by Martin Maenza
Hal Jordan walked home after school with a friend of his keeping him company.
“So, are you actually dating Cindy Simpson?” a young man with curly black hair asked as he walked his bike down the sidewalk.
“Dating?” Hal asked. “No, Robby, nothing like that. We’re just friends, is all.”
“But you’re taking her to the dance tomorrow, right?” Robby Haynes asked.
Hal nodded. “How’d you hear about that?”
“It’s all over school,” Robby laughed. “If it’s true, that don’t sound like ‘just friends’ to me.” He glanced down at his digital watch. “Whoa! It’s almost three-thirty. I need to roll.”
“No problem,” Hal said as Robby hopped on his bike. “Catch you later.” His friend rode off, leaving Hal to consider silently his relationship with Cindy. Were they just friends? If so, why was he getting all these weird signals from her?
Hal walked on down the street past an electronics store window, and then a moment later he doubled back. He looked into the large front window at the display of television sets. While he couldn’t hear the reporter’s words, the headline along the top corner had caught his attention.
Hostage Situation at Ehling Oil!
Hal rushed inside the store to hear the last bit of the broadcast. “–has turned serious at the Ehling corporate offices in downtown Dallas,” the polished male anchor said in a non-expressive way. “It is believed that J.D. Ehling himself is one of those being held captive.”
Hal Jordan rushed down the street and to a nearby alleyway. Let’s see if Air Wave can help end that situation! he thought to himself as he ducked behind a dumpster. He pulled off his sweater and jeans, revealing the blue and gold costume he wore underneath. Reaching into a hidden compartment in his book bag, he pulled out his mask and belt and put them on.
Dallas’ resident hero was ready to lend a hand. Using the broadcast waves in the air, he would have no trouble dropping his clothes and books someplace safe before shooting downtown to the business district.
In the executive office of Ehling Oil, the business owner stood by and watched with awe. There weren’t many things in life that rattled J.D. Ehling, but this unwelcome visitor was doing just that.
Using one hand, Earl Dukeston lifted the large, heavy oak desk and used it to barricade the office door. “Thar we go,” Dukeston said. “That’ll keep any more of your annoyin’ staff from buggin’ us while we discuss our business.” He crossed the room to where Ehling was standing and stared him down. “Now, how’s about we get down to brass tacks, pardner?”
“Go to hell!” Ehling said, standing his ground.
Dukeston pushed the oil man down hard. “Now, that ain’t any way to be hospitable,” he said, noticing a wooden box that had fallen off the desk when he moved it, with the lid slid open. “What’s this?” He kicked the lid aside, revealing fine Cuban cigars. “Well, now, lookee what we have here?” He picked up one of them and gave it a sniff. “Mmm, smells like you’ve been holdin’ out the good stuff on me. That’s not very friendly now, is it?”
Dukeston lit up the cigar and breathed in deep. “That’s smoother than a newborn’s bottom.” He turned to Ehling. “Now, perhaps you should reconsider our profit-sharin’ plan. After all, I reckon the two of us could get along like two pigs in a poke.”
Suddenly, the large window of the office shattered, and a costumed figured flew into the room. “Tarnation!” Dukeston exclaimed. He lunged for the youth in blue and gold.
Air Wave ducked instinctively, barely missing the punch. “Well, thanks so much for making this easy,” he said. “Now I know which of you is behind this.” The hero swung his fist hard at the man’s jaw, knocking the cigar aside. “Ow!” Air Wave rubbed his fist. “What’s your jaw made of?”
Dukeston smiled. “I’m stronger than an ox, son,” the man said. “Best you learn that now.” He charged the hero and knocked him backward. With his arms, Dukeston pinned Air Wave to the wall. “That and the fact that you was interruptin’ private business.” He squeezed tightly. “Chil’ren should be seen and not heard.”
“Fire!” Ehling exclaimed. Both the combatants turned to see the fallen cigar had lit the floor to ceiling-length curtains on fire.
Air Wave used the distraction to pull his legs up. He positioned his feet on the chest of Dukeston and kicked out hard. The man was caught off-guard and tumbled backward, right into the burning fabric. His clothes quickly caught fire, too. “Mister, drop and roll!” The hero called out.
Dukeston stood dazed and confused for a moment. “Well, ain’t this a bother.” The flames quickly spread over his body, burning his clothes and engulfing his face. The man tried to pat them out with his hands, but they too caught fire.
Air Wave scanned the room but couldn’t find anything to put out the flames. He was about to restate his order to the man but paused when he turned back. “Oh my gosh!” he exclaimed. “What are you?”
Dukeston’s skin on his hands and face had been burned away, revealing a metallic skeleton and face plate.
“He isn’t human!” Ehling exclaimed.
“Well,” the machine that called itself Dukeston said, “ain’t you the observant one?” And he started to advance upon them. Small clicks and whirs could be heard now that the skin covering over the metal frame was gone. “I reckon this just complicates things a might.”
“That’s just a machine disguised as Dukeston,” Ehling said.
“‘Tain’t no disguise,” the metal skull said. “I’m the real Earl Dukeston, d’ yuh hear? I may look like a machine, but deep down I’m a man. Just like I was before the accident happened.”
Air Wave and Ehling looked at one another as their attacker continued to speak.
“Thirteen years ago, I was trying t’ put Dukeston Oil together on my own, without any help,” the man-machine said. “I cut corners where I thought it was safe, an’, I guess, a few places where it wasn’t!
“An explosion on the rig happened, and I woke up sometime later in what I thought was a hospital. Turned out it was more like a body shop, in more ways ‘n one. I was shocked to find I was now in some kind of metal body, but the men in this place said they were tryin’ to help me. They told me they’d saved all that was left of me, my brain, but they were cultivatin’ another body for me. One based on the DNA code in my cells. Guess they were the first advances in what folks now call clonin’.
“They told me it’d take time t’ clone a new me, but when they did, I’d be fully human again. All I had t’ do was work with ’em, cut ’em in on my profits and my work. What else could I do? I was up a creek without much of a paddle. That was my only option.” Dukeston tapped the metal skull under his hat. “So’s I may look like a machine, but I’m not. It’s my brain up here, and that makes me as human as anyone.”
“Yeah, right,” Air Wave said, “and I’m Bruce Springsteen.” He reached for the controls on his belt. “Still, if you’re a machine, maybe I can shut you down.” The young hero converted himself into his energy form and lunged at Dukeston.
As the hero passed through the man, Dukeston let out a scream. “Aaargh!” he yelled. “Stop messin’ with me!” Dukeston grasped his metal skull as the hero’s energy form completed passing through him. “What kind of person are you?“
Air Wave made himself solid once more. “One that can merge in with the broadcast waves in the air,” the hero said. “And obviously that’s enough to disrupt some of your internal processors.” Air Wave looked down at his belt. “Maybe if I turn up the juice a bit more…”
“No!” Dukeston screamed as he knocked the hero clear across the room. Air Wave slammed into the leather desk chair. “I won’t stand for you doin’ that to me again!” He grabbed his briefcase and leaped onto the desk blocking the wooden door. “Consider this meetin’ done, Ehling, for now!” He used his free arm to punch through the heavy oak door. Dukeston ripped the opening wide and leaped through it, heading down the hall as the staff outside screamed.
Air Wave stirred from the floor, clutching his head. “Man, he’s strong!” he said, looking around the room and spotting the damaged door. “Uh-oh.”
“Don’t just stand there,” J.D. Ehling snapped. “Go after him!”
“I plan to,” Air Wave said. As he started to move for the door, he saw a figure flying outside the window, one wrapped in an emerald green glow. “Hey, you!”
A golden-skinned woman with pointy ears and short blonde hair flew into the room. She wore a white tunic blouse with a short green skirt and thigh-high green boots. “I heard on the radio you were spotted heading here,” Arisia said. “Thought you might be able to use a Green Lantern’s hand.”
Air Wave smiled. “I sure can,” he said. “Let’s go!” Using her power ring, Arisia made a battering ram to open up the rest of the barricaded door. The two heroes ran into the hallway. “Where’d that tin man go?”
The receptionist pointed to the elevator. “He took the elevator down.”
Air Wave turned to Arisia. “We need the fast express down to the street!” She nodded, scooped him up in an emerald energy lift chair, and rocketed back into Ehling’s office and then out the broken window.
As they approached the street level, a number of people were already in a panic. “He must have beat us down,” Air Wave deduced. “I wonder where he got to.”
Arisia did a quick scan. “Over there!” she shouted and pointed to a construction site across the way.
“I’ve got him!” Arisia said as she made a cage of emerald energy around the fleeing Dukeston. “There! All locked up tight.”
“Wrong, little filly!” Dukeston replied. Suddenly, his robotic body changed shape, stretching out and allowing him to slip through the bars. “Old Duke’s like a rattlesnake; you never know where I’ll get inta and outta.” He moved quickly across the ground in a zigzag motion and disappeared amongst some equipment.
“I should’ve warned you, Arisia,” Air Wave apologized. “He’s more machine than human.” Suddenly, one of the overhead cranes sprang to life, releasing its payload of bricks. The square blocks showered down upon the heroes. “Look out!”
Arisia’s ring instinctively protected them, throwing up an emerald barrier. The bricks fell down around them, creating a pile upon the energy field. By the glow of the emerald barrier, the Green Lantern smiled. “My, isn’t this cozy?”
Air Wave smiled. “It sure is, but it isn’t stopping that lunatic.” He touched the controls on his belt and dematerialized.
“Oh,” Arisia bit her lip. “Right.” She expanded the energy field upward, bursting free from the brick burial. She rose into the air and looked about for a sign of either her friend or their foe. “Where’d they get off to?”
Air Wave materialized in the control station for the crane. “Nuts — he’s gone.” He looked out upon the yard and saw a glimmer of metal move across the ground. “Ah-ha!” The young hero glanced up and saw another device that would be useful. He quickly zapped over to the other machine’s controls and activated it.
Suddenly, a large electromagnetic disk switched on and swept over the construction yard. It easily drew up stray bits of metal and such before catching its intended target in the beam. “Tarnation!” Dukeston swore as he felt it pull upon his metal body. He extended his two arms a great distance, trying to hold onto something solid and heavy. They latched onto a cement mixer.
Dukeston whirled his head around on an elongated neck. “What’cha tryin’ to do, boy?” he said. There were creaks and sparks coming from the arm sockets. “That thing’ll plumb tear me apart!“
“You’re a machine,” the hero said, kicking the magnet up in power. “What’s it matter?”
“I ain’t no machine!” Dukeston insisted. “I ain’t!” Suddenly, the strain was too much for the motors in his arms, which gave way. The metallic legs, torso, and head flew up to the magnetic surface and were pinned there. “No! No! Nooo!” The whole robotic body began to shake and convulse, before it finally exploded.
Air Wave turned off the magnet’s power and zipped over to where the pieces had fallen. Arisia joined him, lifting up the skull with a giant pair of emerald energy tweezers. “Gosh, I didn’t expect that to happen,” Air Wave said. “Dukeston, are you all right?”
Arisia looked at him oddly. “I, like, thought you said he was just a machine.”
Air Wave nodded his head. “No, he said he had a human brain inside that skull of his.”
Arisia concentrated, and her ring flashed a blast at the inanimate metal head. “I hate to be a bummer, but I’ve got news for you. There’s, like, nothing inside there but more wires and circuits.”
Air Wave looked oddly at the head. “He lied to us? But why?“