by Dan Swanson
Aleny Huong was surprised by the sight Wayland Steele’s house. It was a big, old, airy place, low and spread out, made of simple wood, brick, and stucco construction with stonework around the carved wooden front door; the rooms she could see were still without furniture, except for the kitchen and dining room.
“I guess I expected a bachelor to be living in a small, messy place,” she confessed as she broke half a dozen eggs into the sizzling bacon grease. They both liked their eggs over easy. “Everybody knows that guys are sloppy housekeepers.”
“Housekeeping’s a habit I picked up in the Navy, Lee,” he replied to the woman he knew as Lee Han. “You gotta keep the boat shipshape; too many people in too small a space! But I promised me I’d never put up with cramped quarters agin, once I got off the ol’ Balloo!”
“So,” she asked casually, “do you think that Thaer is hiring?” Thaer was a local company, the largest employer in Benington.
“Are you looking?” he asked, almost in a panic. “I thought you were headed for San Francisco.”
“I think I might like it better here,” she said, smiling mischievously as she winked at him. His heart leaped; it was a signal that was obvious even to a guy. He was relieved, too, that he wouldn’t have to bring up the subject himself; he’d been afraid he would chicken out.
“Most nobody wants to move way out here, and none’a the local kids who go ‘way for college ever come back here. But ol’ Jack Thaer, the president, he won’t live anywhere else. So they’re always looking, ‘specially for engineers.”
“I’m a mechanical engineer, actually,” she replied with a smile. “Guess I ought to drop in on them.”
“Wow! I never heard of a woman engineer before!” He knew she was smart, but he was impressed knowing what kind of obstacles she must have overcome to get an engineering degree. “When you do, tell ’em I sent you,” he urged her. “They’ve been tryin’ ta hire me fer the last two years — maybe they’ll leave me ‘lone if they can hire you instead.” He grinned at her, then continued shyly “Hope they give you a job. It’d be kinda nice to have you around fer a while.”
Wayland Steele decided to work on her Commander first, now that it seemed as if Lee Han might stick around without any delaying tactics by him. The used parts were fine, and since he’d already removed the damaged parts, it took only a couple of hours to do the repairs. He added a little pro bono work, and then headed into his machine shop. What he had in mind would use up the last of his electrium, but it should give him at least some protection from the mystery villain’s lightning gun. He pondered a few minutes about his great luck in being the only person in the world with even a limited supply of electrium.
In late 1954, the Navy crewship C.C. Balloo on which Wayland had been serving had been anchored near a small atoll in the Marshall Islands, and the captain had allowed the crew to hit the beach for some rest and relaxation. This generosity on the part of the captain led to the loss of his command, as the Marshall Islands were supposed to be off limits to Naval ships at that time due to the excessive radiation released by the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test in March, 1954. But the captain’s bad fortune had provided a great opportunity for Wayland.
Wayland had done some snorkeling and found a really unusual metal nugget in about four feet of water in the island’s lagoon. He would have guessed that it was a meteor, except that there was no impact crater. It was an irregular lump of tarnished metal somewhat smaller than a softball, with partially melted metallic crystals sticking out at all angles. It weighed much less than Wayland would expect for a chunk of metal that size, and he decided to take it with him as a souvenir.
As he dropped it into his canvas gear bag, he realized that it glowed in the dark. After the captain was relieved for taking the ship into an area potentially dangerous with radiation, he rushed his souvenir to the electronics repair lab and tested it with a Geiger counter. To his great relief, the glow was not due to detectible radioactivity. So he’d kept the nugget as a souvenir until he got out of the Navy. And once he set up his own machine shop, he’d tried to cut and polish it to make it more suitable for display on his knickknack shelf — and it had wrecked his saw. This had intrigued him, and he’d experimented further with the glowing nugget.
Eventually he’d discovered that the metal in the nugget would soften when exposed to alternating electrical current, and in its softened form he could machine and shape it, and then harden it into the new form with another exposure to alternating current. So he’d called it electrium. It had some interesting qualities, including incredible tensile strength, harder than steel, lighter than aluminum, very high melting point. And the amount he had would just about fill a one-quart milk bottle.
He’d used some of his electrium to create the powerful springs, wheels, and almost impenetrable soles for his boots, and kept the rest in reserve. Now he used that remaining electrium to reinforce an old hubcap from a Serro Scotty camping trailer, and coated it with some Teflon from his machine-shop scrap pile to build an unbreakable insulated shield. It wasn’t much larger than a discus, but combined with the insulation provided by his nomex costume, it might give him a momentary advantage against his foe’s lightning pistol if he could bring it into play at the right instant.
He went into the basement, locked the door, donned his costume, and began practicing. It was a strange sensation; he’d used shields before in martial arts training, but never as part of a fighting technique. In hand-to-hand combat, shields were generally used by a master when training a student, and had a dual use — for protection, but as importantly, to provide a target for the student to strike. His instinct with a shield was to cover an area of his body where he wanted the student to strike, rather than to cover the target an opponent was trying to hit. It wasn’t likely a bad buy would follow his directions; he had to break this habit before he actually got into a fight. But he was already used to blocking, with hands, arms and several different weapons, and found that if he thought of the shield as a weapon, the blocking moves came more naturally. And he quickly realized that once he started treating his shield as a weapon, he was instinctively working it into his offensive repertoire as well.
“So, Miss Han, do you know what we do here?” asked Bill Wilkerson, an engineering manager at Thaer. Aleny Huong had presented Human Resources with her Lee Han identification, and Wilkerson had already grilled her to verify her engineering knowledge. His questions had gone beyond the boundaries of her engineering knowledge several times. He didn’t seem put off by this.
“You make servo-valves which are used in the hydraulic systems in airplanes, rockets, and missiles,” she replied. “From the literature I read in the HR office, these servo valves appear to be electrical-to-hydraulic transducers which use negative feedback to control hydraulic flow which moves flight control surfaces in planes and rocket motor positions in missiles, among other things.”
It did say that in the literature in Human Resources, but almost nobody read it. He showed her a diagram of the servo controller used in a military jet, and asked her, “Can you think of a few significant issues you encounter when designing an assembly such as this?”
Aleny thought fast, and for Aleny that meant very fast, indeed. “I’d say, making sure the feedback signal from the valve matches the actual valve condition, damping oscillations around the desired valve position, and fluid leakage in the valve itself.”
“Three good concerns,” Wilkerson agreed. They talked servo-valves for a while, mostly him taking and her asking questions. She was smart, asked the right questions, and learned quickly, and as Wayland had pointed out, Thaer always had problems finding enough engineers. Wilkerson quickly made up his mind. “When can you start?”
“How about Monday?” she asked, and they started discussing the details.
With good news to share, Aleny and Wayland had an enjoyable dinner, and they celebrated by going dancing at Benington’s only dance club, where a live band played big band music. It was tough saying goodnight, but Aleny once again got back to Mrs. Marmion’s rooming house before the midnight curfew. And then each prepared for further nocturnal activities. They couldn’t know it yet, but they were fated to spend even more time together this night — though it wouldn’t be as pleasant as dancing had been.
Aleny’s relationship with Wayland was starting to cause her some confusion and self-doubt. Why was she even considering getting a job and working for a living, when she had a couple million in cash, and only a couple days ago she’d been dreaming of living in high style and decadence in Las Vegas? If she seriously wanted to get a job and settle down with a boyfriend, why was she planning a robbery tonight? If she stuck around here, was she going to keep up one of her criminal identities? And did she really need four different identities, anyway? She’d been able to put all these thoughts aside while she’d been out dancing, but now they crowded back into her mind, crashing through her thoughts at super-speed, and she was getting a headache from all the internal chaos.
She needed a single thing to focus on, and she had already made the plan for tonight’s visit to the office at Benington Mining and Refining. So she decided to go ahead with that plan and try to sort out her head later.
After examining the vault at the Smokey River Bank last night, she’d come to the conclusion that there was no feasible way for Heat Lighting, with just his lightning and flame pistols, to open a bank vault quietly and in a short time. It would take too long to blast through a vault wall of concrete reinforced with steal, and the battering would be so loud that anybody within a half-mile would hear it. In her explorations around town earlier, she’d found out that tomorrow was payday at Benington Mining and Refining, so she was going to go after its safe instead of the bank’s vault. She wouldn’t get as much money, but she would continue establishing Heat Lightning as a villain. And since the office and refinery were well outside of town in a rocky area now littered with piles of tailings and slag from decades of refining operations, it would be feasible for Heat Lightning to just disappear into the surrounding landscape, rather than having some kind of vehicle to escape in.
Dressed as Heat Lightning, Aleny ran up the road to the Benington Mining and Refining facility and approached the front window of the office building. She could see the night watchman, an older gentleman, sitting behind the reception desk, half-asleep. She threw a rock through the window and made sure he got a look at her, then fired a blast from her lightning pistol, which knocked him and his wheeled chair backward against the wall. She entered through the broken window, and after a quick, super-speed search, she found the safe, a big old antique floor model dating from the Wild West days, almost as tall as her shoulder, its only features the handle, hinges, and big numbered dial on the front. The hinges were her point of attack.
She sprayed one of the hinges with a stream of flame from her flame pistol, but though the napalm clung and burned fiercely, it wasn’t hot enough to do more than burn off the paint. So she began applying super-speed friction, and soon both hinges were glowing red. She stood back and blasted them with lightning bolts, and then pulled the door from the safe. She started going through the contents of the safe, separating the cash from the other papers. She was curious about several heavy canvas bags, and was surprised to find that they contained gold and silver in dust and nugget form; apparently Benington Mining and Refining also did assaying and bought gold and silver from independent prospectors. She was so engrossed in the precious metals and cash that she never noticed the broken connection in the door of the safe that set off an alarm at the Benington Police station.
Night Sentry was rolling through the downtown area of Benington at a steady thirty miles an hour, the small, powerful electric motors in his boots smoothly driving the built-in electrium wheels, when his police radio scanner picked up the report of an alarm from the mining company office. He quickly headed that way and increased power and speed. Within seconds, he was doing sixty miles per hour and still accelerating. On a test stand, these motors had easily run at simulated speeds of one hundred and twenty miles per hour for several hours, but he’d never actually ridden them above forty before, and he soon realized further development was necessary. He had to crouch way down to keep his balance, and with no springs or shock absorbers, every bump tore at his knees. As he approached the privately maintained road to the refinery, the screaming pain in his knees convinced him that he was going to have to change his mode of transportation. He touched the control on his belt, and the electrium springs expanded explosively and launched him into the air. He sighed in relief as the pain in his knees instantly lessened, and he started looking for thermal updrafts to extend his glide. There’s way more to being a super-hero than I’d ever have thought, he mused as he soared above the road.
He could see the broken window as he landed about a hundred yards from the office building and approached cautiously on foot. He was familiar with the building, as he’d done many contract machining jobs for Benington Mining and Refining over the past few years. Once he was inside and had verified that the watchman was only unconscious rather than dead, he found that the bare concrete floor provided the perfect track for his powered wheels, and he whisked swiftly and silently to the business office, where he saw the same figure he’d fought last night, removing things from the safe.