by Martin Maenza
Standing atop the roof of an ivy-covered brick building amidst a university campus setting, the Man of Steel used his x-ray vision and super-hearing to monitor the activities in the room below. It appears my change is size is relatively slow, he said to himself. I’m lucky for that and the fact that my costume seems to be shrinking right along with me. In the room below was a classroom of college students and their brown-haired professor finishing up a lecture. Now to just wait for the room to clear before dropping in.
“And that is how electrolysis is used to achieve the desired results,” the brown-haired professor said. Ray Palmer glanced at the clock on the wall. “Well, time’s up for today, class. Make sure to study chapters ten through thirteen for Thursday’s quiz.”
With that, the students rose from their seats and headed for the door chatting. One student came up to ask the instructor a question, and after a few moments only the instructor remained in the room. It’s good to be back teaching again, Ray thought to himself as he gathered his books and notes. I really missed it when I was living in the Amazon jungles with Laethwen and her people.
Suddenly, there was a slight tapping on the window behind him. Ray was startled by it, especially since the classroom was on the second floor. He turned to see a familiarly garbed figure hovering outside. “Superman!”
A few minutes later in a research lab in the physics building on the Ivy Town University campus, Superman chatted with his old friend. “I’m sorry to disturb you at work, Ray,” he said, “but I have a little problem on my hands that requires an expert. Yours was the first name to pop into my head.”
“I can see that,” the professor said as he walked around his friend. “Just guessing, I’d say you’re down to about three-and-a-half feet tall right now.”
“That seems right,” Superman said.
“Are you experiencing any kinds of pain with this change?”
“No, none at all. That would have been a clue to tip me off that something was wrong. Other than my changing perspective, I didn’t have any idea it was going on.” Superman leaned back against the counter. “I’m not sure what could be causing it. Magic? Red kryptonite?”
Ray rubbed his chin. “Interesting. Anything unusual happen to you recently? Say in the last day or so? Maybe we can figure out what might be triggering this.”
“Well,” Superman started to say. He paused for a second as the knob of the lab door turned. In stepped a lanky man wearing a white turtleneck sweater, dark pants, and odd glasses. The Man of Steel recognized him instantly.
“I.Q.!” Superman lunged for the man who was startled by the appearance of the hero. He dropped his coffee on the floor as the Man of Steel pushed him to the wall. “What are you doing here? Are you behind this?”
“What? What?” Ira Quimby asked, sounding flustered and confused. “What’s going on?”
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Superman said with a bit more anger in his voice than usual.
“Superman, stop!” Ray Palmer shouted. “Ira’s no threat! He’s working with me on a project.”
“What?” asked the confused Man of Steel.
“I’ll explain that later,” Ray said. “Right now, we need to deal with your problem. Ira, I think you can be of help, too. I need you to run a few tests on Superman, here, while I run home for something. Here’s what I want you to do.” And the physicist outlined to his reformed-criminal colleague what he had in mind.
Superman wasn’t quite sure about this whole thing, but he trusted Ray Palmer with his life. At this juncture, he had little choice. If anyone could help him figure out why he was reducing size and mass at such an alarming rate, it was Ray Palmer.
Ray Palmer had been gone for about twenty-five minutes or so as he rushed back to the home that he and Jean Loring currently resided in. Though they had gotten divorced, the two were slowly getting their relationship back in order and working through the problems. Jean let Ray stay in the guest room. It helped, at least, to be living under the same roof, if not sharing the same bed.
As Ray parked his car back in the faculty lot of the university, he picked up the box of items that he’d retrieved from the house. While Adam certainly earned the right to use my size-weight controls, I did manage to keep some of my old spare equipment around, he thought. Just in case of emergencies such as this one.
Ray’s mind went over the events of the recent months as he rushed across campus — how he returned from the Amazon rain forests after the village had been destroyed by fires, how he had been forced back into action to rescue Jean and his old friend Adam Cray from the likes of Chronos, and how he decided to put his personal life back together after all he’d been through. That was why he passed the mantle of the Atom on to Adam, a young man eager to carry on the tradition. (*) If the world needed the Atom, Ray didn’t mind it being someone else.
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Atom: The Ivy Town Project.]
The scientist made his way toward the laboratory doors. Until we figure out what’s causing Superman to shrink, this equipment should be able to counter some of the effects. Ray closed the lab doors and locked them to avoid any interruptions.
“Professor Palmer, thank the stars you’ve arrived!” Ira Quimby exclaimed.
“What is it, Ira?” Ray asked. He glanced around. “Where’s Superman?”
“Over here.” The Man of Steel stepped out from behind a microscope on one of the counters. He was now barely six inches tall at most. Though his face showed signs of concern, he didn’t carry himself other than his normal way. Even facing personal disaster, Superman always kept his composure.
“Oh, no,” Ray Palmer said as he rushed over to the counter. “I see the process has increased since I left.”
“Indeed,” Ira Quimby said as he grabbed his notes. “I ran some of the tests as you suggested and came up with some very interesting results. Here, come see.” Ira gestured to the microscope.
Ray Palmer put down the box and placed his eyes over the sights. Curiously, he adjusted the magnification. “You couldn’t get a blood sample, right?” he asked.
“No,” Ira replied. “Even at this size, he’s still invulnerable. But Superman was able to scrape his finger enough on his belt buckle to get me a skin sample. It’s not much, but it did shed some light on the situation.”
“So I see,” Ray Palmer said. “And just the light we needed. Well, Superman, I think we have some good news! From what I’m looking at here, I know exactly what’s causing your problem. We should be able to deal with it easily enough.”
Ray raised his eyes from the equipment. He had expected some kind of response. “Superman?” He glanced across the counter where his friend had been standing. “Superman?”
Ira Quimby looked up from the notes he had taken. “Where is he?”
Ray Palmer now wore a very concerned look on his face. “Damn!” he cursed. He rushed toward the box and opened it. “I never should have gotten distracted! Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
“What do you have there?” Ira Quimby asked.
“The only thing that might be able to help Superman,” Ray said as he slipped one of the belts around his waist. “Assuming, of course, I can find him in time!”
Ray Palmer continued to shrink smaller and smaller thanks in part to the special belt he wore. There was a time in his life that he would have taken doing something like this for granted, shrinking down to sub-molecular levels for various projects or experiments. But it had been a while since he last did it.
Sadly, he couldn’t enjoy the sensation and sights like before. Ray Palmer had a mission, a most urgent one. He needed to find and rescue his old colleague, and fast.
Ray fiddled with the controls on his belt as he looked around. Good thing I kept this belt, he thought, the one that my JLA signal device had been integrated into. Without it, trying to find a shrinking Superman in this mess will be like finding a needle in a haystack. Ray switched it to tracking mode and said a silent prayer.
After a few moments, he got a response. Yes! Ray thought. Now to just zero in on him before he’s too far gone. The scientist adjusted his position by traversing the natural flow of the subatomic particles that whirled around him, and then he began to reduce his own size once more.
As everything seemed to grow larger around him, something caught his line of sight. In this realm of oddities, the form of the Man of Steel stuck out even at such a small size. There we go, he thought as he approached him. He seems to have stopped shrinking — a good sign.
Ray carefully approached his colleague who floated perfectly still, legs straight and arms crossed. His eyes were closed. He almost looked as though he were dead, but Ray knew differently. He can’t be dead. He can’t. Not having a way to communicate with Superman in this realm, Ray reached over to tap him on his shoulder to get his attention.
Superman’s eyes sprang open quickly at the touch, a savage look crossing his face. He snarled and lashed out toward the hand that touched him.
Ray recoiled back quickly. Whoa! he thought. What’s all this about?
Superman dived at him again, but he did not have Ray’s experience in this environment. The brown-haired scientist moved quickly to dodge once more.
Whatever caused him to shrink so rapidly must have affected his brain some, too, Ray thought. He’s acting like he doesn’t recognize me, like he’s deluded. I’m going to have to work fast. Ray reached into the pocket of his jacket to produce a second size-control belt similar to the one he currently wore.
I’m sure this will reverse the process, Ray thought. The trick is getting it on him. Superman lashed for him once more, knocking the belt loose from Ray’s grasp.
Oh no! Ray exclaimed. Gotta get that back, and fast! He scurried after the floating device, stretching his hands out in front of him to grab it. He had just a little bit more to go.
He felt a hand clasp onto his ankle. Superman had managed to snag him after all. No! Ray thought. Not now! He reached forward with all his might, but Superman started to pull back. Sorry, old friend! With his other foot, Ray slammed his booted heel hard into Superman’s face. He knew the move wouldn’t be able to injure the hero, but it might be enough.
Sure enough, the angered Superman released his grasp long enough for Ray to get free. “Yes!” the physicist said as he dived for the spare belt. “Now, let’s try this again!”
Superman was too busy rubbing his face in surprise to notice Ray Palmer lunging for him. This bold entity tackled him about the waist, again in a surprise move. The maddened Man of Steel started to howl in indignation.
That’s when Ray clasped the belt around Superman’s waist and activated the controls.
Ira Quimby was starting to worry. “Professor Palmer’s been gone a long time,” the former criminal said aloud. “I hope everything is all right.” He rather surprised himself with his own words. There was a time, not long ago, that he would have cared less about the plight of Superman or any of the Justice League members. But that was then, and this was now. And the criminal formerly known as I.Q. had started his life over as a productive member of society.
He stared at the countertop where Professor Palmer had vanished on ten minutes prior. “I hate waiting,” Ira said. Suddenly, there was a shimmer of sorts near the counter’s surface. Ira leaned forward to get a better peek, then jumped back suddenly. “Whoa!”
As Ira Quimby stumbled back across the room, two forms began to appear above the counter’s surface, growing larger and larger by the second. After another few moments, Ray Palmer was standing next to the counter while a groggy Superman lay across it.
“What… happened?” groaned the Man of Steel. He rubbed his temple as if he had a severe migraine headache.
“Relax, old friend,” Ray Palmer said. “The size-changing has a bit of disorienting effect, especially when we had to grow again so quickly.” Ray checked the controls on the belt around Superman’s waist to ensure that things were stabilizing. He wasn’t in the mood for another roller-coaster ride amongst the molecules.
“How’d you reverse the effect?” Superman asked as he tried to sit up. He was slowly starting to feel a bit better.
“When I went to retrieve the belts from home, I wasn’t fully sure they’d be of help,” Ray explained. “At best, my hope was that they’d counter the effects long enough to understand them. However, we were luckier than that.”
“How so?” Superman asked.
“Ira, here, ran tests on that skin sample, and the results were a dead giveaway to the cause of your problem,” Ray said. He gestured to the microscope and offered Superman a chance to view the cell sample.
After taking a look, Superman said, “And…? What am I looking at?”
“That effect is due to exposure to white dwarf radiation,” Ray said, “the exact same stuff that powers my size controls and allows me to shrink and grow again. Now, would you have been, by chance, recently exposed to some? Perhaps on a space mission or something?”
Superman’s eyes lit up as the light bulb went off in his head. “Of course!” he said. “That had to be it! One of those asteroids in space I smashed up today must have had a white dwarf fragment in it.” He recalled the cloud of space dust that had engulfed him earlier that morning.
“That would do it,” Ray said. “That belt, there, will keep you standing tall until you can remove the stray particles from your suit and body. After that, you should have no troubles at all.”
Superman clasped his friend’s hand. “I know just the thing to do it back at my Fortress,” he said. “I’ll return the belt to you as soon as I’m done. Thanks, Ray.”
“Any time,” the physicist said.
“And thank you, I.Q.,” Superman said, taking the former villain’s hand. “I’m sorry I misjudged you.” He looked the man in the face and smiled. “Ira.”
Ira Quimby nodded and smiled back. If Superman was giving him another chance, maybe there was something to being reformed, after all.