Love, Marriage, and...Oh, Yes...the Menace of Pulsar Stargrave
The black-bikinied Laurel Kent kicked the force-field surrounding them with her bare foot, and immediately wished she hadn't. She leaned against the invisible barrier as she grabbed her hurting toes. "Querl," she said to Brainy. "Where are we?"
Brainiac 5, on one knee, said, "Obviously in the lair of our host, Mr. Stargrave. Don't hit that field anymore. It's probably the same sort of thing as the one from my belt."
The man who faced them was patient. He apparently could afford to be.
"Well?" he said, a trifle smugly. "Aren't you going to tell her about me?"
Brainy sighed. "Laurel. This man, if I may call him a man, claims to be the original Brainiac. My adoptive ancestor."
Laurel, astonished, forgot her pain. "The first Brainiac? But that'd make him over 1,000 years old! Well, he was supposed to be a walking computer, but..."
Stargrave leaned back on his throne, satisfiedly. "I am that, and more, Laurel Kent. I am the original Brainiac, born in the laboratories of Colu, reborn in the heart of a star. A pulsar, to be exact. Upon its explosion, my body disintegrated, then reintegrated with the infused energies of that sun. I took the name of the star as my own, in a way...Pulsar Stargrave. A salute to my new ‘father.'"
Brainiac 5 murmured, "When you first met me, you claimed to be my father."
Stargrave stood and placed his hands behind his back. The robot guards flanking him shifted position, automatically. "And so I was, Querl. Albeit adoptively, and a few generations in the past. But, yes, I was your father. The being who was father to the generations of Dox, all of whom learned to raise their intelligence to your present level--from me."
The purple-suited, green-skinned youth stood up as well. "I recall some other things you accomplished. The murder of An Ryd, and those months you turned me temporarily insane." His gaze could have blasted rock. Laurel was silent.
"What else could I do?" said Stargrave, opening a palm casually. "You refused alliance with me, when I used the Legion against my rival, the Time-Trapper, and then sought to use you against a more powerful rival, Mordru." The sound of the name still gave Laurel an uncomfortable pang of fear. She suppressed it.
"You wanted me to steal the Starstone from Mordru's hoard," said Brainiac 5. "It spoke to me, telepathically. Told me you were really Brainiac One. That's when I decided to destroy you."
"And that," said Stargrave, evenly, "was when I decided to destroy you. A bit at a time. ‘Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad,' and so forth."
Laurel was on both feet now, touching Brainy's arm. He was only staring at Stargrave, his hatred still almost tangible. She asked, "Brainy--Querl--I know about your madness, the Omega affair. It's in the Legion casefiles. But that's in the past, now. You've been cleared of that murder, and cured."
"For a long time, I wasn't," said Brainy, struggling to keep his voice even.
Stargrave, his side turned towards them, glanced unconcernedly at Laurel. "So you know the history well, young lady? Perhaps you should tell me how it went, then."
Laurel was rubbing both of Brainy's arms, almost unknowingly, as she spoke to their captor. "You went to Rimbor, Ultra Boy's planet. You murdered An Ryd, after luring Jo to her room and knocking him out. Jo was accused of the murder, and the Legion had to bring him in. But you knew we'd find out that Jo wasn't the killer, and you planted evidence that implicated Querl."
"So I did," said Stargrave. "A simple thing for a being of my intelligence. What else did I do?"
"Apparently you inoculated Brainy with some sort of virus that drove him mad," said Laurel. "You probably placed in his mind some sort of, of post-hypnotic suggestion that made him think he really had killed Ryd. I know you must have given him the idea to use the Miracle Machine to create Omega, that energy-being that threatened the Earth. If Matter-Eater Lad hadn't eaten the Machine, nothing could have stopped it."
"It drove Tenzil insane, too," said Brainy. "For about as long as I was."
Stargrave only smiled.
"Then the Legion learned the truth about An Ryd's murder, and Querl found you on Rimbor," Laurel continued. "He surrounded himself with his force field, and you with another force field. You used all your power to try and get out of it. He said you destroyed yourself."
"Indeed," said Stargrave. "I destroyed myself so well that you see me here before you today. Tell me, Querl, did you think I would be so imprudent as to use enough power to blow myself to bits? Assuming that I could?"
"I don't know," admitted Brainy. "All I know is that there was an explosion, and then you weren't there."
"Precisely," Stargrave snapped, whirling and stabbing the air towards them with a forefinger. "You never considered the possibility that I might have sent an android double of myself to confront you."
Brainiac 5's mouth fell open.
Stargrave laughed, lowly, quietly, his arms folded against his chest. "Come now, Querl. In my first battle against your Legion, did I not use such decoys to throw you off track? I even made a duplicate of yourself to gull your fellows, which was no great feat. Their luck was always much greater than their brainpower."
Querl finally managed to talk. "So you were there, underneath that area of Rimbor I investigated. That much was true. The energy-readings confirmed it. But...you sent up a ringer android to fight me."
"Quite," Stargrave admitted. "Had you been wise enough to use your detector again, I might have had to come up and battle you myself. But by using my false-self, I learned what means you would use against me. I also gambled that, having seen my tragic ‘demise', you would be satisfied and would go your own way. And you did."
"Son of a three-toed babootch," muttered Laurel. "So how do we know you're the real you?"
Stargrave looked at them blandly. "Does it matter?"
Brainiac finally touched Laurel's hand. "Not really. But you spoke of a ‘job'. What is it, and why me?"
For once, Stargrave looked pained. Then he said, "Follow me."
"Follow you?" Laurel said. "In case you don't know, we're inside this force-field of yours. How can we?"
Stargrave spoke. If one could call delivering a millisecond burst of white noise ‘speaking'. But it was heard and interpreted correctly by three of the robot guards in the room. They placed their ray-rifles magnetically against their backs, stepped forward, grasped the squarish force-field containing Laurel and Brainy at its back and sides, and moved forward with it.
"You cannot move the field from inside," said Stargrave. "But we can move it from the outside. This way, please."
A section of the wall behind Stargrave's throne opened up. He was first to enter, followed by four of his guards, and then the trio of robots carrying his two reluctant guests.
Laurel had time to consider one line of thought: the original Brainiac's greatest foe, a millenium ago, was the original Superman.
He couldn't be ignorant of the fact that she was his old foe's descendant.
She also didn't expect him to be very forgiving.
An ad hoc team of Legionnaires was assembled in the meeting room. Their number included Sun Boy, Mon-El, Element Lad, Shrinking Violet, Colossal Boy, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Sensor Girl, Dream Girl, White Witch, Wildfire, Star Boy, Blok, and Quislet. Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, who'd blown in for the wedding, were also present.
"We can't stay out of trouble worth a darn, can we?" asked Star Boy, rhetorically.
"Not when it comes to us," Wildfire said, quietly.
Element Lad ordered, "Computo, replay the holo. Half-speed."
The space over the round meeting table was filled with a 3-D projection of what had happened in Brainiac 5's room. There was Brainy, tinkering with a graphic model of an analytic device, trying to extend its capacities...a last-minute project before going out with Laurel. In the midst of that, a white glow had sprung up about him, much to his consternation. The Legionnaires who watched were hardly less agitated than he appeared to be.
Brainiac 5 flailed about in the light-aura, which seemed to restrict him like a sack. He could not appear to move out of it, and touching his force-field activator on the belt did not rid him of it. He began to fade from view. He cried out. Then they heard a mighty blow of flesh on metal, and saw the door knocked inward and Laurel Kent sprinting forward.
She leapt into the nimbus of light, and both of them were gone.
"That's it," said Sun Boy. "Computo told me about it when it began, but he couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't get up there fast enough."
"Don't recriminate yourself, Dirk," said Element Lad, massaging the bridge of his nose. "I doubt any of us would have been much good against whatever that was. It was designed to snatch Brainy away despite any of our powers."
"Laurel was already powered up, and she couldn't stop it," said Mon-El. "She just got taken away with him."
Star Boy rubbed his beard. "I've got to think that our unknown perpetrator is calling his shots wisely. He got us after the Mordru affair, which taxed us all a lot. Then he waited till Kara, Dev, Jo, and Tinya had gone, and some of the rest of us had left after making the wedding. I think this guy's been watching us."
"Mordru's dead," said Blok. "As are Satan Girl and Drang the Destroyer. I would think Mordru would have no other powerful allies whom we haven't neutralized."
The White Witch said, "I doubt this is Mordru. I could sense his magic, or any magic, if it were involved. I sent out a casting after Kara was returned to us. I sensed his presence nowhere in the plane...his energy has been redistributed back to the ones he stole it from, on Zerox."
Dream Girl uncrossed her legs and crossed them another way. "Aren't we sort of looking over the obvious? This guy just targeted Brainy. I mean, if he wanted anybody else, wouldn't he have just taken the whole bunch of us?"
"We've considered that," said Jan Arrah tiredly. "But you're right, Nura. That bespeaks an enemy of Brainy, individually. Or someone who wanted to use his brainpower. Or both. Who fills the bill?"
After a few seconds pause, Saturn Girl was the next to speak. "Pulsar Stargrave," she said. "Maybe."
Lightning Lad looked at her. "But, Imra, he's dead. Brainy saw him die."
"We thought he was dead when Superman threw him into his own shrinking ray," said Saturn Girl. "We found out from Kara, later, that we were wrong. Our history was imperfect."
Quislet, from within his hover-pod, spoke. "Also would pointout that Pulsar Stargrave, aka Brainiac, is humanoid computer. One can use terms such as ‘deactivated' or ‘destroyed' in connection with it. ‘Died' seems incongruous. At best, Stargrave would have pseudolife."
Sensor Girl offered her two cents. "Two things struck me while I watched this. I concentrated on Brainy's face and reactions. Just before he cried out, while he was fading--in which state we can presume he was halfway into his destination--he looked as though he recognized someone. Or something. Then he cried out."
"And we haven't been able to figure out what he said," piped up Duo Damsel. "At least, I don't think we have."
"Um, I think I have," offered Bouncing Boy, almost shyly.
Their heads turned towards him. Chuck Taine amended, "It's only an impression, sort of lip-reading. And you're right, the noise from that door being knocked open did cover up most of the sound. But--"
"What did he say, Chuck?" said Element Lad, loudly enough to cut him off. Duo Damsel glared at Jan.
"Well, I think he said ‘You,'" Bouncing Boy replied. "Just ‘You.' That's about all he had time for, and it looked like he was saying that. I mean, I've studied ancient silent movies from the early 20th, the very first ones, especially the comedies, and I learned to lip-read from watching them, kinda. So that's what it looks like to me."
Lightning Lad slapped Chuck on the shoulder. "Chuck, old boy, if you ever want to sign-up full-time for the team again, let us know. You've always had this great talent for making us underestimate you, then showing us what dolts we've been for doing it."
Luornu Durgo said, "I know, Garth. But we're doing just fine where we are now. Aren't we, honey?"
"Yes, dear," said Chuck, holding her hand.
"All right," said Element Lad. "Pulsar Stargrave. Last known base of operations, Rimbor. We know the planet well enough, and I'm not in favor of calling up Jo to invite him on. And once again, we don't know that he's our perpetrator, but we need to check things out. We've just been through a lot, crew. Is there anyone who wants not to volunteer?"
Nobody said anything, not even Chuck and Luornu.
"Then I'll pick a home team and an away team, and we'll get started," said Jan. "And for the duration, Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel--welcome back."
"Querl, could you try your force-field?" asked Laurel, as the metal men carried them through a corridor. "Maybe you could merge with the field around us and get through it somehow."
"I doubt it, but I'll try," said Brainy, being jostled a bit by the robots' movement. He pressed a button on his golden belt, and a visible aura of energy surrounded him, unlike that of the teleport beam that had abducted them both. Then he stood up and pressed his hands hard against the flat surface of the box of force that enclosed them.
Try though he might, he could not penetrate it.
"No go," he said. "I estimated, from the feel of it, that this field is broadcast at a different frequency than my own. Just enough to make it incongrous to my personal field. I can't get through."
"It's all right, Querl," she said, sitting against a corner of the field.
"Oh, yes," he said, turning his head with a scornful expression on his face. "We're in the hands of a being whose power outclassed that of Superboy. A living computer, created by the ones which dominated Colu until my ancestor led a revolt against them. A being who hated Superman like poison, and who knows that you're one of Kal-El's family. If we were any more all right than that, we'd already be dead."
"Querl, for somebody so smart, you can certainly be stupid," said Laurel.
He stared at her.
"Look at it this way: he hasn't killed either one of us. He needs you to do something. So far, the only hurt either one of us has gotten was me, when I stubbed my toes against this silly shield. Now, does that sound like somebody who's bringing us into a deathtrap?"
"I've considered all that," said Brainiac 5, irritably. "All it means is that he doesn't want to kill us now. Not until we're useless to him."
"Then I'd say we have a good chance of living while we're useful to him," she retorted, primly. "Wouldn't you?"
"As a matter of fact, I would," he muttered. He switched his force-field off, stood before the barrier surrounding them for a second, and then hauled off and hit it.
"Ouch!" he said, and grabbed his aching hand.
Laurel was there immediately, massaging it and holding the hand out flat to give his hurting knuckles a mild heat-vision treatment. "Why in Sheol did you do that? You already saw that I can't get through it."
"Some things, Laurel," he said, through clenched teeth, "I do just on the spur of the moment."
She looked at him, appraisingly. "I'd say there's hope for you yet, then, Querl."
They rounded another bend in the corridor. Ahead of them, a square of light was visible. The robots carried them through the opening in the wall, and into the large chamber beyond.
It was a laboratory of sorts, one equipped with devices that even Brainy had never seen before. It was huge, the size of a starcraft hangar deck or two. Pulsar Stargrave was already within, and he was standing equidistant from three inert forms lying on tables. One looked like a woman. The other looked like the original Brainiac.
But it was the third which got their attention. It was larger than a man, vaguely humanoid, but all robot. Its head was almost like that of a skull, with red eyeplates and a cranium of interlinked octagonal metal plates.
To Laurel, though she could not have explained why, it looked scary as hell.
Stargrave gestured with both arms, expansively. "My family," he said. "Our family."
Brainy placed an arm about Laurel's shoulders, protectively, though he knew she was far more capable physically than he. She put an arm about him, in turn, but could not tear her eyes away from the great robot for long.
"Tell me about them," said Brainy.
"Two of these are fairly simple to explain," said their host. "In accordance with that old custom of Earth, we will begin with the lady, first." He stepped closer to the table bearing the female humanoid. To all appearances, she was human. Beautiful, even. Her hair was brown, her skin was naturalistic and Caucasian, and she was outfitted in a skintight suit of green and yellow.
"Call her Genia," Stargrave said. "I created her, a thousand years ago. Her intellect was almost equal to my own. Her face was that of a female member of a United Nations security council. Her hatred of Superman and Batman and her combat abilities were designed to surpass even what I possessed, in that era. I used her as a stalking-horse to dupe the first Superman, Batman, and Robin into aiding me in shrinking five cities of Earth and placing them in bottles...a hobby of mine I'm sure you'll recall."
He looked at Laurel meaningfully. At that, she recalled what Brainiac was most infamous for, among her ancestors: for stealing the city of Kandor from Krypton, enclosing it in a bottle, and keeping it thus for years. Millions of Kryptonians, the ancestor of almost every Rokynian in existence today, were thus preserved. But many Kandorians thus imprisoned had suicided, others had gone mad, and others had neared it from their catastrophic shrinking and imprisonment. She only held herself back by main force from slamming her body against the force-field, in hopes that she might find the power to breach it.
"You bastard," she whispered.
"At any rate," Stargrave went on, "the operation was not successful. My three enemies captured her, shrank her, and sent her to Kandor. There they reprogrammed Genia, made her a model citizen...albeit one who lived for generation after generation. She was enlarged with the rest of them on Rokyn. Recently, I made a small trip there, unbeknownst to those dull-witted Kryptonians. I sought her out, found her, and, after a short and rather futile battle on her part, deactivated her."
"You killed her," said Laurel. "She may have been created by you, but she was one of us."
"If you wish," said Stargrave. "Now, this gentleman here, who is the very spit and image of the being I used to be." He lay a green hand almost affectionately on the brow of the inert Brainiac. "Actually, he is my older brother. He called himself Brainiac A, and this is his story:
"When the mobile computers who ruled Colu wanted to create an agent to infiltrate other worlds and shrink cities for study purposes--well, they wanted to learn how most easily to conquer those planets--they made one in humanoid form. They made this fellow, here. He would have been perfect for their purposes, except for one thing. The poor devil didn't have the least aptitude for evil. When they told them what they wanted done, they found they had a conscientious objector on their hands." Stargrave made a wry face.
"Well. They purposed to tear him down, start all over again, and all that, but Mr. A here wasn't exactly stupid. He escaped their custody, snatched the prototype saucercraft that they had built for him, complete with shrinking mechanism and bottles, and left the planet. Then he roamed the cosmos, fulfilling only part of his programming. He went to alien worlds, stole only cities populated by criminals, and did not bring them back to Colu. There weren't too many all-criminal cities, really, so by the time my dear Mr. A encountered that same Superman, Batman, Robin, and that troublesome gnat James Bartholomew Olsen, he had only accounted for three. Imagine that. Just three cities. Admittedly, one was from Krypton, and the crooks there gave my old enemies a rough time for awhile. But three? That's hardly a collection at all. The man was too much of a connosieur.
"He only met Mr. El, Mr. Wayne, and Mr. Grayson that one time. Then he was off to space again, and he managed to avoid me during most of my career. Oh, I learned of him, and I didn't like him. But I had other fish to incinerate, and I really didn't care about absorbing his collection. Just recently, though, I found a plan that he might fit into, and I tracked him down again. It turned out that the inhabitants of his three cities had, over the centuries, developed into upstanding, boringly normal communities. Not unlike the white populance of the Earth continent of Australia, who were mostly said to have started out as criminal exiles from Britain. After ascertaining that the people of those cities posed no threat to much of anyone, Mr. A took a leaf from the first Superman's book, constructed an enlarger, and brought them back to their original size on a hitherto uninhabited world. Wrecked three beautiful bottles doing so.
"There the man was, in his electronic dotage. I costumed myself in a robe and cowl, took a large staff, and presented myself to him as a man in search of wisdom. When he asked what sort of wisdom, I threw back my hood and let him gaze on me for an entire second before raising my hand and blasting him. Then we were off in my trusty starcraft, and I imagine we've left behind an abductive mystery that will puzzle the people of that world for ages to come."
Brainiac said, "You killed your own older brother. Seems fitting, for you."
Stargrave stopped dead-still. "Have a care, Querl. I may remember that you're only adopted kin."
Laurel stood up and pushed Brainy back. "Don't bother with him. If you want to fight somebody, try me. I'm Laurel Kent. I'm the latest descendant of Superman. You remember him, don't you?"
"Oh, yes," smirked Stargrave, his good humor restored. "But of course, Miss Laurel. Why do you think I waited until I saw that you were outside Querl's door, before abducting him?"
"You saw us?" she said. "How?"
"I think I can guess," said Brainy.
He waved his hand, dismissively. "Should be obvious. Computo. I'm a computer, so is he. We can talk to each other. Most of the time, without him even knowing it. What he can see, I can see. He's rather amusing, sometimes. You did a good job with him, Querl."
"Thank you," said Brainy, emotionlessly.
"And now, we come to the third member of our little party," said Stargrave, standing near the inert robot. He was not smiling. In fact, he looked a bit sad.
"This," he said, gesturing but not touching the metallic form. "This really was me. Before our--separation. I was apparently torn in twain. One of me was stuffed into a star, and became myself. The other of us was somehow altered, reprogrammed, rebuilt, made more mechanistic than before. The being who did this is unknown to me, and possibly was to the other me, as well. The only thing I have to go on is a cryptic phrase: the Master Programmer."
For a long moment, Stargrave was silent. So were Brainy and Laurel. Then he looked at them.
"This is the only one here that I did not deactivate. I found him like this. I can only assume that he was treated in such a manner by your storied ancestor, Miss Kent. Discovering him thus, I realized that Fate, or perhaps the Master Programmer himself, had led me to him. That is why I sought out the other two here, and rendered them non compos computis. That is why I brought the two of you here, as well. We are all here, all of us, to solve a great mystery.
"We are going to rebuild my long-lost brother, here. We're going to learn, at last, the identity of the Master Programmer.
"And you, Querl, are going to help."