Ryan Choi was extremely unimpressed with his circumstances.
All his life he'd been working toward this goal the way everyone said it was supposed to work: study hard, go to university, get a job and be successful. So he'd studied, he'd gone to university, he'd gotten a Master’s and a PhD and...
No one had really impressed upon him the reality of the fact that even after you got a research position, you had to get funding to do research.
Video game therapy helped, it truly did, but it could only do so much.
"Stupid grants! Stupid endless forms! Stupid incompetent computer-programmed team mates! Augh!"
Ryan mashed his thumbs into his controller, spraying the enemy with hot lead. It wasn't nearly as satisfying as it should have been. With another frustrated shout, he pitched the controller at the wall where it bounced off of the pillow taped there with a dull thunk. He’d found himself doing that a lot lately and replacing the controller every single time just wasn’t economical...
"Why are there no bad guys to fight when you need one?" he sighed, dropping his chin into one hand and glowering at the game over screen.
"I don't think I can give you a bad guy, my friend, but I can certainly give you something to fight!"
Ryan jerked to attention and whirled around to find himself facing an old friend.
He’d given in and gifted Aquaman a key to his apartment long ago, in order to cut down on door, window and, one memorable time, pipe replacements. It was still a surprise every time he arrived at Ryan’s doorstep, though.
The aquatic avenger laughed and saluted Ryan as he stepped into the room.
"Ahoy there, Atom! How are you doing this fine day?"
Ryan winced at the window-rattling bellow with which Aquaman was greeting him.
"Aquaman, do you remember what I've told you about inside voices? It's two in the morning and my neighbours get cranky when you yell."
"Oh my! It would be impolite of me to wake Mrs. Belling from her beauty rest!" Aquaman's stage whisper wasn't much softer than his heroic bellow, but he was trying. That... would have to be good enough for now. Ryan sighed.
"Don't worry about it. Now what did you say about fighting? Because I could really use a good throw down right about now.”
"Ah, my friend, I'm afraid I have come to you for your scientific skills, rather than your fists! Still, these struggles of the mind are just as OUTRAGEOUS as the struggles we fight with criminals!" Aquaman paused, finger mid-thrust in the air as the replayed his last sentence in his head. Sheepishly, he added, "Just maybe not as exciting."
“Shoot.” Sulking wasn’t really a mature doctor of physics thing to do, but Ryan figured that he deserved a good sigh before he gave in to the inevitable. “Well, helping you out will at least be more productive than racking up my headshot count. Let’s go.”
“As always, your loyalty to our friendship is strong and true! Quick! Let us be off!”
Aquaman pumped his fist into the air... and then stared at Ryan expectantly.
“Are you not going to don a more heroic outfit, my friend?”
Ryan blinked, then looked down at his outfit. Ratty sweatpants and a T-Shirt emblazoned with “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate!” in neon green.
“Um. Yes. Give me a moment.”
“So what seems to be the problem?”
Ryan wasn’t sure which building this was, since all of them tended to look very similar on the outside, and all the signs were in Atlantean. It looked much more somber than Aquaman’s palace, though, since the only colours evident were blues and greens, and the lights seemed to be stuck on “dim”.
Even Aquaman’s voice was muted as he opened another door, beckoning for Ryan to enter.
“Atom, I’d like you to meet another friend of mine.”
There was a wide, shallow pool in the middle of the room, rather than a bed, and the monitors all blinked in Atlantean characters, but Ryan still knew exactly what this place was now.
“We’re in a hospital?”
“Yes.” Aquaman knelt by the side of the pool and patted the great head of the sea turtle lying in the sand. “This is Coria. She’s a leatherback sea turtle, one of the last of the Malaysians and she’s been a friend to me ever since I was a guppy. She’s also very sick, and I just can’t figure out why!”
As the turtle butted her head against Aquaman’s hand, the man wiped a fat teardrop from his eye. With a mighty sniffle, he stood and turned to Ryan, grasping the other man’s hands tightly.
“Please, my friend. I need to figure out what is making Coria ill, and you’re my only hope!”
“Well, marine biology isn’t really my field…” But Aquaman was his friend, and he needed help, and Ryan had spent a good two years of his undergraduate career on the pre-med track before he’d discovered the glories of gluons and quarks. Ryan bit his lip and squared his shoulders. “I’ll give it my best shot.”
Immediately, he found himself pulled into a tight bear hug and swung around in a great arc.
“OUTRAGEOUS! Oh, my friend, you have no idea how much this means to me! Just tell me what you need and by Poseidon, I will get it for you!”
“… I’d like to be able to breathe?”
Aquaman immediately let go, leaving Ryan bent over as he gasped for breath. When he’d re-inflated his lungs, he stood up and pulled on his best heroic Atom grin. “Okay. Why don’t we start out with the tests your doctors have already taken?”
Several hours later, Ryan set down his datapad and turned to face Aquaman with a heavy heart.
“Aquaman, I’ve looked through all Coria’s charts and--”
The eager expression on Aquaman’s face caused Ryan’s heart to sink deeper down. It was probably hanging out around his knees by now.
“Well... they’re clear. Everything seems fine! Despite being eighty-”
“Yes, seventy-nine years old, she’s in perfect condition! I have no idea why she’s feeling sick!”
“So there’s no hope?”
Ryan looked down, unable to bear the full force of Aquaman’s heartbroken expression.
“I--” And then his eyes lit upon his belt. “Maybe not!”
This time, it was he who took Aquaman by surprise as he grabbed the king’s hand and ran the both of them towards Coria’s pool.
“Tests and charts are fine, but nothing’s better than doing a little hands-on investigation!”
There was barely time for Aquaman to grin and shout “OUTRAGEOUS!” as they leapt forward, shrinking down, down, down until they vanished into thin air.
After shrinking down, the two heroes had made their way into Coria’s system to search for anything amiss. As they floated through her, though, Aquaman seemed disgruntled.
“I don’t wish to question your scientific expertise, my friend...”
“But?” Ryan turned so that he could swim backwards while facing his friend.
“But are you sure we’re going the right way?”
“We’re searching for things are are out of the usual, Aquaman. There isn’t really a right way to do that.”
“Yes, but last time we did this, when we were in Batman, it was a lot... different.”
“Yes! The cells were squishier and the colours were redder and-”
“Aquaman.” Ryan raised a finger and went into lecturer-mode. “Batman is a human and Coria is a turtle. If the two looked the same on the inside? That would be weird. This? Not so weird.”
It took his friend a moment of beard stroking to process these facts, but soon enough, understanding lit the watery warrior’s eyes. “OUTRAGEOUS! As usual, you are truly a fountain of knowledge, my friend!”
“I do try.”
“So if different is good, then these strange cells are okay!” Aquaman beamed as he hugged an erythrocyte to his chest.
“And the odd colours are fine!”
Ryan nodded again as his friend turned corkscrews, waving his arms at their surroundings.
“Yes, those are fine.”
“And the silvery goop is good too!”
“Yeeeeee--No.” Ryan stopped in his tracks to stare at the goop that Aquaman was pointing at. It was silver and shiny and obviously did not belong in the bloodstream of a leatherback sea turtle. “Oh no no no, that is not good at all!”
When he swam over to the goop, Ryan pulled out a stick from his lab kit and swabbed some of it into a sample tube. The goop buzzed when he touched it, then quickly filled in the hole he had made.
“That is not a good sign,” muttered the size-changing scientist as he peered at his sample with his magnifying goggles. “Hmm.”
“Hmm, indeed.” Aquaman had paddled over and was poking at the silver goop, making faces all the while as the stuff clung to his finger like ooze. “I can see why this would be bad for Coria’s health! It’s, ah, how do you say it in surface-dweller language? Ah yes. It’s gross.”
Ryan snapped his goggles off and shrunk them down into his belt-pouch with a gleeful expression on his face. “Gross, yes, but also definitely the cause of Coria’s illness. And luckily, I know exactly how to fix it!”
The moment they returned to normal size, Ryan started pulling all sorts of gadgets from his pockets, de-shrinking himself a lab set up that would put many scientists to shame.
“I really have to get my hands on some of that shrinking technology, my friend! It would make cleaning out the garage much easier!”
Ryan hummed noncommittally as he wired bits and bobs together. “It wouldn’t get rid of the mess, Aquaman, it would only make it a lot smaller.”
Aquaman shrugged. “As long as Queen Mera doesn’t see the mess, I don’t care that it’s there!”
“Why don’t we wait on that idea until we’ve finished up-- Hah! That’s right! Who’s a genius? I’m a genius!”
Ryan indulged himself in a little victory dance as he held the fruits of his labour up into the air, and soon Aquaman joined him, raising his own arms as he did a jig.
“Haha! Yes, you did do it, my friend!” Then he paused and squinted at the thing in Ryan’s hands. “But... what is it?”
“Oh!” Ryan grinned widely. “See, the silvery goop in Coria’s blood stream? Those were nanobots! And since they run on electricity, I made this ray gun. Not a destructive one!” he hurried to add, before Aquaman could muster a horrified cry, “It’s like the one we used when we were adventuring in Batman’s body; it emits an electromagnetic pulse, which should disable the robots in your turtle friend, leaving her immune system to do the rest.”
“OUTRAGEOUS! I knew you wouldn’t fail me in my time of need!”
“Heh.” Though he tried to hide it, Ryan blushed at the effusive praise. “Well. I do try. Now what do you say we try this puppy out?”
Blue electricity burst from the end of the gun, surrounding Coria. For one, breathless moment, nothing happened. Then, suddenly, the turtle raised her head and flapped her flippers energetically.
Aquaman rushed out into the water to embrace her, laughing with glee.
“Atom! You fixed her!”
“Yeah.” Ryan stood to the side with a wide grin on his face. “I told you I would, didn’t I?”
Aquaman still had an arm around Ryan’s shoulders as the two men walked through the hospital, chatting like gleeful children.
“And the way you knew what that goop was right off the bat? I could never do that!”
“Well, you know, we each have our special skills, Aquaman.” Ryan frowned as he walked, tapping at his lip with concern. “What I’m wondering is how Coria managed to ingest those nanobots. I’ve never seen that make before, and it’s not like they grow on kelp...”
“I guess we’ll never know, my friend! I guess we’ll never kno-- Oh.”
Aquaman and Ryan stopped short as they opened the door to the hospital.
They had matching looks of horror on their faces as they stared out at Atlantis, which was rapidly being covered by a film of silver goop.
After a momentary panic, Aquaman grasped Ryan by the shoulders.
“Atom! Get your ray gun! It’s KZZAPing time!”
Ryan almost pulled out his gun, but then he pursed his lips. “No, wait. We could possibly get rid of all this stuff, but it wouldn’t stop it from coming back.”
“Ah yes. You can’t just cut off the tentacles if you want to kill the kraken. You have to go for the head!”
“So how do we find the head, my friend?”
Ryan turned on his heel and headed back into the hospital. “First, we have to go grab that sample I took earlier."
With some spare parts and most of the parts from a pair of Atlantean radios, Ryan had tinkered together a device to track the digital signal from the nanobots.
"Something is controlling them, and it's sending the signal out somehow. So, all I have to do is figure out what that signal is, and then I can track it back."
"And that's what the pingy radar thing is for?"
"That's what the pingy radar thing is for."
Ryan and Aquaman were riding the waves on Fluke and Flip, Aquaman's dolphin friends, racing as fast as they could to the source of the nanobots' control signal.
"Who do you think is doing this? Is there anyone out there with a grudge against Atlantis?"
"Maybe Black Manta?" Aquaman tossed his head back and laughed. "Haha, fat chance. He's not the kind of criminal to use such delicate technology. He'd much rather blow things up than smother them with metal."
Ryan laughed along distractedly. "Hmm, I suppose. It doesn't change the fact that we're not sure what we're going up against."
"Ah, but there's no need to worry, my friend. Between the two of us together, we can handle any problem that comes up!"
"I hope so! Because if my radar is working right, that up ahead is where our bad guy is waiting!"
Indeed, a massive island was rising out of the fog before the two men.
"Do you know which one that is, Aquaman?"
"Why yes I do, my friend! But that's strange. Last I heard, Mount Wannahockaloogie was inactive. There shouldn't be any smoke rising from its spires..."
They shared a significant look.
"Secret scientist lab."
Ryan rubbed his hands together eagerly.
"Oooh, this is gonna be fun."
Aquaman crashed through the metal doors barricading the inner sanctum of the island from the outside... or at least, he would have, had they not opened automatically.
Still, he cut a dashing figure as he stood in the doorway with a decapitated robot's head in his hand and a gleaming smile on his face.
"Your vile misdeeds are about to be put to an end!"
The high-backed chair seated in front of the control consoles for the island spun around, revealing a woman dressed all in silver. With a flip of her long hair, she stood and spread her arms.
"Welcome, Aquaman. I see you finally made it to my party."
"If this is your idea of a party, then you need to go read a dictionary, you malevolent miscreant!"
"The name's Darkheart, darling, and this party is for me, not you. But, tsk! You didn't bring me any presents! What a shame."
Darkheart tapped her chin thoughtfully, then snapped her fingers. "Ah! I know just the thing! You can give me rulership of Atlantis! Wouldn't that be something."
"I would never give Atlantis to anyone not in the royal line of succession, and I especially wouldn't give it to a criminal like you!"
Aquaman rushed at Darkheart, throwing a punch in her direction. To his surprise, she glided out of the way. When he looked down, he realized that her feet had melted into the floor.
"Egads! You're wearing the silver goop that you covered Atlantis with!"
Darkheart's laughter echoed through the sanctum. "You mean you hadn’t noticed? I can control these and all the other nanos with a thought." She flicked her hand and a miniature model of Atlantis flowed up into her palm. "I can make whatever I want with them..." then she crushed her hand closed, letting silver rivulets dribble between her fingers. "And I can also destroy whatever I want, including your beloved kingdom. So choose! Either I get Atlantis, or no one does."
"Or we could choose the other option."
Darkheart spun, squinting up at the rafters to find the source of the new voice. Her eyes widened as the Atom sized-up from where he sat on her control console. Aquaman grinned at his friend.
"Ah yes, you mean the one where we bring her to justice and save my city?"
"That'd be it!"
In response to the Atom's cheery quip, Darkheart growled. "You can talk the talk, but nothing you can do will stop my nanos and I from beating you down!"
She thrust her hands forward, and a bright spear of nanobots rushed through the air towards Atom and Aquaman.
"Nothing... except for this!"
Ryan and Aquaman pulled out matching ray guns. Aquaman's ray hit Darkheart, and Ryan's hit her computers. Upon being struck by the bright blue electricity, Darkheart froze in place and all of her computer screens went black.
"No!" The villainess struggled furiously, but could only manage to shake her head back and forth -- the rest of her body was frozen, trapped in a solid shell of deactivated nanobots.
Ryan hopped down from his perch and knocked on said shell. “Wow, that must have been really good armour when you could make it move!”
“Insolent fool! You think you can beat me just like this?”
“Uh... yeah?” Ryan shrugged and turned to Aquaman. “Think you can carry her out of here like this?”
“Oh, I certainly can, Atom. Plus, all I have to do is get her out onto the shore! My whale friends can take it from the-e-eeeere!”
Aquaman stumbled as the room started tipping over.
“By Poiseidon’s beard! What on Earth is happening?”
“The island is sinking, obviously!” Darkheart grinned, looking significantly more unhinged than she had before. “With my nanobots no longer readjusting to counter the currents, it’s about to tip! We’re all going down with this sinking ship together!”
Unruffled, Aquaman put his hand on Ryan’s shoulder. “My friend, as I was saying, I could carry her, buuuuuut I think you’d better shrink her down. We’ll make better time that way.”
“Agreed. Will your whale friends be safe near the island, though, if it tips?”
“Not to worry. I’ll arrange for a different mode of transportation once we get out.”
Aquaman turned... and stopped when he realized that the doors weren’t opening.
“Drat.” Atom grumbled as he stuffed Darkheart into a specialized villain-holding bubble on his belt. "I must have shorted out the island's systems when I took out her ability to control the nanobots."
"How will we get out, then? I've got a strong punch, but even I can't wallop my way out of a giant metal laboratory!"
"I guess we'll have to use the cheater's way."
"Cheater's...?" Aquaman followed Ryan's gaze up to the ceiling vents. "We're going to have to crawl through those, aren't we?"
"Well, with a little shrinking magic, we’ll at least be able to walk?”
“... I hate the cheater’s way.”
The journey through the air vents had been a harrowing one, involving lots of dodging around nuts and bolts and falling clumps of dead nanobot, but when the two men finally managed to get to the vents on the roof of Darkheart’s laboratory, Aquaman spread his arms wide.
“Ah, smell that fresh ocean breeze! Isn’t it OUTRAGEOUS?”
“Mm, yes, that’s really refreshing.” Ryan was preoccupied looking over the edge of the roof at the island, which was rapidly sinking into the ocean. “Now, do you think we could get on with getting off the doomed island? I know you can breathe underwater, but I’m a land-lubber! I have to stay in the air!”
“Then it’s your lucky day, my friend, because today we’ll be leaving by Pelican Air! Meet Nigel.”
“Wha-” Ryan jumped back as a sleek white bird landed on the rooftop. “That? We’re riding on that?”
“He’s a him not a that, my friend! And … sort of.” Aquaman whistled and, obligingly, Nigel opened his beak for the mighty marine monarch to step in.
“Waaaait wait wait. You. Want me. To ride inside that bird’s mouth?” Ryan sputtered in shock. “Are you insane?”
“No, my friend! Merely adventurous! Just like you!”
Ryan backed away from the pelican with an extremely unhappy look on his face.
“If being adventurous means I’m going to be riding in the mouth of a bird, you can call me the most unadventurous person alive.”
“Atom! You had no problems with diving into Batman and Coria! What’s different about Nigel here? Is it his breath?” Aquaman leaned into Nigel’s throat a little and took a deep sniff. “Mm, a little fishy, but it’s no worse than mine!”
“It’s... it’s complicated, Aquaman.” Ryan looked away.
“Complicated? Come now, surely you know that you can share anything with me! We’re comrades in arms!”
“Well, maybe.” Ryan wrung his hands as he began recounting his tale. “See, when I was a little kid, my parents took me to the beach. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the sand was warm, and the water was bluer than the sky. The hot-dog salesman was selling like crazy, and being five, I was hungry all the time. So my parents got me a hot dog. A beautiful, juicy hot dog with ketchup and mustard and more relish than you could even image.”
Ryan sighed happily, lost in his memory.
“The thing is, like I said, the hot-dog salesman was selling a lot, which meant that there were a bunch of hot-dog ends being left around... which meant seagulls. Loud, beady-eyed little seagulls who would go after you for the smallest crumb of food! And there I was. A chubby little boy with a hot-dog and distracted parents.”
“I can still hear them squawking now...”
“Yes, my friend, and for good reason! Seagull at six o’clock!”
Only quick reflexes saved Ryan from being snapped up by the hungry seagull as he rolled under its beak and gave it a hearty uppercut to the chin. The gull, bowled over by his strength, did a backwards somersault, flapping wildly to keep its balance.
“Haha! I finally got to punch something!”
“Indeed, friend Atom!” Aquaman beckoned for Ryan to come closer. “Now get in Nigel’s beak before the rest of this one’s flock comes to get us!”
Ryan paused at the thought of multiple gigantic seagulls closing in on him, and immediately hightailed it over to Nigel.
“Fine, but you’re paying for my dry-cleaning when this suit gets all fishy.”
As Nigel took off, Aquaman leaned on the edge of his beak and frowned. “You know, I don’t see why surface-dwellers find the scent so distasteful. I personally find it quite homey.”
Nigel, being a strong and sturdy pelican, was able to fly the two men straight to Ryan’s apartment without any other problems. The flight had been surprisingly smooth, and fun enough that when Ryan sized up, he gave the bird a scritch on the head.
“Thanks, buddy. Next time I see you, I’ll get a nice big fish for you to much on, okay?”
“Yes, thank you for your help, friend. Oh! Atom, you can give him Darkheart to send to Atlantis! I’ll make sure she’s put somewhere safe in our prison facility.”
“Right! Right, I’ve got her...” Ryan popped the bubble off his belt and gave it to Nigel. “Theeeeere we go. Okay, bye Nigel! Happy flying!”
The bird nodded at Ryan, then at Aquaman, then took off at a leisurely pace, presumably headed for Atlantis.
“Well, it looks like The Adventure of Darkheart’s Dark Heart is over, my friend!”
Ryan pulled off his cowl and nodded sadly. “Yeah.” His gaze fell on the pile of grant applications he still had to fill out, and he sighed. “It’s over.”
Aquaman cocked an eyebrow as he caught the reluctant tone in his friend’s voice. “Now, my friend, are you sure that there isn’t any trouble that I could help you with?”
Stunned, Ryan looked at Aquaman, looked back at his forms, then looked at Aquaman again.
“...Yes. Yes there is definitely something you can help me with.” With a heroic boom to his voice, he pointed in the direction of his sofa. “TO THE X-BOX!”