, when he and most of the other members of the Justice Society of America had resigned from the team to do their part for America in the days following Pearl Harbor. (*) Ted had been stationed at Randolph Field near San Antonio, Texas, where he befriended a fellow pilot-in-training named Ash. But although Ted had received his officer’s commission in record time, and was sent to Hickam Field in Hawaii to serve in the Pacific, Lieutenant Knight ended up never fighting in the war as a pilot. (*) Instead, the War Department had decided that the Justice Society would be more valuable to the war effort in their costumed identities rather than as G.I.s, and brought the team back together as the Justice Battalion of America, a special battalion taking orders from the War Department. (*) This followed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision that America’s mystery-men and mystery-women were more valuable as members of the All-Star Squadron than as soldiers. Of course, some of these mystery-men had chosen to serve in the armed forces anyway, but Ted had left behind the Army Air Corps, for better or for worse.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Justice Society Joins the War on Japan,” All-Star Comics #11 (June-July, 1942), “Never Step on a Feathered Serpent,” All-Star Squadron #5 (January, 1982), “If an Eye Offend Thee,” All-Star Squadron #10 (June, 1982), and “A Tale of Three Citadels,” All-Star Squadron #21 (May, 1983).]
Ted had been very impressed with Tim’s business plan. He made the investment, but on one condition: Ted wanted to go through Tim’s course and officially get his own private pilot’s license. Ted was already officially an army-trained pilot, of course, but it had been years since he had piloted any aircraft. Tim had obtained his Civil Aeronautics Administration certification, leased a small hanger at the Opal City Airport, and made a downpayment on a plane. Today was Ted’s first lesson, and he was Tim’s first civilian student.
Tim Watson had been able to get some good deals on military surplus machine tools and equipment, and he had set up a complete machine shop in the hangar, figuring he could save some money by doing his own maintenance. He even made extra money on the side performing maintenance for some of the private pilots who used the airport.
Before Ted’s first lesson, Tim showed him around, letting him see what he had invested in. Tim had reserved one room in the hangar as a clean room. In this room he worked on instruments, radios, and avionics. It was much better equipped than Ted had expected. Tim explained that radio and electronics had been his hobby since before the war.
Ted noticed an unusual device on a table in the clean room. He had never seen anything exactly like it before. As he studied it curiously, and started to puzzle out what it might be, he was startled to realize that it was a navigational position calculator, based on some of Ted’s own ideas.
“Say, Tim, what’s this? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything like it!”
Tim looked a little uneasy. “I’d be really surprised if you had, Ted. It’s a prototype navigational system I’ve been working on. I’m afraid it has limited range, but the concept has unlimited potential.”
Ted was always interested in new inventions. “How does it work? Where did you get the idea? Have you applied for a patent yet? If you think there are potential applications for it, maybe the Knight Foundation could help you develop it!”
Tim looked even uneasier. “Whoa, hold on Ted! Slow down, man! Honestly, the basic idea isn’t even mine. Back in December, somebody ripped open a lot of those trash bales and papers, and garbage got blown all over the airport! When I was cleaning up around my hangar, I found a bunch of papers containing a preliminary design proposal for something like the device you see in front of you. There was no identification anywhere on the proposal. The idea caught my fancy, so I built this thing. I’d like to figure out who had the original idea — maybe we could work together.”
“Tim, this is a really weird coincidence, but I think I wrote those papers you found! I spent hours trying to figure out how to make that idea work, and when I couldn’t, I just threw the papers away.” What was really worrying Ted was that he had tossed those papers at the same time he threw out the Supernova file. Jason Heber had been right — if Tim had found the plans for the navigational device, anyone in the world might have the Supernova file by now.
Tim Watson was immediately defensive and apologetic at the same time. “I’m really sorry, Ted — I wasn’t trying to steal your ideas! But you know, you really ought to be more careful about what you throw away!” He didn’t know if he should worry about Ted trying to steal his developments to the original idea. He knew who would win if the case should ever come to court. A rich, famous white man, or a self-employed, unknown black man; there was no contest. Ted’s next words made him regret that he had ever had that thought.
“Don’t worry about it, Tim. I gave up all rights of ownership when I threw that file away. I honestly never expected to hear anything about it again. It’s yours now, and you are welcome to it! Give me a demonstration, will you?”
Tim was clearly proud of his invention, and he had done a great job building a practical device based on Ted’s pie-in-the-sky idea. Ted thought that this young man would go a long way in the world. He really wanted to spend more time discussing the invention, but it was past time for Ted’s first flying lesson to begin.
As they walked out of the clean room, Ted asked casually, “Did you find anything else interesting in the trash that day?”
Tim was clearly startled. He quickly turned to look at Ted, and he stopped walking so abruptly that Ted ran into him. “Tim, what’s wrong?”
Tim recovered quickly. “I didn’t find anything else, Ted. But there must have been sixty or seventy city workers out here that day, cleaning up the garbage that had scattered all around the airport. I didn’t think about it much back then, but some of those guys seemed to read every paper before they threw it in a trash barrel. Those guys seemed to be looking for something specific.”
“Any idea if they found it?”
“I don’t know. Not while I was watching, anyway. But I didn’t watch them for too long. Why?”
“Apparently, I threw away something else that I was still working on. It’s no big deal — I still have a copy of that file, so I didn’t lose anything. Since nobody has brought the project to market yet, the file has probably been destroyed or buried in the landfill.”
They moved on to the lesson. During the first lesson, even though Ted Knight had flown before, they never got near a plane. Tim Watson gave Ted an overview of the course, then they talked about the history of flight, and the Civil Aeronautical Administration regulations regarding private pilot’s licenses, and the safety rules and procedures that Tim insisted on for anyone in his course. Ted was impressed with the breadth and depth of Tim’s knowledge of aviation, but Tim learned some new things from Ted, too.
When the first lesson was over, Tim promised that all the rest of the lessons would include at least some short flights. He emphasized that even though Ted had gone through much the same kind of course before, they were going to cover every lesson just as if Ted had never seen a plane before in his life. Once again, Ted was impressed. This man took his job seriously. Ted was already sure he had made a wise investment.
Doris Knight was enjoying her life. She couldn’t say that everything was going smoothly. But when she appraised her life honestly, she remembered several periods of her life in which everything had gone her way, and what she remembered most about those times was how bored she had been.
The Knight Foundation for Advanced Radiation Research was producing a steady, if unspectacular cash flow. Doris had been proud to be able to give grant funding to Brookhaven National Laboratory, for radiation research, and to the International Red Cross, for medical supplies and assistance in Japan, where there was still suffering caused by radiation and fallout from the atomic bombs.
Ted had been right about Jason Heber; he turned out to be a genius at commercializing Ted’s inventions. Well, some of them, anyway. Not everything Ted invented was practical, and he insisted on keeping everything related to the gravity rod secret. It was too dangerous to get into the hands of criminals or anti-American governments.
And Jason hadn’t turned out to be as reliable as Doris would have hoped. He never came to work at the same time two days in a row, and half the time he didn’t punch in until noon or later. He had picked up bad habits when he worked for Ted, who was himself notorious for his unpredictable schedule. Doris had no complaints about the amount of work Jason put in; he often worked until the early hours of the next morning, and she had often found him in his shop on weekends. She had finally learned to deal with Jason’s variable working hours by always scheduling important events in the mid-afternoon.
A fascinating puzzle in Doris’ life was her apparent age. She and Ted had not seemed to have grown any older since the beginning of the war. They were both in their mid-thirties, and neither one of them looked a day over twenty-five, if that. Several other members of the Justice Society and their associates had noticed the same thing. Nobody had figured it out for sure yet, but a leading theory was that their extended youth was caused by the Ian Karkull energy many of them had been exposed to in 1941, even though Doris herself wasn’t exposed to it directly like Ted had been. No one knew how long this extended youth would last, but Doris planned to enjoy it as long as she had it.
Dr. Charles McNider theorized that the Karkull energy might also have other unique side effects on some of the people who had been exposed. For example, over the past year, Ted had gradually realized that he no longer required very much sleep. He now spent much of the day working, and after Doris went to sleep at night, Ted would head to his private observatory. Doris wondered if something weird might affect her, too, but she wasn’t the kind of person who worried a lot about things she couldn’t control.
What was really bothering Doris right now was Vic Valor. Ted had given up being Starman, but suddenly, Ted was spending all night at the observatory, and Opal City had a new hero with super-powers who was only active at night. Doris wasn’t a suspicious person by nature, but this just seemed too unlikely to be a coincidence. True, Valor claimed to be from another planet, and his powers were natural, rather than artificial as Ted’s were, and he was much bigger and bulkier than Ted. Well, if Vic Valor wasn’t really Ted, a little investigation wouldn’t hurt.
On the night of the airport sabotage, Doris called the observatory at about midnight. She was disgusted but not surprised when the telephone was answered not by Ted but by the Tel-Magnet. This early answering machine, using a magnetic tape recording system, was a prototype device that Ted had purchased directly from the manufacturer before it was even made commercially available to the public, since he was a potential investor. The Tel-Magnet played a message telling her that Ted was in the darkroom. So she left a message.
She was surprised, however, when Ted called her back in just fifteen minutes. She told him a nightmare had awakened her, and she just wanted someone to talk to, and then hung up. The next day, she found that Vic Valor had been rebuilding the levee at the same time she had been talking to Ted.
That tactic hadn’t proved anything. But she had something more certain in mind for tonight.