Red Rocket & Tom Atomic: 1956: Right and Magic, Chapter 15: Democracy in Action

by Dan Swanson

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Ernie Earnest had hoped to do some thinking at work, but someone had other ideas. At about 10:30 A.M., an alarm went off. All DuPaul employees had to know, instantly, the meaning of a half-dozen different alarms, and what to do about them, but this one was easy. Over the loudspeakers came a very loud male voice, repeating the same things over and over. “Evacuate the plant. Please proceed in an orderly fashion toward the nearest exit. This is not a drill. Report to your designated emergency shelter for head count. This is not a drill.” And then the warning started again. Immediately, people were heading toward the doors, in more orderly fashion than Ernie would have guessed. Of course, because it was inventory break, half the workforce had the day off, which helped a lot. Then again, it was going to really screw up the counting at the emergency shelters.

As he went through the gate, he heard a siren and saw a police riot squad truck drive onto the plant grounds. He happened to know the gate guard — they bowled together in the Saturday morning DuPaul league — so he stepped into the guard shack. “Hey, Tommy! If they are evacuating us, why are their cops going into the plant? What’s going on?”

“An armed man somehow got inside the fence and broke into one of the hazardous chem labs,” said Tommy. “He’s taken a hostage and set explosives around some of the big tanks. Demanded to talk to the mayor, now, or he blows the place up. You know what that would do!”

Ernie wasn’t sure. Popular wisdom said that a fire and explosions in the plant would flatten everything for several miles around, and the toxic gas clouds released had the potential to kill a quarter of the people in Chicago. Ernie had heard that the official estimates dwarfed the popular wisdom. In any case, he didn’t want to find out.

“So get to your shelter, buddy! And see if you can get those folks to hurry along!” Tommy pushed Ernie out the door again.

Ernie hustled to his shelter, where he reported to the shelter captain, and was checked off the list and then ignored — just as he had hoped. He slipped back out and ran to the parking lot, and only a few seconds later, Captain Democracy was running into the plant at top speed, following the sirens and flashing lights of the police. They were spreading out to surround Building 23, but they were moving slowly, sticking to cover. The Captain ran down a parallel street, then climbed a ladder onto the roof of Building 17, which was only a short alley away from Building 23. Building 17 was a couple of stories higher than Building 23, and Ernie hesitated. He had drilled for situations like this, but somehow it was different when it was for real. He took a deep breath, then jumped.

He held the shield over his head, not so much to slow him down (it didn’t), but to help steer him to the correct landing point. An soon he was sure where he was going to land, he rolled into a ball and slipped his shield under his feet, convex side up. When he hit, the shield acted like a springboard, absorbing some of the energy of the fall, and he bounced several feet into the air, then landed safely.

“What do you know? It worked!” Of course, it had worked dozens of times before in training. The main problem was that it usually made a hell of a bang, but this roof was covered in tar, which muffled the noise. With the police sirens blaring and the various alarms going off, he thought his landing might not have been noticed. Of course, now he had icky tar all around the edges of his shield. He was going to have to work on that maneuver — but some other time.

Going through the door on the roof, he crept quietly down the stairs. In front of him was the rear door to the main room in this building. There was a man in the room yelling at the police, threatening to set off the explosives or kill his hostage. The hostage was pleading for her life, and every few minutes he would tell her to shut up, or he’d kill her just like the other loudmouth.

Captain Democracy put his eye to the keyhole. This particular lab seemed to be a warren of benches, cabinets, and chemical hoods, and he couldn’t see the bad guy. He gently eased open the door, and when there was no reaction, he slipped his head into the room. He still couldn’t see the other man, and there had been no reaction to the door opening, so he eased it open a little more and slipped entirely inside. Luckily for him, the ground floors in all the buildings were concrete, so he didn’t have to worry about squeaky floorboards. The hostage was much quieter, just sobbing, and the man continued to yell at the police. He wanted money and a fast car with a full tank of gas. It wasn’t much of a plan, but then he didn’t sound too sane.

Finally, the Captain had crept as close as he could while remaining under cover. The man had a woman in a headlock, with a gun to her temple. Her face was bloody; he had obviously hit her in the face several times with the gun. Lying on the other side of the room was a chemist — well, he had been a chemist not long ago, but now he was a corpse with a big hole in his forehead. Captain Democracy had seen dead men before, and he had even seen men being shot, but always in battle. Somehow murder was different. He knew that, if he retched, somebody would die, so he made a supreme effort and swallowed his gorge.

As he sized up the situation, Captain Democracy was pretty sure that he could throw his shield fast enough and quietly enough that it would knock the gun away from her head before the gunman could fire. But there was just a shred of doubt in his mind, and that doubt kept him from acting. He realized that if he screwed up, she was dead. My God, Grant is right! I’m never going to be ready for this kind of thing. What if I’m not good enough? He had never before realized that if he really wanted to do this hero thing, other people’s lives — people he didn’t even know — would depend on him being perfect. He wasn’t even perfect in workouts, so how could he possibly hope to be good enough in battle?

Even as he hesitated, he realized that every instant he hesitated put her in more danger. But he couldn’t force himself to act. He knew exactly what he needed to do — he had done the exact same thing hundreds, maybe even thousands of times in training — but all he could think of were how many things could go wrong.

In the end, his waiting paid off: a negotiator raised a white flag and stepped out where the gunman could see him. The villain released the woman, and when she pulled away, he hit her again in the head with the barrel of his pistol, knocking her to the ground, then turned and aimed at the unarmed officer. Without thinking, Ernie leaped to his feet and threw the shield exactly as he’d practiced so many times, then dived after it. The shield hit the man’s wrist, and as his hand was violently crashed out of line, he pulled the trigger. The bullet smashed harmlessly into the side of Building 29 as the villain dropped the pistol. In one giant stride, Captain Democracy reached the gunman, who was now whimpering in pain, and flattened him with a single blow, driven with all the power he had and backed up by the speed of his leap. The man’s head snapped around, and he fell to the ground.

Captain Democracy threw open the door and dived to the floor to escape the expected hail of bullets, but there was no more shooting. “Gentlemen, I’ve captured the gunman, but we need a doctor and an ambulance, fast! And the bomb squad!”

There was nothing they could do for the chemist except cover his body. The woman was quickly taken to a nearby hospital. She had a concussion, a broken cheekbone, and cuts and bruises over most of her face, but she would recover.

The bomb squad didn’t want to take any chances, so they dumped the bomb into a fifty-five-gallon drum of oil. Apparently, the oil caused the bomb to fail, because they all lived through that event.

The police wouldn’t let Captain Democracy leave. He told his story several times, and each time, he grew more angry when his questioners told him that he ought to leave police business to the police. Finally Detective Tony Spinelli and the Homicide team showed up, and once again, Captain Democracy had to tell his story — again and again.

Finally, Spinelli came over to talk to him personally. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t ‘Flag, Shield, and Eagle’ man! Thanks for the assist, but take my advice — go home and take off that damned costume. We don’t need any more vigilantes in Chicago — and we certainly don’t need any dead heroes.”

Captain Democracy was about to deliver a stinging retort, when suddenly a half-dozen men and one girl, all armed with Tommy-guns and carrying explosives, entered the room.

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