The massive wheels of Nathaniel’s bronze truck endured the inconsistency of the gravel trail. There were thick rocks, various random weeds sprouting from the ground, and occasional littered items scattered about the path that clearly received no regular maintenance. The faded sign at the entrance suggested that large vehicles were permitted on the path, but the random jolts resulting from the uneven ground made Nathaniel’s drive less than desirable. The view from any given window or mirror was the same… stalks of corn. The crops spread for miles, and the lack of signs of civilization made Nathaniel envision being the last man on Earth.
He was certainly far from such dire circumstances, but his situation was quite unique. In the unoccupied passenger seat to his right, a manila folder rested on the leather cushion. The words “PROJECT ATOM” were messily scrawled across the area of the folder reserved for labels. It could only be described as a doctor’s handwriting. But not the type of doctor one might expect. Less of the general health care type, and more of the baggy-eyed, unkempt-hair, mad scientist type. The folder was stuffed with papers of varying shades of white. Three tightly wrapped rubber bands prevented the overflowing contents from spilling. The folder hopped an inch from the seat every time the truck drove over an uneven patch of gravel or a half-empty soda can tossed carelessly on the path.
Soon, Nathaniel’s truck came to a halt as the path parted in two. He could think of only one way to determine the direction of his destination. He closed his eyes and envisioned the last time he had been in a vehicle headed toward the facility. The last time, he had not gone willingly. He had been enclosed in the trunk of a truck much larger than his, and he was unable to see anything but a sliver of light from the base of the trunk as he rode. But Nathaniel could remember the feeling of turning left. Perhaps his mind was deceiving him, but he seemed to recall his body feeling the sensation of a left turn. It was a long time ago, but the experience was so traumatic that he gained more certainty each second he thought about it. And soon it became a solidified memory. Yes, it had to be a left. So he twisted the wheel with one hand and sharply swiveled left.
Soon the number of corn stalks surrounding the truck was dwindling, and the road was gradually turning from gravel to pavement. Nathaniel’s heart thumped in that uneasy fashion that only increases your anxiety. That kind of thump that you just want to subdue however you can. But for him it was a bit more extreme. When he felt his nervousness begin to spike, he could feel an energy pulsing near his heart. It caused a blue glow to seep through his clothes. He was wearing an army green jacket and cargo pants to avoid any suspicion. But it was inevitable. His skin was highly abnormal as a result of Project Atom. In its natural state it was silvery and metallic, but upon activation of his metahuman abilities, it burnt brightly with a blue luminance. The peculiar metal had attached itself to his body years ago, conforming to every molecule of his skin, hair, eyes, and organs in a way that was borderline unnatural. It could barely be explained by Earth sciences, which ought to be expected of an alloy with extraterrestrial origins. The fusion was orchestrated by the very man whose messy handwriting could still be seen on the folder in Nathaniel’s passenger seat. He went by Megala, or more formally Dr. Heinrich Megala.
Megala was a scientist that the U.S. government enrolled in the Project Atom program to tamper with this metal that possessed unforeseeable atom-altering properties. It was Megala’s own idea to attempt a fusion with a living human. The government, naturally without the public’s knowledge, consented to this experiment. They brought more scientists on board to assist in the process, and signed up Nathaniel as the human test subject. At the time, he had been a member of the United States Air Force, and was sadly caught up in the unnecessary legalities of an overseas crime he had no part in. He was facing the possibility of a wrongful ten-year sentence, but was told he could be pardoned from the sentence if he agreed to take part in Project Atom. Desperate to avoid a decade without seeing his wife and children, he agreed without understanding the technicalities of the project, or even what it entailed in any sense. He was forcefully brought to the lab one day, told to step into a machine, and walked out having been fused with the alien alloy. It also may be worth mentioning that the alien radiation propelled him two decades into the future.
Nathaniel eased off the gas as he approached the non-descript research facility that he recognized all too well. He parked the car in the vacant concrete lot before the building, hopped out, and shut his door with force. The vibe given off by the building was simply eerie. Nothing about it, other than the obvious vacancy and unusual location, made it terribly scary. It was well-constructed and looked like a desirable place to work. But there was an unplaceable energy about it that made Nathaniel’s silver skin glow blue with uneasiness. He inhaled and calmed the surging power within his body. Upon making it to the glass door, he peered inside. A key card reader was positioned next to the door, which he smashed easily. Enhanced strength was among the many abilities that came with his condition. Assuming the destroyed reader would allow him to open the door, he pulled the handle. It did not open, so he released a small blue energy wave from his hand that knocked the door from its hinges, shattering the glass upon the interior of the room. He stepped inside to find no lights on. He fired several blue flares at the unlit overhead lights, which caused the bulbs to glow blue, illuminating the room.
The room was abandoned, but one would not have guessed so by the looks of it. There were no indications that it was as uncared for as the pathway leading up to it. No scattered paperwork, no peeling walls, nothing to show that this facility had been closed down after Project Atom… which Nathaniel believed it had been. He dragged his metallic fingertips across the filing cabinets lining the wall, just imagining all the other horrid experiments documented within them… ones that had failed and ones that had succeeded.
At that moment, Nathaniel recalled the amount of disgust he held for this secret agency. So instead of seeking stairs or an elevator, he propelled himself from the ground, straight through the ceiling in one incredibly powerful leap. Upon landing on the next floor, he looked around, seeing a directory map posted on a wall. He walked over to it, and found a list of staff members, along with the locations of their offices within the building. There was only one name he wanted to find. Megala. He found the wretched name written in a small blue font, pointing toward a star on the fourth floor of the building. He did not hesitate to burst through several more ceilings and doors in order to reach the narrow hallway which led to Megala’s office.
Ironically, the door to Megala’s office had chipped paint, a faded sign, and a rusty handle, whereas all the other doors seemed perfectly fine. Somehow his office was more grubby than any of the other rooms that were completely abandoned. But Nathaniel knew Megala was still there. After twenty years, after the agency was shut down… he would still be there in that room. Nathaniel knew. Because he remembered something Megala said to him moments before the experiment was performed. “This room is where I work. My work is my life. So why ever leave? I spend all my days and nights here, tirelessly working on projects like this one… so you can trust me, Nate. It will work. And if it doesn’t, I will stay here until it does.”
But it hadn’t worked, needless to say. With each step closer to the door, Nathaniel glowed brighter. His fists were clenched, and his teeth were gritted. His eyes glowed with an especially powerful passion. He held onto the door handle, and melted the door instantly into a sludge on the ground. He could alter matter in ways he did not quite understand. He stepped in through the thin frame, and turned to face Megala’s desk. There he sat. In that same wheelchair. With that same complacent grin.
“Nate…” his voice creaked. “I knew you’d come.” Megala had been fairly old twenty years ago, and now he appeared to be painfully frail and helpless. Yet his smirk still carried the confidence of a man who believed himself to be the smartest in the room.
“Was hoping I’d find you here,” replied Nathaniel.
“You don’t look a day older… it worked.” Megala’s wrinkly eyes widened.
“You’re delusional. It failed miserably. Your project shot me twenty years into the future. I’m scared to go find my family. I’m scared to call my friends. I don’t know where anyone is or if… if anyone’s moved on.”
“Mmmm. That was always a potential risk. Luckily I care little about the matters of your personal life. Or anyone’s. Even my own life is worth being destroyed in pursuit of a better tomorrow.”
“Your life has been destroyed since Day 1, Megala. You’re a sorry old man who lives in a damn science office and treats human beings like disposable rodents. Twenty years later, I come to you… I tell you what happened to me. Your subject. A human. And I don’t get an apology? I don’t get any compensation for missing out on twenty years of life?”
“I can say sorry if that will somehow bring you closure, Nate. But I don’t think it will. As I predicted, you haven’t aged whatsoever, meaning you will still live out the rest of your natural lifespan. Perhaps even longer due to the alloy’s longevity.”
“As you… predicted?” Nathaniel’s jacket burst into flames due to his sheer rage, and it incinerated, leaving him in a thin undershirt. His torso glowed a vibrant blue and he walked furiously toward Megala. He bent over, grasped one of the wheels of his chair, and yanked it off. The chair fell lopsided, and Megala barely caught himself with his skeletal arms. He gazed up at Nathaniel, still maintaining his infuriatingly cocky smile.
“Yes…” muttered Megala. “Yes, the whole point was to send you into the future. Do you understand what this means? The alien metal that has bound itself to your molecular structure can alter not only atoms of matter… but time itself. This is the breakthrough of a century…”
“I’m gonna throw your flimsy body a century back to before you were born, and then kill you.”
“While your tone intimidates me, you understand nothing of time travel. Nor do I, to be frank. The point of the experiment, aside from fusing the metal with a living test subject, was to prove its time-altering abilities. Proving them was one daunting task, but mastering them… could take longer than either of us have left on this Earth. I suggest you stick to altering matter. I notice you did some fine work with my door and your jacket.”
“Yeah. I can… change things. Make them into other substances, or just destroy them entirely. I can’t control it sometimes. I came here because I need your help. So that I don’t hurt anyone.”
“I understand the way the alloy works. I understand how your abilities are activated on a molecular level… but to aid you in overcoming the mental roadblocks of getting your powers under control… well that would not be in my wheelhouse. Perhaps you can seek out a superhero therapist.”
“Is that what you think I am now? A hero?”
“You were already a hero, Nate. A dedicated member of the military. I just made you super. You have the option of doing more good than ever before. Good for your country. Good for your family. You’re a free man, Nate. I’ve given you a gift.”
“A gift without an instruction manual.”
“You want a tip? Fine. The more limits you place on the alloy, the more limited it will be. It works in synchrony with all of your body’s higher functions, including your mind. And the more you restrain yourself, the more channels of energy you’re blocking off. So to unlock your potential, and to wield the energy with mastery and control… you must mentally release yourself from disbelief and restraint. You must be what I intended for you to be.”
“What did you intend for me to be?”
“Well… assuming you use this gift to fight for America alongside the military, which was always the intent of the government sponsors… then I imagined a name such as Captain Atom might suit you well.”
“I didn’t sign up for this.”
“Actually, Nate… you did.”
Nathaniel reached for the loose wheel on the tiled floor. He fused it back to the wheelchair, allowing Megala to sit upright again. Nathaniel had words… too many words to say. He wanted to continue venting to Megala, but he knew his condition was irreversible. No amount of words could get a genuine apology out of the old man, or get him to help get his life on track. To Megala, Nathaniel was no more than an experiment. What he had just learned was enough to carry on by himself. He looked into Megala’s ancient eyes one last time before carelessly leaping through the ceiling. Then another ceiling. And then, miraculously, the ceilings no longer crumbled as he burst through them. He simply phased through the matter, causing no damage at all. And before he knew it, his feet were no longer hitting anything. He was not jumping. He was flying.
Nathaniel’s body flew through the highest ceiling on the 10th floor, phasing through the roof and soaring into the sky that had dimmed significantly since he had entered the building. Night was falling, and he burnt brightly enough to be mistaken for a star by people down below. Megala’s words rose to the surface of his mind. To unlock your potential, and to wield the energy with mastery and control… you must mentally release yourself from disbelief and restraint.
Nathaniel’s eyes glowed passionately, and he raised his arms cautiously, but with command. He inhaled, and a blue ring of energy expelled from him as he exhaled. This wave of power caused all the clothing to be ripped from his body, no longer restricting his vibrant glow. He pushed downward with his arms, as if he was at the bottom of a pool and trying to reach the top. He flew higher into the air, wind rushing through his messy locks of hair. His heart thumped similarly to the way it did earlier, but now he no longer felt anxious. Instead, he felt released. He had flown before in his Air Force days, but this was indescribably different. He truly touched clouds for the first time.
And as Nathaniel entered the upper levels of the atmosphere, he gazed down at a world that had treated him so unkindly… but he still felt an urge to protect it.