by Dan Swanson
Have you ever had a really terrible nightmare, where you knew some terrible slimy smelly doom was stalking you, chasing you, slobbering over a chance to tear you to shreds and feast on the shreds? And you ran and ran and ran, and just when you thought you were safe, there it was again? And then, just when things were at their worst, and you knew you were about to experience a horrible, painfully fatal fate, and you were helpless to prevent it or escape it, you woke up and realized, with a sigh of relief, that it was all a dream?
Ted Knight had just awakened from a dream like that. Like a lot of dreams, he had already forgotten the details, but he remembered the horror. He was relieved that it had been just a dream. Ted stretched, rolled over, and opened his eyes, thinking about all the things that he wanted to do today.
“Great stars and small! Where the hell am I?! What the heck is going on?” A tidal wave of adrenaline tore through Ted’s body as he realized he must be over half a mile above the ground, and falling fast, tumbling wildly as he fell.
He was looking out through some kind of visor and wearing some kind of helmet that covered his whole face. What the hell was going on? For an instant, panic threatened to overwhelm him, but he had years of experience as Starman working to offset that panic. He had been in incredible, unbelievably dangerous situations before, and he had learned years back that panic never helped. Although, said a wry little voice in the back of his mind, you’ve never fallen out of bed a half-mile in the sky before! But he admonished that detached part of his mind, thinking, Well, there will be time for panic later! Leave me alone; I’m busy.
Unconsciously, without even realizing it, Ted had adjusted his body’s position to stop the tumbling. He was staring down into an incredibly bright light. He must be wearing some kind of spacesuit. How had he got here? He prayed that this was just another dream, but he knew it couldn’t be. His body ached everywhere, and he could hear the whistle of air as he fell. Dreams couldn’t be this real.
On the inside of the visor, just above Ted’s line of sight, he noticed something moving. He raised his eyes and saw some readouts and displays. Ted didn’t immediately recognize most of them, but one was clearly an altimeter, counting down. For some reason, that altimeter jumped into focus in his mind. It was like something inside of him had seized on it as the single most important thing in the world. Ted kept trying to think about what he might do to save himself, but he could not draw his attention away from the altimeter. He watched it for a second or two and realized that it showed that he was falling much more slowly than he ought to be. There must be something in this suit, or whatever it was, that resisted gravity. Maybe it could even fly. But could he figure out how to make it fly before he smashed into the ground? He was still fast enough to kill him on impact. He had to find some way to slow down.
That thought was as good as any deed Ted had ever done. Suddenly, he and the suit were trying to fly rather than fall. Ted concentrated on slowing down and staying conscious as the gravity forces built up. He still didn’t know exactly how he was doing it, but the suit he was wearing was responding to his thoughts.
Finally, he got his fall under control. With a little attention to spare, Ted noted that another one of the gauges on his display was also falling fast. The gauge was labeled power, and it was already into the danger zone. Whatever this beam was, it was draining power from something at a deadly rate.
A memory tickled the back of Ted’s mind, and he forced it to the surface. Somehow this situation seemed familiar. Ted quickly recognized a scene Doris Knight had described to him years ago, a scene she had seen on TV. Well, actually, it had been a different Doris who had actually watched the TV, but Ted’s Doris had been in telepathic contact with the other Doris. A heroic figure, flying through the sky, holding his gravity rod and trailing a cape — Starman, pinned against the sky by an ultra-bright spotlight beam that had caused some kind of massive explosion, killing that Starman. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Starman: Times Past, 1948: Give Up the Stars.]
Although Ted Knight had given up his Starman identity in order to avoid that future, the story Doris told him had aroused his curiosity. From her description, he had done a number of theoretical simulations trying to figure out how that beam must have worked. After intensive research, he could come up with only a single theoretical model that would produce the observed effect. Ironically, he had also discovered that the power of the gravity rod could have saved that other Starman, if he had only been given enough time to analyze the problem.
By now, Ted had realized that this suit he was wearing — a battle-suit of high technology armor, actually, not a spacesuit after all — was familiar. In fact, he recognized his own handiwork in every aspect of its construction. He became convinced that he had built this battle-suit himself, even though he didn’t remember it. Maybe that nightmare he had awakened from wasn’t a nightmare after all.
Ted frantically searched his memories and kept coming up blank. He remembered several discussions with Jason Heber about building an armored battle suit using the Supernova technology. Could this suit be the end result of those discussions? But how could he have built it and not remember it?
He realized that if he didn’t get out of this beam in seconds, he wouldn’t have to worry about missing memories. The beam continued to drain his power, and he was still high enough that, when the suit ran out of power, the fall would kill him.
However, he now had hope that he would survive this situation. If this suit was built with the Supernova technology, he could escape this beam. How could he turn on the gravity lens? He had to assume the suit would continue to respond to his mental control, so he concentrated. Suddenly, the power drain stopped. Well, not entirely; the gravity lens did use a lot of power, but at least he was protected from the beam. Gravity could be used to bend light, and Ted had created a gravity lens that bent the deadly beam around him rather than allowing it to strike him.
Now that he wasn’t in imminent danger of striking the ground at high speed, or being destroyed by the deadly energy-draining beam, Ted took a few seconds to explore the Supernova armor. He was pleased to realize that it really did seem familiar to him. All of the abilities of his gravity rod, and all of the new powers that he and Jason had theorized about, had been built into a battle-suit that simulated natural super-powers for the wearer. It was very neat. He did great work, even when he didn’t know it.
So what to do now? He tried to batter his way out of the beam, but the edge of the beam seemed to be solid and beyond his current powers to break though. As unfamiliar as he was with this battle-suit, he really didn’t want to fly any higher. That only left down, so down he went.
As he approached the ground, Ted saw that the beam was projected from a spotlight that was concealed in the back of a panel truck. A roof panel had slid back to let the beam through. There were five or six uniformed men surrounding the truck, holding strange, futuristic weapons. Through the open panel in the roof, Ted could see a bald man sitting at a control panel in the back of the truck. Because the gravity lens bent light as well as the deadly beam, none of the bad guys could see him.
Did this suit include the gravitic disintegration beam? Ted extended his hand and concentrated, and a blue light flared out, destroying the beam projector. Yes! Ted turned off the gravity lens and flew through the open panel in the top of the truck. He wasn’t surprised at the identity of the man at the controls.
The bald man stood up and turned to face Ted. He was wearing golden robes, with a lightning bolt embroidered on the chest. It was none other than Starman’s archenemy, the criminal genius Doctor Doog. As soon as he saw Ted, Doog started ranting.
“Valor! No, no, it’s impossible! You don’t exist! You have to be Starman, and my Destructo-Ray was infallible! You’re dead! My plan was perfect! My revenge is ruined! You’ve destroyed years of work tonight! Well, the Destructo-Ray failed, but I’m not finished yet! Even if you aren’t Starman, I’ll kill you anyway. After your death, I’ll search out Starman and complete my revenge!”
Ted Knight had read about Vic Valor in the newspapers over the past few days. He had an unusual fascination for the new hero; he had read and saved every article about him, discussed him with Doris and his friends, and followed his young career eagerly. He had thought it was because of his relief that Opal City finally had a new hero, but he was beginning to realize it was something more. He was wearing a battle-suit that apparently gave him Valor’s powers, and Doctor Doog had just looked directly at him and seen Vic Valor.
Ted was forced to conclude that, somehow, without his knowing it, he had been masquerading as Vic Valor. He hoped the real Valor wouldn’t mind. Normally a discovery like this would have unnerved him, but right now he had a battle to win.
The boots of Ted’s battle-suit (Vic Valor’s battle-suit?) touched the floor of the truck. Ted tried to stand, and instead nearly fell. He was several inches taller in the suit than without it, and his feet were forced into a strange angle to conform to the legs of the suit. He felt as if he were wearing high heels.
As he stumbled, he grabbed at one of the posts supporting the walls of the truck, and he got some other surprises. The suit made him appear much more bulky than he really was, which affected his coordination and balance. And when he finally did grab the supporting post, he gripped it tightly, and the steel beam actually squished in his hand. He steadied himself and turned toward Doctor Doog. Every new power he discovered raised his confidence level. This suit was a better-than-expected substitute for his gravity rod.
Many years before, Doctor Doog had experimented on his own mind, giving himself the mental power to hypnotize with his gaze. Starman had resisted his hypnotic gaze before, but by now, Doog had concluded that Vic Valor couldn’t be Starman. Doog concentrated his mental powers on Valor. He also started whispering hypnotically, barely loud enough for Ted to hear. “Doctor Doog is your master. Doctor Doog is your friend. You don’t want to attack Doctor Doog. You want to join Doct Doog. Doctor Doog is your master. Doctor Doog is your friend.” He repeated this, over and over again.
On the prior occasions when Ted had resisted Doog’s hypnotism, it had required an intense mental struggle. Despite his rather silly name, which was merely the word “good” in reverse rather than any kind of actual surname, Doctor Doog had a formidable and powerful mind, driven by his maniacal desire for power. However, Ted — or Vic Valor, or whoever had built this battle-suit — must have added a defense against mental attacks, because this time Ted felt nothing. He still didn’t know how this whole situation had come about, but he was starting to enjoy it.
“Foolish Earthling! Your puny hypnotic powers cannot affect me!” he laughed. This wasn’t his normal style at all, but it felt good. Had Ted Knight become too serious?
Taking a careful step closer to Doctor Doog, he reached out toward him, and snapped him in the chin with his right forefinger. Doog fell to the floor, unconscious, Ted had barely touched him.
He crashed through the wall of the truck, knowing he needed to stop those uniformed guards before they hurt or killed anyone else. The guards had heard the commotion inside the truck, and as soon as Ted appeared, they began firing. Ted figured he would be invulnerable to their weapons, so he made no attempt to dodge. Electric bolts from six weapons struck him simultaneously. What Ted didn’t know, and what Valor had only learned recently, was that the battle-suit was vulnerable to powerful electricity. Ted wasn’t expecting any problems, so he was completely unprepared for the tingling in his limbs that quickly grew to spasms and dropped him to the ground, twitching and moaning in pain.
After overcoming Doctor Doog and his Destructo-Ray, Ted Knight wasn’t about to surrender now. If Vic Valor’s powers couldn’t save him, maybe Starman’s powers could. After all, at the center of the Supernova files was the good old gravity rod. Ted concentrated on the stun-guns the guards were holding and tried to make them super-heavy. Somewhere, deep inside the battle-suit, the gravity rod circuits responded.
The stun-guns instantly dragged the guards to the ground. Ted quickly erected an energy prison around them. He was still having coordination problems, but these guys weren’t going anywhere soon.
A few minutes later, more police showed up to take custody of Ted’s prisoners. Several officers asked Valor — or so they thought — for autographs. Ted had no idea what Vic Valor’s autograph looked like, but that turned out to be all right, because Valor had never signed one before. So nobody ever decided that these autographs were phony.
One of the police officers was talking to headquarters on the radio, and he came over to Valor. Ted recognized him immediately as Billy O’Dare, a patrolman whom the newspapers had referred to as Starman’s pal ever since O’Dare had helped the Opal City hero to take down the notorious Prairie Witch back in 1941, and he had been a faithful friend on the police force ever since. “Uh, Mr. Valor, I got a message for you from Commissioner Bailey. That super-bum Xenon that you trashed tonight? Well, the brain boys in the lab think they can get his helmet off. The commish wants to know if you want to be there.”
Ted Knight didn’t remember fighting Xenon; it must have been the real Vic Valor. But Ted had read about Xenon in the Register this morning, and was very interested in discovering Xenon’s real identity. The powers of Xenon’s scepter were very similar to the Supernova powers. Ted had three close acquaintances that might have had access to the Supernova papers, and who also had the technical expertise to build an enhanced gravity rod from the Supernova plans. He was afraid that Xenon might be one of those three.
“Tell the commissioner thanks, Officer O’Dare, and I’ll be there shortly!”
A German spy had supposedly held Jason Heber a captive in his own house for several months during the war. The spy had been disguised as Jason, and was stealing secrets from the Manhattan Project. Could Jason actually have been part of the German plot, and told that story as a cover-up? Ted had worked closely with Jason for the past five years. Had Jason been stealing his secrets all along?
During his psychotherapy, Dr. Howard Sooter had figured out that Ted was Starman. This was good, because they had discovered that most of Ted’s mental issues had been somehow tied to Starman. Had Sooter misused his knowledge of Ted’s secrets? He had been very interested in the gravity rod, so much so that Ted had actually shown him how to use it. Was this interest mere curiosity, or did it have a darker origin?
Tim Watson had found some secret documents that Ted had thought destroyed, blowing loose from the landfill near the airport. Could he have found the Supernova file as well? Tim was facing discrimination problems that often left him angry. Was he angry enough to lash out as a super-villain?
Ted headed for police headquarters. Since he had no lucid memories of being Vic Valor, he didn’t remember keeping Xenon’s scepter earlier that night, or throwing it away in a vain attempt to shatter the Destructo-Ray projector. The scepter had bounced off of the panel truck and had fallen in a patch of darkness nearby, where it lay unnoticed for the rest of the night.