by Starsky Hutch 76
The conspirators filed out of the conference room, doing their best to huddle as close to Rat’lar as possible. His face was hidden by a heavily hooded robe, shielding his identity from anyone they might run across as they left the building. They were so focused on their hidden charge that they nearly collided with a janitor pushing a cleaning cart.
The janitor also had his head bowed down, the heavy brim of his hat shading the top half of his face, the lower half hidden by the sort of protective mask used by workers to keep from inhaling cleaning chemicals. His posture was typical of members of the service class, trying not to be noticed, so the aristocrats strode past him with barely a glance.
The janitor continued to push his cart down the hallway past several rooms until he came to a thick metal door with a control panel. At the center of the panel was a retinal scanner. The janitor pulled the brim of his head back to bring his eye closer to the scanner. As a beam shot out from the scanner to read his retinal pattern, a light flashed from his eye, circling the diameter of his iris, reading the scanner as well. Once it found the data the scanner was seeking, his entire iris lit up, feeding the scanner the counterfeit data needed to unlock the door. There was a click, and the door swung open. The janitor peered over his shoulder to see if anyone was looking before pushing his cart through the door.
Once he was inside and the door was closed, he removed his hat, revealing a bald head with a network of glowing electrodes upon its surface. He removed the protective mask, and while the skin was of the same green hue as that of Scrubb race, the features underneath were far more human in appearance than their short, snubbed noses or highly pronounced cheekbones.
Brainiac stared at the vast array of computer consoles before him, smiled, and slapped his hands together in satisfaction. “My deliverance is at hand.” Sitting before the largest console, he gave a sigh of contentment. It wasn’t like being back on his skull ship, but it was close enough.
Reaching into the janitor’s cart, he pulled out several cables that he used to interface himself directly with the computer. Information began to flood into him, and at once the horrible, limiting confinement he had felt since being torn from his skull ship was lifted. The entire information network of the Scrubb Empire was laid before him, and it was exhilarating.
One particular bit of information caught his eye. He found himself looking through the security camera of a hospital room. Through it he could see his enemy looking down in sorrow at the unconscious forms of his deathly ill parents.
It would be so easy, he realized, to plunge that final knife into his heart by shutting off their life-support systems. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have access now.
Or should he simply sit back and enjoy the show, relishing Superman’s agony as he watched his parents slowly slip away? That had been his plan before that accursed barbarian Lobo had interrupted him. Lobo — he would see to it that he would have agonies of his own to deal with in the near future.
Brainiac broke through the imperial security codes to see if he could locate the whereabouts of his newest enemy. Instead, he found another startling bit of information. His skull ship was on its way to Bodace, the planet of the Scrubbs. These self-important primates actually had the gall to impound his ship. He, Brainiac, the terror of countless solar systems, had his ship impounded as if it had been parked illegally. Would they expect him to pay some sort of fine? Oh, it certainly made things more convenient for him, but such presumptuousness could not go unpunished. He had much planning to do.
Superman fought the urge to fall asleep as he slumped in the chair he had moved between the twin hospital beds in which lay his parents, Jor-El and Lara. He wasn’t ready to give up hope that they might survive. But at the same time, he didn’t want to miss a single second he might have left with them by giving in to sleep.
“This must be excruciating for you,” he heard a voice say from behind him. Superman whipped around in his chair and jumped to his feet, half-expecting to see Brainiac standing in the hospital room. The voice didn’t belong to his android enemy, however. Its owner, from all indication, appeared to be completely human, yet he was wearing a green version of the robes Scrubb physicians wore. The human physician looked at his chart and said, “Acute anti-kryptonite poisoning. Nasty stuff.”
Superman bristled at his horrible bedside manner. “So how does a human come to be practicing medicine in the Scrubb Empire?” he said, eyeing him suspiciously. With shoulder-length blond hair, chiseled features, and pale blue eyes, the doctor looked like he’d be more at home on the cover of a Terran romance novel than in a Scrubb hospital. Despite his appearance, there was something sinister about him.
“They called in a specialist,” the physician said. “At the sake of appearing immodest, I’m the best there is at dealing with this sort of case. I can have your parents up and walking again within a day’s time.” He turned his clipboard to Superman. “I simply need you to sign.”
Superman thought it was odd that this physician used a clipboard and paper rather than the sort of electronic tablet that the Scrubb physicians carried. Then again, he was an off-worlder like himself. He also didn’t care for this doctor’s manner. Superman was desperate, though. He took the pen that was offered to him.
At that moment, Jor-El opened his eyes and looked toward his son, who was speaking to a man in physician’s robes. Deathly ill, it felt to Jor-El as if he were peering at them from the other side of a shallow pool, their images rippling and shifting.
The doctor’s image shifted, and his skin became jet-black. His eyes turned red, and his blond mane became billowing smoke. His medical robes became shadows that billowed in a way that seemed to defy gravity. “Shadu,” Jor-El moaned.
“The… anti-Rao,” Lara Jor-El echoed from her own bed.
“Shadu?” Superman said wide-eyed, recognizing the name from holo-records he had studied in the Fortress of Solitude. The physician’s appearance suddenly seemed to shift back and forth between the fallen angel and the shadow god of ancient Kryptonian mythology, who was more wicked than the demoness Zazura and three times as clever.
“They would have to pick this moment to wake up,” Neron said grimly. “I may have been less than forthcoming on my identity, but I was quite serious about being able to restore them… if you sign.”
“No…” Jor-El moaned.
“We — cough! — we could not bear it,” Lara echoed in a pain-wracked voice.
“I’ll sign,” Superman said, grimacing at the agonized cries of protest from his parents. “Just please help them.”
“Very noble,” Neron sighed, running a hand over his blond locks. “Too damn noble. Unfortunately, a noble sacrifice would invalidate the entire contract.” His face broke into a smile before shifting over to the image of Shadu. “Never let it be said Neron was a quitter. I’m sure our paths will cross again.”
The shadows folded in upon themselves in a way that was too much for the mortal senses Superman was currently confined to under a red sun. He fell back into his chair, and the sleep he had fought for so long finally overwhelmed him. While fitful, it finally gave him some much-needed rest.
“Magnificent. Simply magnificent,” said Du’cat, the mayor of Bodace’s capital city, as he stared at Brainiac’s skull-ship in admiration. “You honor us, King Primus, for having brought this here. It shall stand as a monument to the fight against terrorists such as Brainiac, who would seek to disrupt the rightful sovereignty of worlds and their ruling bodies.”
“Thank you,” Primus said. “But it’s simply Primus. No king.”
“Ah, yes,” the mayor said, gesturing with a sweep of his hand to Primus and the other Omega Men, “but there is no doubt in my mind that you, your wife, and your brave men will retake your rightful places as king and queen of Euphorix.”
“I appreciate that,” Primus said with a nod. While Callista had been queen, he had simply been the queen’s husband, but he didn’t bother to correct the mayor. He was quickly getting the impression that titles meant a great deal to him.
“I am sorry that your Earthling compatriots could not stay for the tour,” the mayor said.
“Superwoman asked that you forgive her, but she felt that her place was with her husband in such a difficult time,” said Valura Tur-Thol, the Green Lantern from Rokyn.
“Indeed,” the mayor said with a nod and a smile, charmed by the young girl. It was obvious that she had inherited the diplomatic skills of her father Tur-Thol, the governor of New Vathlo. Du’cat gave her a curious look and said, “I couldn’t help noticing — all the Kryptonians I have met until this point have been pale-skinned. How is it that yours is of a darker, richer hue, much like the Earth champion, Muhammad Ali? Though on you, it is certainly warmer and more… visually appealing.”
Valura blushed. “Much like Earth, our people have different pigmentations, depending on the region we hail from. My family hailed from Vathlo Island,” she said as she held up her hand, “where this hue was common.”
“Fascinating,” the mayor said, beaming at her.
Primus directed a telepathic message toward her. “My wife once told me part of diplomacy was learning to put up with dirty old men.” Valura fixed her smile in place, doing her best not to laugh.
“King Pri… Mr. Primus,” Du’cat said, correcting himself, “if you don’t mind my asking, how do you and your wife plan to retake Euphorix? This Harry Hokum person who usurped the throne seems to have taken the hearts and minds of the people since having saved them from the Spider Guild.”
“People with short memories,” Primus said darkly. “The Citadel coveted Euphorix long before the Spider Guild arrived. The citizens of Euphorix will eventually wise up to Hokum’s true nature and realize who should be sitting on the throne. Then it will be up to my wife and I to pick up the pieces… as usual.”
“Those are sentiments I can truly relate to, my friend,” Du’cat said. “I hope your world will have good fortune in driving the upstart commoner from the throne so that proper nobility can be restored to the throne.”
Primus gave the mayor a studying glance. To anyone else, the mayor’s words might have seemed like small talk, but they gave him a decidedly uneasy feeling. He wondered why.
The Scrubb male in boxing trunks flew gave a horrified cry as he flew from the fight ring and crashed into the wall on the other side of the room. Despite the fact that nearly all the onlookers in the gym were seasoned fighters, they could not help but stare in wide-eyed awe at the unfortunate fighter’s chalk-white-hued opponent inside the ring.
“Oh, quit yer belly-achin’,” Lobo said. “If we’d been anywhere else, I’d already a’ fragged ya!”
“Aurenim’s blood, Lobo!” a grizzled old Scrubb male swore from outside the ring. “That’s the fifth sparring partner you’ve put in traction this week! If you keep injuring them, sooner or later we’re gonna run outta people willin’ to spar wit’ you!”
“If they ain’t got the guts to go toe-to-toe with the Main Man, that’s their problem,” Lobo said. “I was already holding back by playing by your rules!”
“Don’t ya wanna be ready for yer match?” the elderly trainer exclaimed. “This is frackin’ Hun’ya we’re talkin’ ’bout here!”
“I was born ready,” Lobo said. “I’m only here because I was getting bored waiting.”
They were interrupted by the sound of someone clearing his throat. All eyes turned to the newcomer. He wore an expensively tailored suit with a frilly laced cravat at the neck. It turned out he wasn’t necessarily trying to get everyone’s attention, but was reacting to the smell of sweat. He brought an equally tailored lace handkerchief up to cover his nose and mouth.
“Who’s the fancy-boy?” Lobo asked his trainer.
“Never seen the poozer before in my life,” the old Scrubb said. “We don’t get a lot o’ dem noble types down here.”
“Whattaya want, Fauntleroy?” Lobo called out.
It took the fancifully dressed individual a second to realize Lobo was addressing him. Once he did, he cleared his through and stepped hesitantly forward to the ring. “G-g-greetings, honored s-sir,” the man stammered.
Lobo let out a loud guffaw at the man’s discomfort. “I think the bastich has a sp-sp-sp-speech impediment!” The room broke out in loud, braying laughter as the assembled fighters, trainers, and gym workers delighted at the sight of someone from the upper class being taken down a peg. The ornately dressed man reddened at being laughed at by a room full of commoners.
“What have ya got for me, Fauntleroy?” Lobo repeated.
“I bring word from the Imperial Court,” the envoy said, holding up a sealed message.
“Do you now?” Lobo said, eyeing the man. “Somehow, I don’t see a big strappin’ bastich like Hun’ya hangin’ out with the likes of you.”
“I-I-I assure you, I represent exactly who I say I do,” the envoy stammered, beads of sweat breaking out on his brow. Lobo’s reputation as the best bounty hunter in the Milky Way Galaxy preceded him even in this galaxy, and he had no desire to be disemboweled this day. “Look at the seal!”
“Don’t get yer silk panties in a wad, Fauntleroy,” Lobo said, taking the message from him. “I’m just frackin’ with you.”
“Here, youse can borrow mine,” Lobo’s trainer said, holding up a device that resembled a magnifying glass.
“Huh?” Lobo said, squinting.
“Fer the seal!” the trainer said. “That’s how ya know it’s official.”
Lobo held the device over the royal seal. “What am I supposed to be looking for, here?”
“Whoa!” Lobo exclaimed with a whistle as a dazzling array of colors sparkled into view that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye. “Yeah, I’d say it’s the real deal, all right.” Lobo broke the seal and opened the message. “Huh,” he grunted after reading it. “Is this for real?”
“I can assure you of the authenticity…” the envoy started.
Lobo held up his hand to cut him off. Turning to the trainer, he said, “What do you make of this?”
The trainer took the message from him and read it. The envoy stiffened visibly at the sight of a commoner being handed a message from the royal court, an obvious breach of protocol.
“Well, I s’pose it’s possible,” the old man said dubiously. “Emperor Hun’ya has always lived for the fight. It’s in his blood.”
“A man after my own heart,” Lobo said. “Anytime else, him and me might’ve become good pals. Gonna be a shame to have to frag him. Then again, I had to frag my best bud, Bedlam, too. (*) That one hurt. But business is business.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Partners: The Last Vega Story,” Omega Men #37 (April, 1986).]
Lobo gave the letter one last studying look before exhaling loudly through his nose as if irritated. “Funny. The dude didn’t look like the suicidal type. Oh, well. Whaddaya gonna do? The customer is always right.”