Secret Origins: 1953: The Origin of Red Rocket and Tom Atomic, Chapter 2: Meet Tom Atomic

by Dan Swanson

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At Todd Drake’s stunned look, Tomas Thomas quickly explained. “Aki told people I went inland for dinner with a friend, so nobody will wonder why I’m not around for the rescue. She put our civilian clothes in a grip right inside the side door. Let’s go protect our secret identities.”

“Tomas, you don’t seem to understand. I don’t want to protect a secret identity. I don’t even want to have a secret identity. I want to live a nice, normal life.”

Tomas looked like he didn’t believe a word of it. “Well, then, help me protect mine, OK?”

He opened the door, picked up the grip, and the two flew away, directly inland. In the general confusion, most people didn’t notice their departure. A couple of miles inland, they curved back around toward the lake, and soon ended up at the parking lot. Todd was relieved to see that the cars in the lot hadn’t been damaged by the rogue wave. Tomas scouted around a bit, and when he saw that there was no one else around, they landed.

Before Todd could start changing his clothes, Tomas spoke up again. “Hey, let me show you some of the neat additions I’ve made to that suit! You’ll love them!”

Todd was getting a little annoyed at having to repeat himself. “Tomas, I don’t care how neat they are. I’m not interested in the hero biz any more, and I don’t really care to see them!”

Tomas’ voice was wistful, almost pleading. “C’mon, Todd, I need to show off to someone. Humor me, will you?”

Todd sighed. Anything for his best friend. “Golly gee whiz, Tomas! Can you pretty please show me all the neat gadgets you built into this keen hero suit?” He put artificial enthusiasm into his voice, and Tomas smiled.

“Thanks, buddy. Well, as you already know, you have the same flight capabilities you had as Bulletboy, or in your first Red Rocket costume. I’ve kept the radio from your gravity helmet, and extended the magnetic field to protect your whole body, not just your head. I’ve also kept the helmet radio. The first big difference is the visor. You still have it, I hope.” Todd pulled the visor from his belt. Tomas took it from him. “Here, let me put it on for you.” He slid the earpieces into matching receptacles in the pods over each ear, and Todd heard them lock into place with a click.

“Not only does the visor protect your eyes when you fly at high speeds, it can be adjusted to work like a telescope or a microscope, and it also lets you see by infrared or ultraviolet light.”

This caught Todd’s interest. The only thing he had disliked about flying was the wind blowing in his eyes. And the scientist in him was curious. “How did you make it do all those things? It sounds like magic.”

“I have Bulletman to thank. He’s never used it for anything more than flying, but his gravity regulator is amazing! With the right adjustments, I can use it to create gravity lenses that works like a telescope or a microscope, and I can also use gravity control to red-shift ultraviolet, or blue-shift infrared, into the visible spectrum. My goggles work the same way.”

“Wow, I just gotta try this out. How do I make the visor work?” Todd once again leaped into the air.

Tomas flew next to him. “Just like the gravity helmet. You think about what you want, and the visor adjusts. Here, look at the lighthouse, and concentrate on making it look larger.” The Calumet Harbor Lighthouse was about a half-mile up the shore. Todd looked at it and concentrated, and suddenly it appeared to zoom toward him.

“That’s great! Better than any binoculars I’ve ever used!” Todd slowly spun around, testing the telescopic power of the visor. He was facing northeast over the lake, trying to spot a boat or a buoy, or anything he could zoom in on. “Uh-oh, Tomas! Take a look out there! I think I know what caused that giant wave!”

Tomas turned and looked, zooming in his goggles as he did so. Even at maximum magnification, they couldn’t see much detail yet, but there was something big out there, and it was moving toward Chicago.

“I don’t know what it is, but it must be as big as the Roman Coliseum!” Todd said tensely.

“I wonder if it might be related to that thing in Sheboygan? It looks like you picked the wrong day to give up being a super-hero, buddy! C’mon!” And Tomas rocketed toward the mysterious object. He didn’t have to turn his head to know that Red Rocket was following him; he hadn’t mentioned it yet, but his goggles and Todd’s visor also had built-in radar.

Within seconds, Red Rocket and Tom Atomic were flashing over the lake, moving faster than Todd had ever flown before. He had to admit — it was exhilarating. As they approached the swimming monster, they were able to make out more details. Todd recognized it first.

“My God, Tomas, it’s an alligator snapping turtle — a snapping turtle bigger than a football stadium!” Todd was awestruck, and perhaps a little fearful. “What can we possibly do to stop it? We’re no bigger than dragonflies compared to that thing.”

Tom Atomic wasn’t worried. He didn’t yet know what they would do, but he knew they would do something heroic. That’s what heroes were for, right? “There’s some surprises in these costumes that I haven’t told you about yet, Red Rocket! Why don’t you call the Coast Guard and warn them, and maybe they can find some help for us. I’m going to take a closer look.”

“Tomas, be careful!” Todd wasn’t thrilled about being a super-hero, but he had learned from one of the best, and he knew the value of caution. “It knows we’re here, and the scientists think it can–” The warning was a second too late. “–breathe fire!

The turtle’s mouth opened, and it belched flame: a long, oily stream of flame that smelled terrible. Tomas was unable to avoid the great gout, so instead he increased his speed and dived through it. He felt a blast of almost unbearable heat, but he was through it and into the freezing water so fast, he didn’t have time to get burned. The shock of hitting the water at such high speed almost knocked him out; only his super-strength allowed him to maintain consciousness. The shock of the ice cold water against his exposed skin also helped him stay conscious, and he silently gave thanks that the costumes were insulated over most of the body.

Tomas had never before tried to fly underwater, and he was very disoriented. He needed to stop and orient himself. He certainly didn’t want to accidentally move deeper into the lake, but right now he wasn’t sure quite which way was up. And it was pretty dark down here, too.

He switched to infravision, and at least he could see his own body now. He cautiously exhaled, just a little, and saw which way the bubbles moved. It was lucky he had remembered that trick, because he was currently aimed downward just a bit. He reoriented so he was facing upward and applied power.

Suddenly it became even darker, and he realized he was under the monster. He twisted sideways and applied even more power, and now he was zooming along like a torpedo. The shape of the darkness changed, and a current of water pushed him on his way, and he realized that he had just barely escaped being eaten. The giant beak snapping shut produced a surge of water that helped him move even faster.

Once again he angled upward, and finally burst out of the water like a missile, flashing instantly high into the air. In fact, he realized that he was out of control, and once again, he wasted precious seconds in regaining control and reorienting himself. He was already so high in the air that the turtle looked small. Quickly, he turned downward and streaked to help his partner.

Todd had managed to avoid the blast of oily flame. The stink suggested to him that the turtle burned natural methane, not that it really mattered. He saw Tomas dive into the water, and the turtle dive after him. Seconds later, Tomas burst out of the water and was out of sight almost instantly. Todd hoped he was all right, but he had his own problems to deal with.

As the monster dived, it created another huge wave. There was nothing Todd could do to stop that wave, so he continued his efforts to contact the Coast Guard and warn them. It would probably take twenty minutes to a half an hour before it struck shore, so maybe they could be better prepared than they had been for the first wave. Just as Todd finished his emergency broadcast, the monster broke the surface again, and that touched off another gigantic wave.

Todd gave the Coast Guard the news about the second wave, then asked if they could broadcast an emergency signal on the Squadron of Justice wavelength. He knew the Squadron was missing along with the Marvel Family, but perhaps some of the heroes who hadn’t gone missing might hear the emergency signal and respond. He and Tomas — no, he and Tom Atomic — could use all the help they could get. He finally stopped thinking of himself as Todd, and he was now truly the Red Rocket.

The monster, apparently satisfied that it had driven off its miniature tormentors, once again began swimming placidly toward shore. Todd thought furiously, but the only plan he could come up with was to irritate it, and see if he could get it to follow him, away from Chicago. If it came after him, he wasn’t sure what he would do, but letting it land in Chicago was an even worse plan.

Red Rocket reviewed everything he knew about snapping turtles, which, he realized, wasn’t very much. A snapper had a tremendous beak and powerful jaw muscles, and couldn’t actually draw its head into the shells. And it had very large, sharp claws. But snappers were slow, and not very smart, and he was sure they didn’t breathe fire. Thus he knew he should be cautious, and not assume anything about this monster just because it looked like a snapper.

“Well, the back is too well-protected to attack,” he mused. “How about the top of the head?” He approached the turtle from behind, positioned himself above the head, then drove himself downward as hard as he could. He landed feet first on the middle of the turtle’s massive head. He almost broke bones in his legs, and as far as he could see, he had done no damage. The turtle seemed to be annoyed at the dragonfly that had landed on it, and it ponderously shook its head, but Red Rocket was easily able fly away, unharmed.

“Well, darn that Tom Atomic, anyway. He’s the one with the super-strength.” For the first time, Red Rocket realized that he really didn’t have any weapons. As Bulletboy, he had sometimes smashed into crooks helmet-first, but he had really never needed any weapons against human foes. Heck, even a sledgehammer would be better than nothing.

Red Rocket flew to the side of the monster’s head, and quickly kicked it in the eye. It didn’t like that. The head swung toward Red Rocket like a wrecking ball, faster than he thought it could move. He quickly lifted skyward, and was buffeted by strong gusts of wind as the head swept past him. He noticed that some kind of transparent inner eyelid had just closed, protecting the monster’s eyes from another kick. Todd was pretty much stymied. He decided it was time for another plan.

Darting back and forth in front of the turtle’s head, he prayed that he could continue to avoid the fire breath, and hoped that the turtle would turn and follow him. It was dangerous, because not only could the monster flick its head more quickly than Red Rocket expected, but Todd also had to dodge sudden gouts of flame, and he had to keep from being bitten. Once again, the monster seemed to decide that Red Rocket’s antics posed no threat to it, and it ignored him and continued swimming toward Chicago.

Red Rocket landed on the shell of the turtle and used his radio to call Tom Atomic. He needed some help, and he needed it now.

“Red Rocket calling Tom Atomic! Red Rocket calling Tom Atomic! Tom Atomic, come in please!” Red Rocket cranked up the magnification on his visor-vision and scanned the sky. There, just breaking through the clouds, he saw Tom Atomic flashing downward to join him. At the same time, the Coast Guard was calling him back.

“Coast Guard calling Red Rocket. This is Lieutenant Commander Smith, commanding officer of the Chicago base. We don’t have any heavily armed vessels in the area, but we will be sending several patrol boats armed with machine guns. They should be arriving in the area in about twelve minutes. Please make yourselves visible to them so they don’t shoot you!

“The Air Force has scrambled the nearest bomber squadron, and they will be there in about forty-five minutes. They request that you remain in the area to provide observational assistance. Mayor Kennelly has ordered the evacuation of Chicago, and Governor Stratton has declared martial law! The Army is moving artillery to the Lake Michigan shoreline, and they will be coordinating their fire with the Air Force. Via radar, we estimate that the beast will reach shore in about an hour. With any luck, the Air Force will stop it at least a mile off shore.

“This sounds like a big job, son, but I saw you in action in some newsreels years ago.” Red Rocket had been forced to identify himself as the former Bulletboy in order to get the Coast Guard to pay attention to his story. “You worked with the best — make them proud of you!”

Red Rocket didn’t bother to point out that Bulletman and Bulletgirl had vanished. The pep talk was as much for the sailors on the Coast Guard patrol boats who were listening in as it was for him.

“No response on the Squadron of Justice wavelength yet, but we’ll keep sending. Good luck, and remember — help is on the way!”

“Thanks, Commander! We’re going to attempt to drive the monster away from Chicago; we will keep you appraised of our results. Please ask your patrol boats to fire some flares when they reach the area, and we will make sure to stay away from their bullets. Red Rocket, out!”

Tom Atomic landed lightly next to him. Both heroes were ready to fly at a second’s notice, in case this monster decided to submerge. Tom Atomic was impatient.

“C’mon, Rocket. Let’s just take care of this thing ourselves!” He was ready to launch himself skyward again, but Red Rocket grabbed his arm.

“Just how do you expect to do that? I know you’re far stronger than I am, but what good will that be? Look how big this thing is!”

“Have you tried your flamethrower yet?” Tom Atomic asked.

Flamethrower? There’s a flamethrower in this suit? Geez, what would’a happened if I’d managed to turn it on by accident, back during our rescue? I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about it before!” Red Rocket was more than a little bit worried. Tomas’ recent behavior struck him as being reckless, which wasn’t like him at all.

“Don’t be silly, buddy! It’s impossible. You have to arm it first, and you can’t do that accidentally.” He pointed to one of the boxes attached to Red Rocket’s utility belt, above his left hip. “You need to open the sliding cover on this box, and then press the button inside to arm it. There is a circuit in the pointing finger of your right gauntlet, and the only way to arm the flamethrower is by bringing that circuit into contact with another circuit that is part of the button. And if you don’t use it within three minutes of arming it, it automatically goes back into safety mode.”

Well, that sounded safe enough, but Red Rocket needed more information. “So what does it burn?”

“Hydrogen, drawn from water vapor in the air!” Tom Atomic was proud of this invention. Todd, however, was a chemist, and he immediately spotted a discrepancy. But, before he could speak, Tom Atomic continued. “Push the button, then point your right arm, make a fist, and concentrate. The flame comes out of that little nozzle on the back of your gauntlet.”

Red Rocket did these things as Tom Atomic was explaining them. Suddenly, a gout of flame exploded from the back of his wrist, and Red Rocket could feel the heat, even through his insulated costume. “Holy $#!*! That’s amazing!” he exclaimed. He stopped concentrating, and the flame died away. He turned to Tom Atomic and asked the same question he had been about to ask before, and this time he didn’t let Atomic change the subject.

“Mr. Atomic, sir, you do understand that I’m a chemist, right?” Sarcasm dripped from his voice, but Tom Atomic didn’t seem to notice; he just nodded. “Well, that’s no hydrogen flame! A hydrogen flame is practically invisible, and not nearly that hot. What else aren’t you telling me?”

Tom Atomic seemed reluctant to continue, but Red Rocket was insistent. “Well, it really does burn hydrogen! You see, your command to the suit starts an automatic process. A small stream of hydrogen flows into a mixing chamber on the back of your wrist. Then I use incredibly dense magnetic fields to slam the atoms together, and some of them join to become helium. The energy released is enough to turn the rest of the hydrogen into plasma, rather than just plain flame.”

“Holy $#!*!” Todd ripped off the gauntlet and threw it as far as he could. “Are you telling my there was just a &*%%@#^ fusion reaction taking place on my wrist? What are you — #^@%!*& crazy?!

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