Love, Marriage, and...Oh, Yes...the Menace of Pulsar Stargrave
Brainiac 5 paused in his cannibalization of the lady robot. Pulsar Stargrave took note of it. "What's wrong, dear boy?"
"Genia," said Brainy. "She looks like she's staring at you."
Stargrave, taking pieces from Brainiac A over to the 1985 Brainiac, sniffed. "Human perceptions. Sometimes I swear I'll never understand them. Or want to. If it disturbs you, close her eyes."
"No," said Brainy, removing a component from the daughter of Brainiac I. "If she wants to see this...let her look."
Stargrave glanced at him. "Do you get this way every time you eat a fish?"
"I don't eat fish," lied Brainy.
"Then shut up and get back to work."
There was no conversation between them for several minutes. Finally, Stargrave himself said something. "Querl?"
"Yes?" Brainiac 5 didn't turn around.
"How is your progress?"
"It's coming along." He extracted another bit of circuitry from Genia's chest cavity.
"Well," said Stargrave acidly. "That's certainly the statement of a scientific man. I might ask how soon it is coming along. We are, after all, working on the same project."
Brainy turned, pulling up his goggles. "I think you'll be satisfied with our rate of progress. We'll have your--old body--online pretty soon."
"Within the next week?"
Brainy paused. "Most likely, today."
After they phased in, the Legionnaires found themselves in the midst of a busy thoroughfare on Rimbor-Two. Luckily, they managed to get into the air via flight-rings fast enough to avoid decorating a landcar's hood and windshield. All except for Blok, who wasn't fast enough and sent one caroming off of his stone body off the roadtrack. "Oops," he muttered. Mon-El had to swoop down, grab the car, and make certain nobody was hurt.
Element Lad barked and order and Quislet used his lifting powers to get Blok out of the road and away from being a vehicle hazard. Sun Boy, Shrinking Violet, Colossal Boy, Sensor Girl, and Wildfire scoped out the surface of the planet that was visible from eighty feet up.
"Looks very similar to Rimbor-One," remarked Sun Boy. "At least, as far as I remember it."
"There are a few differences," said Violet, pointing at a tower. "That wasn't there on the Rimbor in our universe. Some of the terrascaping seems different. But it looks like our Rimbor, all right."
Colossal Boy, flying near them, had to unload what was on his mind. "I'm the only one from Earth here, so maybe I'm the only one who'll think of this. But in the 20th, there were superhero groups on all Earths. Ours had the Justice League, Earth-Two had the Justice Society. Remember when we met them both?"
"I remember," Sun Boy answered. "So you think there might be a Legion in this universe?"
"Could be," said Gim. "But not for certain. Heroes tended to come a generation earlier, over here. If there is a Legion in this universe, they're probably 20 years older than us."
Wildfire said, "Probably raised a new generation of Legion kiddies by now. What the hell. We'll be lucky if we even meet this world's Ultra Boy, I suppose." He reflected. "Hope there isn't another me, here. I'd hate for somebody else to have gone through what I did to get this way."
Sensor Girl said, rather snappishly, "Forget that for the moment. We're here to rescue two of our own, not to speculate about parallel worlds. Are you picking up any flight-ring readings, Quislet?"
The smallest Legionnaire at normal size said, "Have not detected, Sensor Girl. But have confidence in Dream Girl and Saturn Girl. Brainiac and Laurel found, will be."
Element Lad broke his silence. "Brainiac and Laurel found, better be."
Laurel, half-sleeping, heard her name being called, dimly. She shook herself to wakefulness within her force-field cube. She knew who was calling her even before she opened her eyes.
"Brainy." She smiled.
The Coluan Legionnaire looked tired, overworked more than usual. He was more in need of a shave than before. Despite herself, she wrinkled her nose. "I hate to say this, Querl, but you could use a bath."
He looked down and laughed. "Yes. Yes, I guess I could. But I...well, I don't think I'll have time. Laurel."
"Querl." She stood, placed her palms against the force-field. "Tell me."
Brainiac 5 sat down on the floor outside her prison. "We're just about done," he said. "We're ready to activate."
"Oh, Brainy." She paused. "Has he said whether or not he'll, like, release us afterwards?"
He gave her a tired, resigned gaze. "No. And I wouldn't anticipate it, either."
She had to say it. "Then you think. You think that he'll kill us?"
"I don't know. If he thinks I could be valuable to him in further projects, maybe not. If I live, he could keep you alive as a goad. But let's face it, Laurel. You're the descendant of his worst enemy."
"Yeah." She didn't take her eyes away from him.
"And he might not need me anymore."
"He might not." She pressed her body against the force-field, fought back tears. "Oh, Querl. This isn't fair. Not now. Really, not now."
He pushed himself upright, covered her as best as he could with a sheet of energy between them. "I know it isn't, darling. I know it isn't. But it may not happen."
Laurel snivelled. "It's not about dying. It's about dying now. Before..."
"Laurel, angel, hush. Please." He spread his hand over the area covered by hers. "It may not happen. And even if it does...I know I love you. I know that now."
"And I know I love you too, you stupid, green-skinned, stubble-bearded computer." Tears were running down her face. She disregarded them. "I know I'll always love you."
"Always," he said, softly. "That's a long time, Laurel."
"Maybe," agreed Brainy. "But, long or short...I think I know I'll...always love you, too."
She drew back her fist and hammered it forward as hard as she could against the field. She nearly broke her hand.
"Don't do that, honey," he said. "You'll hurt yourself."
Laurel massaged her hand, looking downward. "It's all right. Doesn't hurt at all. Brainy?"
"If he does kill me, promise me you'll find somebody else."
"I want to hear you promise."
He swallowed. "I thought I'd learned all there was to love from mooning over Supergirl. I didn't know a cursed thing. Not until you."
"I promise. And if I don't make it out, and you do, promise me you'll find somebody for yourself."
"I promise, Querl."
He grinned. "Just make sure it isn't that tramp, Dev-Em."
She covered her face. "Oh, Brainy. Don't you know how hard it is when you make me want to laugh and cry at once?" Her shoulders shook. He couldn't tell which it was.
Then he laughed. And kept laughing.
The two of them were still laughing, sitting on the floor with a force-field between them, when the robots came to take Brainy back.
Stargrave turned around. "I trust your session went well today?"
"Why should you care?" asked Brainy, evenly. The robots stepped away from their positions surrounding him.
"Ingratitude, that's all I ever get from you," chided the green man. "I let you live, I let you work with me, I let you see your Krypt would-be mistress--"
"You--" Brainy surged forward. One of the robots grasped him and restrained him.
"--I even let you in on the solving of one of the greatest mysteries of our age," continued Stargrave without a slip. "And you? All you want to do is complain because I won't allow you a conjugal visit." He barked a short laugh. "Querl, you ought to find out what a robot body is like. Much more convienient. None of that sexual pull fogging up your logic circuits, nothing but the desire for knowledge."
"And power," snapped Brainy .
Stargrave brought his face near Brainiac 5's. "Knowledge is power, dear boy. You know that. Best of all the insipid Legion, you know it. Don't you?"
"Knowledge is only a tool," said Brainy. "It requires wisdom to use it well. For all your knowledge, Stargrave, you know nothing of wisdom. Nothing at all."
"Oh?" The taller being looked at Brainy's torso. "Your arms. They're held quite tightly by my slaves, are they not?"
"Quite tightly," agreed Brainy. "I'd like you to have them release me."
"And you haven't yet activated your force-field belt," murmured Stargrave. "That wasn't very wise."
A hand and arm much stronger than flesh, driven by much more power than a human's, contacted Querl in the face. He couldn't hold back the yelp of pain any more than he could stop his head from snapping to the side. It was one of the most painful blows he had ever endured, without being knocked unconscious.
The fingers of Stargrave's right hand were digging into the sides of his face. He knew Stargrave had no need to breathe, only an internal pump that sucked in air and blew it out for him to be able to speak. But he could almost swear now, if he had to, that Stargrave was breathing heavily.
"Now listen to me, my boy, and listen well," said his captor. "The work is done. Your visit with the Kryptonian has been granted. Now we will know what has to be known." He thrust the youth's head roughly back against a robot's chest. "Release him," he commanded.
Brainy slumped to his knees, ran a finger inside his mouth, brought it out with green blood on it. He looked at Stargrave.
"Come along," said Stargrave.
Activating his force-field with a touch on his belt, Brainiac called out to Stargrave's retreating back. "What makes you think, that I'm coming?"
Without turning, Stargrave said, "Because you wouldn't miss it for the universe. Come along or you'll be too late."
"What about afterward?"
Stargrave said nothing. He turned a corner, went down a hall, and was gone.
Brainiac 5 looked at the robots, unmoving. Then he looked at the passageway down which Stargrave had gone.
With a muttered Coluan curse, he followed.
Duo Damsel poured coffee and served some of Computo's freshly-synthed cinnamon cake simultaneously. Bouncing Boy got the first cup from Luornu One and the first slice from Luornu Two.
A few seconds later, he was ready for slices two and three. "Mind your intake," said Luornu Two, putting a cake dish in front of Lightning Lad. Dream Girl, White Witch, Saturn Girl, Star Boy, and Invisible Kid occupied other seats at the Legion meeting table.
"So, what do we do?" asked Nura Nal. "Do we try to link up with the others on Rimbor Number Two, or wait?"
"It'd be a strain on my powers, to get us into another universe and then that far out in space," said White Witch, picking at her food. "Magic warps don't come without a cost."
"But you could do it, Mysa?" prompted Imra. "As you did when you helped in the thing with Tyr, Krellik, and that Contra-Flash?"
"Possibly," said Mysa. "But I'd rather not, unless we really have to."
"The away team is composed of some of our most formidable players, mes amis," said Jacques Foccart, holding up an emptied cup for a refill. "Mon-El, Wildfire, they are not two of the lighter talents among us. Not to disparage the others, but even I, a late arrival, know of the power these two possess. Is that not so, Garth?"
"Plain as rain," said Lightning Lad, resting his jaw on one fist. "But even at the risk of leaving the homestead undefended, I want to help get Brainy and Laurel back. If we can."
Star Boy, one arm about Nura's white shoulders, munched cake from his other hand and spoke with his mouth half-full. "Well, Kara and Dev are gone, Jo and Tinya are gone, Dawny's out. If you want backup, we could always put in a call to Kal."
"No." Garth Ranzz looked up at him firmly. "Kal has his own life to live, Thom. He's about to enter college on his own timeline. He has to leave us, make himself into Superman, join the Justice League. He can't do that if we keep pulling his cape every thirty days."
A hint of sadness seemed to suffuse the party. This time, they knew what he said was true. Superboy was lost to them. He could not spend decades in adolescence, as they could. They could use his talents for a time, Supergirl's a little longer, and then the two Krypts from the past would be gone. Correction: one was already gone.
Their greatest friend from the 20th, and the one who seemed to symbolize the Legion more than any of them, despite their nativity to this time. Perhaps he would meet them years hence, as Superman.
But for now, and forevermore, Superboy was in the past.
"Creator forgive us," said Dream Girl, hugging her arms. "What do you want me to do, brew up some prophecies for each of you? This is going downhill really fast."
White Witch touched her sister's hand. "It's okay, Nura. It's okay, little one."
Nura smiled a bit wanly. "It's always the girls seem to do the work around here, isn't it, sis?"
"Kick that out," said Garth. "Look. I can call up Gi Gi and have her watch the place for us, if she will. We can get a cruiser out, have Mysa send us into the E-2 plane, and head out there on our own. But I--" He stole a look at Saturn Girl, who rubbed the artery on his wrist, Titanian-style, in affection. "Well, I'm like the rest of you. I just don't want to sit around here anymore."
Star Boy looked at White Witch. "Think you can do it, Mysa? Won't be too much of a strain for you?"
Mysa sighed and tapped her fork against the cake dish. "Like you said, sister. Always the girls."
By this time, Brainy thought of the chamber where Old Brainiac had been painstakingly reassembled as the Mortuary. As if in silent agreement, Genia and Brainiac A stared up at him from their slabs.
Old Brainiac, in his metallic form which suggested nothing less than a high-tech skeleton of Death, reposed in a specially-designed seat which restrained him. Stargrave did not reconnect the servos that controlled his body. It was obvious he didn't want to chance an assault by (or on) his other-self.
Stargrave himself hovered over the other him, unable to resist a few last tweakings. Brainy likened it almost to a makeup artist doing a corpse for the funeral. Except that this body was being brought back from the dead, not prepared for it. He sighed, then said, "Will you get on with it?"
The other turned coldly on him. "I was waiting for you, if you must know. But, for once, you're right. Querl. Would you like to do the honors?"
Stargrave smiled. "I was hoping you'd say that. No oil on your hands, eh?"
Brainiac 5 glanced at Genia and Brainiac A. "There's plenty on them already. Just go ahead, Stargrave."
The villain held a control device in his hand. Brainy almost detected a tremble in him. Stargrave looked at his metallic other-self and spoke again. "With this, we sunder the veil. Lazarus...come forth!"
He activated the device.
An unholy green light flickered on in Old Brainiac's eye-lenses. Querl caught his breath.
Stargrave looked on, his face split in a grin of most uncomputerly delight. "Yes! YES! My brother, come and tell me: who was our father?"
It took several more seconds for Old Brainiac to answer. He turned his head from one side to the other, looked down, apparently tested his body.
"Rem," he said. "Servos to body have been deactivated."
"Yes, yes," said Stargrave. "We had to. We couldn't chance a battle. I greet you, my long lost brother-self. I am Pulsar Stargrave."
Old Brainiac fixed one of them, then the other, in his inhuman gaze.
"Observation: One of whom stands before me is like unto my old self, with alterations. Other is Brainiac 5, of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Deduction: I have been revived in the 30th Century."
Querl heard a slight sputtering. He looked, with a start, at Old Brainiac. If Stargrave heard it, he gave no sign.
"Your deduction is correct," said Stargrave, standing before Old Brainiac's throne. "I was once you--or at least, another half of you. I am now Pulsar Stargrave, as you are now the revised Brainiac. Do you recognize the others here, the ones on the slabs?"
"Observation: one such being is my imperfect predecessor, Brainiac A. The other is my defective creation, Genia. Deduction: You have repaired me using their parts."
"Oh, yes," muttered Brainiac 5. "Both of us did it. Nothing's too much for a member of the family."
"Shut up," snapped Stargrave. To Old Brainiac, he said, "You must have been destroyed by the Superman."
"Response: Correct observation. This was the last of my body units. The Superman prevented my transferral of consciousness to backups. He destroyed this body unit, and deactivated my consciousness."
Stargrave nodded. "One thing remains. That which we have waited a thousand years to hear. Tell me: who was the Master Programmer?"
A spark of flame popped from between two of Old Brainiac's neck joints.
Stargrave's eyes widened in astonishment. He whirled on Brainy. "Did you?"
Brainy shook his head. "No. This systems failure isn't my fault."
Desperately, Pulsar Stargrave grasped the head of Old Brainiac. "Tell me. You must tell me. Who was the Master Programmer?"
The mechanical voice replied, "Unanswerable. Master Programmer. Rebuilt first Brainiac. To current Brainiac. One year, three months, four days, seven hours, Sol time, before Crisis on Infinite Earths. Never ascertained. Programmer's identity."
"You--never knew?" Stargrave was beside himself. If a computer could cry, Brainy was convinced Stargrave would manage it at this time. "You never knew? But you saw him! You saw the Master Programmer!"
"Observation: Not true, as to. Identity ascertainment." The sputtering was louder now. "Saw hand only. Not enough. To establish identification."
Stargrave smashed his fist against Old Brainiac's chest area, denting it. "Tell me, you shard of interplanetary junk! You worthless tin for human-food! You miserable, useless vacuum tube! TELL ME!" He shook Old Brainiac's head in his hands.
It came off the neck.
In surprise, Stargrave fell on his rear, still holding the head. Brainy stifled a laugh, and decided not to say, "Alas, poor Yorick."
Old Brainiac still had something to say.
"Observation: No information. To impart. Master Programmer. Is. Mystery."
The eyeplates blew up and scattered crystal on Stargrave's robe.
A scream of rage issued from the killer computer's android throat. He swung Old Brainiac's head about like a throwing hammer, and Brainiac 5 hit the floor, face-down. Stargrave let the head go as his howl of frustration and hatred crested.
The head of Old Brainiac ricocheted off the chest of one of the robots, hit one wall, then another, bounced on the floor several times, and finally came to rest.
Stargrave knelt beside it, terrible things in his eyes. He raised his fist, and brought it down on the floor, millimeters away from the head. Again and again he brought it down, smashing at the stone of the floor, gouging it out.
"Damn you! Damn you! DAMN YOU!"
Brainy thought that now would be as good a time as any to attempt a runaway. As he turned, a metal arm blocked his way. Within seconds, he was hemmed in again by a square of servile steel beings.
He looked over the robots' confining arms and saw Stargrave, his mighty fist upraised, preparing to crush the head of Old Brainiac with a single blow.
With a great effort, the being who had once been the first Brainiac unclenched his fist and let his arm fall limply to his side. Then he got up.
In one hand, he took the head of Old Brainiac. With the other, he gestured, and two of the robots gave way to allow him access to Brainy. He grasped Querl's arm with a grip that, force field or not, would not be denied.
Brainy was dragged along towards the door without hope of resistance. "Where are you taking me?" he yelled.
Stargrave stopped and gave him a look colder than blackest space.
"We're going back to the 20th Century," said Stargrave. "We will brave the maelstrom. And if we survive--we will know the secret of the Master Programmer."