Ray Palmer looked out the window at the sunset. He’d always loved the beach and the way it looked as though the sun was slowly sinking into the ocean at sunset. It was probably the only thing giving him peace these days. After the way the press jumped all over the Atom’s reappearance in Ivy Town, it was more important than ever that he maintained a low profile and stay out of sight. It was beginning to drive him batty, though.
He turned on the stereo. A little jazz music always lifted his spirits, but tonight was different, after seeing the pictures in the paper and reading that interview with Paul Hoben, Jean’s husband. God, what did she see in him? He wasn’t an especially nice person, and yeah, he was a lawyer, but what did he have in common with Jean? Nothing.
No, I’ve got to stop thinking about this.
Ray went over to his desk and pulled a file out of a secret compartment underneath. It was labeled The Ivy Town Project. He had to laugh at that. It was an appropriate name for it, even if its purpose was far removed from anything Ray had ever intended.
He put the computer disks aside and read through the papers yet again. The government had purchased Ray’s size-changing belt and began experimenting with it. Some high-level official in the CIA thought that Ray’s technology would be very useful in covert operations both here and abroad. The problem was that each volunteer who used the belt exploded shortly after their return to normal size — and no, not all of them were truly volunteers — all but one.
Adam Cray had been a research assistant on the project. One night while working late, he accidentally overheard two special agents, Gyrich and Dugan, discussing what the belt would be used for. It seemed that the researchers had been told that it would be used for medical and other benign purposes, not for spying. Another agent caught Cray listening, so they thought that the easiest way to dispose of him was to make him a “volunteer.”
Since the lead scientist was fully aware and fully supportive of the government’s purpose, he attached the belt to a securely bound Cray and shrunk him to six inches, then back. Cray was then put in an isolation booth to explode, but something strange happened. He never did. The scientists were baffled. They began to study Cray intently, but they were unable to figure out what X factor had prevented Cray and the Atom from exploding. They did, however, come to one singular conclusion — they needed Ray Palmer. The question was how to get him.
The higher-ups decided that they would destroy Laethwen’s village and then lie to the Atom about it, claiming they tried to prevent it from happening, but were too late to stop it. They would then show Ray all the wonderful things in medical research that they were up to (and truth to tell, they were working on medical applications, but it was not the true focus) and the fate of the few poor “volunteers.”
It still made Ray’s blood run cold that his own government would do this to him. He spent a few days with the scientists working on the project. After all, what did he have to lose? He’d already lost Laethwen, lost Jean. During the course of the research, he stumbled upon the records that showed the government’s true intent in using his size-changing belt. In fact, they had fashioned a second belt. Digging deeper, he learned of Adam Cray and what had really happened to the volunteers.
Later that night, Ray broke Adam free. They swiped all the records associated with the Ivy Town Project, erased the computer files, and stole away with the size-changing belts. That was the last time Ray saw Adam. He took a trip to Gotham City to visit his old friend, Bruce Wayne, and Ray Palmer disappeared that day, too. The government had been looking for both men ever since.
Ray’s reverie was interrupted by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.
“Who the hell?”
Ray parted the curtain. “Oh, dear Lord, how did she find me?”
As Jean Loring drove down the road, she couldn’t help but think about what happened earlier. God, what did she ever see in Paul? Did she ever really love him? She knew the answer to that question. She’d talked herself into loving Paul. That night when Ray found them together in the car, in the rain, that hadn’t been an accident. Jean had wanted Ray to find them. She wanted to hurt him the way he’d hurt her. She wanted to know he still cared. For so long, Jean had felt ignored and unappreciated. Ray was always at the university or away on a JLA mission. There was never any time for her anymore. Just when she thought they could spend a night alone, he would pop off, saying it was his turn for monitor duty. God, that had aggravated her.
Ray’s priorities were very clear: JLA, work, and then her. She was his wife, and yet she wasn’t the most important factor in his life. She wanted children, but she and Ray hadn’t been intimate in months. He seemed to have lost interest. Jean tried talking with him, but it was always, “Later,” and, “Oops, there goes the JLA signal.”
Paul didn’t want kids. He’d had a vasectomy to prevent such an occurrence. Jean didn’t find that out until three months after they’d married. Sure, things were great at first, but within the first few months, it began to get stale. Paul spent more time at the office. So did Jean. Paul accused her of still being in love with Ray. She denied that vehemently, but in retrospect he was right.
The road seemed to stretch on for hours, until Jean reached the coastal Rhode Island town where Ray’s parents had their beach house. The sun was beginning to set, and it was spectacular. Jean slowly drove until she found the house. Her car pulled into the driveway. As she exited, she thought she saw a movement at the front window.
“What are you doing back here, Waller? Where are Palmer and Cray?”
Amanda Waller stopped in mid-stride and turned to face Agent Gyrich. As much as she detested scum like Captain Boomerang and Deadshot, people like Henry Gyrich truly made her sick to her stomach.
“I know you’re not talking to me like that, Gyrich.”
Gyrich approached the woman without reserve. “You need to remember your place here, Amanda. Task Force X reports to the U.S. government, and I am your supervisor. Now, where are they?!”
Grabbing the agent by his tie, Amanda Waller pulled his face down to hers. “I… don’t… know! But one thing I do know — you’re lying to me. I talked to a half-dozen people today about Ray Palmer, including his ex-wife and her new husband, and I’ll tell you this: if Palmer did steal U.S. government documents, he had a good reason. And trust me, Gyrich, if I find proof that you’ve been using me, you’ll have to find an alternate reality to hide in, because your ass will be mine!”
Waller walked off as Gyrich straightened his tie. Damn that woman! Who does she think she is? He pulled a bulky portable telephone out of his jacket.
“Gyrich here. The Wall struck out. Did he agree to our terms? Excellent. Palmer and Cray will be dead before the end of the day.”
And in her temporary office, Amanda Waller was using her desktop computer when a cyber-face appeared on her screen.
“Oracle. Did you find anything out?”
“I did, and you’re not going to like what I have to tell you…”
Ray Palmer looked through the window as the woman approached his door. How did she find me? Sigh. I suppose this was inevitable. He took a deep breath and opened the door. “Well, this is a surprise.”
The woman looked at him and smiled. “Oh, now, Dr. Broome, you say the nicest things. I didn’t mean to intrude, but you forgot your wallet at the school, and I thought I’d bring it to you. Imagine my surprise when I found out that you lived all the way out here on the coast.”
Ray looked at the rotund woman, her red hair as big as a house. “Well, thank you, Mrs. Fox. I hadn’t realized that I’d left it. I’d invite you in, but I was just heading out. I guess I wouldn’t have gotten very far without this.”
Gardenia Fox looked up at the man she knew as Professor John Broome — she was his secretary at Harvard University — and her face began to droop. “Oh, I… I see. Well, okey-dokey, I…”
Ray closed the door behind him. “Would you care to join me?”
Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Oh, that is so nice of you, Professor. My husband never takes me anywhere. Why, just last week…”
Scrolling through the documents provided to her by Oracle, Amanda Waller felt her face flush. Gyrich had lied to her. Apparently, Professor Palmer had discovered the true purpose behind the Ivy Town Project. The government wanted an elite core of diminutive assassins, and they’d destroyed countless lives to make it happen. That’s when he took off with Cray and the documents.
Without warning, Oracle’s cyber-face appeared again.
“Amanda, did you authorize another release from Belle Reve today?”
A paper appeared on the screen, showing Amanda’s signature on a release dated today. She looked up at the name.
“Is that who I think it is, Oracle?”
“Have you had any luck tracking Palmer down?”
“None, and that puzzles me. If he’s set up in a new identity, there should be some indication, some paper trail I can follow, but there’s none. Whoever helped him out is better at covering their tracks than anyone I know.”
Waller tapped her fingers on the keyboard. “There’s only one person I know with that kind of capability. Call him. Tell him that Jean Loring is in deadly danger, and the guy Gyrich sent after her is not gonna stop until Palmer shows up. Damn it all. This is Gyrich’s doing. Oracle, alert Boomerbutt and Deadshot. Have them meet me at the usual rendezvous in ten minutes. We’re headed back to Ivy Town.”
In Rhode Island, at Ray Palmer’s beach house, Jean Loring approached the front door and rang the bell. No answer. She rang again. Still no answer.
“Ray! Open up! I know you’re in there!”
Jean started to beat on the door, when it flew open. She looked inside and saw a man standing in the kitchen.
“Ray, why didn’t you answer the door?”
The man didn’t reply but just stood there. Jean approached him, now angry, and touched his shoulder in an effort to move him. She couldn’t. She finally got a good look at his face and realized that it wasn’t Ray. Oh, he looked like Ray — same hair and build, but younger, and he appeared to be frozen in place.
“What in the world is going on here?”
A voice came out of the hallway. “That’s what I want to know, counselor. I came all the way here to kill the Atom, and I find this pretender here. Where is your ex-husband, Miss Loring?”
As he came into the kitchen, Jean instantly recognized him in his yellow, green, and white costume with those gaudy pinstripes.
“The clock is ticking, Miss Loring. The life of this imposter depends on your answer!”
For the first time, Jean looked at the man who had saved her life. A razor-sharp clock hand was just inches from his chest, hanging in midair. If Chronos let time resume, the clock hand would kill him.
Before Jean could complete her sentence, she was interrupted by the front door bursting open. One of Captain Boomerang’s weapons came sailing through the air, but with a wave of Chronos’ hand, it stopped and just hovered. Jean watched as Chronos simply stepped out of the way.
“Come out of hiding, Mrs. Waller. I’ll kill Ms. Loring and my other captives if you don’t.”
Amanda Waller stepped into the doorway, followed by Captain Boomerang. “All right, Chronos, we’re here. Now let Cray and Loring go, and I promise you we’ll go easy on you. I know Gyrich put you up to this.”
Chronos laughed. “Oh, Mrs. Waller, are you that naive? Yes, Gyrich sprung me and paid me to do this, but he didn’t have to pay me. I would have done this gladly! Of course, considering that Palmer isn’t here, this seems a little pointless, doesn’t it? You know where he is, I’ll wager, don’t you, Ms. Waller? Hmm, where is your other companion, Deadshot? Lurking about, I’d wager, waiting to ambush me? Call him off before I kill them.”
“Deadshot is working another mission I gave him. It’s just me and Boomerang,” Waller said, locking eyes with Chronos.
He held her gaze for a moment. “Strangely enough, I believe you, but I am disappointed that…”
Waller interrupted Chronos and turned to Jean. “Duck!”
Jean, Boomerang, and the Wall hit the ground as the room exploded, the window shattering as something came through it and hit Chronos, knocking him against the chest of drawers.
A figure suddenly expanded above Chronos.
Jean’s face betrayed her joy at finally seeing him. “Ray!”
Chronos’s belt started to spark. “Palmer, you fool — you’ve destroyed the time-control mechanism. Well, at least if you won’t be dying, your protégé will!”
The time-field suddenly collapsed around Adam Cray, and the clock hand would surely pierce his heart.
Then, out of nowhere, a batarang knocked the hand out of the way, leaving Adam Cray alive, if somewhat confused.
“What is going on here?” Cray asked, shaking off the effects of Chronos’ stasis field.
His words fell on deaf ears as the Batman entered the room. “Ray, get everyone down again!”
Batman swiftly grabbed Waller and Boomerang, while the Atom moved Adam and Jean. Chronos’ belt continued to spark, and some sort of warp began to open.
“Damn you, Palmer! Without my belt controls, I’ll be doomed to drift in the time stream…” Chronos never finished his thought as the warp engulfed him, and then it, too, vanished.
Everyone got to their feet, and Ray and Jean embraced for the first time in a long time.
“Ray, I’ve missed you…”
Batman walked over to Waller. “This could have been avoided if your group hadn’t started this to begin with.”
Waller walked right up to the Dark Knight even as Boomerang backed away. “Don’t get all high and mighty with me. I was used in this by someone who’s going to pay for what he did — to me, to Adam Cray, to Jean loring and Ray Palmer, and most of all to that village in South America where Palmer was living. You have my word on that.”
“I’ll be watching you, Waller. Count on it,” the Batman said as he left the house.
Adam Cray had a puzzled look on his face. “What exactly is going to happen to Gyrich, Ms. Waller?”
Amanda Waller just grinned. “Let’s go, Boomerbutt.”