The Legionnaires' presence on Rimbor was, by their insistence, kept as quiet as possible. They were investigating a mystery, not doing a UP publicity tour. But it was kind of hard to keep things quiet when, for the third time in a row, a group of heroes came to the hotel where An Ryd had died.
The place had been bought by an entrepreneur now and upgraded considerably,
but the An Ryd Murder Room was left as it was, and tours were guided through
it twice a day. Element Lad looked at the pictures of Ultra Boy and
An upon the wall with ill-concealed distaste.
Sun Boy, Mon-El, Shrinking Violet, Colossal Boy, Sensor Girl, Blok, Quislet, and Wildfire composed the rest of his team. Dream Girl, White Witch, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Star Boy, Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, plus Invisible Kid II, a late arrival, made up the home team back on Earth.
The room was too small for the whole team to prowl around in at once, so they took it two or three at a time. Blok and Quislet went in together, since the big stone Legionnaire would have crowded out anyone else other than Violet in miniature. Violet did, indeed, search the room in miniature, but couldn't locate any more clues than the others.
"The room's cold," said Sun Boy. "At least as far as I can tell. I'm no Batman I, but..."
Element Lad stood up from the bed. "I doubted Stargrave would have anything to do with this locale, either. Too much of a giveaway. Let's hit the place where he fought Brainy."
Sensor Girl said, "You don't expect him to have left traces back there, either, do you?"
"No," answered Jan, as he trudged from the dreary room. "But it's another place to look. Come on."
The hotel manager, a smallish man in a blue suit, was at the door with a holocamera. "Ah, excuse me. If you Legionnaires would look this way? It would be an honor to..."
"Eyes, crew," said Sun Boy. At his signal, the others closed their eyes. Dirk's upraised hands flashed a lightburst of incredible candlepower.
By the time the manager could see again and had picked himself up off the floor, the Legionnaires were gone.
"How do you propose to get me to help?" asked Brainiac 5, evenly.
"Easily demonstrated," said Pulsar Stargrave, in an amiable manner. He touched a control on his belt.
Brainy felt himself falling a few feet to the floor below as the forcefield containing him vanished. He grunted as his knee struck the tile below. Laurel smashed at the area beside her, where Brainy had been sitting. But the field was reestablished before her fist could penetrate the space, and she found herself confined in half the space the field had covered before.
The Coluan had his finger at his own belt a second after he touched ground, and activated his own force-field. Stargrave didn't seem troubled by it.
"And now, for the demonstration," said Stargrave.
He lifted his hand. A blast of energy came from it. The beam of redness hit Laurel's cage, penetrating its walls.
She cried out in pain. Brainiac gaped, then threw himself forward at Stargrave. He bowled the villain over, tried to hold him down, smashed at him with the force-field covering his fists. "You..." Brainiac hissed, pummeling his enemy's face and body. "You..."
He knew, at once, what Stargrave had hit her with.
Red-sun radiation, duplicated in his own body. Stargrave's own powers derived from that of the sun he had been placed in, and it was only logical that he could duplicate and modify the output of such a star. Laurel was vulnerable to the rays of a star like Krypton's, or Rokyn's. It stripped her of her powers.
In sufficient intensity, it could burn her to death.
The worst part of it was that Stargrave was grinning through Brainiac's blows.
After a few more seconds, the villain simply grabbed Brainiac's wrists, force-field and all, sat up, pushing him back, then stood and lifted Qwerl Dox by his shoulder and crotch. Then he threw him effortlessly against one of the cavern walls. It didn't hurt Brainy. The field was more than adequate protection. But he could gauge the power of the man before him, and knew his capabilities.
He stood, cold with anger. "If you harm her, I'll never work for you."
Stargrave hand pointed towards Laurel, and glowed with red energy. "We can test that," he said.
Laurel, feeling the burns on her exposed skin, cursed Stargrave. "Don't do it, Brainy. Whatever you do, don't help him!"
There was silence for a moment.
Then Brainiac 5 said, "Tell me what you want me to do."
"For all my knowledge, all my research," said Stargrave, lecturing as if in a classroom, "I have not yet established how my brother-self was destroyed, or even quite when. Historical records are unreliable. The only ones to see a space-battle between Brainiac and Superman were, of course, usually Brainiac and Superman. For all I know..."
Pulsar Stargrave stopped pacing the Archives Area of his lair, the one which contained holos of Brainiac-Superman encounters, historical texts, still paintings, reproductions of ancient photographs, and even some sculpture. He paused, rested his hand on a bust of the original, green-skinned Brainiac, his very image. He looked thoughtful.
"For all I know, his consciousness may still be out there. Somewhere. Downloaded into a vessel we'll never know about, never knowing of its very existence. I suppose that is...a hopeful thing, all matters considered."
Brainiac 5 sat, his hands clasped in his lap, and gave his host a sardonic look.
Stargrave continued. "But. There should be enough residual memory in my brother's shell to help us along in our quest. We'll have to...repair it, somewhat. A bit of memory-splicing, well, actually, a great deal of it. It'll be a job, Querl. Like making a clone of an extinct species by patching up its broken DNA."
"Why do you need me?" asked Brainy. "Certainly you've got the intelligence and power for the job."
The green computer smiled. "Two pairs of hands, two heads, Querl, they're always better than one. The old saying is true. Plus, there is the aesthetics of it all. We are family."
"Not quite," said Querl. "I have real blood in my veins, not transmission fluid."
The taller being looked a bit piqued. "And I suppose you think that makes you superior? My body has lasted over a thousand years. I have survived a journey below the surface of a sun. You err, Querl. Fatherhood is not merely a matter of the union of a sperm and egg cell." His face registered disgust. "More properly, it is a matter of nurturing, of educating, of preparing the heir for the great quest of Life. And in that, yes, I was the father of your forefather."
"But even in that, he rejected you," said Brainy. "As soon as he could, he left you. He rejected your ‘fatherhood'."
"He thought he did," responded Stargrave. "But who was it taught him the method of raising his brainpower to a level unheard of in humans? Who was it who showed him the means by which his offspring would inherit such intelligence, even in their mothers' wombs? And," he said, in the manner of a gambler playing his trump, "which of your ancestors, from my foster son to you, rejected this power or despised it?"
"As to your first two questions, you know the answers," said Brainy, looking tired. "You. As for the last, none of them. A gift may come from an evil source, but that does not mean it has to be used in an evil way."
"Textbook maxims, best left within the pages of childrens' primers. Forgive me, you must be hungry." Without even a gesture from Stargrave, part of the ceiling opened up. A tractor beam gently lowered a large metal serving-platter from a compartment above to the table at which Brainy sat. It was Coluan food, and Brainy's nose indicated that its preparation would have rivalled that of the great chefs of his world.
"Well? Eat." Stargrave smiled, his fists on his hips.
Gingerly, Brainiac 5 picked up a bird's leg in thick yellow sauce. He brought it to his nose first, checking for the smell of mind-drugs. True, there were many with no scent or taste at all, but one had to use what precautions one could. He nibbled.
"How is it?" The villain almost looked eager for Querl's approval.
"Edible," allowed Brainy. "I want you to provide a meal for Laurel, as well."
"She's a Rokynian," said Stargrave. "They don't need to eat, offworld."
Brainiac gazed at him with a face that brooked no argument. "Rokynians get hungry, just like Coluans. Or Terrans. Offworld, it's more of a psychological thing than a physical one, I grant you. But she will be hungry, and I demand that you provide food for her. As well as a place of easement, and a bed."
"Oh. You demand. You demand," said Stargrave, lingering over the last word.
Brainy got his finger on the belt-button just in time. Considering the speed Pulsar Stargrave was capable of, it was quite an achievement. All the same, force-field and all, Stargrave had him pinned against one wall, right beside a photograph of Brainiac I and Lex Luthor. He held him there, one hand at his throat.
"Let me remind you, dear boy, that no one makes demands of Pulsar Stargrave, especially not in his lair. Your forcefield cannot be up at all times, especially not if you intend to eat or drink. My natural strength is so much greater than yours that you wouldn't want me to calculate the comparison. My stellar energies would be more than enough to incinerate you to a vapor before you could speak two words. Dying of thirst and hunger would be much more pleasant than that, of course, but your sense of self-preservation would override your intellect and you would let down your field to try and grasp a drink or food, oh, yes you would. And that is precisely when I would strike, my lad, even if I appeared to be nowhere around. I am no fool. I was the chosen agent of the rulers of Colu. I was the person who shrank Kandor and all the other cities, who made Superman's life so interesting for over a decade, whom even Lex Luthor regarded with fear. And we all know what I've done more recently, don't we? Oh, yes, we do. So if you wish to keep your body intact, dear Querl, or better yet, to keep your beloved little Krypton-bitch's body as such, you'll make no more demands of me. Not ever. Do you understand, Querl?" He shook the force-field, and the youth within it. "Do you understand?"
Querl took several breaths to calm himself, and gave his antagonist a cold stare back. "I do. But my conditions are the same."
After a moment, Stargrave said, "Granted. On my terms, and after your darling's six-hour time limit on her powers is up. But, thus far, granted. Contingent, of course, on your efficiency in my cause."
"I think you will find me," said Querl, "most efficient, Stargrave."
The living computer steped back and took his hand away from Brainiac's shielded throat. Brainy slid down the wall a few inches, landing on both feet. Stargrave stepped a few paces back.
"I also wish one other thing," said Brainy.
"I would like to share Laurel's field with her, during my times of rest."
Stargrave made Brainiac wait for his reply.
"Permission not granted," he said.
"Then--", began Brainy.
Stargrave wheeled, fixed the youth with a look.
Brainy exhaled and said no more. He went to the table again, touched the button on his belt, let his force-field down. He watched to see what Stargrave would do. The other merely stood there and waited.
Picking up another dish on the tray and an eating utensil, Brainy resumed dinner.
He kept an eye on Stargrave throughout the entire meal.
Laurel Kent had been lonely, hungry, thirsty, bored, and not a little fearful. Plus her muscles were cramped, sitting in the small box of energy. She had shut off her powers shortly after Brainy and Stargrave had left, conserving what was left of her six-hours-a-day ration. Now, she only had her usual invulnerability. She didn't need to eat to live, true enough. But she wanted to. Hunger was a normal, human craving.
Just like love.
She wondered if she should go there, and wondered why she was afraid to, or if she was afraid at all. Sheol, she liked Brainy. He was a nice guy, and she enjoyed going out with him. The subjects that man could talk about! And he always brought everything down to her level, without making her seem like a lackwit. Laurel was no simpleton, but nobody in the Legion could compete with the brain of Brainiac 5.
He seemed to like being with her, as well. Was it only as a sub for Kara, or was he actually beginning to see her as, well, herself? God knows he was trying to. He actually laughed in her presence, enjoyed hearing her perceptions of Legion life and the crew he'd fought among for so long. She told him about her family back on Rokyn, the ones who would have died if Mordru's plan to destroy that planet hadn't been foiled. Laurel enjoyed going back to see them every few months as much as she hated all the red tape she had to go through every time. The UP gave out interplanetary travel permits only sparingly to Rokynians and Daxamites. Even ones like her who, up till recently, had only had partial powers.
She smoothed back her long black hair. At least that sensual pleasure was allowed her in this shimmering prison. Many of the Legion girls wore brief costumes, but not even Dream Girl went on Legion business in a black bikini and red cape. But, mother moon, she was proud of her body, had even done a little modelling work at times, and didn't mind showing it off or doing a sweet tease every now and then.
After all, nobody could get through an invulnerable girl's defenses unless she wanted them to.
But Brainy was a gentleman. She knew she turned him on, physically. She had that effect on many men. Yet, he acted respectfully towards her, taking no more than she was willing to give, when she was willing to give it. Despite her uncertainty, she had found herself looking forward to Querl's hesitant endearments, their hand-holding, their affectionate kissing every date, their hugs and laughter...Sheol, just being together.
He was a nice guy.
Was he just a nice guy?
Laurel hugged her leg inward, rested her head on her knee, and allowed herself a few brief tears. Life was so frustrating, sometimes. She hadn't been of as much help in the Mordru affair as she'd wanted, having gotten her latent powers activated too late to do much good. Now that she had them, she and Brainy were at the mercy of a bad guy who could bypass every Kryptonian ability she had.
Now, she was separated from Brainy.
She knew she didn't like that, whether she loved him or not.
The robots stood like myrmidon statues, unmoving and unspeaking. She'd even tried talking to them, giving them orders, but got no response.
Then Laurel heard voices, footsteps in the hall beyond. Yes! Qwerl and Stargrave were coming back. In her present state of mind, she'd almost be glad to see Stargrave. At least he'd be somebody to talk to.
The two green men appeared, limned in the doorway, and she caught sight of them both. Stargrave appeared to be his arrogant self. But Brainy?
He was looking at her with great concern, personal concern, and had stopped speaking with Stargrave, though he was still walking side by side with him.
Well, it was too damned hard to tell. But she gave him an unfeigned and hopeful smile. "Hello, Querl," she said, loud enough to carry, pressing her hands against the field in front of her.
"Hello, Laurel," he said, somewhat hoarsely. "Are you...that is..."
"I'm hungry, thirsty, and lonely," she said. "Does that make you feel better, Stargrave?"
The villain regarded her. "Actually, yes," he admitted.
Brainiac 5 stepped forward, almost touching the force-field. She could tell he was struggling not to show too much emotion before their foe. "Laurel, Stargrave has...agreed to let you have food, drink, a bed, and, excuse me, toilet facilities. All of this will be within an expanded field. Is that all right?"
"Is it all right?" she said, breathily. "Qwerl, is Daxam a little bigger than an asteroid? Of course it's all right! And thanks for getting it for me."
"You're welcome," answered Stargrave, with a sarcastic smile. "Two things I must tell you. First, your room will be open, no walls, a virtual oubliette, with red sun lamps providing the illumination."
"How courteous," she said, coldly. She and Brainy continued to look into each other's eyes.
"Second, your added privelages will be contingent upon the quality and continuation of his work with me," said Stargrave. "The task we have set before us must be completed quickly, but accurately, or not at all. Our time is limited."
"What limits are you talking about?" asked Laurel, looking at him with defiance.
Pulsar Stargrave gave her back a somewhat tired gaze.
"Your Legion is no doubt trying to trace us down, as hounds to wolf. If they happen upon us at an inopportune time--" Stargrave sighed. "Well, it'd be much less complicated if Querl and I were through when I had to kill them."
She flinched. Stargrave didn't miss it. He missed nothing, she expected. "I hope you'll let Brainy see me, after work," she said.
"There will be no ‘after work,' young lady," said Stargrave. "Querl's every waking hour, save for eating and sleeping, will be spent upon our present problem. We will unlock the mystery of the Master Programmer, and we must begin immediately. Come, Querl."
Brainy said, very deliberately, "Not until I see her eating in the room you've set up for her."
Laurel's eyes widened. He's actually standing up to Stargrave, she thought. Standing up--for me.
"Querl," warned Stargrave. The robots began to step forward, in unison.
Brainy activated his force-field. "You can have your tin men pick me up and carry me, force-field and all," he said, staring at Stargrave. "But if you don't fulfill my request, you won't get an erg of work from me."
Laurel held her breath, wondering if Stargrave's hand would spit forth burning red light in the next few seconds.
"Very well, then," Stargrave conceded. He turned, and walked towards a wall. A section of it opened before him. Two robots treaded over to the field containing Laurel and moved it and her in his wake. Brainy followed close behind, several other robots on all sides of him.
They proceeded to another large room, about the size of a Legion aircraft hangar, with white walls and illumination that seemed to be part of the ceiling itself. Stargrave stood with his back to the wall nearest the door and said nothing. The robots set the field-box with Laurel inside at the center of the room. Brainy and the other robots entered last. He tried to go to her, but the metal men linked limbs to hold him back.
"Not just yet, Querl," pronounced Stargrave.
The ceiling above glowed a bit redly.
Laurel felt her invulnerability fading, felt the familiar sensations a powerless human feels, and tried to give Brainy a smile that covered her nervousness. He was not smiling as he looked at her.
"The room," Stargrave announced.
Two large floor-panels receded into the sides of the room and a reverse tractor unit below pushed a structure upwards, slightly above floor level. Laurel wondered if he had it prepared before they came there, or had created it after bargaining with Brainy. He was capable of either, she judged.
It was a large circular base, containing upon itself a green hover-bed with an attached temperature control, a food synthesizer, a large transparent water tank with a spout and cups, a small table, a TalkWrite device with an attached screen, and a toilet.
All the comforts of home, she thought, sullenly.
"The establishment of the second field," said Stargrave, and gestured towards her.
A second, much larger field-box, standing only a few yards from the walls of the room, sprang into being, its boundaries defined by the same shimmer of the smaller enclosure she was pent in.
"Now...conditional liberation," finished Stargrave, and made a slight gesture with two fingers of his right hand.
The shimmering box about Laurel Kent disappeared.
The Rokynian girl stood up, her joints popping, and stretched in great relief. "Oh," she groaned. "What a relief to be out of that frabbing field!" She bent backwards as far as she could, then forwards to do a couple of pushups to get the last kinks out.
She saw Querl looking at her, with longing in his eyes.
Laurel got up, walked to the edge of the field, and placed her hands against its surface, feeling its vibrations. "Querl, thank you," she said, sincerely.
"Laurel...thank you," he said, and pressed his own hands against the field, covering her palms.
"I trust this is enough of a goad now to get you into the laboratory," Stargrave said, his arms folded, leaning against the wall.
Brainiac 5 shot him a look. "Not quite. I wanted to see her eat, remember?"
The living computer gave him a look of as much venom as he could manage.
Laurel smiled at Brainy. "That's all right, honey. Look. Watch me." She whipped her cape back, strode over to the center of the room on bare feet, fingered the controls on the food synthesizer, and, a few seconds later, retrieved a pseudosteak woven of raw protein from its interior. She took it in her hands, getting a bit of grease on them, bit off a hunk of it, chewed, and swallowed. Then she went to the water tank, held a cup underneath its aperture, and touched a button on its surface. A sufficient amount of water spurted into the cup. She took it and drained it with pleasure.
"Is that good enough for you?", she asked.
"For now," he admitted. "For now."
She watched as the robots enclosed him on all sides and, something less than an honor guard, escorted him out after Stargrave. She kept watching long after the door had closed.
Laurel prayed that Rao would spare them both.
If she was not in love, then she'd frabbing well settle for what she felt right now.
And she was willing to go through Sheol twice naked if she didn't think he felt the same way.