by Dan Swanson
“Late at night, parked in a dark, lonely spot, nobody else around, full moon, just the two of us keeping each other warm…” she murmured into her companion’s ear, her husky voice barely above a whisper. “I could do with a little action about now!”
Todd Drake smiled at his wife agreeably. “Why not? It’s your turn to go for food. How about burgers?”
Bonnie Marlowe Drake looked at him with pained incredulity. “I thought tonight was pizza night — and your turn!”
He pointed at the calendar hanging on the wall of the panel truck. “Definitely your turn.” Her name was written in big block letters on the square for today. “I thought maybe we could try that new burger chain — you know, ‘five million sold’ — that place. They’ve got an all-night place just around the corner.” He pulled out his wallet and handed her a buck as he placed his order. “Two cheeseburgers, chocolate shake, fries. Keep the change — or buy yourself an extra fries.”
“Big spender!” she snorted as she reluctantly conceded. “I’m going. But just to be sure…” She picked up the pencil and wrote in his name on the next order-out night. So far, the twice-a-week order-out nights were the most interesting events during their two-week stakeout of the University of Chicago Nuclear Physics building.
Bonnie quietly slipped out of their customized surveillance vehicle, a nondescript panel truck that masqueraded as a U.C. delivery van during the day. She knew he’d watch her go with the night-vision scope, so she teased him with a little extra sway in her steps. He whistled silently in appreciation; what an assortment of assets she had: brains and beauty. Not for the first time, he marveled at how lucky he was to be her husband, and then turned back to the instrument panel and once more reviewed the case.
A month earlier, the DMT Agency had an unexpected visitor, Dr. Steven Perlman, president of the University of Chicago. Todd Drake and Tomas Thomas knew Dr. Perlman from their undergraduate days, when he had been the dean of the Atomic Physics Department (now known as the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering), but other than at U.C. Alumni fundraisers, they had only rarely encountered him since they had both finished school. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a social call. Nonetheless, they were pleased to see him.
“Mr. Thomas! Mr. Drake! How wonderful to see you again. Always nice to see successful U.C. alumni,” Perlman said, grinning. “Though I don’t quite see how degrees in nuclear science contributed to your becoming the most successful private investigators in Chicago! And, by the way, thanks for your most recent donations to the Alumni Fund!”
Todd didn’t tell him that their scientific training had been put to excellent use creating weapons, tools, and battle armor for Red Rocket, Lady Victory, and Tom Atomic; he just shrugged his shoulders. “That lab accident really took some of the shine away from the nuclear sciences for both of us, Dr. Perlman.” That was the accident that had almost killed Tomas Thomas, and, not coincidentally, had led to Tomas becoming Tom Atomic. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Whiz: Times Past, 1953: The New Adventures of Bulletboy.]
“Though, I must say, being a detective is often a lot like being a researcher. Anyway, what can DMT do for you?”
“Well… I need some investigation done, of course — but I need it to be kept quiet as well.” He gave them the whole story.
Some of the researchers at the U.C. School of Nuclear Science and Engineering suspected that someone was stealing their work and leaking it to the Russians. Several recent papers and newly publicized discoveries in Russia were eerily similar to some of the work going on at U.C., and the timing was extremely coincidental.
“We know that several people often hit on the same discovery at the same time, since most top researchers are working from the same body of knowledge. But one of our researchers made a mistake in his calculations — nothing major or dangerous and certainly nothing obscure, he just multiplied wrong. Fortunately, we always do several weeks of further research on any results before we publish them, just to catch this kind of thing. But during that time, an unknown physicist in Russia published his own research — and he made the identical math error. There are literally hundreds of mathematical expressions in that paper — it seems really unlikely that the Russian would make the identical mistake our guy made.
“Some of this apparently stolen research is classified. We need the investigation to be as quiet as possible. If the FBI, CIA, or police get involved, the publicity would do terrible damage to the university, and we would stand to lose millions in federal funding as well. We might have to close down the Nuclear Science and Engineering Department entirely!”
They had taken the case, of course — Dr. Perlman had been one of their staunchest supporters when Dr. Phillip Grenco, then president of U.C., had tried to have them thrown out of school, and both men still felt as if they owed him a favor. Not that he let them pay it back, though; Dr. Perlman insisted on paying their standard rates.
Todd had been hired by the department as a research assistant, and had taken the opportunity to bug the offices, labs, and common areas in the Nuclear Building. Bonnie had been running background checks on everyone who might have access to the research, including the administrators, staff, researchers, assistants, school police, maintenance and secretarial staff, frequent visitors, and correspondents with the researchers. Anything mailed through the university mail system had been surreptitiously monitored, and phones had been bugged. And every night they had been manning the stakeout.
So here they were, two weeks on the job, and not a nibble.
Todd was just starting to wish they’d agreed on pizza when the truck started to rattle and shake violently. He knew an earthquake when he was in one. He quickly opened a locked compartment under the control panel, but it wasn’t Todd Drake who stepped out of the truck seconds later — it was Red Rocket.
He didn’t have a lot of experience with quakes, but from what he did know, this was a big one, possibly magnitude five or perhaps even bigger. It seemed unlikely; he didn’t think there were any fault lines near Chicago, but he wasn’t the type to argue with reality. He was in the air and looking for people to help in only an instant.
There came a very loud smash from not far away, and then the sound of a car’s horn blaring, and then another smash even louder than the first one, and the whoomph of a lot of gasoline catching on fire. With the speed of a rocket, the hero arrived almost instantly at the scene, and he saw a car that had stopped in the middle of the street, and the car behind it had plowed into it. No, actually the first car had crashed into some kind of invisible barrier. There was a lot of dust in the air, plus smoke from the fire, and Rocket could see that the dust was constrained in a long, concave curve, but the air on the other side of that curve was clear — and he realized that the ground over there was still, while the ground on this side was still shaking. It was some kind of force-field, no doubt.
The folks in the cars were his first worry. He blasted the wrecks with compressed carbon dioxide, temporarily smothering the flames. He then started using his disintegrator and his magnetic powers to carefully cut up the cars and safely pull them apart. He used up the remaining CO2 in his small tank to keep the returning flames away from the victims as he helped them from the car, and his automated compressor turned on. Hopefully the tank would be refilled before he needed it again.
Cautiously approaching the invisible barrier, Red Rocket attempted to cut through it, first with his plasma-blaster and then with the more powerful short-range disintegrator, and when those failed, he launched some missiles at it. The plasma splashed, the disintegrator had no effect, and the missiles exploded harmlessly. He even tried to reach through it with a magnetic beam, but it seemed to block magnetism — and radio as well, as he couldn’t raise anyone off-campus. Bonnie must have been on the other side of the campus, or Lady Victory would surely have responded to his call.
Red Rocket took off and flew toward the center of campus, where he hoped to find the source of the force-field. Crowds of kids were streaming from the dorms, some of them in panic and some of them trying to help others. By now there were a number of alarms going off as well, adding to the chaos. Todd remembered evacuation drills from when he lived in a U.C. dorm, and he hoped all these kids had paid attention. He turned his external speaker to full volume and broadcast a warning at full volume as he flew.
“Attention! The campus has been barricaded, and there is no way off-campus. Please make your way quickly to the nearest open area. Please make your way to the athletic fields and other open areas!” He set it to rebroadcast, and continued his rescue efforts.
The campus police dispatcher came on the radio and directed him to the Bartlett Dining Commons, where one of the crenellated towers had been unable to stand up to the quake, and had broken off and crashed to the ground, with the other tower now threatening a repeat performance. He arrived just in time, and blasted the falling tower with his plasma-torch, vaporizing it before it could reach the ground. From here he could see the cause of all the current chaos.
A giant flying saucer had settled on the administration buildings in the Quadrangles, completely destroying them, and now hundreds of silvery forms were pouring from the alien vessel, chasing after the panicking humans. The aliens actually floated a couple feet off the ground, which made them relatively immune to the quaking earth, unlike the humans they chased, who often could do little more than frantically crawl away.
The flying aliens targeted the fleeing people with unusual weapons that looked like over-sized pistols, each with a hose extending from the base of the grip to a large bulb the alien was wearing like a backpack. When the pistol was fired, it drew an incredibly brilliant red line through the air, a line that seemed to pulse or writhe. When this narrow intense beam struck a human, it somehow wrapped that person, just for an instant, with a grid of seething red lines. Usually nothing further happened to the target, except perhaps being momentarily blinded, but occasionally the red grid would flash green, and then the alien would fire another beam, a larger gray one, and the green-wrapped target would simply vanish. This only increased the panic, and the aliens were able to float at will around campus, sizing up their victims with the strange flickering red light and then vaporizing those they selected, by whatever unknown criteria they were using.
Rocket was puzzled that the aliens would use weapons that left most of their enemies intact, but he pushed that puzzle to the back of his mind for now.
The aliens looked like the upper-half of a human body cut off at the waist, wrapped in chrome, and the movements of their limbs, while precise, were stiff and appeared to be mechanical. This was verified when one of the campus police shot one in the head; the head exploded, tearing open the body and exposing electronics and complex mechanisms.
Rocket tore into the alien robots like a fury. He couldn’t use his plasma-torch or his homing missiles; there were too many people around. So he flew at top speed through the crowd and used his disintegrator like a dagger, stabbing it into the heads of some aliens, slicing their necks as he flew past others. He was approaching a group of them; he aimed his magnetic beam at them and magnetized their bodies and everything in them. With their arms smashed to their bodies, the robots were unable to fend off their fellows, and shortly there was a group of robots stuck together. They were still able to fly, and they returned to their ship. Rocket managed to trap another group by enhancing gravity under them, and they were destroyed as they were smashed by the many-times-magnified pull of the earth.
Several times, Rocket managed to escape the seething red beams of enemy fire by moving quickly and unexpectedly, but the robots started to coordinate their actions, and soon caught him in a virtual cage of flickering red lines. But either his red battle-suit blocked their effects, or he didn’t meet the criteria for vaporization, and the beams stayed red.
“Damned ineffective weapons!” he noted for the second time, as he disemboweled the closest robot with his disintegrator and turned toward another. And then, without warning, his powered systems all failed at once, and hundreds of still-active robots swarmed over him.
Red Rocket was a superior hand-to-hand combatant — a collegiate boxing champion and highly skilled master of the martial arts skills originally taught to him by Minute Man — but without his powered weapons and his ability to fly, he had no chance against so many alien robots. They swarmed over him, and soon his defenses were overwhelmed, and he was battered into unconsciousness.