As Rip Hunter stared at the withered old man before him, he became more certain that the wizened man was the same individual as the youth depicted in the graduation photo taken not that long ago.
“Rip, I didn’t think I’d make it,” said the elderly Corky Baxter. “My time is short. I’m dying!”
“No, this can be changed!” said Rip. “We were all artificially aged once before, but we reversed the change. (*) I’ll make things right!”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Another Time, Another Death,” Action Comics #552 (February, 1984).]
“My age is not artificial,” said Corky. “I’m from the future. I’m really as old as I seem.”
“Great Scott!” said Rip. “I believe you, but you have to rest. Let me get help.”
“I’m dying,” said Corky. “I know it. Still, I’ll have accomplished my goal by getting to you if I can explain.”
Rip saw something in the man’s eyes that made him accept the inevitable. “Corky, what can I do?” he asked. “What do you want? I’ll do anything!”
Corky smiled thinly and looked at Rip with the same unmistakable look of hero worship that had so often covered his face during their past adventures. He held out a small hourglass. “I’ve been running for so long. They’ve been chasing me through time. I’ve had some narrow escapes. They can track the old methods, so I couldn’t use the sphere. I thought I’d had it until I found this old relic. It brought me to you. Your timeline hasn’t been conquered yet!”
“This hourglass brought you here?” asked Rip. “You speak of my timeline. You’re from some alternate one, aren’t you? Your timeline diverged from this one at some point, or you would not be able to contact me during this era.”
“Take this,” said Corky, pressing a small disk into Rip’s hand. “It will explain. You’ll be able to stop them!” He sank back down, and before he closed his eyes, he muttered, “Stop him, Rip.”
Rip Hunter clutched the disk even as he gently confirmed that his friend was dead. This is almost too much to comprehend, and I’ve battled dinosaurs in Victorian England! he thought. The unique power of this hourglass explains how he could come here to an era in which his younger self is alive and well. If he’d tried that with more conventional methods of time travel, he would have become a mere phantom unable to contact those in this era.
Even when faced with such a shocking event, Rip was ever the man of science, and he took some comfort in knowing that the Corky he knew was still a healthy young man. His aged and now deceased counterpart was nothing more than a double from a possible future or alternate timeline.
He examined the hourglass and noticed a minute dial. Fascinating! he thought. He did come from a possible future! I’ll go there and try to settle things right after I check the disk and make some necessary calls.
Picking up a phone receiver from its wall receptacle, he dialed a number. When a voice answered on the other end, Rip said, “Jeff, I need your help.”
Moments later, he concluded that call and made a second one. “Corky, son, I’m afraid something rather terrible has happened. I can explain better in person. Can you come over? I know you’re busy with… the event, but I think you need to be here.”
He hung up the phone and looked sadly down at the body. There was really nothing more he could say.
Later, Rip Hunter sat across from three concerned figures, all of whom were wearing matching green and red uniforms like Rip’s. They sat within the metallic sphere that had dominated the laboratory. The remarkable device was known as the Time Sphere, and the heroic foursome had used it countless times to travel through time itself. At that moment, they were traveling through time with one specific destination in mind.
Dr. Jeff Smith was a big man with a muscular body and a keen mind. He had created the Time Sphere with Ripley Hunter when both men were in graduate school back in the 1950s. Thanks to moving around in time so often, he and the others weren’t much older now than he was then. Turning to them, he said, “I’ve released the body into the time stream. I suppose that act and the prayers we said are about all we can do for him.”
Corky Baxter was a younger man with an inquisitive manner. “I know I’d like to be buried in the time stream, so I guess my older self shares or shared that sentiment.”
“I’m impressed by how well you’ve accepted my story and how calmly you faced the body,” said Rip. “I know I’ve had to mentally distance myself from him in order to function rationally. I keep thinking how I’d feel if something happened to you instead of your temporal counterpart.”
A beautiful woman with long black hair and pale but delicate features clasped Corky’s hand and said, “Temporal counterpart is a nice clinical term, but I can’t help but cry when I think about the whole terrible mess. Corky is my brother! I feel terrible no matter what era that Corky comes from or how much I try to convince myself that the poor thing isn’t the Corky we know and love!”
“Bonnie, I wanted to spare you this kind of shock,” said Rip. “That’s why I didn’t call you. Plus, I assumed you’d be too busy with your own plans.”
“Rip Hunter!” scolded Bonnie Baxter. “How could you say such a thing? My wedding is important to me, but this is a real crisis. Anything that involves Corky, or Jeff, or you means the world to me. I’ve got a few days until the ceremony. Surely, we can settle this by then. Rodney understands that.”
“Sis was with me when you called,” explained Corky. “I tried to bluff her, but she could read my reaction like an open book. She insisted on suiting up and joining us.”
Jeff glanced back and forth between his friends and cleared his throat. He knew exactly how much of a strain Bonnie’s romance and impending wedding had placed on the taciturn Rip. I’ve known Rip since college, and I know how special Bonnie is to him, he thought. If only he’d just tell her instead of hiding his feelings behind a cold, logical façade. “Rip, we’ll be in the year that hourglass was set to — 2085 — in a matter of seconds, but we could have gotten there in the Time Sphere without all the adjustments you had us make. What was the point of rigging things up so differently?”
He knows that as well as I do, thought Rip. Good old Jeff’s trying to change the topic and distract Bonnie and Corky from the more gruesome aspects of the case. I should have been more tactful myself! “As you know, our Time Sphere allows us to travel back and forth in time in one specific timeline, but if we attempt to reach an era within our own lifetime, in which we exist as older or younger selves, we become wraiths,” explained Rip. “However, it is clear from the nature of my visitor that he comes from what we could call a possible or alternative or even parallel timeline that diverged from ours at some point. This divergence may have occurred in our past or may not occur until some point in what we consider to be our future. In any event, in order to access the specific alternate timeline in question, I had to link the Time Sphere’s chronocomputer to certain mechanisms based on those within the hourglass he used to come here.”
“I did some digging,” said Corky, “and I think that hourglass is like one used by a super-villain called Time Commander.”
Rip nodded and said, “Oddly enough, it comes from a year in the future according to a chronal scan I perfected. I suppose this Time Commander will create this version in our future. How it fell into Corky’s hands in the future is a mystery.”
“Remember, the future in which an older Corky found it may never occur,” added Jeff. “I mean it is not our timeline but a possible divergent one.”
“When I was completing my doctorate in history,” said Bonnie, “some of us relaxed by speculating on various alternate histories. You know, like what if the South had won the American Civil War, or what if Superman had never arrived on Earth. I suppose I never thought we could truly visit such possible or impossible timelines, even though I was well versed in ordinary time travel.”
Corky nodded and said, “Sure. They call it the Paltrow Principle. It was named for the scientist who first studied the idea of divergent timelines. Say you miss your train and it wrecks, then you live to be an old woman and maybe create a cure for some disease, or you have kids who do something great. That’s one timeline. However, if you caught that train and died in the wreck, then that timeline would be devoid of the cure you might have later discovered or the kids you might have had if you had missed the train and lived.”
“Clearly, some threat is out there trying to dominate all timelines in some manner,” said Rip. “The other Corky said our timeline had not been taken over yet. That implies other timelines have fallen to some sinister mastermind.”
Jeff nodded and said, “The disk he gave you showed his own evidence. I guess it was the discovery of that kind of blatant tampering with time that tipped him off.”
“Exactly,” said Rip. “The future Corky found a series of chronal energy disruptions and certain displacements of people and matter that suggested the pattern we’re going to investigate. Someone is gathering various items or people from time for something far more sinister than a scavenger hunt.”
“Hold on tight, people!” said Jeff at the controls. “We’ve reached the point in time from which the future Corky originated. According to the reading, we’re in 2085 in a place called Mega-Town.”
Rip Hunter frowned as the view-screen showed a futuristic city that combined the technologically advanced with a retro design that brought the 1950s to mind. “I suppose we’d better operate with caution,” he warned. “Things look peaceful enough. Commerce, free travel, education — all these elements of free society appear to be in place, from what I can see. Stores, schools, and vehicles are around us.” He turned to the others and said, “I set the sphere to take us to the year older Corky came from and to bring us there right after his point of departure. Now we can locate the precise spot from which he came and home in on it.”
The blond scientist deftly adjusted his console and steered the sphere through the air until a light gleamed on his control panel, and he had the machine hover overhead above a seedy little shop in a neighborhood that looked far less secure and orderly than the one they had materialized within.
“A pawn shop?” said Bonnie. “Surely even in this era, that sign on the wall indicates the store is a pawn shop! After all, the three balls sign dates back to the powerful merchant family known as the Medicis and their involvement with the House of Lombard.”
Jeff agreed and added, “So, what’s the plan?”
“That light that flashed on the console means the older Corky just departed from inside that shop,” said Rip. “I’m going down to see what the exact nature of his circumstances were seconds later. You stay here in case I need to make a rapid departure.”
As their leader dropped down a rope ladder, Bonnie turned to the others and said, “I don’t suppose getting here prior to that Corky’s departure could have enabled us to save him.”
“No,” said Jeff. “If we prevented his original departure from this moment, then we would in turn never have been alerted to the problem to begin with. It’s a catch-22 of time travel.”
Meanwhile, Rip Hunter reached the street and hurried toward the shop. Mooney’s. That name means nothing to me, he thought as he entered the door and raced inside. He barely had time to adjust to the darkened shop with its collection of oddities when a rugged man in a purple jacket and blue pants dived forward to tackle him.
“Hold on there, pops!” he said. “I don’t like to get rough with my elders, but no light finger work is going on while Star Hawkins is around! I got an image to live up or down to.” Rip wrestled free of the other man’s grasp and belted him in the jaw.
As Hawkins crashed into a display case, the startled owner of the shop hurried forward and said, “Get him, Mr. Hawkins! I’ll give you store credit!”
Hawkins rubbed his chin and moved warily forward. “Hold it, Samuels,” he said. “That’s not our senior citizen zip. I don’t know how he pulled the hocus pocus, but he’s not the old guy who busted your case.”
Rip Hunter glanced down to a shattered display case and raised his hands in a placating manner. “I’m looking for the older man you’re talking about. He was here seconds ago, and I wanted to know what he was doing.”
“He came in and smashed that case and glommed on an hourglass that somebody had pawned,” explained Star Hawkins. “I made a grab for him and connected with you instead!”
Apparently, Corky managed to track down the hourglass and knew it could get him back to my era and my timeline, Rip thought. He did say he couldn’t use the Time Sphere since they could track it. That may mean our arrival has alerted his foes to our location, too.
“I’ve had that old relic for years,” said Samuels. “I can’t imagine why he’d steal it. He was very old. Maybe it belonged to him originally. Will you make good on the damage he did?”
Rip began, “That might be–!”
Before he could finish speaking, five men in dark coats raced into the store and pulled out exotic-looking guns. “You’re not the one we were expecting, but you’ll do!” shouted the dark-haired leader of the intruders. “Don’t move, and we don’t just mean physically. We mean don’t try a time jump!”
Samuels said, “I’m trying to run an honest business here!”
The dark-haired man said, “Don’t worry. We’ll just take him and leave you in peace.”
Rip realized that he couldn’t do anything while so many guns were trained on him, but he did speak up. “The man you’ve been hunting is dead, but I know what you’re trying to do, and I’m going to stop you!” he said.
As the men in black coats exchanged glances that varied between concern and contempt, a white spray shot out from one side and blinded them. Rip dived aside to knock Samuels to safety as gunfire erupted in the store.
Star Hawkins had already leaped into the foursome and was pounding away at them with stunning force. A robotic being with a yellow hue and spherical head on a curvy body moved forward off a shelf and used her metallic fists to great effect. “Great use of your cooling foam, doll!” said Star as his loyal robotic secretary Ilda turned the tide of the battle.
Ilda replied in a strange voice that combined the clarity of a machine with the nasal whine of a native of Queens, New York, “Sure, now you’re all smiles, but minutes ago you wanted to pawn me! You do wonders for a girl’s self-awareness spool, I’m sure!”
Rip pushed himself back over the counter and kicked one of the intruders backward even as Jeff Smith crashed into the store and slammed another gunman to the ground.
The dark-haired man called out, “Retreat. We can find him again when necessary.” At that moment, all four of the intruders flickered out of sight.
“Amazing! Clearly, they employed some type of chronal displacement to sidestep out of sync with this precise moment,” mused Rip.
“Yeah, what you said,” muttered Star Hawkins. “My knuckles passed right through the zip I was mixing it up with!”
Rip turned to Jeff and said, “He’s OK. Star Hawkins is his name. He and his robotic lady-friend helped me.”
Star Hawkins shrugged and said, “I don’t like to see guys get ganged up on. I’m no hero. Just a P.I. trying to get by. That’s Ilda.”
“Charmed, I’m sure!” said the robot.
Rip said, “I take it you saw our foes make their entrance.”
Jeff nodded and said, “Correct. Let me tell Bonnie we’re OK.” He activated a small communicator as Rip talked hurriedly to Star Hawkins in a hushed tone.
Turning back to Jeff, Rip said, “Star says he can help us find them.”
Jeff shrugged. “Sounded like they plan on finding us, anyway.”
“Yeah, but why not make your next little get-together at a place and time of your own choosin’?” said Star. “Those goons have been robbing various spots around town. One of the victims is offering a reward for their capture, and Ma Hawkins’ boy needs to eat.”
Rip nodded and said, “Come with us. Our ride is just outside.”
As Star and Ilda followed Rip and Jeff out of the shop, the private investigator caught sight of the hovering Time Sphere. “You boys travel in style,” he said with a grin.