by Dan Swanson
As a consultant to the Manhattan Project, as it had come to be known this past autumn, Ted Knight worked on many of the instruments, devices, and mechanisms that made the first atomic pile at the University of Chicago successful. He improved the accuracy and sensitivity of the Geiger counter, and helped build the failsafe device that would shut down the reactor if the atomic reaction started to get out of control. Usually, the project members would tell him what they wanted, and he would go back to his own laboratory in Opal City to build or adapt the necessary devices. Coincidentally, this allowed him to continue his career as Starman, and his exploits are well-chronicled elsewhere. But it turned out that his most important contribution to the project was theoretical.
Atomic theory at the time predicted that, once initiated, a self-sustaining atomic reaction would continue to grow until the release of energy was so great that it exploded. What wasn’t clear was what would happen after the explosion. Conventional theory predicted that the release of radiation from an atomic explosion would be so great that it would initiate fission in any matter that happened to be nearby. The energy released by this secondary fission would cause more nearby matter to fission in a self-sustaining nuclear explosion that would consume the entire world, perhaps in as little as only a few minutes. Many researchers, including Ted, were unhappy with the math behind this theory.
Ted worried at the math in his spare time, and eventually made significant changes to it. Today he was presenting his results to General Leslie Groves and the other members of the atomic energy project. Before the meeting, he had covered both sides of a half-dozen movable blackboards with complex equations.
Indicating three of the boards, Ted began. “Gentlemen, here is the conventional theory. Note that in this step, we substitute an approximation for this term–” He circled a term on the second board. “–to transform to the next step. Under low-energy conditions this approximation is valid, but I’ve calculated that, during the ultra-high energy conditions in a self-sustaining reaction, the approximation fails.”
Ted pointed to the equations at the top of the fourth blackboard. “I’ve redone the analysis, starting at the point where the substitution was made. Instead of the approximation, I’ve used the exact expression.” Ted moved to the next blackboard. “You can see that in the high-energy environment of the self-sustaining nuclear reaction, the expansion of the original term introduces a factor that we have completely ignored up until now. As you can see, here and here–” Again Ted circled terms on the sixth board. “–expansion of this new factor introduces a dampening effect, which confines the reaction to the original fissionable materials.”
The scientists applauded. They quickly began talking among themselves, and an excited buzz filled the room as they discussed the implications of this change to the widely accepted theory. Enrico Fermi jumped out of his chair, practically ran up to Ted, and vigorously shook his hand. “Congratulations on this magnificent work, Ted!” he said, heartily clapping Ted on the back. “I also was uneasy with that approximation. But I’ve been so busy with monitoring the safety of the Pile recently that I haven’t had time to do theoretical work.” The Chicago Pile-1 was the first atomic reactor ever built. Everyone knew that Enrico was a fanatic about safety.
General Groves stood up as well. “Well, gentlemen, can someone tell me, in practical layman’s terms, what all this excitement means?”
The room immediately became silent. Everyone in the room knew what the general had on his mind. Robert Oppenheimer responded, his voice quavering with tension. It was clear to everyone that he really didn’t want to say what he had to say. “General, it means that we can finally build and use the atomic bomb without worrying anymore that it will destroy the whole planet.”
Through unspoken consent, the meeting quickly broke up. Several scientists approached Ted to shake his hand and quietly offer their congratulations. It wasn’t every day that such an important theory was amended in such a significant way. And yet the apprehension about the atomic bomb development, which now seemed inevitable, was clearly affecting everyone.
Ted was devastated. He refused to do any further development work on the bomb. On the one hand, his country was at war, and he knew that any new weapons that were developed would help the Allies win the war. Winning the war was a goal Ted felt strongly about. But he also knew that his breakthrough contribution to atomic theory would soon lead to the construction of the most terrible, deadly weapons ever created.
General Groves quickly reassigned Ted Knight to projects that weren’t weapons-related. There was a lot of work to be done in a lot of different areas that didn’t involve building weapons.
Ted had come back to New York City, to the Columbia University headquarters of the Manhattan Project yesterday, to deliver his latest device, the RadCAM. Some biomedical researchers wanted to investigate the effects of controlled exposure to atomic radiation, and they needed a controllable radiation source.
RadCAM stood for radiation controller and modulator. It contained a sphere of enriched uranium and focused the radiation emitted into a beam, and allowed the researchers to precisely control that beam. The beam could be dispersed or tightly focused, the intensity of the beam could be varied, and the beam could be modulated and even pulsed. The circuitry in the RadCAM was similar to some of the control circuitry in the gravity rod.
Setting up the prototype in the laboratory assigned for his use, Ted tested it thoroughly to make sure that it had not been damaged in transit. He opened his portfolio and pulled out his schematics, blueprints, and construction notes. After he demonstrated the device tomorrow, the project’s machine shop was going to build four more of the devices for the research teams. Ted was particularly proud of the RadCAM; it gave researchers a flexible tool unlike anything they had ever had access to before.
Worked until late that night, Ted was surprised by a knock on his lab door at about 1:30 A.M. He opened the door to find Jason Heber, one of the machinists for the Manhattan Project. He had dealt with Heber before, and he knew that Heber would be working on the new RadCAM tomorrow. They shook hands, and Heber walked into the lab. “Sorry to bother you so late, Mr. Knight. I was working late, too, and when I saw your light on, I thought maybe you and I could go over your blueprints real quick? I want to make sure I understand everything before I get started.”
Obligingly, Ted turned to the table where he had emptied his briefcase. Then something hit him in the back of the head, and he slumped onto the table, unconscious.
When he woke up, Ted Knight was lying on the floor, bound and gagged. There were two men in his lab, Jason Heber and another. They were stuffing Ted’s drawings, plans, and schematics into a suitcase. The case was already full of other papers and documents. As Ted watched, they studied the RadCAM. Finally, the unknown man set some of the knobs and dials. He stood in front of the machine, pulled out a flask, and drank from it. “Turn on the machine!” he told Heber. As Heber threw the power switch, the RadCAM came to life.
A pale blue beam, almost invisible, flashed out of the machine and struck the unknown man. At first it didn’t seem to affect him, and Heber increased the intensity. The unknown man started to look uncomfortable, but he didn’t say anything. Heber turned the gain up again. This time it had an effect. The unknown man started screaming and twisting in agony. The screams were as loud as any Ted had ever heard. Then they cut off abruptly as the unknown individual fell unconscious.
Heber panicked. Grabbing up the case of documents, he ran out the lab door. The unknown man lay on the floor, moaning softly. As Ted watched, he gradually started to glow with a blue light. Ted recognized that the light was the same blue as Cherenkov radiation. As difficult as it was to believe, there was a nuclear reaction going on inside this man.
Ted’s briefcase was on the floor. He knew his gravity rod was in the bottom of the bag. Although his wrists were tried, if he could get his hands on the rod, he could get free. He started to inch along the floor toward the bag.
The glowing man stopped groaning, and started to sit up. Ted slid his hand into the bag and grasped the gravity rod. Within a few seconds, he was free.
The blue man was looking around confusedly. He raised his hands, and glowing blue beams shot from them. One beam struck a wall, and there was an explosion. The other beam struck the RadCAM, which blew up violently. Ted’s gravity rod started clicking loudly and violently; he had added a Geiger counter to the gravity rod when he had started working routinely around radioactive materials. Whenever a beam exploded, it released a burst of radiation. Ted quickly erected an energy shield. He had discovered that a strong-enough shield could protect him indefinitely from radiation. But it left him less power for offense.
The building around them was starting to collapse in flames. Ted was amazed to see that none of the falling debris struck the glowing man — it vanished in a flash of light and heat just before he would have been struck. There was some kind of heat-shield around the glowing man that disintegrated anything that was about to strike him. But it only seemed to work on items that would actually strike the man, and it didn’t seem to be under his conscious control; he could not have seen the debris flying at him from behind, but it was vaporized just the same.
The glowing man blasted his way out of the rubble and began walking west toward the Hudson River. Actually, staggering would have been a better term. But every time he waved his arms to help his balance, a blue beam would burst from his hand, and something else would explode.
Ted realized that he needed help. First he used the gravity rod to send a signal on the All-Star Squadron’s frequency, and then he quickly changed into his Starman costume and started after the glowing man. Ted was torn; he couldn’t decide whether his best action as Starman would be to stop the man and prevent him from causing more explosions, or to rescue the people in the buildings that were now burning. Starman had just decided to tackle the glowing man when Johnny Quick appeared beside him. “Johnny, you get people out of the buildings! I’ll try to stop that monster!”
“OK, I’m off, quick like a bunny!” And, as good as his word, the super-speedster vanished. Immediately, Ted could see a red and yellow blur flashing into and out of the burning buildings, and with each swoop, a crowd of bewildered people was growing, well away from the path the glowing man was taking.
Before Starman could fly away, General Groves ran out of a nearby building. He was still in his pajamas, and he was carrying a megaphone. He started organizing the people who were running around frantically. Relieved that there was someone taking charge of the survivors, Starman flew to the general at top speed. “General, you need to order everyone away from the glowing man. Not only is he blowing things up, but the explosions are emitting radiation! People will get sick if they don’t get out of the area soon!”
Groves didn’t seem too surprised to see the red-and-green-clad mystery-man; after all, New York City was Starman’s usual stomping grounds, though he was known to operate occasionally in Opal City as well. “Starman! I’ll start the evacuation — you stop that maniac!”
Another flying figure then flashed up to Ted. Starman quickly recognized Captain Triumph, a mystery-man who had debuted just weeks ago and had already been recruited into the All-Star Squadron. (*) Ted had been hoping for Superman, but Captain Triumph was surely a good substitute. “Starman! What can I do?” Ted had continued to worry about the fires that the glowing man had caused, and now he realized that he could put out the fires if Triumph could handle the glowing man.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Meet Captain Triumph,” Crack Comics #27 (January, 1943).]
“Are you invulnerable to radiation, Captain?” Triumph nodded slowly, just a little doubt showing on his face; he really didn’t know for sure. “OK, see if you can slow that guy down.” Starman pointed at the glowing man. “And I’ll put out the fires. Watch out — he has some kind of fire-shield around him!” Before Ted could say more, Captain Triumph was gone.
Using the gravity-defying powers of his gravity rod, Starman trapped a big ball of water in the river with a force-field, scooped it up, and flew back to the fires. He used the ball of water much like a pencil eraser, wiping it over the burning rubble and erasing the fire wherever he touched it. He finished just about the same time that Johnny Quick finished evacuating the buildings, and together they headed to the site where the glowing man was fighting with Captain Triumph.
By now there were about a dozen policemen on the scene, and the firemen were just reaching the area as well. General Groves was warning them about the radiation danger, and they were starting to herd people away.
The glowing man seemed to have recovered from the daze caused by his transformation and having the whole lab fall in on him, and he was shooting beam after beam at Captain Triumph. They beams didn’t seem to be hurting him, but Triumph couldn’t fight forward against the explosions.
Johnny Quick immediately blurred off directly at the glowing blue villain, racing to the attack. It was just like Johnny to rush into a situation about which he knew nothing.
The creature only managed to loose one force blast as Johnny raced toward him, but that was enough. Johnny Quick ran right into the explosion and was thrown high into the sky by the blast. Starman blasted the glowing man with a force-blast, and he turned away from Captain Triumph, who flew to catch Johnny before he crashed back to the ground.
Meanwhile, Starman and the glowing man exchanged more force-blasts. Starman’s gravity-rod-generated shield held against the explosions, but his own gravity rod blasts didn’t seem to have any effect on the other. He realized that this battle might go on for a long time.
“Ah, Starman! I have been hoping to encounter some of you American mystery-men! For once and for all, I will demonstrate the truth of Aryan superiority!” This man spoke colloquial American without an accent. Although a large flickering blue flame surrounded him, nothing around him was burning.
“It will take more than words to prove anything to me, buddy! Who are you, anyway?” As he was talking, Starman used the gravity rod to pick up a parked truck, which he flung at the blue figure. Just before it reached him, there was a blinding flash. A short blast of intense heat washed out from the blue man, igniting some trash on the sidewalks and charring the paint on the cars and buildings nearby. The blue man didn’t even seem to notice the attack.
“Foolish, feeble American! I am the pure blue flame of the Aryan race, and I am going to scour the infestation of your kind from the face of the earth! You will fear the wrath of the Aryan Flame! Before you die in flaming agony, you will beg for our mercy!”
Well, Ted thought, maybe he doesn’t speak such great American English, after all! Ted knew some very pretentious people, and none of them used florid language like that.