by Dan Swanson
Starman carried the other three All-Stars away from the crash site at top speed. The railroad tracks ran through some woods here, but the destruction caused by the wreck had created a large clearing full of debris from the wreck. Starman landed them on top of a hill about a half-mile away, where they could look down into the clearing. The villains were regrouping and heading toward them on foot. None of them seemed to be able to fly.
Ted Knight was frantic. “Guys, we just got clobbered! We can’t fight these krauts again! We have to call in reinforcements to help us, or these guys may end up killing us all!”
Mister Terrific responded calmly “Take it easy, Ted. We can’t call anybody. Ever since that boxcar exploded, none of our radios are working. There’s too much static, probably coming from that lightning guy.”
Starman tried his radio and found that Terrific was right. Meanwhile, Doctor Mid-Night was examining Amazing-Man’s injury. “Well, I’ll fly us all, and we’ll find a phone!” Ted was ready to use the gravity rod to pick up his teammates and fly away.
“Hold it, Ted! We can’t just run off and leave these guys alone! Somebody could get hurt or killed if we don’t stop them!”
“Then I’ll go by myself!”
Terry Sloane and Will Everett had been hanging out with Ted Knight for the past two days, first at the baseball camp, then at the exhibition game, and finally in this battle. They had both noticed that Ted didn’t seem to be his normal self, and Doris Lee had privately discussed his issues with them. Terry understood that his friend had recently undergone some rough times, and he had tried his best to be understanding, but now he was getting mad.
“You will not!” he said in a tone of command none of his teammates had ever heard before. “Listen to yourself, Ted! You just told us that these guys are so dangerous that the four of us can’t fight them alone, and now you are proposing to run off and leave only three of us to stop them? And Will is unconscious. That doesn’t sound like a hero to me! It sounds like a coward.” Terry paused as if in thought, then continued. “Actually, if you really feel that way, we’re better off without you. Get going!”
Mister Terrific turned away to help Doctor Mid-Nite with Will. Terry didn’t really think Ted was a coward, but they didn’t have time to coddle him. Terry was counting on his accusation of cowardice shocking Ted back into some semblance of normality, at least as long as it took to win this fight. Without Starman, Terry saw no way to win. With Starman, he figured it would be easy.
Ted stood absolutely still about a minute. Then he started to tremble, and the trembling got worse, until he fell to the ground as if he were having a fit. He was twisting and turning, his arms were flailing wildly, and he was drumming his heels into the ground. Mid-Nite jumped on Ted’s legs, and Terry sat on his chest, then frantically pulled his mouth open and stuffed a folded bandage into his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue.
Ted Knight had never developed the mental and emotional tools he needed to deal with his current situation. It wasn’t that he had never failed before; he had, such as the time back in 1942 when he lost his gravity rod to Prince Daka and had temporarily lost his will to carry on as a hero. (*) He knew how to battle back from failure and win through to a greater victory. And it wasn’t the fact that his teammates were depending on him in a life and death situation; he had been in those situations before and had always succeeded admirably.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Oh, Say, Can’t You See?” All-Star Squadron #42 (February, 1985) and “Ultimate Victory,” All-Star Squadron #43 (March, 1985).]
The difference was that never before in Ted’s life had his failures seriously affected anyone other than himself. Well, maybe he had disappointed his parents or Doris, but that was the worst that had ever happened before. Ted could handle failing himself, but he didn’t know how to deal with failing others.
He couldn’t operate effectively with the fear, doubt, and guilt in his mind. He didn’t know how, and he didn’t have time to learn. The anger and contempt he heard in Terry Sloane’s voice drove him. He would do whatever he had to in order to restore Terry’s faith in him. He had to save his friends, regardless of the cost to himself. So he did what he always did in a tough spot — he fought and kept fighting until he won.
His attention turned completely inward into his mind, Ted Knight saw Starman flying over a vast landscape. Spread across the landscape were hideous monsters, evil super-villains, flittering ghosts, and many nightmarish things Ted couldn’t even name. One by one, he fought each of these evil things in his mind, and forced them into a magic bottle he had created with his gravity rod. The magic bottle became heavier and heavier, and Ted had to struggle harder and harder to push each successive monster, villain, ghost, and nightmare inside.
Finally, though, it was done. Throughout the vast expanse of his mental landscape, which he called his Knightshire, Ted searched. He looked in every mental crevice, under every virtual rock, behind every imagined tree. He found no monsters, no ghosts, no super-villains, and no nightmares. He sealed the bottle and hid it in the farthest corner of his mind he could imagine. Finally, his mind was back under his own control, and he could return to the real world.
What had seemed like many long weeks of exhausting battle to Ted Knight had only been a few minutes to his friends. They fought against his uncontrolled spasms, doing their best to keep him from hurting himself. Then, as suddenly as the fit had started, it stopped.
Ted opened his eyes. He was absolutely exhausted. He had reopened some of the gashes on his body while he flailed around, and had pulled some muscles in his arms and legs. But his mind was clear. In fact, it was clearer than he could ever remember.
“Sorry, guys! I was a little high strung there for a while, but I’m ready to go now! Let’s go stop those guys!” Starman used the gravity rod to create a platform that Mister Terrific and Doctor Mid-Nite could stand on. “Let’s go!” he urged.
“What about Will?” Mid-Nite was alarmed at the change in Ted. From fear to recklessness in only a few seconds — what was going on?
“This won’t take long! We’ll be right back, and you can help him then!”
“Sorry, Ted — tending to Will won’t wait. We don’t know when he might…”
Ted was impatient and interrupted. “OK, Doc, you take care of Will, and I’ll take care of the bad guys. Be right back!” He dissolved the platform and started to fly away.
“Stop right there, Ted!” Terry Sloane commanded. Once again, his teammates were astounded at the power of his voice. Ted stopped. “Ted, Will needs help now, and you are the only one who can help him. You will help him, and then the four of us will take down those super-zombies together.” Terry was a bit surprised when, subsequently, Ted did what he was told to do.
Doctor Mid-Nite and Starman knelt down next to Amazing-Man and examined the gash again. “I think, if we could somehow fuse the edges together, that would be good enough,” said Mid-Nite. “When he changes back, he’ll be fine.”
“Easy as pie, Doc!” Ted said, and actually started singing to himself. “And whistle while you work, whistle while you work! Come on, get smart, tune up, and start to whistle while you work!”
As Doctor Mid-Nite watched, Starman carefully used the gravity rod to smooth the torn, jagged edges of the tear. He then pulled the edges together until the tear was reduced to a scratch on Will Everett’s side.
“This is the best I can do, Doc! I hope it’s good enough!” It looked good enough — just a shallow scratch. Will certainly looked almost as good as new.
“Good work, Ted! Now, how do we get him to wake up?”
Amazing-Man’s body seemed to have some kind of unconscious safety protection mechanism that had kept it from changing back while he was so badly injured. Shortly after Starman was finished, Will, still unconscious, suddenly changed back to his normal form. Mid-Nite examined him and could find no trace of the wound. He broke an ammonia capsule under Will’s nose, and Will woke up, shaking his head and retching.
Doctor Mid-Nite checked out Ted and Will as thoroughly as he could, given the circumstances. Both men insisted they were fine. Mid-Nite reflected that it didn’t really matter if they were or not — the bad guys would be here in only a few more minutes, and they were going to have to fight, no matter what their conditions.
Mister Terrific had a plan. “While we were fighting these guys before, I observed enough about their powers to make me think that we can beat them one-on-one if we each select the proper opponent. Doctor Mid-Nite, you take the illusionist. I think his illusions are strictly visible light, so they shouldn’t affect you.
“Amazing-Man, you get the human dynamo. Remember that copper conducts electricity and is non-magnetic! I’ll take care of the martial artist. Starman, you’ve beaten the Aryan Flame before, so he’s yours. Remember, you control gravity, the most powerful force in the universe!”
Ted knew this wasn’t strictly true. Magnetic attraction was many times stronger than gravity. But in a larger sense, gravity was the dominant force in the universe, because everything was affected by gravity. Terry was hoping that if he got Ted thinking again, he might get over his suddenly manic state. Manic self-confidence in battle could be as bad as no self-confidence.
Starman once again scooped up his teammates, and they returned to the battlefield. The villains had made it about halfway to the hilltop where the heroes had been resting. Starman made sure the bad guys saw him fly overhead, and they turned to follow the All-Stars back toward the train wreck.
The four zombie-like villains still hadn’t said anything, they didn’t seem to be displaying any emotion, and they didn’t seem to have a plan, outside of fighting. They seemed determined to fight the All-Stars, but why? At the moment, it didn’t really matter.
They seemed to be carrying out some kind of relentless mission, and right now their goal seemed to be the destruction of these four All-Stars.
Starman set Amazing-Man, Doctor Mid-Nite, and Mister Terrific down in the wreckage field, then hovered over the villains as they ran back through the woods. Starman used prearranged signals so that each All-Star would be nearby when the foe Terrific had chosen for him emerged into the clearing.