Starman: 1945: Nuclear Furnace, Chapter 9: Train Wreck

by Dan Swanson

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Mister Terrific noticed that Starman was carrying one gravity rod, while there was another holstered at his belt. Ted Knight had once told him that he did this when he was building new powers into the gravity rod, just in case the new powers failed. Terry Sloane smiled to himself; careful observation was kind of a hobby of his.

As they flew, Starman tuned in to the Highway Patrol radio frequency and listened to reports about the disaster. As he found out more details, he became more worried. He started telling Mister Terrific and Amazing-Man what he was hearing.

“A train, traveling from New York City to Washington, D.C. Carrying German prisoners of war that were detained in the U.S., for shipment back to Germany. Explosion in a freight car caused the train to derail. Passenger cars in the rear of the train piled on top of one another. Local police and fire departments turned out to help. But somebody is reporting high levels of radiation, and the area within five miles of the wreck site is being evacuated of civilians.”

“It sounds bad, Ted! How are we going to help rescue people in a high radiation area?” asked Mister Terrific.

“I’m pretty sure my powers make me more resistant to radiation,” Amazing-Man said. “I can touch the tracks and change to iron or steel, so I should be OK.”

“And I can use my gravity rod to shield against radiation, Terry, so I’ll be OK. But what about you?”

“Can you use the gravity rod to enclose the radiation source?” Mister Terrific asked.

“Sure, but then I won’t be able to do anything else with it,” Starman protested.

“Can you set up one gravity rod to enclose the radiation source, and then use the other one for everything else you need to do?”

Ted was startled. He had completely forgotten that he was carrying two gravity rods. “That’s a great idea, Terry! Normally, the gravity rod only works when I’m carrying it. But I have been working on a way to set it on automatic. I can use this one to set up a radiation shield and set it to automatic, and then use the other one for rescues and such. I guess great ideas are sort of a hobby of yours!” They grinned at each other.

Starman heard more news on the Highway Patrol radio. “Seems there were some Axis mystery-men who died in Allied custody, and their bodies were being studied in the States. Several of these deceased mystery-men were German, and this train was carrying those bodies as well as the German POWs. You know, I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this!” New York City, a dead super-powered German, explosions, and radiation reminded Ted unpleasantly of the Aryan Flame, a super-powered German whom he had battled in New York City in 1943.

The memories were very uncomfortable; the Aryan Flame had used one of Ted’s inventions to give himself super-powers. Starman (with the help of Johnny Quick and Captain Triumph) had defeated him, and he had apparently died shortly afterward, seemingly of a radiation overdose. Might the Aryan Flame still be alive, and involved in this accident? Starman had seen too many strange things in the past five years to discount that possibility. He gave Amazing-Man and Mister Terrific a quick rundown on the Aryan Flame.

The wreck scene was now in sight. It had been a very long train, mostly freight cars with about ten passenger cars just in front of the caboose. Now it was a tangle of smashed cars, many overturned, others piled on top of each other. There were flames in many places, and near the front of the wreck, some of the cars were emitting an eerie blue glow. The Geiger counter in Starman’s gravity rod started clicking. He set Mister Terrific and Amazing-Man down behind a hill to protect them from radiation.

“I’ll set up the radiation shield, and then we’ll get to work!”

As good as his word, Starman flew to the glowing blue cars. Nothing seemed to be moving nearby or inside any of the cars. He quickly created a domed radiation shield around the damaged cars, and his Geiger counter reported an immediate lowering of radiation. The background level was still higher than normal due to secondary radiation, but it wasn’t immediately dangerous. It might be dangerous to spend a week here until after it was cleaned up, but the three heroes wouldn’t be here very long.

Starman clicked the concealed controls on the gravity rod to set it to automatically maintain the radiation shield, then put it down in a safe place and retrieved the other gravity rod. He used the second rod to carefully place a heavy piece of wreckage over the first rod. This didn’t affect its operation, but Ted didn’t want anyone else running off with it. A stranger probably couldn’t get it to operate without extensive study, but he didn’t want to take chances.

Flying back, Starman picked up Mister Terrific and Amazing-Man, and they went back to the wreck. Mister Terrific seemed to take charge.

“Starman, we have to find the train crew and find out if there are any dangerous materials in the freight cars, and how many people are on board!”

Ted noticed a group of men in uniforms — the conductor, the engineer, some policemen, and a few firemen — already trying to rescue people from the cars. He set the heroes down next to them. They quickly learned that the entire train crew was safe, and that, as far as the train crew knew, there was nothing dangerous in the freight cars. But nobody could explain the blue glow. Those cars had been carrying coffins and some large boxes made out of a dull metal. Terry Sloane decided that they knew enough to get started with their own rescue efforts.

“Starman, you put out the fires! Amazing-Man, why don’t you see if you can get some of those passenger cars open?” Mister Terrific pointed at some coach cars that were jumbled together in a pile. People were trying to get out the windows of those coaches, because the doors were crushed shut. “I’ll help the people in the cars over there,” he said, heading toward a couple of cars that had rolled over. The problem in those cars wouldn’t be in making new exits, which would require super-powers, but helping dazed and injured people climb out the existing exits. Starman and Amazing-Man quickly realized that the jobs Mister Terrific had assigned were the ones each of them was best suited for. Tactical thinking seemed to be another of Terry’s hobbies.

Ted had developed a neat technique for putting out fires. He shot high into the air and located the nearest body of water, which happened to be the Gunpowder River. He scooped up as much water as he could carry and headed back to the train wreck. He brought the ball of water in contact with a fire, and waved it back and forth as if using the eraser on a pencil. As soon as one fire was “erased,” he flew on to the next one. In a few minutes he had put out all the fires. He dropped the rest of the water away from the train, and went to help Amazing-Man.

Will Everett had touched the mangled train tracks and transformed his body into organic iron. This increased his strength to the point where he could easily pick up one of the passenger coaches. But Amazing-Man quickly realized that more than brute strength was going to be required here. The cars were bent and twisted together in a pile, and if he attempted to tear open one car, the whole pile shifted and threatened to collapse. There were screams of agony and fear coming from within all the cars, and Will wanted to work faster, but he couldn’t risk it. He wanted to just tear into the pile and dig cars out as fast as he could, but he could end up killing many people that way. He had managed to safely tear a large hole in the side of one car, and the able passengers in that car were helping the injured get out, when Starman arrived to help.

“Starman! Can you keep this pile from collapsing, while I tear holes in each of these cars?” he shouted.

Ted had a different idea. “Maybe. But let’s try something else first. Can you grab this car–” He pointed at the one nearest him. “–and keep it from moving while I cut a hole in it?”

Amazing-Man grabbed the car in his iron hands. “Go to it!”

Ted had a new technique he had recently perfected. Well, not as recently as all that, considering how rarely it had been since he had become Starman. He focused the beam of the gravity rod more intensely than he had ever done before and aimed it at the side of the car Amazing-Man was holding. This produced a very small point on the metal side where the gravity was extremely intense. The metal nearby collapsed into the focal point of the beam and produced a small hole. Starman used the beam to trace a line up the side, and as he traced that line, the metal side was cut along that line. The effect was similar to a very hot cutting torch, but much faster, and without the intense heat. Starman cut out a large square, and then used the gravity rod to yank the cut section of the wall out of the way.

Once again, the passengers in the car flooded out, with the less injured helping those who were more injured. Starman used the gravity rod to gently lift out a few who couldn’t move on their own.

He then used the gravity rod to support the rest of the pile of smashed cars, while Amazing-Man tore the empty car out of the pile so they could get at the next car. Before Starman released the pile again, Amazing-Man used his vastly enhanced strength to fuse some of the wreckage into supports to take the place of the coach they had just removed. They then went on to the next car and the next, working together smoothly.

Will had never retained a single changed form for such a long time, but every time he felt that he was about to change back to his normal body, he would touch another piece of the shattered train track, and will himself to remain as organic iron. He started to feel a kind of fatigue he had rarely experienced before, and each time he tried to extend his iron form, he had to concentrate harder. He was pushing his power to the limit and beyond, and he had no idea what the side effects would be. Anyway, he didn’t have time to worry about it.

Together, Starman and Amazing-Man slowly but steadily rescued people from the pile of tangled coaches. They worked from the top of the pile down, and around the outsides toward the center. As they removed cars from the outside of the pile, the one aspect of the job got easier, because there was less chance of the pile collapsing. But the cars from the interior cars were more badly damaged and mangled, and the people inside them were more badly hurt. Rather than just cutting holes in the sides of these cards, Starman and Amazing-Man often had to go inside the cars and clear the wreckage away so that the passengers could reach the openings they had created.

Meanwhile, Mister Terrific had been opening doors, or going in through windows, on several passenger coaches that were much less damaged, having rolled over a few times but not having ended up in a pile. Inside each car, he organized the passengers so that they were able to help each other climb out. Terry’s language hobby helped him out here, as he was able to speak to the German passengers in their own language. He went from car to car, helping when help was needed, making sure that everyone was carried out of the wreckage. He often stopped to help bandage a wound, or splint a broken bone. Unfortunately, he couldn’t help everyone, and sadly, a few times all he could do was gently reach out and close the eyes of some unfortunate.

Within a half-hour, the scene was swarming with rescue workers — firemen and policemen from local towns, ambulance crews, and several truckloads of G.I.s from the nearby Aberdeen military base. Additionally, many of the less-injured passengers were helping out. In the face of this disaster, it wasn’t important that, just a few months before, most of the passengers on the train had been classified as captured enemy combatants. This was a human disaster, and everyone human in range was doing his or her best to help overcome this disaster.

Several hours later, between the efforts of the three heroes, the local rescue workers, and the passengers and crew of the train, they reached a point where everyone who had been in a passenger coach was either rescued or had died. The rescue workers began going through the rubble of the freight cars, because sometimes there were stowaways on freight trains. By now some heavy machinery had arrived, and Starman and Amazing-Man could take a break and let the machinery and the machine operators do some of the lifting and cutting. The three heroes gathered with some of the leaders of the rescue teams to decide what to do next.

Amazing-Man was staying on his feet only through sheer willpower. Will had never used his power for such a long time. He finally relaxed. When he changed back into his normal form, the strain of the transformation overcame him, and he immediately fell into unconsciousness. Fortunately, Mister Terrific was quick enough to catch him before he fell to the ground.

A nearby doctor came over to examine him, but quickly realized that someone who specialized in mystery-man physiology was needed. Starman tried to place a radio call to Doctor Mid-Nite, but Mid-Nite didn’t answer. It turned out that Terry Sloane had already taken a moment to contact Dr. Charles McNider before he and the others reached the wreck site in the northern Maryland countryside, and the resourceful Doctor Mid-Nite managed to arrive in record time, parachuting in at that moment from a plane high above. Starman explained the problem, and Mid-Night quickly started work with the other doctor. Starman and Mister Terrific went back to the rescue operations.

Finally, the entire wreckage had been searched other than the glowing cars that were enclosed in Starman’s radiation shield. It would take many days to remove the wreckage, repair the damaged tracks, and clean up the radiation, but the job that was left was, in fact, clean-up and not rescue. Those that could be rescued had been rescued.

All that remained was to investigate the mangled radioactive freight cars. From beyond the radiation shield it was clear that there had been a massive explosion in one of the cars. This had destroyed the tracks underneath the car, which had caused the cars farther back to derail as they passed over the wrecked track. The locomotives had managed to drag several of the cars nearest the explosion for almost a mile as the engineer had frantically braked to a halt.

Starman and Mister Terrific were still surveying the blue cars when Amazing-Man and Doctor Mid-Nite walked up to them. Will Everett looked exhausted, but otherwise seemed to be fine. Starman was just about to speak to them when Terrific tackled him to the ground. Mid-Nite dived into Amazing-Man, knocking him aside, as a blue beam struck a wrecked train car just behind where they had been standing. There was an explosion, and the gravity rod’s Geiger counter clicked wildly for a few seconds, then died down again. The blue beam came from one of the cars inside the radiation shield and had passed through the shield without being affected.

Ted Knight’s fears were confirmed. Somehow, in some way, the Aryan Flame was still alive.

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