Starman: 1945: Nuclear Furnace, Chapter 6: Opal City Rumble

by Dan Swanson

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Shortly after Ted Knight returned from Washington, he had his cook prepare him a big breakfast, a three-egg omelet and a medium-rare T-bone steak. She was used to this kind of request from Ted, who often spent the night at his private observatory and slept all the next day. She sat with him and watched him eat; she really loved watching a man who liked to eat her cooking. As he ate, Ted told her about an astronomy project he was currently working on. He didn’t say that he had actually worked on the project the night before, but she assumed he had.

In his capacity as an amateur astronomer, Ted was involved in a project with the American Astronomical Society to map the sky. Many astronomers each took pictures of a small section of sky, and at the end of the project, all the photos were to be gathered and correlated, producing the most detailed map of the sky in history. Ted was truly excited about this project. The cook wasn’t quite sure what was the big deal, but she saw no reason to dampen Ted’s enthusiasm. He had been moping around so badly for the last few days or so that the staff had begun to wonder if he was sick.

Although Ted hadn’t actually been to the observatory the night before, his assigned exposures had been made as planned. Ted had invented improved devices to aim the scope, advance the film in the camera, and make exposures at the correct times. Ted needed to change the film every three days and put the exposed film into the automatic developer, in order to keep up his part of the project. This left him free to spend many of his nights as Starman, though he usually found himself busiest on nights with a full moon. The chatter with the cook was just part of his routine he had developed for concealing his identity.

After breakfast, Ted slept for twelve hours. He awoke about mid-evening and headed to the observatory. He put new film into the film spoolers, checked to be sure the right coordinates were entered in the aiming mechanism, and verified that all his mechanisms were still working correctly. He then ran the exposed film from his spotter telescope through the automatic developer, and closely inspected the negatives. The spotter scope didn’t have the resolving power of the main scope, but it let him look for unusual occurrences. He didn’t see any, so he put the film from the main scope into the automatic developer. He would meticulously examine these photos with a high-powered magnifying glass sometime soon.

His astronomy taken care of for the night, Ted moved into his lab. He wanted to test some of his ideas regarding the metal detector.

The theory of the metal detector was simple. Ted realized that, with some fairly minor modifications, he could utilize the existing radio transmitter and receiver that were already built into the gravity rod as a radio pulse induction metal detector.

However, using the radio pulse detector to determine the type of metal detected, or the composition of an alloy, turned out not to be practical. The computing power needed to make this device practical for a lab would be enormous, exceeding by several orders of magnitude the power of the all the computing devices currently on Earth, which were the Harvard Mark 1, the Colossus, and the ballistic calculators used by the military. There was no way he could build that capability into the gravity rod.

Ted had four active gravity rods, and a few others as well. The one he used regularly, the one Doris used, and the backup that either of them might use if necessary, were all identical. The fourth rod was the one Ted used to test improvements. Once he had verified that the improvements built into the test rod were safe, reliable, useful, and controllable, he would update the other three rods.

He worked on the test gravity rod for a few hours. Shortly after midnight, Starman took to the sky to test the new capability.

Ted was pleased to discover that the metal-detecting function worked, and that it didn’t interfere with any of the other functions of the gravity rod. He could point the gravity rod at something and quickly determine if it was metal or contained metal. Ted quickly realized that, in most normal situations, this capability wasn’t useful. He merely discovered what he already knew — that there was metal all around. He decided to add the capability to the other gravity rods, anyway, because it was simple to do, but he doubted he would use it much.

Starman flew over a school, and in the grassy playground behind the school he saw a bunch of kids, probably fourteen to sixteen years old, fighting. All of them were male. There were about a dozen of them, each trying to take a swing at someone else. It looked like a fairly even fight so far, and nobody seemed to have knives or guns. There was a lot of yelling and name-calling going on, as well as the fighting.

Flying directly overhead of the knot of struggling kids, Starman used the gravity rod to gently insert a vertical cylinder of force into the middle of the group, and then quickly, but not too violently, expanded the diameter of this cylinder to about thirty feet. Everyone was pushed away from the center by the expanding force, and the squabbling died down. Starman could see that about half of the young men were colored, while the rest were white. A second ago they had been fighting each other, but now all twelve of them started yelling at Starman to leave them alone.

Instead, Starman used the gravity rod to increase the pull of gravity on the bottom of each kid’s shoes. This glued their shoes to the ground, immobilizing them without hurting them. At the very strange feeling of having their feet actually stuck to the ground, the yelling died down, but they weren’t quiet for long. Starman landed in the center of the ring of kids.

Most of the people of Opal City held Starman in awe, and some of the kids did, too.

“Wow! It’s Starman!”

“This is really great! Look who he is!”

He also heard some grumbling. “Why doesn’t he mind his own *&^%$#$% business?!”

“Do you know who I am? My father works for the mayor!”

Starman wasn’t about to respond to any of these protests individually, but he thought privately that somebody who used to work for Hawkman and the president of the U.S. probably outranked this kid’s dad. “OK, guys, what’s the problem here?”

Nobody answered. They all looked at each other, but no one wanted to say anything. “Guys, it’s clear this wasn’t a meeting of your Scout troop. Most people who are awake this late at night are out looking for trouble, and you guys found it in each other. If you don’t start talking to me now, you’ll be talking to the police instead.”

The colored kids looked at each other and somehow silently appointed a spokesman. “It’s none of your business, mister mystery-man! We had some stuff to settle, and we were settling it just fine without you!”

One of the white kids chimed in. “Ain’t none of you so-called ‘super-heroes’ around when somethin’ like this gets started. Like he said, we don’t need you here to finish it. Why don’t you just beat it?”

Several of the kids on both sides looked startled, then thoughtful. Their leaders had just agreed with each other. For many of them, it might have been the first time they had ever realized that both sides might have common interests.

“Us super-heroes can’t be around all the time, kid.” Starman was tempted to call him a punk, but this situation needed more clear thinking, not more insults and anger. “You have to learn to solve your own problems, without super-heroes and without violence. Now, you guys are going to tell me what started this!”

“They started it,” said the white kid. “They keep comin’ into our turf, and going where they shouldn’t. We don’t want their kind around!”

The colored kids started to object, but Starman waved an arm at them to shush them. They looked resigned, as if they figured they would be tabbed as the troublemakers yet again. They had seen it all before.

Starman looked at the white spokesman intently. “What do you mean by ‘their kind’?” His voice was low and controlled.

“Are you blind? They’re colored!”

“Why, they are, aren’t they? You guys have wonderful eyesight!” Starman answered sarcastically. The colored kids looked surprised. They had just realized that the mystery-man might actually be on their side. It didn’t happen often that white folks saw them as anything but troublemakers. It wasn’t unheard of, but definitely too rare. Starman turned to the spokesman of the colored kids. “What about you? What’s your story?”

“You heard him! We were on our way home from Gemstone Field after the exhibition game between the Negro League All-Stars and the American League All-Stars,” he said, referring to Opal City’s Major League Baseball park. “I guess these guys think they own the stadium. Or maybe they couldn’t handle the negro team beating their white team! Anyway, they gave us a lot of crap. This is their fault!”

Starman didn’t buy it, at least not the whole story. “They might have been giving you crap this afternoon, but you guys are all here now, hours later. If you guys hadn’t shown up for this little party, none of us would be standing here arguing. You can’t blame it all on them!”

Ted Knight really didn’t want to call the police on these guys. He felt a lot of sympathy for the colored kids. He had seen discrimination before, and didn’t like it. If he let them all go, or turned them over to the police, the next time they got together there would be more trouble. “Guys, it’s late, and you really oughtta be heading home, and I’ve got other things to do, too. I don’t think we need to call the police, here, but I want to talk to you for a few minutes. What do you say?”

They all looked at each other, and there were shrugs and nodding heads. Listen to a mystery-man for a few minutes, or get picked up by the police? “Sure, man. We’re listening.”

“What do you say we sit down while we talk?” There were some benches near the baseball field. Starman used the gravity rod to free their feet. “By the way, don’t even think about running! I’ve got you covered!” They trooped over to the benches and sat down. Starman was saddened, but not surprised, to notice that the benches were segregated. He sat down where they could all see him, and started talking.

“We just finished a war with Germany. In Nazi Germany, many people were killed or jailed just for having dark skin. One of our ideals is that all Americans, regardless of skin color, are equals. We don’t all live up to that ideal all the time, but I think it’s something worth striving for.”

“Huh!” said some white kid, who was hidden from Starman’s view. “What did any colored do to help win the war, anyway?” Some of the colored kids looked angry. Before they could respond, Starman asked the colored kids a question.

“Do any of you guys have relatives in the armed forces?”

“Hell, yes! My dad is a career master sergeant in the army, and my brother is a marine. He was part of the D-Day invasion!” one spoke up proudly. Another was clearly very saddened by memories.

“My mom’s brother was in the army, and he died on one of those little islands in the Pacific. The army gave him a medal, and he got a Purple Cross, too.”

“My brother flies for the ‘Red Tails,’ the best bomber escort in the army! They have never lost a bomber to the enemy!” a third claimed with pride.

Starman was impressed. A pilot himself, he had heard stories about the Red Tails, also known as the 332nd fighter group. But he had never before heard that there were negro pilots in the Red Tails. He would later look into this after the war and find out that, in fact, the 332nd fighter group was an all-negro group. This was one of the U.S. Army’s best-kept secrets during the war.

“What do you guys say to that?” Starman said, turning to the other bench. “Negroes are fighting for the U.S. just as much as whites, and they deserve the same respect.”

The white kids had little to say. Some of them muttered, but nobody actually spoke up. Ted decided that he would change gears.

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