That night, Mary Pratt held her husband as they snuggled near one another. “Al, you aren’t to blame,” she cooed. “She stimulated your powers. She is the one who caused the damage, not you. She’s the bad person.”
Al Pratt nodded. “She’s sick, deluded. I’m some object of hero worship or fantasy for her, and she claims to have developed these powers in order to be worthy of me. She claims to be robbing in order to fund more experiments. That means I am to blame for her. You might say I gave birth to her. I wish Terry Sloane was still living. He’d know what to say or do. I admit that I’m feeling more than a bit uncertain.”
Mary hated to see her normally confident husband so troubled. She knew an inferiority complex and desire to overcompensate for his short stature drove most of his actions. However, in the decades since he had first become the Atom, he had matured and replaced most of that motive with a sincere desire to do good. Now she ached as she felt his pain.
The morning news gave Al little comfort. He, Mary, and their son Grant saw a newswoman speaking to a group of local citizens who sat before a screen that displayed his costume with a red circle and an X across it. “Look at that! They have my costume up there marked like I’m poison! I can’t listen to this!” he said as he walked out of the room.
Mary shook her head in worry. She heard the group called the Atom-Smashers make a case for the danger posed by having the Atom in their city.
“He’s a living human bomb! I say he could be responsible for things ranging from tainted water to birth defects or illness in our kids!” said Jameson Jonah, head of the group.
Grant Emerson Pratt turned pale, and he turned to his mother with concern and emotion on his face. Ever since learning that Al and Mary Pratt were his parents and becoming adopted, the boy who was the hero known as Damage of the Junior JSA had become the Atom’s biggest fan. (*) “That’s crazy! How can they turn on him after his service to the city?” he said. “I know my powers were seen as a curse by me when I first had them, but they can also do good. (*) Those folks need to see that any power can be used for good as well as evil, depending upon the intent of the guy who possesses it!”
The teenager stalked off and called over his shoulder, “I can’t listen to that jerk any longer! I’m going to go see Amanda!”
Mary clicked off the set and began to weep.
The Atom frowned as he kicked in a door in a suburban home outside Calvin City. He jumped over a small table and confronted a waking woman. She was frail and grabbed for a pair of wire glasses as she pulled a blanket over her pale body. “Atom, what is it?” she sputtered. “How can you just barge in my home?”
He gazed down at the woman who was no taller than he was. She seemed scared and nervous. “Miss Delp? Deanna Delp? I checked your records along with those of other Calvin City College students from the last decade or so. You were the finest physics student in the school’s history. That kind of brain power is rare. You were one of only three women who attended the college and had that kind of I.Q. I know you are behind the woman called Cyclotron. She claimed to have lived here all her young life, and I knew only someone with your kind of skills could have created her. I also know you’ve got the kind of lab needed for such dangerous experiments. The Drake Foundation told me they’d funded you until you became irrational.”
Deanna frowned and said, “I admit that I made Cyclotron, but in a way, so did you! She adores you and wanted to be as powerful as you. Only through controlled radiation absorption could she be born.”
“I thought as much,” said the Atom. “Dr. Pratt at the college recalled you as one of the few people capable of such work. Your connection with Drake was the clincher. Where is she? Is she a sister?”
Deanna stood up and said, “You mean you haven’t guessed? Controlled radiation can mutate a body, like so!” She concentrated, and her demure frame began to expand until the confident, mighty form of Cyclotron replaced the pale, frail woman. “I can become Cyclotron at will. The radiation gave me this superior body, all to be your mate!” she said madly.
“I have no choice but to subdue you here and now!” said the Atom. “The city’s half turned on me because of you!”
Cyclotron laughed and kicked him backward. “Let them mock what they fear,” she cried. “We shall be the only couple in this burned-out burg when I use your wonderful metabolism to destroy the others who would keep us apart!”
The Atom twisted aside and jabbed as his superb boxing skills came into play. Three rapid blows left the taller woman dazed. “Your powers blunt my force, but I don’t need to use my powers to stun you, lady!” he vowed.
He grunted as Cyclotron’s white glow filled the room. “Too late! I’ve activated the energy slumbering within you, my love!” she screamed.
The Atom glanced around the room and tackled her roughly. They crashed through the floor and landed in a basement lab. Heavy lead and other shielding metals lined the secret lab. Got to get her to expend her energies here, he thought. She must need to replenish them from time to time. That’s why she spoke of more experiments and the need for funds.
As they fought, the madwoman’s eyes gleamed, as she was thrilled by any contact with her idol. She glowed brightly, and the Atom slammed her down with more force than he’d normally use on a woman. “Deanna, I am married,” he said. “I can’t love you. I’ll get you help, though!”
She frowned and said, “I am not in need of help. I’ll make you love me by burning up this town!”
The explosion left Atom dazed and destroyed the house. He gasped and crawled over to where a still Deanna Delp lay. The glow was gone, as was her enhanced body. “She expended her power,” he said, panting. “Got to get her in a cell at some lab so she can’t recharge. Poor, sick woman.”
Days later, after Deanna Delp was safely locked in a governmental treatment facility, Al Pratt slammed his fists into a punching bag at the Calvin City College gym. It was long past closing, and the short man was working out in solitude.
“Easy, champ. You’ll make an old pug like me look bad!” said a rough voice as Ted Grant entered.
Al grinned at his old friend. “You are, or were, the champ. I’m just a guy who likes to hit things!”
Ted caught the swinging bag and said, “Uh-uh. Nope. Don’t feed me that line. I know you. I read about this whole Cyclotron thing and talked to Mary. She and the kid are worried sick about you. I also nabbed a pair of punks at a bar. The city needs the Atom.”
“He’s retired,” said Al. “He’s a relic of the pre-atomic age. There’s no place for him these days.”
Ted stopped the shorter man from hitting the bag again. “Hold it, pal,” he said firmly. “You are not to blame for that nutty chick. You know that. Secondly, you know you are needed out there.”
“You don’t get it, do you? My powers almost killed folks,” said Al with a pained look.
Ted shrugged. “And what if the Atom stays in retirement? Don’t you think folks will suffer? Gangsters and punks and the Rag Doll, for instance, will still show up and hurt people unless the Atom is around to shut them down!”
Al nodded. “Yes, I know. I realize that I can do good, and I realize that my powers will never be a threat to anyone I love again.”
Ted led him aside and tossed him a towel. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Al looked up at the rough-featured boxer. “I drained them away during the last fight,” he explained. “Cyclotron absorbed all the energy from my metabolism. It may return in time, but then again, it may never come back. I’m kind of glad. Now, those Atom-Smasher people can’t claim I’m a danger to the city. I’m just a sawed-off pug now!”
Ted’s eyes widened. Then he nodded. “Wrong. You were made a member of the JSA before you had any super-powers. You saved FDR himself before you had any powers. You faced down the first Cyclotron back in the ’40s before you had any powers. You can still be the Atom with just your original athletic prowess. You know, you’re nearly as tough as guys like Mister Terrific and Wildcat!”
Al grinned. “That tough? Maybe you have a point. Joe Morgan did a good job with you, pal!”
Ted grinned back at the mention of their common trainer. “Joe did good work!” he said. “Now, let’s go see that pretty wife of yours.”
Later, after Ted “Wildcat” Grant had departed, Mary Pratt held up a colorful costume to her husband, while their son looked on approvingly. “See, honey? I modified your original costume,” she said. “The solid blue mask, sleeveless yellow and blue body suit, and brown trim and wrist bands look good.”
Al hugged her and said, “I like it. Plus, the long pants are a big improvement on the shorts from the original version. I like the idea that the Atom can reclaim the old look and shed any association with the second Cyclotron.”
Mary kissed him and said, “That’s my hero!”