by Dan Swanson
Shortly after the second giant wave crashed onto the shore of Lake Michigan, some policemen appeared on the beach and suggested that everyone should evacuate, as more and larger waves were known to be on the way. Most folks did indeed evacuate, but in the confusion, nobody noticed that Aki had stayed behind. When everyone was gone, she headed back to her own house and picked up her backpack. She was leaving soon, and everything she needed to take with her was already packed.
Her own house would shortly be demolished by one of the larger waves. It would be knocked off its foundation, the natural gas pipe would break, and the house would fill with gas. A little later, a broken power line would spark, and boom — that would be the end of that nifty little beach house. She had picked it specifically because of this upcoming event, and she wanted to be sure that she didn’t leave any traces when she moved on to her next job.
She also knew Tomas Thomas’ house would survive all the big waves. Tom Atomic had given her the key when he and Red Rocket had headed out to fight the monster responsible for the huge waves along the lake shore, so she decided to leave her pack in his guest room until she’d finished the job. From her pack, she pulled out and donned a belt and pair of crossed bandoliers, each of which had a number of pouches attached. From one of these pouches she pulled what looked like a transistor radio, although it had a small TV screen built in. Pressing a button, she said, “Show upcoming scheduled events.”
Text appeared at the bottom of the small screen and scrolled upward, pulling more text behind it. “Scroll stop,” she said. The top line was flashing, indicating that she needed to start on her next task right away.
Clapping her hands together once, she said loudly, “Tomare!”
From her perspective, everything seemed to stop moving, and dead silence descended. She turned a dial on a box that was attached to her belt and rose smoothly into the air. Turning toward the northeast, and, moving a slider on the same box, she drifted smoothly forward, passing through the wall as if it weren’t there, and then accelerated out over the water.
The scene outside was incredible. It was like looking at the most realistic painting ever. Yet another gigantic wave had been sweeping toward the shore, but now it was stopped about a half-mile away. A bolt of lightning was frozen in the sky, reaching halfway to the ground. There was still no sound, still no motion. She passed a very brave bird who appeared to be struggling against a fierce wind, yet was floating motionless and unsupported sixty feet above the lake.
After a timeless interval — how could you judge time, when there was no time? — she spotted the unmoving Coast Guard boats and, in the distance, Red Rocket and Tom Atomic, who were frozen in the sky above a giant turtle, which was also stationary. She landed on the largest boat and passed through the walls into the radio room. Sticking her head through the radio cabinet, she examined the vacuum tubes inside.
Finding the tube she wanted, she concentrated until her hand was solid and pulled the tube from its socket. She allowed both her hand and the tube to return to their insubstantial condition, then withdrew them from the radio cabinet. Opening another pouch, she pulled out a seemingly identical tube, which she then inserted into the socket. She dropped the original into her pouch, then smiled as she crossed another item off of her checklist. Wow, if only all her little “chores” were so easy.
The replacement vacuum tube appeared to be identical to the original, but it would cause this radio set to broadcast static on the Squadron of Justice frequency, effectively jamming transmission on that frequency for many miles around. There were indeed some fledgling super-heroes monitoring that frequency, but they could not be permitted to interfere. After an hour, the vacuum tube would fail, and even the most detailed inspection would never show that it had been doctored to jam radio transmissions.
This adventure needed to be handled by Red Rocket and Tom Atomic, with no help from anyone else. Red Rocket had to realize that he actually still did enjoy being a hero, and Tom Atomic had to get over his overconfidence. She knew Master Man would arrive later, but that was fine; by the time he would arrive, the dangerous part of the job would be done.
She looked at her miniature screen. Her next task needed to happen about 3.5 minutes in the future. In nice weather she would just have dropped back into real time and set her alarm, but she would just as soon skip the cold and wind. She followed the directions provided by her hand device to the next location.
Since she was moving through zero time, there wasn’t any hurry. So she inspected the turtle monster with interest as she flew in that direction. She hoped her next action would save its life. She knew that if she could influence events as she hoped, it would have a very interesting life ahead of it.
When she reached the right place, it was, of course, not the right time. She was exactly three minutes and 27.35 seconds early. She wasn’t sure she could make quite that precise a jump, but she could definitely get closer than she was now. She concentrated, then moved her right hand in a rainbow motion. When she finished, she again brought her hands together with a clap, and uttered the command, “Tomare.” Checking her device again, Aki was pleased to see that she was early by just under a second of real time.
Red Rocket had his gauntlet back on, and there was a look of intense concentration on his face. He was trying to adjust his plasma-thrower to work as a disintegrator. Aki had run computer simulations that suggested four possible outcomes, all with about equal probability. Rocket would be cautious enough, and everything would work exactly as he hoped, or he would burn his hand off, or he would kill himself, or he would kill himself and Tom Atomic, as well as the monster. In other words, the probability of a disaster outweighed the probability of a useful outcome by about three to one. It was Aki’s next job to ensure that none of the disasters occurred.
She knew Tom Atomic well enough to know that he would be very uncomfortable with one of his inventions being used outside of its design parameters, and if he lived through this adventure, he would redesign the plasma-thrower to work as a disintegrator, equipping it with a fail-safe. So she just had to make sure it didn’t misfire when Red Rocket used it today. What the simulations didn’t quite show was the best way for Aki to intervene. That was why she was on the spot and observing events closely.
Her hand device — a Personal Achronic Assistant, or PAA, which she’d nicknamed Paca — showed her that she was still about a second too early. Well, short jumps through real time were easy. Red Rocket and Tom Atomic were concentrating on the hot spot; if she moved away from them, they would never notice her popping into real time and then back into zero time for less than a second. She clapped her hands and said, “Stato!” and then almost instantly clapped them again, accompanying them with, “Tomare!” She checked Paca and saw that her timing was perfect.
She had to do this right the first time. The way her powers worked, she couldn’t go back and undo or revise her work; if she messed this up, everyone would have to work with the consequences. Sometimes she could make other changes after an error, and still achieve the desired results. Tom Atomic’s stay in the hospital was the result of one such error — she had changed the trajectory of the bullet so it had missed him, but she hadn’t counted on the massive radiation dosage that he had been exposed to as a result. She had spent a long interval in zero time after that, trying to figure out how to salvage her mission.
In zero time, the young woman from the future known as Aki Amazing took some time to reflect. She had learned long ago that if something was bothering her, she needed to address it as soon as possible. She had thought she had worked through the pain of Tomas’ hospitalization, but if it bothered her this much, she needed to settle it before she made any other mistakes. Her mind drifted back to that traumatic experience.
The alarm on Aki Amazing’s PAA went off, and she quickly moved into zero time. Sometimes her job was distasteful, but she was looking forward to this. It wasn’t often she got to assist in the origin of a new super-hero team.
Drifting out through the wall of her apartment, she headed toward the nearby campus. With zero time, she didn’t actually need to be close to the scene of the action, but she always tried to minimize the possibility of error. Even with the assistance of Paca, the timing of her next intervention had to be exact.
She drifted into the lab used by Todd Drake and Tomas Thomas and saw a scary tableau. Because she was in zero time, no one was moving, but Todd and Tomas were facing four gangsters with drawn pistols. She was only a second or so away from the first shot, and she was a little disturbed that Paca’s alarm hadn’t come a few seconds earlier — she had specified to the computer to leave her a safety margin, but Paca’s definition of safety margin was not always in agreement with her own. At least the bullet hadn’t yet been fired.
She wasn’t in a hurry, now, though. In zero time, she had lots of time. She closely examined the entire room from several angles, making measurements and taking notes. Every detail was identical to her practice simulations.
The simulations had indicated a variety of potential outcomes to this scenario, but they could all be summed up in two broad scenarios.
In the first scenario, Tomas would be missed by the first shot, and he and Todd would attack and subdue the bad guys. In this scenario, after the heroes of Earth-S would disappear due to the Suspendium trap, Todd and Tomas would decide to form a heroic team to help fill the void left by the missing heroes. (*) One of Todd’s descendants figured significantly in one of the alternate futures of Earth-S, and Aki hoped to ensure that this particular present led to that particular alternate future.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The World’s Wickedest Plan,” Shazam! #1 (February, 1973).]
In scenario number two, Todd and Tomas would both be killed, an outcome that would produce serious negative consequences for Aki. Todd wouldn’t have any descendants. She might be able to mend the damage by tweaking the timeline so that someone else fulfilled a destiny not her own, but it would take the home office researchers years to figure out just how to do that. Also, she would feel terrible about depriving someone she didn’t even know of her chance to fulfill her own destiny.
Without any intervention at all, the simulations suggested that the first scenario was slightly more probable than the second scenario. It was Aki’s job to eliminate the uncertainty and make sure that the first bullet would miss Tomas. He and Todd would then take care of the rest on their own. She had tested various solutions in her training simulations, and the best solution involved slightly deflecting the bullet. She was glad she hadn’t arrived a second and an instant later — the closer the bullet was to Tomas before she took action, the more difficult it would be to make sure it missed him.
Aki Amazing had another power she called stretch time, which allowed her to alter her own perception of the passage of real time. She could make the world seem to move more slowly (thus allowing her to move more quickly), and she could also do the reverse, although she rarely used this power. That was because the more she changed her perception of real time, the harder it became for her to actually affect events in real time.
When she stretched time enough so that she was able to watch a bullet in slow motion, even the air resisted her. Every movement felt like walking upstream through fast-moving water, and she had to struggle just to breathe. And if she moved too fast, she risked dangerous burns from air friction.
She made her preparations in zero time, positioning herself in the path of the bullet, and putting on a breathing mask she pulled out of one of her pouches. Finally, she realized that she was just fidgeting and had no more reasons to stall. She braced herself and slid out of zero time into stretch time.
She saw the bullet emerge slowly from the gun, followed by a blast of smoke. Paca quickly estimated that, at the current stretch level, it would take about forty minutes of subjective time to reach Tomas, which was plenty of time to do what she needed to do.
That was, if she could remain conscious long enough. No matter how hard she tried, she could barely force air into and out of her lungs. If the mask hadn’t been supplying pure oxygen, she thought she would have passed out already. She moved her hand slightly to try to touch the bullet with her finger. The effort it took to make that small movement was incredible — it felt like her arm was buried in wet sand. Straining, she eventually managed to lay her finger gently on the bullet. She could feel it slowly spinning and moving forward even more slowly, and she gently pushed on it. For several seconds, it resisted her push, but her gentle pressure eventually had an effect, and she felt the bullet change directions slightly.
It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Even with the mask forcing pure oxygen into her lungs, she began to feel dizzy. The gentle push with her finger tired her as much as if she had been pushing a primitive, World War II-era automobile the length of a football field. Paca quickly confirmed that, based on the trajectory, the bullet would miss Tomas, and Aki slipped gratefully back into zero time.
She was so tired, she let Paca steer her flight back to the apartment. She slipped out of zero time and into bed, and was asleep in seconds.
Thus she wasn’t around when the bullet smashed into the gamma ray machine, making and breaking just the right connections to unleash a massive torrent of radiation. Of course, Tomas ended up receiving a fatal dosage, and the thugs weren’t far behind. This was something that the sim designers had never even suspected might happen.
About an hour later, Paca used the alarm to wake Aki. She was groggy, but she knew Paca would never wake her like this unless something was wrong.
“Mission status!” she commanded.
“Mission status critical. We messed up, luv! I’ve been monitoring their primitive data channels–“ That was how Paca described radio, television, and even telephone. “–and Tomas is in the hospital with a fatal case of radiation sickness. We go home now, it’s an even bet whether they fire us or shoot us. Wanna see my sims?”
The PAA was not supposed to be sentient, but Aki was sure hers was developing a personality. Sometimes it was even a little fresh, and she was certain that aspect wasn’t part of the original programming. She sometimes thought that some of the equipment maintenance guys back at the home office were messing with her, but she couldn’t be sure. Paca was the single most advanced computing tool ever developed, and no one was quite sure what its limits might be.
“No, you idiot computer! I want to see the mission status update! What happened?”
“There is no need for insulting names, luv!” She must have been imagining the hurt tone in its voice. “That black box on the lab bench behind him seems to have blown up when the bullet hit. Never did that in any of the sims, though! It’s not your fault.”
“OK, Paca, it’s not my fault. Fine. Now that we’ve got that figured out, what happened? And how are we going to salvage this mission?”