The Atom: Size Matters, Chapter 1: The Shrinking Syndrome

by Libbylawrence

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Just outside of Ivy Town, an RV was parked near an old elm tree. Within the seemingly bucolic setting, a young woman typed rapidly on a battered typewriter. She had long blonde hair and rather large but stylish glasses. She wore a very short purple dress with hosiery and heels of the same color. Looking down at the paper before her, she read to herself. “The Heroic Ideal — An Examination of the Nature of Heroism in Contemporary Society, by Professor Andrea Wye. The Hero’s courage inspires the devotion and loyalty of many allies. His very nature as a champion brings out unseen levels of sacrifice and courage in those around him.”

She crossed her legs and tapped idly on the table. “Aquaman proved my first chapter’s theorem. (*) Now, if my plans go as expected, the Atom will test the validity of chapter two’s conclusion. Even a hero will become a target when the adoration of his public turns to fear. His unique status as a hero will make him the object of their hatred and fear, which will be increased by the very sense that he is different from normal men.”

[(*) Editor’s note: See Aquaman: The Heroic Ideal.]

Professor Wye smiled with an almost girlish delight as she turned to resume her work. The brilliant scholar’s academic plans would not be pleasant for the Atom or for Ray Palmer.

***

A loud shriek echoed through the otherwise peaceful home shared by Ray Palmer, his wife Jean Loring, and the latest addition to their family, a pretty brunette teenager named Melanie Larvan.

Ray jumped up from the sofa where he had been dozing and hurried upstairs to investigate. Since a book by author Norman Brawler had revealed the scientist’s former secret identity of the Atom to the world, he had a real concern that old enemies like Chronos or the Floronic Man might try to strike at Jean or other loved ones in order to gain revenge on the former Atom. That did not seem to be the case this time.

During his heroic career as the original Atom, he had heard Jean’s scream many times, and he knew from the pitch of the cry that she was not frightened but angry. The handsome, brown-haired theoretical physicist quickly ran through a mental check to see if he had done something wrong. “I didn’t forget our anniversary. I remembered to bring home bread and milk last night. I didn’t even go to sleep with my feet on the coffee table. Knowing Jean, that can only mean one thing. Melanie’s in hot water again!”

He referred to the brilliant young girl he had taken in after a series of unfortunate encounters with the orphaned youth. Her father had been Bert Larvan, the criminal known as the Bug-Eyed Bandit. His death during the Crisis had ended the long enmity he’d had for Ray’s heroic alter ego, the Atom.

Melanie had fled from a series of foster homes until her journey brought her to the Palmer home and a hot-tempered battle with Jean. She had robbed the lawyer and left in confused-yet-poignant grief when she had failed to meet Ray himself. (*) A year later, she had been rescued from manipulative criminals who had sought to use her inventive skills for their own purposes. That rescue had come from Adam Cray, the new Atom, and it had led to a more heroic rescue of a different kind by Ray Palmer himself. (*)

[(*) Editor’s note: See Showcase: The Force of July: The Crime Champions and DC Comics Presents: Superman and the Atom: Bugged.]

Recognizing Melanie’s keen mind and her need for guidance, Ray managed to gain custody of the girl with help from some of his law enforcement connections. Jean had promised to try to put her past embarrassment at the hands of Melanie’s robotic insects behind her since, in truth, Jean had a deep concern for the safety and well-being of youngsters. Still, that uneasy truce had promised to shatter at any moment after Melanie moved into their home.

Jean was a beautiful, dark-haired woman with a sense of style and drama that played wonderfully well in the courtroom. However, even Ray had to pause when he entered their room and saw his wife standing before a mirror in a pale green dress with several large holes in the fabric. “Ray, will you look at this?” she cried. “It’s ruined! This dress was a Previn original! Now it looks more like Swiss cheese!

Ray tried to conceal a smile as he replied, “Jean, you know the kids are wearing things like that these days. Maybe you could set a new style for sleepy Ivy Town.”

Jean stomped her foot and placed both hands on her hips. “Very droll, Dr. Palmer,” she said. “Very droll, indeed. Ray, what are you going to do about this? Melanie’s to blame.”

At that moment, the girl silently entered the room and sheepishly glanced at the older couple. “I’m sorry! It was an accident!” she said. “I was testing a robotic moth, and it turned out to be more powerful than I’d imagined it would be! It ate through the dress before I could catch it!”

Ray put his arms around both women and said, “Girls, it was an accident. What say we settle it like this? Melanie will promise to confine all experiments to the lab, and I’ll see if I can’t get you a new dress. Anton Previn was a pal of Barry’s. (*) I met him once. He might be happy to help out.”

[(*) Editor’s note: See “Beware the Atomic Grenade,” The Flash #122 (August, 1961).]

Jean sputtered for a moment and then threw up her hands. “OK, OK! Maybe I overreacted,” she said. “I’m sorry I blew up, Melanie.”

Melanie smiled and said, “That’s OK. I know I’ve been pretty rough on your wardrobe since we first met.”

“Why don’t we all go catch a movie?” suggested Ray. “It’s still early.”

Melanie smiled and said, “That would be great! Could we see a slasher film? I love those!”

Jean rolled her eyes in mock dismay and poked a finger through one of the gaping holes in her dress. “Did you have to say the word slasher?” she said.

They laughed, and then Ray turned to answer the telephone. “Palmer residence,” he said. “Oh, Chief Baxter, how are you?” His expression became grimmer as he listened to his old friend’s words. “Great Scott! I can see why you’d be concerned. I’ll be right there.”

He put down the phone and said, “We’ll have to postpone the movie. There’s a real-life horror loose! That was Police Chief Baxter. He says people have been disappearing all over town!”

Jean took his arm and said, “Why don’t you just call Adam? He is the Atom now, you know. He can locate the missing people.”

Ray kissed her gently and said, “I know, but the nature of their disappearances makes this equally my concern. You see, they did not literally vanish. They shrank out of sight!”

***

Meanwhile, in nearby Pleasant Valley, a young man was reading intently in a comfortable room in an old farmhouse. He was concentrating so completely that he did not hear the stealthy approach of a pretty blonde girl. She covered his eyes with her hands and leaned closer as he dropped the book. “Now, Adam, what if I had been one of those super-villains you’re always battling?” she said, laughing. “I might have turned you into a ferret with my chango-gun or something!”

Adam Cray smiled and moved her hands as he looked up at Juliet Thayer. “Juliet, I am far more alert when I’m in costume and on a case as the Atom. I guess I didn’t expect a sudden sneak attack by Flirt Girl!

Juliet laughed and said, “Flirt Girl? Is that the best you can do?”

“Hey, you’re the one who came up with a chango-gun,” said Adam. “Give me a break!” He enjoyed being with the lovely woman, and rooming with Juliet and her Uncle Ed was a real treat for the solitary student. He knew that he was beginning to develop real feelings for her. He also enjoyed being able to share his costumed role with the Thayers. They brought a sense of normalcy to his otherwise-colorful life that was different from Ray Palmer’s more stoic manner.

Adam reached over to touch her arm, but he frowned when his hand passed over her head as she suddenly shrank down to the size of a doll. He gasped and activated his own size-and-weight-adjusting device to match her rate of reduction. In seconds, his dark-colored, cowled Atom costume had materialized around him as he reduced his own size through the wonderful invention given to him by his mentor Ray Palmer. She doesn’t know what’s happened, he thought. Her perceptions have not adjusted yet! She then cried out as she realized what had happened, and she fell into his arms.

“Juliet, don’t panic! I know this seems scary, but it’s not that bad! I’ll fix it!” he said hurriedly.

“Did you do this to me?” she asked.

He shook his head and said, “No, honey. I didn’t! Ray and I will get to the bottom of it. You’ve stopped shrinking. You’ll be OK!”

Juliet held him tightly, and Adam’s mind raced as he considered the possibilities. I’m putting on a brave front, but the fact is I don’t have a clue as to what caused this! he thought. I am half-afraid to let her go, because she might start shrinking again and vanish right into some unknown microverse.

He stepped back and returned to his normal size. Carefully picking up the doll-sized girl, he placed her on the desk. “Juliet, I want you to stay exactly where you are now,” he said as calmly as he could. “Don’t move from that spot. You’ll be safe. I’m going to call Ray.”

She nodded and wrapped her arms around her chest as she fought the fear that threatened to overwhelm her.

***

Within the largest estate in Ivy Town, Cornelia Vanderkellen sat at the head of an elegantly decorated table and sighed. The blonde heiress was bored to tears. She hated sitting through her daddy’s dull dinner parties when she could be hitting the nightclubs in the cities near Ivy Town. She stared at the roof and began to count the tiles as conversation droned on around her. She was too bored to even care about hearing the guests tell her how pretty she looked. She had heard it all before, anyway, and she knew it for a fact.

She gave a small squeal as the room filled with light, and all of the guests began to shrink. As she stood up, she realized that she was also losing height with every second.

The wealthy guests cried out in alarm in increasingly shrill, small voices until a shadow fell across the room, and a giant appeared to loom above them. In truth, the giant invader was merely a normal-sized man, but this was not evident to the tiny party guests.

He wore a blue suit and had shaggy black hair with bangs in the front and long sideburns around his jawline. He grinned as his slightly yellowed teeth appeared beneath a scruffy mustache. He held up a large shoe box in which he had punched dozens of tiny holes. “We’ll be moving the party to my place!” he said as he started to scoop them up and drop them in the box.

Even Cornelia Vanderkellen lost her air of boredom as she felt his huge, clammy hand close around her and drop her into the old box.

***

At Ivy Town Police Headquarters, Ray Palmer shook his head in concern as he faced the Atom and another thinner man who watched them with studied interest. After the police chief was called away, they were left alone in the room to discuss what the media was calling the shrinking syndrome.

“Ira’s been going over all the data we gathered from Chief Baxter, and it doesn’t look good at all,” began Ray. “Dozens of people within Ivy Town limits have been turned into tiny, doll-sized beings. Most of them didn’t really disappear, although that’s how the chief characterized the event. They were reduced to a few inches tall.”

Ira Quimby, Palmer’s loyal lab partner, offered his own opinion in a slightly hesitant manner, as if he still possessed a definite desire to please his boss. “Perhaps I can help. I do have the benefit of being able to view such events with a… shall we say… criminal mind?” he said with a brief smile.

“You’ve proven yourself to us countless times since you quit being I.Q., the super-crook,” said Adam Cray, the Atom. “Hey, even Superman owes you for a favor or two, so don’t worry about giving us the wrong impression. (*) We’d appreciate your opinions.”

[(*) Editor’s note: See DC Comics Presents: Superman and Ray Palmer: Hardly a Small Problem.]

“Thank you, son,” said Ira. “It occurred to me that if the victims are considered as a whole, then we immediately see a pattern.”

“I can’t detect a pattern,” said the Atom. “Some victims were male, while some were female. Some of them were young, and some are elderly. None of them necessarily shared a common occupation or hobby.”

Ira smiled thinly and said, “That’s exactly the pattern I was referring to before. Namely, there is no pattern! The victims were targeted entirely at random.”

“I can offer one fact myself,” said Ray. “The shrunken people can be accounted for, and as far as we know, in each case the shrinking happened in public or around witnesses. Chief Baxter has the poor people in his office. Ira and I did a few tests upon them, and none of them have been hurt. They’ve lost height, but in no other way have they been harmed.”

“Juliet is with her Uncle Ed,” said the Atom. “He conducted some tests, too, but all he came up with was that white dwarf matter was not involved in the process.”

Ray nodded grimly. “I concur. If our method of shrinking had been used, I could have restored them all by now. As it is, I wonder if finding the means by which they were altered will be enough to let us find the person behind the whole mystery. Atom, you actually witnessed Juliet’s shrinking. Did you see anything before the process started that might have triggered it?”

“I did seem to see a light out of the corner of my eye before Juliet started to shrink,” said the Atom. “I’d say the means of shrinking people came from a light-ray of some kind.”

“A beam almost makes it sound like a projector device was used,” suggested Ira. “Perhaps by comparing the locations in which the incidents occurred, we could get a rough estimate of the range of said weapon.”

“That makes sense, but I’d like to know the motive more than the means,” said the Atom. “Why shrink normal, randomly chosen people and then leave them alone as miniatures?”

At that moment, Chief Gil Baxter reentered the room and said, “Dr. Palmer, we’ve received a ransom note! Actually, Ferrer Vanderkellen received it and brought it to me moments ago. This could be the break we’ve been looking for!”

“Vanderkellen?” said the Atom. “Isn’t he the richest man in town? What does a kidnapping have to do with the shrinking mystery?”

Chief Baxter scowled and said, “Vanderkellen was late for a dinner party his wife was throwing at their mansion. When he came home, he found signs of a break-in, and his family and all of his guests were missing! Later, he received a note that claimed they had been reduced to the size of dolls, and that he would only get them back in restored form if he paid 500,000 dollars!”

“Size-alteration extortion!” said Ray. “That’s a new twist on an old crime. I can understand the motive for this instance. He shrank the guests and carried them off as miniatures. Unless he is paid for their safe restoration, he will kill them or leave them in their current plight.”

“Could the other attacks have been practice sessions?” said Ira. “After all, none of the others were taken away, and they’ve not received ransom demands for their restoration.”

“Why use shrinking for criminal purposes at all in this specific vicinity?” asked Ray. “The reason is painfully clear. Our enemy wants to create a panic. He wants normal citizens to be afraid of having the same fate befall them that struck their neighbors, and more to the point, he wants that fear to be directed at me. In fact, I wonder if we aren’t dealing with two criminals, each with their own agenda. One wants simple loot, while the other wants to incriminate me.”

“My word!” said Ira. “I see your point. If shrinking or size-alteration occurs in Ivy Town, then one would logically assume the famous Ray Palmer has something to do with it!”

“That’s true,” said the Atom. “I don’t like it! Ever since your secret came out in that book, you’ve been the object of intense media attention, but it has also opened you up to threats.”

Ray nodded and said, “I assumed it might not matter as much, since we live in Ivy Town. The people here always held me in high regard. I’m proud of that. I don’t want that esteem to change to fear.”

“We won’t let it!” vowed the Atom. “In fact, we can prevent it from happening by bringing in the real crook! If Ira can work out the range, maybe you can find a cure while I try to find the mind behind the whole thing. I have an idea, in fact, if the chief will go along with it.”

The chief of police glanced over at Ray Palmer, who gave the slightest indication of a nod. “OK, son, you’re the local hero now. What’s your idea?” asked Gil Baxter.

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