Love, Marriage, and...Oh, Yes...the Menace of Pulsar Stargrave
Just after the door slammed shut on the work chamber, Brainiac 5 looked at the robots escorting him and demanded, "Get rid of these things."
Stargrave folded his arms. "Only as far as the walls," he said. The robots treaded away on plastic-coated soles and stood against the four walls of the chamber. Brainy didn't doubt but what they could reach him within a second.
The bodies of the robotic Brainiac, Genia, and Brainiac A were still on their tables. Querl approached the inert body of the long-ago foe of Superman I. To work on this thing, he'd have to drop his force-field. Touching a button on his belt, he did.
When no one rushed him after three seconds, he turned his head in Stargrave's direction. "I'll need a scanner and computerized microequipment."
The other sniffed in disgust. "Don't you think I knew that?" He apparently willed something to happen. From overhead, a metal panel retracted and servos dropped a largish metallic box, extended from metal arms, over the robot Brainiac's body. A screen on its surface facing Brainy showed eight 3-D holographic views of the being's exterior. They were being broadcast from tiny machines hardly bigger than nanites, which would fly where Brainy directed them, either by finger movements within a glove connected electronically to the machine, or by verbal commands. He picked up the glove, a right-handed brown one that fit all sizes elastically, and tried it out.
He was conscious of Pulsar Stargrave standing behind him. "Do you mind?" he said.
"Don't let me make you nervous, dear boy," said Stargrave, not at all soothingly. "I have to observe this, too. Begin exploratory surgery."
Brainy did. The nanite viewers flitted into the robot body's interior.
The holoscreens changed, giving eight individual views of the old Brainiac's guts. Both Brainy and Stargrave could comprehend all the perspectives instantly. He shifted his fingers, driving the nanites into other parts of the body.
The robot body was incredibly advanced. Many parts of it seemed beyond what was being done today, and that a thousand years after its creation. He looked on it in wonder, genuinely curious to see how the thing worked.
But there were also signs of great damage, of heat and force applied to the interior workings, piercing its great shields and demolishing it. This machine had died probably in a confrontation with Superman, or someone with comparable power.
He examined the memory cells. Most were burnt to hell and beyond. Every one appeared to be damaged. But it was probable that the accessible ones weren't all damaged in the same areas. It would be very much like piecing together DNA a strand at a time.
But it could possibly be done.
Brainy exhaled. "Well?" said Stargrave.
"Well, get me up a projection of all memory cells within this hulk, with a readout of damage, and to what specific areas," said Brainiac 5.
"As he says," Stargrave pronounced.
Startlingly, because of its promptness, a holographic projection of the robot's schematics appeared near Brainy's head. The areas which contained the Brainiac's memory depots were depicted within it, and colors indicating what areas were less damaged than others helped complete the picture.
"Let's look at the other two first," said Brainy.
Back on Earth, the "home team" of Dream Girl, White Witch, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Star Boy, Bouncing Boy, Duo Damsel, and Invisible Kid II were striving to do their part.
Invisible Kid's hands played over the control surfaces of Computo even more quickly than his verbal commands were uttered. Looking on, Lightning Lad was impressed. All of them knew how to use Computo, but Jacques's expertise was second only to Brainy's.
"Zut," muttered I-Kid. "Non, that was not a command. Computo. Replot those trajectories, immediately, s'il vous plait."
The ubiquitous computer created a hologram of the Milky Way Galaxy and red threads which led from Earth to seemingly a million worlds. Some of them turned green to signify more likely destinations for Brainy and Laurel. A few were blue, the best suspects. One of them led to Rimbor, another to Colu.
Of course, that was nothing they couldn't have figured by themselves.
"Computo, get me the SP," said Garth. Obligingly, a holoscreen appeared in the air before him, with the shield of the Science Police upon it. "Cusimato," he said.
GiGi's face came up. She looked concerned. "Hello, Garth," she said.
"So far, nothing. They've been over Rimbor. They're leaving for Colu pretty quickly. Anything we don't know?"
"Not a bit," she said. "I've alerted stations on the worlds you indicated, but there's a lot of area to cover and not a lot of manpower to spare." There were space-based observation devices, and computers to operate them, survey their photos, make analyses, and issue alerts if perceived necessary. But it took sentient beings to see the things the computers couldn't.
"Understood," said Garth. "We'll keep you posted. Out."
"One thing, Garth," she said. "When Dev gets back, could you have him call me?"
Garth's mouth twitched. Before Kara came into the picture, she and Dev-Em had been seeing each other. "I'll see what I can do," he said.
"Thank you," she said. "Out." GiGi's face was replaced by the shield again, just before the image folded into nothingness.
Dream Girl said, "I wonder. Could Computo interface with Mysa?"
"What?" said Star Boy. "Nura, are you offbeam? Organic / inorganic? Magic / science? That's like..."
White Witch looked at both of them. "It's worth a try. Jacques, do you think it can be rigged?"
Invisible Kid looked up. "I have no idea. True, Brainy's pure-mind feed could be used. But, pouring magic force directly into a computer...I would almost rather pour corn syrup into its workings."
Mysa Nal sat down in front of the control surface. "If it doesn't work, we'll help you clean up. Link me, Jacques."
He looked at the others, for confirmation. "If this does not work, mes amis, Mr. Brande will be stuck with a diable of a computer repair bill. And we will probably have to wait for Brainy to rebuild her."
"Do it, Jacques," said Saturn Girl.
With a sigh, Jacques Foccart opened part of the control panel and took out a fibrous connection with a soft flat pad on the end. This he applied to Mysa's forehead, to which it adhered. She closed her eyes in concentration.
"Computo," said Jacques.
"Functioning," said the computer's voice.
"Begin interface now."
Two days of work had passed. Brainiac 5 had finished mapping the original Brainiac's metallic corpus and, with some misgivings, opened the bodies of Genia and Brainiac A to begin cannibalization of their workings. "I feel like a coroner," he complained.
"Just think of yourself as a doctor, dear boy," said Stargrave, pulling out circuitry from Genia. "And a scientist."
Though the ravaged Brainiac body was far advanced from that of the two other "corpses", there was still enough similarity in Coluan origin for some parts, particularly the memory, to be used. Reconstruction was progressing at a rapid clip. Mainly, Brainy and Stargrave figured out what was compatible, and signalled the nanites where to put it in and how to do it. Which, of course, is a gross simplification of what they were actually doing, but the easiest way to explain it.
During a work break, Brainy mopped his brow and told Stargrave, "There's something you may not have figured in."
Stargrave, still working like the machine he really was, said, "Tell me."
"This Brainiac was a machine of incredible offensive power. Once he's reconstructed, he'll probably turn that power against us."
"Is a 12th-level intellect really that simple? We can put in inhibitors, Querl. He can be blocked from attacking us. Or at least from attacking me."
"Us. Including Laurel."
"Don't get above your station," said Stargrave, without turning around.
Brainy put down his comptools and walked over to his patron. "This is a cooperative effort. I'd like you to keep that in mind."
Stargrave turned and gave him a hard expression. "I am the director of this effort. Your boss. Please keep that in mind. Also remember that your lady's welfare is in my hands. You do remember the girl, don't you?"
The Coluan bristled. "You also remember my point. If you hurt her, I can refuse to work. The only thing you can do is watch me die of thirst."
The villain smiled, a bit tiredly. "Querl. We've gone over that all before. In detail. I had hoped each of us understood our part in this thing by now."
"Conditions always alter as time goes on."
Stargrave nodded. "They do. In fact, I've watched them alter in you."
"In me?" Brainy gave him a dumbfounded look.
"Yes," said Stargrave. He began to put away his complex probing apparatus, retracting its thin extensors from Genia's open cranium.
"Why are you doing that?" asked Brainy.
"We're finished for the day," said Stargrave, not looking at him. "I think we can take a break now."
"A break? We've got most of the day ahead of us. If we want to finish this project, we've got to put in time on it."
"Time," said Stargrave. "Youth always thinks it has so much of it to spend, age always knows how little is left in the account, and little of it is given to the pursuits which really matter."
"But this really matters," protested Brainy. "We cannot learn what happened to Brainiac without reconstructing him. Even a day's delay could mean that--" He stopped.
"Go on, Querl," urged Stargrave.
"I was just rambling," said Brainy, tight-lipped.
The living computer placed his hands on his hips and looked at Brainy in triumph. "And in what direction were you rambling?"
"I will tell you. You were about to say, ‘Even a day's delay could mean that we won't get finished before the Legion finds us.' Isn't that it?"
"What if it was?," said Querl, sullenly.
"It means, dear boy, that you've become the victim of your own curiosity. As I knew you would."
"Please, spare me. I know you well enough, Querl. You're one of the family. That brain of yours, organic though it be, will not rest once it's seized a question until it has gone as far down the road towards the anwer as it possibly can. The curse of all men of the mind. Curiosity. I gave you a job, as reluctant as you were to take it. Now you find that you can't leave it until you're finished. Am I right, or wrong?"
"What do you think?"
"I am beyond the Socratic method," stated Stargrave. "Do not answer my questions with questions."
Slowly, Brainy said, "I'll admit that I'm curious."
Stargrave smiled, briefly. "Perhaps, my boy, you now understand the position of Faust. In his own way, he was a scientist, too."
"Well, then," said Brainy, "if I'm to be Faust, will you let me see my Helen?"
"You will forego your holiday, then, if you're allowed a visit with your Kryptonian concubine?"
"She's hardly my mistress," Querl replied. "But, yes, if you'll let me see her for awhile, I'll get back to work."
"Oh, I knew you'd get back to work," said Stargrave. "I could predict that without having to allow you access to the Kryptonian at all."
"Then why did you do it?"
Now Stargrave's smile held real malice. "Because," he said, "you needed to learn. When you bargain with Mephistopheles, you do it of your own free will. But you always have to pay."
Element Lad, Sun Boy, Mon-El, Shrinking Violet, Colossal Boy, Sensor Girl, Blok, Quislet, and Wildfire had already landed on Colu. As on Rimbor, the visit was kept low-key. Nonetheless, those who did know of their presence were disappointed that their favorite son, Brainiac 5, was not along. Then, when they learned why he wasn't, they became even more eager to help. El Lad told them, "Thanks, but we need to keep a wrap on this as much as possible. We just need access to necessary records, permission to go where we need to go and talk to whom we need to talk, and cooperation."
"You shall have it," promised President Var. "Oh, one thing in return, Legionnaires?"
"Yes?," asked Jan, warily.
"Would it be possible for Brother Dox, after he is recovered, to make an appearance on this, his homeworld, forthwith? It has been too long a time, and I do have an award I would like to present to him on worldwide holocast, and a parade to be made in his honor, and..."
"Oi vey," said Gim, in disgust.
"We'll have to take it up with Brainy," said Element Lad. "But we will ask him. Provided, of course, we can find him."
"Oh, yes, of course," said the president.
"And to that end, it would be a good thing for us to be allowed all the access we need, wouldn't it?"
"Certainly, Legionnaire," said Var. He motioned to one of his aides. "Ravon, go with the Legionnaires and make sure that they have the utmost cooperation from our agencies. The utmost. You understand?"
"Perfectly," said Ravon, and started for the doorway.
"Just a moment," said Var. He made a motion towards his CompUnit. A panel popped open from a hovering unit, and a small holocamera extruded from it. Var took the hand of Sun Boy. "Smile, please."
So Dirk Morgna grinned with everything but his eyes, and the computer snapped the picture. With the appropriate press release, it would soon be broadcast across the planet. Afterward, Sun Boy said, "Thanks, your honor. Now we really have to go."
"Oh, no, not yet," said Var. "First, we have to get pictures with all the rest of you."
All eyes were on Element Lad. "Go ahead," he said, "but make it fast." He stepped up to take Var's hand, and smiled for the picture.
Laurel Kent had been writing by dictation. That was virtually her only activity left after eating and sleeping. Thus, she was working on a draft of something when a door schussed open and Brainiac 5, accompanied by three robots, treaded into the room.
"Oh, Querl," she said, in delight. "He finally let you see me."
Brainiac tried to smile. The longer he looked at her, the less effort it took. He stopped just in front of the force-screen. Laurel scampered up on bare feet and ran over to him. "You don't know what it's been like, having no one to talk to," she said. "I'm sorry, I know it's hard on you with that idiot. How've you been, Querl?"
"A lot better, now that I see you." He was sweaty, with dark underarm patches on his purple tunic--brainwork is as hard as bodywork, in its own way--and had blonde stubble on his upper lip and chin. She didn't mind, and wondered if he'd look good in a mustache. "Are you getting anywhere?"
"I think so," said Brainy. "At least, I'm getting to see you."
She beamed, and pressed her hands against the field in front of his hands. "I'm very glad you've gotten that far, then. Is it--oh, I'm sort of embarrassed to ask it, Querl."
"Go ahead, Laurel," he said, not taking his hands from hers.
"You usually don't see me in anything but this bikini," she said, blushing a bit. "And...I'm wondering...well...does it get kind of boring after awhile? Do you..."
He looked as deeply into her eyes as he possibly could. "You still turn me on, Laurel."
"Oh," she said, shyly. "Rao, I don't know why I'm talking about this when we're in this situation. I mean, here we are prisoners, and I'm asking you...what you think of my body." She laughed. "Like, it's absurd, Brainy."
"No. I still find your body quite...alluring."
"I might even say seductive."
"But there's more to it than that."
That brought her up short. "Oh? And that is?"
He leaned against the field, feeling its vibrations thrum through his palms. "If there wasn't love in it, in what I feel, then you'd be nothing more than a roll in the fields. There's a lot to be said for that, true. But we'd do it, and eventually tire of it, and leave each other for new fieldmates."
"I, I suppose like, that's true, Brainy. Querl. In a way." She wondered if she dared hear the rest, and knew she didn't dare not hear it.
"But there is love in it, Laurel. There is."
"I don't have to be in doubt about it, Laurel. Not...any more. I do love you. I love you in a way that--"
"Oh, blast it to Sheol, Brainy, I love you, too," she said. "I do. I...I just wonder why I was, like, why we were so...so afraid to show it. Before, I mean."
"Because we were...because we didn't know we were," he said. "Because we had to be sure. Because you didn't want to be my Kara, and you wanted me not to want you to be."
She hesitated, then said, softly, "And...you don't?"
"No. No. I suppose...I suppose we were never meant for each other. Even leaving out the different home eras. She just...I wasn't the right man for her."
"Well," said Laurel, "I'm, like...kind of glad she wasn't." She was blinking back tears, but had to chuckle at the same time.
"And I'm, like, kind of glad you knocked me out of my chair and made me go out with you a few weeks ago," said Brainy, smiling. They both snickered and pressed their foreheads against the field. "Ah, dammit," he said, softly.
His hands clenched and unclenched against the field. "That, while I'm saying this to you, and you're saying that to me...we can't get any closer together than this."
"I know," she said. "When this is over, Brainy..."
"I, um...I'll let you see what I look like without my bikini."
"And I don't mean in Rokynian formal wear, either!" She grinned at him.
"I know what you mean," he said. "I'll be, um, glad to get out of this purple outfit, too."
"Querl. Would you grow a mustache for me? Just to see how it looks?"
He looked thoughtful. "I could try. You'd like me in a mustache, huh?"
She leaned her body against the force-field. "I think you might look sexier in it," she whispered.
"Well, then," he said, "we will definitely give it a try. Beard, too?"
"No, just a mustache for now. Thank you."
"You're very, very welcome." Pause. Then: "You haven't asked me about the work."
"Go ahead and, like, tell me."
He looked downward. "Feels like I'm cutting up my relatives. But we're making progress. The Old Man is about ready to be put back online, at least in terms of reconstructed memory and communication."
"That's the robot Brainiac, right? The Old Man?"
He nodded. "Yeah. He compared me to Faust, himself to Mephistopheles. Don't know that he isn't right."
"He isn't, Brainy. Look at me." Laurel got him to look up. "You're being forced to do what you do. Faust did it of his own free will."
"At first I was forced. Now, I'm too curious. Want to see what created the Old Man. Faust started out of his own free will, ended up otherwise. Maybe we're progressing the same way in different directions."
"No, you're not. Don't let him deceive you. That's what a real Mephistopheles would do." She paused. "I haven't read very much of that old Earth play."
"He compared you to Helen," said Brainy.
"Oh," she said, wonderingly. "Faust's love? The one about who he said, let me see...'Sweet Helen, you steal my soul with a kiss. See where it flies...'"
She looked up.
Brainiac 5 had his lips pressed against the field. His eyes were closed.
She placed her lips on the field and closed her own eyes.
A few moments later, she whispered, "That was the best kiss I ever had, Brainy."
"Me, too," he murmured.
"Yeah," he said, very softly. "But we'll do better. When we don't have this in between us."
She said nothing, her eyes shining.
The three robots began walking forward. He looked back at them. "Apparently, the break is over," he said. He touched a concealed button on his belt.
"Brainy," she said, pressing herself against the field. "The Legion will find us. We will get out of this."
"I'm hoping for it," he said, as the robots grasped him about his personal force-field. They began to carry him away. "Thank you, Laurel. For everything."
"Querl," she called after him. "I'll...I'll fantasize about you. I promise."
"And I of you," he said, as they carried him out the doorway. "But we won't have to do it for long."
The door schussed shut. Laurel fell to her knees, cried, and prayed to Rao that all things would be put to rights.
Then she did what she promised Querl she would do. The monitor cameras of Pulsar Stargrave recorded her every move.
She defied their cold voyeurism, and damned them.
Mysa Nal had, as the old saying put it, picked up some decent vibrations. It took a mental linkup with Saturn Girl and Nura to ascertain it, but she felt that, somehow, she had traced what little she could of the essence of Brainiac 5 and Laurel Kent. She opened her eyes and sighed.
"Garth," she said. "Get the other squad on the comlink. I think I know where we have to go."
"Great!" burst out Bouncing Boy, and clenched his fists in anticipation of a reunion with Querl and Laurel. Unconsciously, Duo Damsel split in two and took one of his arms each.
"All right, Mysa," said Lightning Lad. "And where would that be?"
"I thought it was on Rimbor," said White Witch. "But the flavor of the contact wasn't quite right. Then I figured it out. Imra helped. She and Nura helped me locate the right memories. It was in the Mordru case, when we had to go to that sorceror's tower in the other universe."
Star Boy said, "What's all this about? I wasn't in on that part of it."
Saturn Girl said, "I know what she means. It makes sense, now, as a hideout for Stargrave. A place we wouldn't normally have thought of looking for him. It's in the Earth-Two universe. Unless we're really misinterping here...Pulsar Stargrave is on Rimbor-Two."