by DarkMark and Dannell Lites
Steve Banning burst through the door of the office and pointed his forefinger at a Martian. “J’orjj, two words: You’re. Fired.”
J’orjj, the lanky Martian, shrieked in terror and practically merged with the wall behind the water dispenser. Banning looked drop-jawed.
“Uh, J’orjj, it’s not all that bad, for crying out loud,” said Steve, trying to come closer. J’orjj cried out again and hid his face.
“By the gods, Mr. Banning, no! If you wish, I can list each god individually and describe him for you, but by all of them collectively, no! Please!”
The office boss looked like he was trying to figure out why his hands were still attached to the ends of his arms. “J’orjj, look. I’m only saying your work hasn’t been up to par. There are other places to work. I’ll give you a recommendation. Just because you’re fired here—“
J’orjj screamed even louder and hid his head beneath his arms. He was all but weeping.
“Would it help if I sang one of those Martian love songs you’re into?” asked Steve, helplessly.
“No!” wailed J’orjj. “I’ve heard you sing!”
“J’orjj, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get fired everywhere–-“
Another scream, the biggest of them all. Steve Banning looked as though he’d rather be babysitting a porcupine. “Is it my breath?”
“Sir, please! My job, yes, but not my life!”
“Your life? J’orjj, all I said is that you’re fired...”
The biggest, loudest screech of them all, lasting over ten seconds, came from J’orjj’s throat. Steve Banning did a double-take and then said, “J’orjj, don’t do that again. I’m going to have to go up and down the hall already and tell them that isn’t an attack siren.”
K’elso entered the room. “What is transpiring here?”
Steve turned to his major domo. “Oh, K’elso, thank God you’re here. I just had to let J’orjj go.”
“Oh,” said K’elso. “Why is he shrieking?”
“I don’t know,” said Steve. “All I did was tell him he was fired—“
Both K’elso and J’orjj commenced to shrieking. When it was over, Banning said, “I’ve got the power to make Martians shriek on cue? Look, I’m sorry, J’orjj, but I meant it when I said you were—“
K’elso clapped a big green hand over Steve’s face. While the office boss struggled to try and pull his mitt away, K’elso said to his fellow Martian, “It is all right, J’orjj. He just terminated your employment.”
J’orjj relaxed as though he were a puppet cut loose from his strings. “Oh. Then why didn’t he say that?”
“It is an Earth term, J’orjj. You know how they are. When they mean ‘terminated’ they say...well...the other word.”
“May I sue for emotional distress?”
“No. Just pick up your severance pay. We’ll give you a good letter of recommendation. Farewell, J’orjj.”
J’orjj cleared his desktop off, with Steve Banning trying to claw away K’elso’s hand all the time. It took almost a minute. J’orjj stopped, shifted his box of stuff to one hand, and shook the hand of Banning, whose face was still covered. “Thank you for the employment, Mr. Banning. I appreciate your patience. May all the gods be with you. Farewell.” Steve managed to nod, even with the hand covering his face.
When J’orjj left the office, K’elso finally took his hand away from Steve’s face. Banning gasped for air, put a hand to his chest, straightened his tie, and coughed.
“Are you well, Mr. Banning?” asked K’elso.
“I guess so, yeah,” said Steve, still gasping for breath. “What got into him, K’elso? I mean, I just told him he was fi—“
The hand went over the mouth again.
“Mr. Banning,” said K’elso, gently. “What element is the thing most deadly to Martians?”
Steve’s eyes began to gape with understanding. The hand was still over his mouth.
“And what word is therefore most terrifying to Martians?”
Steve’s eyes bulged again.
“Therefore, if you say a word that is akin to that other word, it causes the reaction you just experienced. May I suggest, in the future, using the words ‘terminated’?”
“Or ‘laid off’?”
“Or ‘shucked’, ‘blumped’, ‘lowleveled’, ‘outpaid’, ‘z’rinnsk’?”
A nod to each one.
“That last word is a Martian term, and we will all understand it. But never that other word, sir. We could be sued. Agreed?”
Steve Banning nodded once more.
“Good.” J’orjj pulled his hand away again. Banning gasped for breath. It took him several seconds. The Martian stood stolidly, with arms folded.
When Banning finally got his breath back, he said, “All right. All right. But, J’orjj, if you ever cut off my breath like that again, you’re fi—“
A look of panic in J’orjj’s eyes, and his hand came out again.
“OXIDIZED! Oxidized, oxidized, oxidized! All right? All right! Now get back to work! Jeez—“
The laugh track came up and everyone watching the scene on HoloVid with Alan Kent in his apartment laughed, too.
Akon and Reyna were there, and Katherine de Ka’an had invited herself over as well. The women were pleased by the boys’ current triumph, and the men were just darned glad they both had jobs. But more than that, they were pleased with their achievement. The sitcom was getting good ratings, and the fanzigs were doing interviews with Alan and the rest of the cast. A Did You Know? brought out a trivia bit that Alan was the son of Metropolis’s greatest news editor. Another one brought out the fact that Akon was formerly an archaeology student on Rann.
Altogether, they were in smile mode.
Still, Katherine sensed a bit of tension in Alan at times, and guessed what it was from. Muto, his father’s nemesis, had broken jail on Takron-Galtos and hadn’t been sighted since. He had to be making his way to Earth, to challenge the current Superman.
She wondered if a Supergirl wouldn’t have to lend him a hand, as well.
“We got it, jakeboy,” said Akon, slapping hands with Alan. “Number three in the ratings, and rising. The ticket is ours!”
“Well, for now it is, anyway,” smiled Alan. “Thinking of asking for investment advice, I am. For just about the first time in my life.”
“What about asking Adam, Alan?” queried Katherine, her hand buried in a bowl of MunchBunch. “He’s been playing the markets for years. And winning.”
He turned to the blonde woman with a look of resignation. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather ask outside of the family.”
“Oh. Doublefine with me,” said Katherine. She rested her head against his shoulder. “Are we going to stay here all night, or will you guys take us slumming upwards?”
Reyna, sitting cross-legged in a three-piece sticktight suit, said, “We know a place on 87th Level with the toppest Klazmer ensemble since the Green Streak and his Hot Leaks. You up for it, Kath?”
“I’m up,” she said, entwining her fingers with Alan’s. “What about you, jake?”
Klazmer was the current Titanian popular music. The players conveyed the sounds both through instruments and through the telepathy many Titanians had developed in the last five centuries. “Oke by me,” said Alan. “I’ll slumbum with the best of ‘em. Change of clothes?”
“Nah,” said Akon, standing up. “We’re grubby enough as it is.”
Bron Wayn was busy, as usual. This time, he was checking out weapons in the Batwing, the ship which could traverse both air and space with almost equal ease. But these days, he found he had to exercise his acting talents as much as his intellect.
Such as now, when Aelfric came to him with a pitcher of iced tea and wafers. “Master Bron,” said the butler. “Your refreshments, if you please.”
“Place them there, Aelfric,” said Bron, nodding to an empty space on his work table. “I’ll get to ‘em later.”
Aelfric did so, then stepped towards Bron. “If I might say so, sir, your nourishment intake has been on the, er, wane in the last week. You can’t keep effectively handling business and crime without taking time to eat, sir. A proven fact.”
“A fact, is it?” Bron, in a worksuit, wiped his brow with a sleeve, picked up the tea pitcher and poured himself a tall one. “Here’s some other facts, Aelfric. One: Metropolis’s gangs seem to be operating like a syndicate again. No more turf wars. Almost as if someone was controlling them, a ganglord, to be precise. I think that’s just what’s happened.”
“Perhaps, sir, but that’s in Metropolis.”
“What happens there slops over here, eventually. And vice versa.” Bron chugged down half the glass, then caught his breath. “Here’s another fact: Muto has broken out, and he has to be on his way to Earth. He’s going to be facing a green Superman. And I’m mindful of one thing, Aelfric.” He put his face close to his butler’s. “Do you remember Muto’s last caper before he got sent up?”
The old butler worked his tongue in his mouth. “Indeed I do, sir.”
“He had a partner,” said Bron.
“That he did, sir,” said Aelfric.
“The Joker,” Bron stated, looking into Aelfric’s eyes intently. “The son of the man who killed my parents. The one who died.”
“Quite true, sir.” If Aelfric had any telltale reaction, Bron couldn’t perceive it.
“Therefore, it stands to reason,” said Bron, “that if the father Joker is still alive, Muto will probably seek him out to partner with him. Isn’t that likely, Aelfric?”
“A possibility, sir,” acknowledged Aelfric. “But that is assuming the earlier Joker is still, well, alive. Or that the dead Joker left no issue. Or assuming that he won’t simply go after Superman alone, since the Batman, sir, is not one of his primary enemies.”
“All doubledamnblasted possibilities,” acknowledged Bron Wayn, taking a wafer and munching on it. “But we can hope for the best. Can’t we, Aelfric?”
The butler hesitated for a moment. “If I might, sir, hoping for the appearance of one of a long line of mass murderers is hardly what I might call ‘the best’. In my opinion, sir.”
“That’s a comparative ‘best’, Aelfric. For me, the best would be knowing where my father’s and mother’s murderer is. Bringing him to justice, at long last. Getting this tristeel block of revenge off my back at last. But there’s more to it than that.
“What if the Joker has been up to his old tricks, in hiding? What if he’s left a string of killings behind him that we don’t even know about? While a Joker lives, the innocent are in danger. That much we’ve known since the 20th Century. While a Joker lives, a Batman can’t be at rest.”
“A true enough saying, sir,” Aelfric conceded. “But...what if the Joker, assuming he is still alive, has gone into retirement? What if the demons which once drove him have been unseated? Perhaps he simply whiles away his time in some unsuspected place, mourning the death of his own son, but unwilling to come back into conflict with the son of the Batman he fought?” Aelfric paused. “Of course, this is only speculation.”
Bron looked at him stolidly, then smiled. “Yes, Aelfric. Only speculation. It remains to be tested. And as long as there’s an outside chance Muto’s return may bring the Joker’s return as well, the Batman will be ready.” He turned from the butler to a component of the Batwing which was being structurally corrected by lasers. With a Tractor Glove, Bron lifted it from the cradle in which it had been resting and fitted it back into place in his craft.
Aelfric stood for a long moment. “Will that be all, sir?”
“For the moment, Aelfric,” said Bron. “For the moment.”
He watched the butler’s retreating back until he was certain he was out of the room, then shut the door by remote control. Bron picked up a communicator which he was sure was safe from tapping and made a connection.
“Hello, Al? It’s me. Your father. Listen. I want both you and Delva off-planet tonight. Take a vacation and charge it to me. I’ll tell you when to come back. Yes, yes, I know you have work. I own the company, remember? Why? Because I want you both alive, son. I want you both alive.”
“Doesn’t make any sense,” said Klar Ken. “Not one coruscating bit.”
“Clue me in, boss,” said Jerry Sayl S6897. “There’s mysteries aplenty, all right, but I don’t know which one you mean.”
Klar got up from his clear plastic chair. “All at once, Jerry. The coordination of the city gangs, the return of Muto, Heaven’s Seven acting up. It’s like the 20th all over again. Why? Tell me.”
Klar’s favorite reporter, a brown-haired man with a taste for out-of-date fashions, said, “Well, could be the coming of the new Superman. Maybe he brings all the rats out of the walls, to see if he’s as tough to chew as the old one.”
“Maybe.” The editor paced the floor. “But maybe is never good enough. I want answers. I need answers, Jerry. Why haven’t I got them?”
“‘Cause you’ve got me cooling my heels in here instead of doing my beat, maybe?’ Jerry grinned.
“Exactly,” said Klar. He scooped Jerry’s hat, an old fedora in 20th Style, off of a MagRack and tossed it to him. Jerry caught it on the fly. “Get me something. Earn your eats. Don’t show up here without something that’ll jump.”
“It’ll jump like a gengineered bullfrog, boss,” said Jerry. “Count on it.” He put the hat on his head and went out the door.
Klar watched him go. Time was when he’d just put on the blue suit, push through some doors, and see what he could find out himself. But he didn’t wear the suit anymore.
Alan would have to make these mistakes and triumphs on his own, now. Maybe with some help from the old man, every now and then. But a Superman had to stand on his own, eventually.
He just prayed to Rao that he’d made the right choice.
The club was dark and the Klazmer was appropriately rousing. The band, A Notch Past Forever, was doing some number called “A Sculptor in Hell” and infusing feelings and images into the audience’s minds as they provided music for the ears. The experience could be simulated in holoaura, but not fully experiened. You needed to be there live for the real thing.
Alan, Katherine, Akon, and Reyna were reclining on couches at one table with lights floating intermittently about them. Katherine had been keeping in physical contact with Alan most of the night. He hadn’t raised any objections. He looked at the beauty in the pink suit whose particles shifted position every two minutes and said, “Catch some air?”
“Right here and now?” She gave him a quizzical look.
“All right.” Katherine sat up and said to Akon and Reyna, “Jakeboy wants some privatime with me. That all right by you two?”
Akon smiled. “Send up a signal blast if you get lost.”
“Don’t be stupid, Ake,” said Reyna, snuggling closer to him. “If you two get lost, a signal blast is not what you want to send up.”
“Both of you need a brain bath,” said Alan, getting up.
“Or maybe they don’t,” said Katherine, rising beside him. “Later, all.”
The two of them went out a side door onto a magnetic walkway which allowed them to tread on what looked like empty air, with two unseen railings on either side of them. Below, the lighted city of Metropolis went about its unending business. Alan had taken Katherine’s hand and she didn’t pull away.
“Do I have to speak first, Alan?” she said.
“No, I’ll start it,” said Alan Kent. “Okay if I get to the point?”
He exhaled. “You’ve chosen me?”
“Maybe,” she said.
“How maybe is it, Kath?”
She let go of his hand and leaned out over the invisible railing. “Maybe doesn’t mean no, Alan. You know that much.”
Leaning beside her, Alan said, “I know you’ve been spending a lot more time with me than with Adam of late.”
“True,” she said.
“I don’t know how he feels about that.”
“Why should I give a damn how he feels about that? It’s my life, jake. I’ll spend it with whom I please. Either of you, both, or neither.”
“Message received, Kath.” He hesitated. “But I’ve got to admit that I’d be a lot lonelier if you decided not to spend it with me anymore.”
“You don’t need to be from Titan to know that.”
She giggled. “Ah, Alan. Both of you act like little kids sometimes. Who gets to take Katherine to the graduation dance? Maybe she’ll go by herself.”
“But that doesn’t mean no.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
He hesitated again. “So why me, Kath?”
“What do you mean, ‘why me’? Talk me up, piffle.”
“Kath. Don’t blindside me. I need truth.”
“You think that’s not what you’re getting?”
“Not all of it. I need to know why.”
“Oh?” She stood and looked at him. “Who knows? Maybe I’ve just got a thing for men with red capes.”
“Ha ha cubed.”
Katherine De Ka’an sat on the magpath, her back resting against the railing, and crossed her ankles. “You know I’ve been with him, don’t you?”
“I’ve heard,” he said.
“Times past, I shared his bed, Alan.”
“I’ve heard that, too.”
She looked at him. “But I haven’t done that for a long time. A long, long time.”
“Because I don’t trust him.”
“Do I have to give you a whole list? I can’t pin it down, exactly. But I know, Alan. There’s a lot to him that I can’t get at. Adam’s got a dark side, Alan. I know he’s got a lot of good in him. But there’s something to him that...”
“...scares me,” she finished, hardly above a whisper.
Alan put both hands to his chin. “Know what, Kath? Sometimes he scares me, too.”
“It’s not just businessman stuff. Sure, a guy has to be a triple tiger to make it in the market. But...I don’t know. Alan, I’m glad, very much so, that you got to be the Superman.”
He looked thoughtful. “Thank you, Kath.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank your dad, and Rao. But I’m not sure about him, Alan.”
“He’s my brother, Kath. He was a good Superboy.”
“So they say,” she said. “All the same, I don’t trust him.”
“And you do trust me?”
“More than him,” she said, standing up and moving next to him. “A lot, lot more.”
Alan turned to her and looked at her for a long moment. She could see the hesitation in his eyes. So she grabbed him first, and he followed suit. They kissed above the streets and buildings for a very long moment.
When they broke, she looked down. He kept hold of her. “Kath,” he said. “About that maybe.”
“It’s still there,” she whispered. “But a lot less. Let’s keep it here for now.”
“All right.” He paused. “Should we go back in?”
“Yeah.” She smiled. “We were just talking about your new show out here. Right?”
“If you say so,” he said.
The two of them went back in to catch the last of the Klazmer.
Not many cargo ships explode in the upper atmosphere of Earth once they’re in from deep space. But it happens, every now and then.
This one blew up, seemingly apropos of nothing. All hands on board were lost. So was most of the cargo, including a large portion which fell, flaming, into the Atlantic Ocean.
The continent of Atlantis had been ruled for 500 years by twin dynasties, the Curryian and the Lemarian, in the two separate capitals of Tritonis and Poseidonis. Some of its water-breathing inhabitants had legs like surface people. Others sported fish-tails. There was some racial trouble between the two, but not a lot. They hadn’t known war for a long time, but they had a crack defensive force.
None of it was of much use against the mind-over-matter powers of the little yellow-skinned man with the huge cranium. He was surrounded by a force-field of sorts that kept the water out and recycled his air, enabling him to survive. In a short time he had conquered the city of Tritonis, and held its citizens hostage. With martial law declared, it was a simple thing to broadcast a message that reached receivers on the surface world. The message, too, was simple.
“This is Muto,” it said. “I have conquered a city of Atlantis. Unless Superman surrenders to me within 24 hours from this broadcast, everyone in this city will die.”