by DarkMark and Dannell Lites
Some things, in their essences, do not change in thousands of years, perhaps in millions of years. One of those things is crime.
Theft: back to the eating of a prohibited fruit from a garden. Murder: upon one brother, for the other brother’s jealousy over an accepted sacrifice. All the other vices date back to Biblical times as well, though some are not documented as well as those.
All crime comes down to the same thing: indulgence of those sins which the laws of God and man prohibit. Organized crime provides these sins, efficiently or otherwise, and thus makes its profit.
The city of Metropolis in the 25th Century still had crime, and it still had crime families. Mostly, they were headquartered outside of the city. The presence of twenty generations of Superman made it necessary to do so. Frequently, their numbers were lessened by the actions of the men of Krypton. Others moved up to take their place. They were not as flashy as super-villains, but they tended to hang on a lot longer.
Not all of the families were human. But species of more than human power were usually banned from Earth, with few exceptions. Thus, no Martian crimelords plagued the planet. The natives conducted their business as well as they could under those circumstances.
Thus it was that a council had been called of the six major organizations which controlled Metropolis’s organized crime. It was held in a large and spacious office which could be rented for such functions, and which was impervious to most spy-rays. Lead-lined, durasteel-sheathed, it provided security without. The guardsmen the mobsters brought along with them provided security within.
“So what’re we doing here?” barked Curso, the lord of discreet vice. “As I recall, the next meeting isn’t for another two months.”
M’nath, the green Coluan, nodded. “With all due respect, Mr. Curso, we all know this. Chang called the meeting, and gave his word to explain the irregularity. Is this not so, Mr. Chang?”
Chang Yinsen, who had control of much of Metropolis’s illegal gambling, sighed. “It is. I fear I was asked to convene the meeting because of a guest.”
“A guest?” Abb 2706 Quam, a thin and aged patriarch who provided the drugs and UltraReal entertainment much adored by Metro sybarites, touched a control that lifted his frail body to a standing position on poles of force. “Nobody brings a guest to these meetings! I’m leaving now. Right now!”
“I wouldn’t advise that just yet, Mr. Quam,” said Chang. “The threat does not come from me.”
“Who from, then?” Quam fixed his colleague with a look of ancient hate. “Who? If you’ve betrayed us, Chang–“
“He didn’t betray you,” said another voice. “No one’s betrayed you. Not yet. I just sought him out to make an offer.”
By that time, all present could see who was doing the talking.
The man was done up in an all-black uniform that entirely covered his body, including his head. It was as though he had appeared from a blur. He had been invisible, and become visible so quickly no eye could see the transition.
The gunsels reached for their weapons.
“Stay,” said the man. “I am not here to hurt anyone. Though I could hurt you much more easily than you could me.”
“See about that,” said Quam. His gunnies didn’t need to be told twice. From both their handweapons, green beams of destruction emerged. They spattered on the mystery-man’s chest, on his head, anywhere they directed the beams. The other mobsters took cover. Even the backwash from those weapons was deadly.
The man took it all, arms folded, and didn’t make a sound.
Eventually the charge on the weapons ran low, and they had to quit.
“Now,” he said, “I want to talk to you all about something I can do for you.”
“He’s talking protection?” M’nath looked at him appraisingly. “How much?”
“There’s no need to talk money right now,” said the man. “I’m talking free trade.”
“Trade in what?” Curso rubbed his fingers with thermopaper. “You’re bringing what to the table? And who in hell are you, anyway?”
“Consider your situation, gentlemen,” said the man. “You have to run your enterprises from long distance. Why?”
“You know why,” grumbled Tothman, who had been silent for most of the evening. “So did my father, and my grandfather, and his grandfather, too.”
The man walked casually around the table at which the gangsters sat. “Suppose the defender of Metropolis was not so unreasonable,” he said. “Suppose he was willing to deal with you in another way, other than packing you off to the prison planets. Would that be something to pique your interest?”
A new tension entered the room. “Holy God, I knew it!” Vincent Delta, the youngest one of the six, jumped up so fast even his guards were hard-pressed to cover him in time. “Chang, you sonofa...you brought the Superman here! I’ll kill ya!”
“No,” the man said, gently, but with great force. “That guy in the blue suit and red cape? The one you saw on the newsers? That’s not me. I am someone else.”
“So who are you?” Curso looked at him defiantly.
“Someone who can take care of your problem, perhaps,” the man replied. “But I need your assurance. Once the Kryptonian is taken care of, his successor must know that you would conduct your business discreetly. Without endangering civilians, without gang wars, without the kinds of dealings that would cry for his attention. Things must be carried out in such a fashion that the defender of Metropolis would be free to take care of the extraordinary threats to our society, and not on those who merely make money off it.”
The six were suspicious, but a bit more curious. “Tell us more,” advised Tothman.
“At present, there is no more,” admitted the man. “Until the time comes when the Kryptonian falls, I can give you no more. But when he does, it will be a symbol for us both. A symbol that an agreement has been struck...and must be honored by both parties.”
There was silence for a time. Then Chang said, “As I have said before, we will need time to consider.”
“I understand,” said the man in black. “But no real action can be taken until your decision has been tended.”
“So what’s the reason we should throw in with you?” said Curso. “I admit, that disappearing trick impressed me. But it takes more than that to convince me you can kill the Superman.”
The man whipped his head around in Curso’s direction. The ganglord instinctively dove beneath the table. His bodyguards had their weapons triggered immediately, even though they had seen what little good the others had done.
None could quite see what happened, but one of the pluggers cried out, staggered back, smoke coming from his chest, and slammed against a wall, pulling down a number of shelved vidcubes with him as he fell. He was dead before he hit the carpet.
“That’s why you should deal with me,” said the man. “Now I leave you to your deliberations. I will be in touch with Chang later, to learn of your rulings. Farewell.”
With that, the dark figure fell into what appeared to be stationary motion. Then he vanished.
Curso and his remaining employee had already examined the fallen gunner. Delta said, “Is he here? Still here?”
M’nath said, acidly, “Does it matter?”
Quam said, “So we’ve gotta deal with this guy? I’d rather deal with Superman. At least he’s a known quantity.”
“So you’re not gonna deal?” asked Delta, who, though he never admitted it, valued the old man’s experience.
“Didn’t say that, youngster,” said Quam. “I didn’t say that at all.”
“Alan Kent. Has anybody seen Alan Kent?”
The audition manager checked his wristscreen for a readout. He input Alan’s identification code into the inputter and waited. He looked up at the director. “Sorry, Mr. Lazio. He doesn’t seem to be–“ Then he stopped, seeing a red blinking numeral on the screen. “Hold on, he’s here. Don’t know how, but he’s here. I’ll yell at him afterward. Will that be all right?”
Lawrence 9968 Lazio, director of the comedy series We’re All Martians, banged his fist down on a tabletop covered with Ultrafoam for that purpose. “I’ll hang his ass for this. I’ll come down on him like a triple load of Destructomite. But not till after we get some good takes. Where is he?”
“He’s here, sir,” said a flunky.
Alan Kent showed his face, walking through the side door. He was smiling, but he looked as though he’d been running for about a block. Luckily, he wasn’t sweating, and Lazio decided to ask him how he managed that.
“Mr. Kent,” he said, slowly. “Glad you could make it for your own audition.”
“Yes, Mr. Lazio. Sorry, Mr. Lazio. Give me a moment to get in character.”
“Take your time,” said Lazio, sarcastically.
Akon, Alan’s actor friend, had wangled a minor part on the show, even though it meant spending a good part of the day in green makeup. (Some directors would have added in the skin color by VirtReal. Not Lawrence Lazio.) He was sitting in the peanut gallery, chewing on a mint, and praying to his Rannian God that Alan would not screw this one up.
Alan, in the costume of a Terran office manager trying to deal with a Martian business firm, turned away for a second, covered his face with both hands, sucked in a great breath, and then took his hands away, whirled, and faced them. His stature was different. He looked both a bit more unsure of himself and trying to project the image of being more sure of himself. The typical junior business executive.
Even Lazio had to admit that he thought the kid had something.
Alan walked onto the set. “Good morrow, crew. Are we still in business today?” He was grinning.
The four Martians in makeup looked at him. “Of course we are, sir. If we were not, none of us would be here. Is that not so?”
Alan’s smile looked a bit more strained. “That, uh, that was meant as a joke, K’elso,” he said. “A bit of Terran humor. Helps to relieve the strain of the, uh, the business day.”
“Yes. One of us tells a funny story, or makes a humorous remark, and then everybody laughs. If he tells it right, that is.”
“Oh,” said K’elso. “A ulior.” He turned to the other three Martians. “Mr. Banning has just completed a ulior.”
The four of them made polite, enthusiastic, and entirely forced laughter. Alan looked discomfited. Then one of the other Martians said, “Say, did you hear the one about–“ and then launched into about thirty seconds of Martian dialogue, after which the four of them roared with entirely genuine laughter, slapped each other on the back, and rapped their foreheads in the Martian sign of approval.
Alan, as Banning, seemed to think he should join in with it, and laughed heartily himself. He was still laughing after all of them had stopped. They looked at him. He was embarrassed.
“Uh, sorry,” he said.
“It is sufficient,” said K’elso. “Some beings can tell a joke, and some beings can’t.”
A few minutes later, one of the office crew gave Alan a contract screen to sign with his thumbprint. He pressed his thumb to the screen. The voice playback on the machine said, “Sorry, print not accepted. Please clear screen and try once again.” So he did.
“Please clear screen and try once again.”
He pressed his thumb very hard and very long to it, squidging it around, looking a bit annoyed.
“Please clear screen and–“
“All RIGHT, dammit!” He pressed his thumb to the thing, moved it all around the screen, held his hand down with his other hand, mugged furiously, managing to throw his tie over one shoulder while he did it, giving the screen the thumbprint to end all thumbprints. This one had to work, if any thumbprint i.d. ever worked.
“Please clear screen and–“
‘ARRRRGHHHHH!” Alan grabbed the screen, bashed it a couple of times on the top of his desk, threw it down, stomped it, yelled, “How do you like THAT print? Huh? How about THAT?”, stomped it a couple more times, spit on it, and threw it in the wastebasket.
K’elso looked up. “Something wrong, sir?”
“Uh, nothing, K’elso. Nothing much. Do you, uh, do you suppose you could get that order from Ortron sent back? Please?”
As calmly as a butler, K’elso came over, looked in the wastebasket, fished the screen out, lay it on the desk, made a couple of adjustments, and said, “Try it now, sir.”
Alan looked like he was about to put his hand in a cage with a cobra. After another long pause, he did it.
The playback voice said, “Print accepted. Thank you, Roger Banning, for dealing with Verification Tech.”
Alan’s jaw dropped down to his shoes and he looked as though he’d shrunk a couple of sizes in his business suit. Then he looked up at K’elso, wordlessly.
“Sorry, sir. Forgot to make the adjustments,” said K’elso. “Your print wasn’t green.”
The long double-take Alan performed would have done credit to the sitcoms of five centuries ago.
As the take ended, everyone’s attention went back to Lazio. The great man rubbed his hand unconsciously along the foam of the tabletop. He finally spoke.
“Do it again,” he said.
Most of the actors were savvy enough not to smile. But Lazio hadn’t bitched about anything. He hadn’t made any suggestions. He hadn’t even griped at the technicians. That meant the next couple of runthroughs would be, most likely, just formalities.
In short, the old creep had approved.
Alan went a bit too far out on improv on one of the next three takes and was chewed about it, but took it graciously. After all, Lazio had to have something to gripe about, or he wasn’t happy. After take four, the director said, “That’s a fizz. Cut. Go grab yourself eats. Be back in by 3:00.” After a pause, he said, “Kent, c’mere.”
Alan did so as the others filed out, and Akon crossed several of his fingers in prayer.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Lazio?” It seemed as though Alan was panting harder than he had when he came through the door a couple of hours earlier.
“Just make sure you show up ahead of time,” Lazio said. “I never like to keep my crew waiting. Period. Okay?”
“That’s it. Go get yourself lunch.”
“Thank you, sir.” Alan was bouncing, almost, on his way over to where Akon sat. “Well? What did you think?”
“I think you got the part,” he said. “That’s why he had all the run-throughs. One of those is a take.”
“Oh, I know that!” said Alan, irritably. “What did you think of what I did?”
“You ever want a job as an office manager...stick to acting.” Akon smiled. “You do that better.”
“Doubledamn!” Alan cracked his knuckles together and grinned. “Ake, I needed something like this in plus. Let’s gorm.”
“Hey, at least today I’m not in green.”
The two of them headed for the commissary. On the way, the alertchip in Alan’s CommuniCard went off, audibly. “Hold on a minute, Ake,” he said. He fished the card out of his pocket.
The screen, which took up the right half of the card, was black with the white letters, PRIVATE MESSAGE on it.
“You got a security thing?” asked Akon.
“Maybe,” allowed Alan. “You go on, Ake, I’ll catch up.”
“Semisure,” said Akon, and went on. Alan checked out the rest of the hall with his superhearing and X-ray vision, saw nobody coming for the next few seconds, and touched the screen with his thumb.
The face of his father, Klar Ken, was visible. It was a recording. “Alan, here’s something you need to see,” said Klar.
Imperceptibly, Alan stiffened. The rest of the message was a paste-in from a news feed. The scene was from one of the prison planets, which Alan recognized as the new experimental one, Takron-Galtos. Part of a building was in flaming ruin. Several bodies, whether living or dead it was unknown, were being tractored out of the rubble. There was a switch to a scene of a prison transfer ship just after liftoff, and some guards firing futilely at it to try and bring it down.
Then the picture shifted to a still shot of the party responsible: Muto.
Alan knew him well, from his father’s stories and from having seen historical vids of his career. Muto, the yellow-skinned, huge-craniumed mutant in an orange-and-purple uniform. He had gained his mind-over-mattter powers from exposure to extradimensional radiation while he was being born in a starship. He chose to use his powers for crime, and that brought him into conflict with Superman XX, Alan’s father.
In fact, he had probably been Superman XX’s greatest foe.
Now, Muto had broken jail, and was undoubtedly on his way to Earth. It’d take him some time, at least a day or two. But some hours had already passed since the jailbreak.
The newsman narrating the report did his outro, and the message ended with the face of Klar again. “That’s all I can give you right now,” said the older man. “If you need some help, call on me. But if you can...I want you to handle this yourself.”
END OF MESSAGE, said the screen.
Alan tapped the card in his palm for a moment, then hit the Erase pad. No sense in leaving this for any identity hunters to pick up.
One of the true babootches about being a Superman, he thought, was having to skip lunch so many times. He needed to check with Metropol H.Q. about this, and that was something only Superman could do. Alan Kent wouldn’t get past the second checkpoint.
Quietly, Alan stepped out the nearest door, passed through a checkpoint, and headed outside for an alleyway that was thankfully free of spybeams. By the time he got past the entrance, he was moving at super-speed.
While he undressed and compressed his clothes, he wondered, idly, if Muto knew about him. If the unveiling of another Superman wasn’t the impetus for the old super-villain to make an encore appearance. He also wondered, and had to admit he felt a twinge of fear at it, what it would be like going against an enemy who actually had the power to challenge him.
Well, there was only one way to find out.
Before Alan Kent could have reached the end of the alley, Superman was already flying above it, at a speed that rendered him invisible to the human eye. A few blocks down, he slowed enough for Metropolites to see him and give him the wave.
“Look, up in the sky!” one said.
“It’s Superman!” Somewhere along the way, the bits about the bird and the plane had been dropped.
He waved back, thought that he’d missed something, and then realized what it was. In the voice he used while speaking as Superman, he yelled, “Up, up, and away!”
He had to admit that it really made him feel like Superman when he did that.
In her flat, Katherine de Ka’an clicked off her communication with Lyra Lennox Kent. Lyra had admitted she was worried about the Muto business, too, but that there was nothing to be done about it. It was part of a Superman’s job, and her son would have to learn to deal with it. Besides, if he really needed it, there were other members of the Family who could give him a hand. Kathy agreed with that, and they made small talk till they signed off.
She went to a window, used her telescopic vision, and was not surprised to pick out the figure of Alan in the skies.
Katherine watched him for a long moment, and wondered if, somehow, she might have to help out in the present crisis. She had no experience at being a Supergirl.
But then again, she told herself, neither did Kara Zor-El when she came to Earth in a rocket from a dying Argo City, almost five hundred years ago.
At her window, Katherine de Ka’an watched, and waited.