Even though Ivy University was a justly celebrated learning institute, on a warm, bright Sunday afternoon many students were actually outside soaking up the unusually warm autumn sunshine. However, one young man with brown hair and a studious manner was sitting inside a private laboratory at a desk. He leaned forward over a slightly worn book and made the occasional note on a legal pad next to a cup of Dr. Pepper. Adam Cray shook his head as he put the pad down for a moment.
Jean Loring sure has had her share of bad luck over the years! he thought. She’s been abducted, possessed, threatened, and driven crazy by various aliens or costumed crooks. The poor woman must look at the courtroom as a virtual sanctuary compared to some of the wild places she’s been taken. I’m glad Ray is getting close to her again. They both deserve some happiness.
Adam referred to Ray Palmer, the college’s noted physicist and the retired super-hero once known as the Atom. The world-famous mighty mite had given up the role of costumed champion and was quite happy to spend his time as a teacher, advisor, and scientist. It was in the role of mentor that Ray had taken Adam under his wing and offered him the mantle of the newest version of the Atom. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Atom: The Ivy Town Project.]
Something had really clicked between the teacher and the studious researcher. Ray had become a good friend and a teacher to the younger man and had been extremely generous with his time, equipment, and advice. Perhaps the professor in Ray had responded to Adam’s sincere desire to learn everything he could about the role of hero. Now, Adam had moved to Ivy Town and was attending the college as a student.
He was also working with Ray’s pals in the Justice League, and he enjoyed learning from and being around heroic legends like Batman, Superman, and Hawkman. He had formed good friendships with the young Steel and the JLA associate Starman as well.
Now, Adam studied Ray’s personal case journal, taking notes on the former hero’s amazing career. “Swan-Maiden must have been a real trip!” he said slowly. “Imagine a woman who could turn into a swan! Then again, perhaps she was a swan that could turn into a woman.” (*) He chuckled to himself.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Mysterious Swan-Maiden,” The Atom #10 (December, 1963-January, 1964).]
“After attending Sunday service and having lunch with Ray and Jean, this is the perfect place to relax and learn more about the cases Ray had when he was the Atom,” Adam said to himself. “I never know when I might run into one of his old foes, and this kind of studying will give me an edge.”
He appreciated the use of Ray’s private office and smiled as he thought of how eager Ray and his assistant Ira Quimby had been hours earlier when they had departed on a research trip. “It is weird to think how the former crook I.Q. has become such a helpful citizen now!” he said. “The old case logs for the JLA contain plenty of tales about his battles with Hawkman, Batman, and even Superboy.”
A soft ringing sound echoed throughout the office, and he turned to grab the telephone’s receiver. “Dr. Palmer’s office,” he said.
Before he could continue with his greeting, the agitated voice on the other end interrupted him. “Ray, this is Thayer! I need your help! Come quickly! No!” cried the man on the other end of the line.
“Sir? Can you hear me? Hello?” said Adam in concern.
Adam heard a sharp click before the line went dead. He hung up the phone and rushed to Ray’s address book. He swiftly thumbed to the T section and located the entry for Ed Thayer — Pleasant Valley. There were two phone numbers written beneath the name. “The world knows Ray was the Atom, so I’m not putting his secret in jeopardy by going in costume to Thayer’s place. He sounded like a man in peril of losing his very life!“
He dialed the number, placed the phone receiver on the desk, and activated the size and weight controls, which were unseen on his palms. The remarkable inventions allowed the young man to shrink down to microscopic size and literally ride through the phone to the other end.
The Atom heard an odd buzzing sound before the journey began, and he emerged within a spacious-if-cluttered lab in a large house in the rural area called Pleasant Valley. He felt an odd sensation as he emerged from the phone and found himself standing on a machine. “I must have dialed a fax machine number by error,” he said as he glanced around the office. “That was rather different from my usual experience when I go anywhere by phone.”
He saw disarray and clutter and signs of a struggle. “Thayer!” he yelled as he lowered his weight and jumped across the room.
Spotting a crumpled figure on the floor, he swiftly landed and examined the body. She was a young and very attractive blonde girl. He grew to normal size, and in doing so the costume, fatigues, and mask he wore as the Atom faded into an unseen and intangible state. He cradled the girl in his arms and gently tried to wake her up. She stirred and groaned as he noticed a purple bruise on her head.
“Who are you? They took Uncle Ed!” she murmured.
“Easy, Miss,” said Adam. “A blunt object has struck you. I think you’ll be fine. Let me help you to a chair. We’re alone here, as far as I can tell. I’ll search the house, if you’ll be OK.”
She nodded and placed one hand against her brow. “Thugs took Uncle Ed!” she repeated in a breathy tone. “They just broke in and knocked the phone out of his hand. I tried to help him.”
“Stay here!” said Adam, rushing out of the room to resume his tiny costumed form. The Atom searched the entire house and peered out of the windows at the yard and surrounding fields, but he could see no sign of anyone else.
The Atom noticed a few photos on a fireplace, and several showed the blonde woman he had met moments before. She was clearly a favorite of her missing uncle, who appeared to be a man around the same age as Ray Palmer. One photo showed the pair as young men at Ivy University.
Thayer must be a college pal of Ray’s. He’s clearly something of a scientist, too, he thought as he returned to the girl above.
As the Atom, he greeted her calmly and tried to reassure her. “Miss Thayer, I’m the Atom. Your Uncle Ed called my predecessor during the break-in. I know this must all be troubling and alarming for you, but try to tell me just what happened.”
The blonde girl nodded and gently swept her long bangs out of her eyes. “My name is Juliet Thayer. I am Ed Thayer’s niece. He and I were enjoying a peaceful afternoon when we heard a noise out back. We looked out and saw a group of men rushing at the house. They broke in before we could lock the door. We’ve always left it open here. Things are normally so tranquil out here in the country.”
“Miss Thayer, I don’t think the days of unlocked doors will ever return,” said the Atom. “Do you know who the men were or why they took your uncle?”
“No,” she said. “I can describe them, but they all came so quickly that I admit my best impression of them is not exactly very clear. There was a burly man with a double chin; he had hard, coarse features. The others were thinner. They were younger men, and one man was a blond. The one that hit me had no hair. I can’t really remember anything more. If this was one of the mysteries I grew up reading, one of them would have had a scar or a tattoo of a ship’s anchor or something, but they didn’t.”
“You must have been a Hardy Boys fan,” said the Atom. “I was, too. Well, if these men were unknown to you, I doubt their beef with Ed was personal. They must have taken him for ransom or to make use of his skills. What type of lab man is he?”
“I can’t talk about his work,” said Juliet. “Most of it is way over my head.” She paused. “It seems really odd to be talking to a real super-hero! I mean, I always heard tales about Ray Palmer from Uncle Ed, but until I read the book, I never knew he was the Atom. I did meet the Atom before — the original one, I mean — and Ray, too, but back then I never guessed they were the same person!”
“Stay calm,” said the Atom. “We’re going to find Ed. You can rely on me.”
Juliet nodded as tears filled her blue eyes, and she gazed at the Atom with an intense and earnest approval. Before he could speak again, she screamed and jumped away in sudden alarm.
The Atom whirled around to see the cause of her fear and gasped as he looked directly at his exact double. “Great Scott!” he said, having picked up the expression from the elder Atom. Directly across from him stood another six-inch-tall figure in a black mask, costume, and green and brown fatigues.
“How can this be?” he said. “You’re some kind of double!“
The other Atom replied in Adam’s own voice, “No, I’m the real Atom. You’re just a fake. You’re a soon to be dead fake!” He jumped forward and grappled with Adam with surprising force and impact.
He is heavier than a six-inch man would be! thought the Atom. He has my exact equipment, too.
They struggled across the room, and Adam grunted in pain as his twin battered him with a speed and fierceness that left him staggering. He dived forward and tried to increase his own weight, but he received a stunning blow and fell to the ground.
When he recovered sometime later, the Atom found himself trapped against a flat tray on a small machine. He heard a roaring sound that came from the device and seemed like a much louder noise to his tiny ears. Can’t move. Can’t even grow! he thought, then looked up to see his own face staring down at him from above.
“You’re awake,” said his double. “Good. I want you to be alert when you meet death. I took away your belt. You are trapped at that size. Don’t worry, though. You won’t be around much longer. When the machine tray lowers you inside, you’ll choke to death or be crushed. Hey, at least your corpse will be preserved forever. This is a top-grade laminator!” He began to laugh.
Adam Cray struggled, but he was bound too tightly. He felt the tray sliding down toward the gaping maw of the laminator. I wonder — could my evil double have been created when I came through the fax machine instead of through a normal phone line? he mused. That’s weird science, and makes no logical sense, but it won’t matter if I can’t get loose. I’ll die under that laminating substance, no matter what the source of my evil twin is!
The Atom struggled to reach the large pockets of his fatigues, frowning as he was carried ever closer to the mouth of the machine. He gripped a small device within one pocket and managed to get it out and point it at the laminator.
A thin red beam sliced across the tray, and he fell to freedom just before he would have been carried into the machine. He cut his way free and put the miniature laser-cutter back in his pocket. Thank goodness Ray gave me a few miniature tools to use, he thought. He knew I lacked his experience and might require this kind of security.
The Atom noticed that his double had also vanished. I hope he didn’t hurt Juliet! he thought as he searched the lab and the house.
He yelped as a high heel slammed into the ground inches to his side. He saw Juliet standing above him with her other shoe raised in one hand. “Get back, whatever you are!” she cried. “Don’t come any closer!”