Starman: 1945: Nuclear Furnace, Chapter 16: Origin of the Atomic Zombies

by Dan Swanson

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With the battle between the All-Stars and the atomic zombies over, the Justice Society of America, the United States government, and scientists from the Manhattan Project did a thorough investigation of the atomic zombies. Nobody learned much, but they would discover where the atomic zombies had come from.

Like the Aryan Flame, the Iron Fury, the Phantasm, and Electraking had all died during the war. The circumstances of their deaths and their known activities before their deaths, provided through intelligence gathered by an undercover operative known by the code name of the Americommando, were such that the U.S. felt justified in returning their bodies to Germany after the war.

It wasn’t clear if they had originally died in combat with Allied forces or while in Allied custody. But, once they did die, their bodies were collected by the Allies and sent to a secret research project in New York City called Project M. Researchers under the direction of project leader Professor Myron Mazursky studied the bodies closely to try to learn the secrets of their powers, but the research was generally a failure. The bodies were preserved and stored in a special mortuary.

After the Aryan Flame died, the scientists in the Manhattan Project studied his body. The radioactivity that seemed to fuel his powers had faded when he died, and his body was too damaged by radiation to learn anything else. His body, too, was stored in the special mortuary.

Days ago, orders had come in to send these bodies back to Germany, so they were removed from the mortuary, placed in coffins, and loaded on the train. None of the people who made the preparations noticed anything unusual about them. In particular, Geiger counters showed no residual radiation in the body of the Aryan Flame, or any of the others, for that matter.

For some unknown reason, as the train left New York City, the car carrying the coffins started to become radioactive. By the time the train had reached the Maryland border, the radiation level was so high that the engineer and crew working the locomotive, which was four cars away from the car carrying the coffin, were receiving dangerous levels of radiation, although they didn’t know it until later the next day. Scientists were able to determine this, because there were measurable levels of radiation along the railroad tracks, starting just outside of New York and growing stronger the farther south they went.

Everyone assumed that the radiation had come from the Aryan Flame, but no one knew why his body had once again become radioactive. Most of the researchers believed it had something to do with being moved, but probably, no one will ever know. What was known, however, was that not far from Opal City, there was an explosion in the car carrying the four bodies. This explosion destroyed a section of track, derailing many of the cars behind the car carrying the coffin, leading to massive pile-ups and destruction. It also threw the car directly in front of the explosion off the tracks, and this car, in turn, pulled the coal tender off the tracks. The engine dragged the two cars for almost a quarter-mile before it stopped.

The radioactivity emitted by the four bodies grew stronger for about six hours while the All-Stars performed their rescue operations. Fortunately for everyone around, Starman had contained that radioactivity with a force-shield set up by his gravity rod. After the rescue operations were completed, the situation changed again. There was another explosion, the four atomic zombies emerged from the train, and the battles with the All-Stars occurred.

Several other strange things occurred during this battle. The atomic zombies absorbed all the radiation in the surrounding area, they moved very awkwardly when the battle started but much more fluidly the longer the battle continued, they never made a vocal sound during the entire battle, they didn’t seem to have the ability to think, only to fight, giving almost no attention to tactics or strategy, and at the end of the battle they disintegrated into very fine, non-radioactive dust.

Dr. Kent Nelson, though he had retired as Doctor Fate a year earlier, nevertheless investigated, but he found no traces of magic involved. However, he did sense the faint presence of ancient chaos. It was as if the Lords of Chaos had prepared a booby-trap long ago that had just now been sprung. But the traces were too weak for him to tell more, without the long-missing Helm of Nabu at his ready disposal.

The Spectre visited the crash site. He could sense that innocents, including both the train crew and the German prisoners of war, had died in the crash, but none of their spirits were calling out for vengeance. This seemed to imply that the accident had been a natural disaster, rather than a work of sabotage or deliberate violence. This wasn’t really the case, but even the Spectre wasn’t perfect, and his disappearance shortly afterward, with World War II at an end, meant that no one could ask him any further questions about it.

Even the Magic Sphere that Wonder Woman had brought from Paradise Island didn’t reveal anything really new. It verified that the bodies had started becoming radioactive shortly after the train had left New York City, and that the Aryan Flame’s power was what caused the explosion. The Sphere revealed no traces of the chaotic trap that Doctor Fate had sensed. Unfortunately for the investigators, the Magic Sphere could not make radio waves visible to observers.

Eventually, the investigation was abandoned. Everyone knew exactly what had happened, but nobody had any idea why. Why had the Aryan Flame’s body become radioactive again, and at just the time when it was being moved? What had animated the bodies? There were a lot of wild theories, but none of them approached the truth, which would be available only to one who was not limited to the powers of the Justice Society or the tools used by the investigators. An omniscient observer could pierce the veils of time and watch as the truth revealed itself.


Long ago, but not far away as interstellar distances go, two spacefaring species met and immediately began a war that eventually led to the extinction of both sides. But before that happened, one species had time to develop an ultimate weapon to unleash on the other. Unfortunately, the species that developed the weapon tended to be careless of details, and they didn’t build adequate failsafes into their weapon. Eventually, the weapons got out of control and ended up destroying both sides. An out-of-control doomsday weapon, destroying its creators, was unfortunately not an uncommon story in the history of the universe.

The basic component of the ultimate weapon was akin to what mankind would in later years call a computer virus. It was much more powerful, much more advanced than any computer virus ever known on Earth, but it was a virus just the same. Because the enemy used a wide variety of computing devices, the virus could adapt to any kind of computing device known to the developers — electronic, mechanical, organic, photonic, positronic, and quantum, as well as other types that humanity had not even imagined yet.

This virus was so complex that after it infected any computing device, the infected device could almost be considered to be a Living being. The virus completely controlled the infected device, and could use any capabilities available to the device. The virus had two missions — destroy the enemy, using whatever weapons and powers it could control, and preserve the device it was controlling. It could even direct the device in self-repair, if the device had that capability or functionality that could be adapted for self-repair.

The other component of the ultimate weapon was the delivery device. Many different types of delivery devices were developed. One of these was a space-going proximity mine. Millions of these proximity mines were launched into enemy space. Protected by highly effective stealth technology, when their passive sensors detected the approach of an enemy spaceship, a powerful transmitter beamed a high-intensity electromagnetic pulse carrying the virus at the approaching ship. Unless the ship was shielded very heavily, its electronic safety devices were disabled by this pulse, making any onboard computers an easy target for the virus. The virus then attacked the ship and other enemy ships with the weapons on board the infected ship.

Later generations of the proximity mines had their own space drives and sophisticated computers that allowed them to calculate where to move to have the most destructive impact on the enemy. It was this generation of mines, with their ability to move in space, that eventually led to the demise of their creators. Once the enemy’s space fleets had been completely destroyed, many of these mines moved to other star systems, including the home system of their creators. The creators discovered the flaws in their designs, but it was too late.

In the thousands of years since then, most of these mines had eventually failed due to lack of maintenance. But a few out there were still functional, just waiting to destroy any ship that moved into the star systems where they lay in wait.

One of the last-generation mines had been launched in a flawed orbit that would end in the sun within a couple of years. The onboard computer realized this, and immediately started taking measures to prevent its own destruction. This involved running the onboard low-thrust ion engine almost continuously for two years, which altered the mine’s path from a collision path with the sun to a grazing orbit. The slingshot effect threw the mine out of that star system entirely. Many centuries later, that mine fell into the Sol system.

The rest played out as expected. By the time this mine reached the Sol system, many of the major onboard systems had failed, and the device’s computer was unable to prevent it from crashing into Earth, in what would someday be the northeastern corner of Maryland, long ago. But the mine was extremely durable, and it remained partially functional even after the crash.

The mine remained dormant for many thousands of years. During that time, its passive sensors never identified any approaching spacecraft. As the years went by, many of the different types of passive sensors failed. Finally, only the radiation detector still worked.

One evening it happened. The radiation detector spotted a strong radiation source moving directly toward the mine. The mine immediately blasted it with the virus-pulse.

The virus-pulse was so incredibly strong, and the virus itself so sophisticated, that it actually infected the non-working organic computers — or the brains — in the bodies of the dead German mystery-men. The radiation in their bodies provided enough energy for the viruses to oversee some necessary self-repair to the bodies. Once this self-repair was finished, the zombies attacked. They were powered by the radioactive energy they had absorbed from the crash site, and when that energy had been used up, they disintegrated into dust.

The creators of the virus pulse were not formally allied with the Lords of Chaos, but by its very nature, a doomsday device was a tool of Chaos. This was why Doctor Fate, even without Nabu’s guidance, was able to detect the faint lingering traces of Chaos on the scene of the wreckage. But the wreck had been caused by a machine, not a living being, so there was no one for the Spectre to take revenge on.

This damaged mine may not have been destroyed. In 1945, fortunately, there were not many computers for the virus to infect, and the world did not yet depend on much electronic equipment that was vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse. Since the day of the original attack, the mine had not detected another intense radiation source moving toward it, so it had not activated its virus pulse weapon again. In fact, the mine’s circuitry may have failed completely by now. Nobody could know for sure until it was too late.


A few days before their wedding, in December of 1945, Doris Lee reminded Ted Knight of his earlier agreement to stop being Starman after they married. Ted agreed instantly, without argument, so Doris didn’t need to tell him the story of the future Doris.

As the year 1946 rolled in, Ted’s life was fairly settled. He played bridge with Doris and handball in his league, spent time at the racetrack, and played poker several nights a week. Doris realized that he was still trying to ignore his guilt and his painful memories, rather than accepting them and then moving on.

Once a month, Ted broke his routine. He would sit all night, alone in the easy chair in his den, talking to no one, just staring at the wall. There was always an open bottle of Northern Comfort in front of him, and Doris originally thought he was getting drunk once a month. But she secretly watched him one night and was reassured; Ted poured himself a large tumbler of whiskey, straight up, when he sat down. But then he sipped on that single drink until he fell asleep hours later. When Doris checked the tumbler, it was still over half-full. Whatever he was doing, Ted wasn’t getting drunk.

The only other break in Ted’s routine came when somebody in the poker game, usually Miller Donovan, let slip something about some criminal activity in Opal City that Ted couldn’t ignore, and Ted would call in an anonymous tip to the Opal City Police Department. More often than not, Ted would read something in the paper within a couple of days that would verify that the information had been accurate. Ted was very careful never to let anyone know that the tip had reached the police through him.

Doris was happy when Ted finally began visiting his private observatory once more and resuming his astronomy research, at least at first. Never one for half-measures, Ted ended up obsessively working through all hours of the night on one astronomy project or another. It hardly mattered at all what the project was to Ted, as long as he kept himself busy.

Naturally, Doris was concerned when Ted began falling into a catatonic state, which began to occur randomly and without warning. The first time Doris had come home to find her husband sitting completely unresponsive on the couch, she didn’t know what to do. Out of sheer desperation, she ended up contacting Ted’s friends in the Justice Society. Two of them, Hawkman and Green Lantern, were unsuccessful in rousing Ted, so they ended up taking him to the team’s doctor, Charles McNider. It was midway through Dr. McNider’s examination that Ted finally broke out of the spell. Dr. McNider never found anything physically wrong with Ted, but unresolved guilt was obviously still eating away at him.

Rather than accept help immediately, Ted still maintained that he was fine, but he agreed that he needed more sleep. But Ted’s schedule barely changed. After making attempts to get a decent night’s sleep one night, he would stay up all night the next evening, then keep on working throughout the day. He began falling into those catatonic states more frequently, and Doris became very worried. Whenever it became too much, Ted would drop absolutely everything and return to the hedonistic lifestyle that was no better for him.

The whole situation came to a head in mid-1946, shortly after Doris handed control over The Sky’s the Limit Foundation to Donna Watson.

Doris had quickly realized that when most black communities and organizations found out that a rich white girl ran The Sky’s the Limit Foundation, the Foundation lost credibility with those communities and organizations. They didn’t believe that a child of privilege like Doris couldn’t possibly understand the issues that faced people of color.

Many of the people she attempted to deal with felt that she and the Foundation must have some hidden, unfriendly agenda, even if they couldn’t quite figure out what it was just yet. Doris was finding that prejudice and stereotypes worked both ways. She was very frustrated. Her background as a rich debutante had never interfered with her life before.

She hired a woman of color to be the assistant director of the Foundation. Her name was Donna Watson. She was very intelligent, well-educated (with quite a story to tell about her educational odyssey), extremely well-spoken, and determined to make a difference in the world. Unfortunately, this hiring didn’t help the Foundation’s credibility, and it definitely hurt Donna’s credibility. She was seen as Doris’ so-called “house slave.” The situation was untenable. Doris believed strongly in the Foundation’s cause, and the Foundation was extremely well-funded, due to some anonymous donors from Gotham City and New York, and yet Doris’ very presence impeded the Foundation from reaching its goals.

Eventually, Doris decided to resign and turn over control of The Sky’s the Limit Foundation to Donna. She would even resign from the advisory board. Donna’s independence had to be both complete and completely obvious for the Foundation to succeed. In mid-July, 1946, Donna was announced as the second president of The Sky’s the Limit Foundation.

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