“I’m sure you understand this university’s position, Mr. Pratt,” Dean Chalmers said to the young man seated on the other side of his desk.
“I do, sir,” Al Pratt said. “And I appreciate the flexibility you’ve shown me.”
“Indeed,” Dean Chalmers said. “Naturally, we like to show every consideration for young men who go to serve their country in this time of war. Even though your tour of duty was cut short by your hitherto-undetected heart murmur, we are still proud and respectful of your desire to serve your country.”
“Thank you, sir,” Al said. “I appreciate that very much.”
“However,” the dean went on, “what we cannot tolerate are your continued absences from your classes. Two weeks last spring, with no advance notice of any kind–”
“That was a family emergency, Dean Chalmers,” Al said. “I had no more notice of it than the school.”
“And because of those absences you signed up for the summer term,” the dean went on, “only to disappear for an entire month, forcing us to drop you from all your summer classes. What was the excuse that time? Another family emergency, wasn’t it?”
“I have a large family,” Al said.
“Oh? One would think they would find someone else to call on in an emergency, then,” Dean Chalmers said. He added, more kindly, “I certainly respect a man who puts family first, Mr. Pratt. However, I cannot continually make excuses for missed classes and an apparent cavalier attitude towards your studies. I am giving you another chance, because I see in you great potential. I’d hate to see you throw it all away.”
“I won’t, Dean Chalmers,” Al said. “I promise you, I won’t.”
“See that you don’t,” the dean said, and turned his attention to a stack of papers on his desk, dismissing Al.
Al left the Dean’s office with a sick feeling. If only he could tell him the truth. His tour of duty in the U.S. Army hadn’t been cut short because of a heart murmur, but because he was the Atom, and the Justice Society of America members had been removed from active service to become the Justice Battalion of America. (*) The “family emergencies” that had caused him to miss classes had been JSA missions. Those two weeks last April had been when Nazi agents had rocketed him to Mars, and the month during the summer term was when he had been in Holland delivering dehydrated food capsules to starving patriots. (*) But of course he couldn’t tell the dean any of that; it had to appear that Al Pratt took a lax attitude toward his studies. At this rate, he wouldn’t be graduating until 1950, if at all.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Justice Society Joins the War on Japan,” All-Star Comics #11 (June-July, 1942), “Shanghaied into Space,” All-Star Comics #13 (October-November, 1942), and “Food for Starving Patriots,” All-Star Comics #14 (December, 1942-January, 1943).]
“Damn!” Al said suddenly, releasing the pent-up anger by punching the wooden wall of the hallway.
“Take it easy, youngster,” an avuncular voice behind him suddenly spoke, startling him.
Al spun on his heel at the familiar voice and found himself staring up into a smiling face that was partially hidden by dark glasses.
“Doc!” Al cried joyfully at the sight of his friend and JSA teammate, Dr. Charles McNider.
“In the flesh,” McNider said. “Speaking of which, let me take a look at those knuckles. Punching walls is a good way to fracture them.”
“Aw, the wall’s no harder than Deathbolt’s jaw,” Al joked. “What brings you to Calvin College, Doc?”
“I’m teaching Dr. Henshaw’s classes for a while,” McNider explained. “He got called up; he’ll be treating soldiers’ dependents on the West Coast. He’s an old friend of mine, so I’m filling in for him until a permanent replacement is found.”
“Keen,” Al said. “It’ll be neat having someone on campus that I can talk to! You know, about — stuff.”
“I know,” McNider nodded. “Anytime you want to chat, Al, the office door’s open. By the way, as long as I’m here, I’d like to give you a full examination.”
“What, the Cyclotron thing?” Al asked. “I feel fine, Doc. No after-effects at all.”
“Still,” McNider said, “radiation is a relatively new thing. So little is known about it yet. I’d feel better if I could keep a medical eye on you.”
“Please yourself,” Al shrugged. “I have to admit it comes in handy, having a sawbones on the team.”
“Each of us has a unique contribution to make,” McNider said. “By the way, Al, which way is the archaeology department?”
“Archaeology?” Al repeated. “I think that’s in the Brendan Building, past the student center. Why?”
“Carter asked me to say hello to an old friend of his,” McNider said, “a Professor Doyle. Do you know him?”
“Not to speak of,” Al said. “I haven’t taken any archaeology courses. Couple of my friends have; I think they’ve mentioned Professor Doyle.” Al silently wondered why Carter Hall had never asked him to look up his old friend. But then Carter was more likely to see McNider as a peer, wasn’t he?
“Want to come along, share the walk?” McNider said. “I am supposed to be completely blind; wouldn’t look good for me to be able to find my way by myself.”
“Sure, Doc,” Al said. “Come on.”
The two friends left the administration building, and Al watched as his friend adopted that hesitant, uncertain walk he used in his secret identity of Dr. Charles McNider. He marveled at that, the way Doc became a completely different person to hide his identity of Doctor Mid-Nite.
Together they reached the Brendan Building. In the lobby, Al consulted a directory of offices, and he led the way to Professor Doyle’s office. McNider knocked on the door, and it was opened by a middle-aged man with close-cropped gray hair.
“Yes?” Professor Doyle said, a bit confused at the presence of a blind man knocking on his door. “Can I help you, sir?”
“Professor Howard Doyle?” McNider asked. When Doyle answered in the affirmative, McNider stuck out his hand. “My name is Dr. Charles McNider. I believe we have a friend in common — Carter Hall.”
“Hall?” Doyle asked. “Carter Hall! From New York? Of course! Met him at an archaeological symposium a couple of years ago; fascinating theories on the origins of the pyramids. You’re a friend of his? Welcome, welcome!” Professor Doyle enthusiastically wrung McNider’s hand. He looked past McNider, seeing Al standing in the hallway. “And who’s this?”
“Oh, this is a student who was kind enough to show me the way to your office,” Dr. McNider said. “I’m sorry, son, I don’t recall your name.”
“Pratt, sir; Al Pratt,” Al said with a smile, keeping up the pretense.
“Pratt? Pratt. I don’t believe you’re in any of my classes,” Doyle said.
“No, sir. I’m a physics major, sir,” Al said.
“Physics? Yes. Well. Important branch of the sciences, of course. Physics,” Doyle said. He turned his attention back to McNider. “What brings you to Calvin, Dr. McNider?”
“Teaching,” Dr. McNider explained. “I’m filling in for Dr. Henshaw.”
“Oh, yes. Got called up, didn’t he, Henshaw? Terrible business, this war. So many promising students interrupting their studies.”
“And their lives,” McNider added.
“Professor Doyle, I — oh! I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t realize you had guests.” This came from a newcomer to the scene, a student about Al’s age — a young man with curly black hair and a small beard. The young man wore a white lab coat and carried a sheaf of papers.
“Yes, well, you have eyes, don’t you, Turner?” Doyle said impatiently. To McNider, he added, “My apologies, Dr. McNider, for the interruption. Turner, here, is a graduate student and my assistant. Very bright, but too eager sometimes. What is it, Turner?”
“I just wanted to ask permission to work after hours tonight,” Turner said. “I think I’m very close to cracking the tablet!”
“Of course, of course,” Doyle said, waving his hand dismissively. “Set up a cot in the laboratory if you want; work all night. Just remember that science can’t be hurried. The answer will come when it will come.”
“Of course, Professor Doyle. Thank you, sir!” Turner left, rounding the corner of the hallway.
“What tablet was he referring to?” McNider asked.
“A very ancient clay tablet found amidst the ruins of a pre-Colombian civilization in South America,” Doyle explained. “Turner’s been trying to translate it. Working very hard, very hard. It hasn’t been easy; it’s not a language we’ve ever come across before.”
“Then how can he translate it,” McNider asked, “without a frame of reference?”
“The language is similar to some ancient languages we have come to understand,” Doyle explained. “They likely had a common root, just as French and Spanish both evolved from Latin. But it is dissimilar enough from known ancient languages to be problematical. But we’ll crack it, never fear!”
McNider smiled at Doyle’s enthusiasm. “You sound just like Carter when he’s got a new find, a new puzzle to solve,” he said.
“Well, all archaeologists sound like that, I suppose,” Doyle chuckled. “Do you have an interest in archaeology, Dr. McNider?”
“Not very much, I admit,” McNider said. “Medicine is my field. But that’s a lot like archaeology in a lot of ways. We physicians are also puzzle-solvers a lot of the time.”
“True, true,” Doyle said. “So tell me, how do you know Hall?”
Before McNider could give the standard reply that he gave to that question when asked by people outside the loop, the conversation was interrupted by a scream.
“Good Lord!” Doyle shouted. “That came from the laboratory area!” The imposing professor took off at a run. Acting instinctively, Al followed him. McNider followed as well, without even thinking about maintaining his pose as a blind man.
“Good Lord!” Doyle shouted from the doorway of the laboratory. “I — I don’t — Good Lord!” Al saw what made the professor stammer so, and he was stunned into silence.
A dead body was slumped across an examining table. The body was that of an elderly man, perhaps eighty or ninety years old. The old man was wearing young Turner’s clothes, and a closer examination of his face showed it to be Turner himself, suddenly aged sixty years or more.
“Good heavens!” McNider exclaimed after Al had described to him what he wasn’t supposed to be able to see. “What on Earth could have caused that?”
“It’s incredible,” Doyle stammered. “Absolutely incredible! In all my years as an archaeologist — incredible!”
“I’m going to call campus security,” Al said. “Not much they can do, but still–!”
“On your way, Mr. Pratt, would you mind guiding me back to the medical building?” McNider asked. “There’s bound to be a crowd milling about here, and it’s difficult enough for me to move about without that.”
“Sure, Dr. McNider,” Al said. “Follow me.”
As they turned the corner, McNider and Al shared a knowing glance that said all that needed to be said.
Fifteen minutes later, campus security had cordoned off the area with reflective tape. Dean Chalmers had arrived and was in the laboratory with the security men. He stood over the old man’s body, a look of disbelief on his face.
“This is impossible!” Chalmers said. He turned to Professor Doyle. “You’re telling me that this octogenarian, here, was twenty-two year-old Nick Turner just ten minutes before you heard the scream?”
Doyle spread his hands wide. “If I could explain it, Alfred, I would,” Doyle said. “It’s beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.”
“But perhaps not beyond our experiences,” came an authoritative voice from the laboratory door. Chalmers and Doyle turned to see two costumed champions standing in the entrance.
“It’s the Atom!” Chalmers exclaimed. “And Doctor Mid-Nite! Well! This is a surprise, or at least half of one.”
“Half a surprise?” the Atom repeated.
“Well, yes, Atom,” Chalmers said. “You’ve been on the scene when trouble occurred at Calvin before; I half-expected you would show up for this. But Doctor Mid-Nite is completely unexpected. And welcome — very, very welcome.”
“Come in, sir,” a uniformed security guard said, pulling aside the tape. Doctor Mid-Nite strode into the room, followed by the Atom, who chose not to notice the singular form of the guard’s respectful address. Mid-Nite walked right to the old man’s body.
“Have the police been notified?” Mid-Nite asked the Dean.
“Yes,” Chalmers said. “They’re sending a couple of their forensics boys right over.”
“If I heard you right just now,” Mid-Nite said, “you believe this to be the body of a twenty-two-year-old man, suddenly aged rapidly to this state?”
“It seems to be,” Doyle said. “Young Nick Turner, my assistant. He came into this room not ten minutes before we heard the scream to work on a tablet he was translating. The body is wearing his clothes, and the face! It looks just like young Turner’s face, aged overnight! It’s uncanny!”
“This Turner was twenty-two, you say?” the Atom asked.
“Yes, and I know what your next question will be,” Chalmers said. “He applied for, and received, conscientious objector status. He was a Quaker.”
“Shameful, in a time like this, when everyone’s needed,” the Atom said, shaking his head.
“Don’t be intolerant, Atom,” Mid-Nite said, not turning his eyes from the body. “Everyone’s faith is their own business, and the state has no right to force them to act in opposition to it.”
“I guess,” the Atom said unconvincingly.
Doctor Mid-Nite turned from the body to the lab table at which it sat. He pointed to a clay tablet with figures and symbols carved into it. “Is this the tablet Turner was translating?” he asked.
“It is,” Doyle said. “Why?”
Mid-Nite turned to the table. “Perhaps there’s a clue there as to what happened.” The goggled crime-fighter picked up the top sheet from a sheaf of papers next to the tablet. He frowned at it, then turned it over to show Professor Doyle.
Turner had copied a row of the symbols carved on the tablet. Beneath them he had written, in block letters, their English equivalent. Some symbols had no English word under them, as yet untranslated. But one unbroken phrase stood out from the others.
BEWARE THE THIEF OF YEARS.