Love, Marriage, and...Oh, Yes...the Menace of Pulsar Stargrave
The area of Stargrave's headquarters containing the Time Cube was one to which Brainy had not been before. He supposed his host had built a regular anthill below whatever was above them. The Cube was built according to the computer-being's own design, and Querl wished he had more time to study it.
"In," said Stargrave, opening the door and gesturing.
Querl Dox looked at Stargrave impassively. He could, of course, just refuse to go. But his ancestor of sorts had been right: there was a hook through Brainiac 5's brain pulling him onward, and that hook was nothing more nor less than curiosity.
Who had been the Master Programmer who had split the first Brainiac into two beings, one of whom stood before him, then redesigned the one who remained? Stargrave was going to find out. Therefore, Brainy would find out with him. He could rationalize it by thinking that he was keeping his host away from Laurel.
But that wouldn't have been the truth, so he stepped inside the Time Cube. Stargrave stepped after him, and closed the door. Brainy made sure his personal force-field was activated and running.
He sat in one of the reclining adjustible seats, was placed in restraint belts automatically, and said to Stargrave, "You could have done this earlier. It would have saved us a lot of work."
Stargrave gave him an irritated look. "It would also have put us in a lot of danger, prematurely. The forces which we will confront could destroy even me. So let us hope, dear Querl, that the design of my craft holds up under stress--or, failing such, that you and I experience a quick death."
Brainiac 5 looked at the control screen. "Are we underway?"
"We are." Stargrave caused the controls of the craft to move without touching them. "A millenium into the past, a dimension away, millions of light-years through space. All via a space-time warp of my own design."
"Can I patent it?" Brainy gave him a sardonic smile.
"Don't be ridiculous. If you weren't family, I'd have killed you by now."
So Brainiac 5 settled back and resolved to enjoy the ride.
Before long, the Legion contingent on Rimbor-Two found out about security precautions on that world. A fleet of police cruisers, all business and hovering on magnetic lines of force, surrounded the flying squad of costumed strangers. In something that sounded comfortingly like Interlac, an amplified voice said, "Attention. You are in violation of air traffic codes. Please immobilize and go to ground for questioning. Thank you."
Wildfire turned to Element Lad, who was flying beside him. "Should we?"
"We don't have a choice, Drake. This is their world." El Lad gave a raised-arm signal to the others to signal compliance, and changed his ring-powered flight-course to lower himself to the roof of a nearby building. Quislet, Wildfire, Sun Boy, Mon-El, Blok, Shrinking Violet, Colossal Boy, and Sensor Girl followed suit.
As the cop cars set themselves in a circle about the building roof, with three of them directly overhead, Mon-El moved towards Jan Arrah. "We don't really have time for this."
"They're in a position of authority," said Element Lad. "We're strangers here, technically invaders. Now do you want to have to push our way through, and be hunted for the rest of our time here, or would you prefer them on our side?"
Sun Boy said, "Let's go with the first choice, but make it fast. If we have to do the second, you know we've got the power."
"But you use it when I say to," returned El Lad. "That's an order."
Some of them looked sideways at their leader, but he simply put his handso n his hips and stared straight ahead at the police vehicle which was opening to allow a man in uniform to walk onto the roof where the Legion stood. He was armed, armored, and visored.
When he had come within ten paces of them, he said, "My name is Lt. Rac. State your names, places of origin, and business, please."
Jan led off. "My name is Jan Arrah. I'm also known as Element Lad. I come from a world named Trom, in a universe parallel to yours."
"A what?" Lt. Rac didn't get any closer, and he didn't take his hand any further away from his side weapon.
Wildfire said, "It's a universe like this one, only it vibrates a little differently. By the way, Drake Burroughs, kpa* Wildfire, from Earth. We're the Legion of Super-Heroes."
"The what?" Several cops had joined Rac, but nobody was making threatening moves yet. The Legionnaires who remained ran through their names and planets. Finally, Rac said, "So far, all you've given me is a list of names and planets, and a claim to be from some...other universe? Is that right?"
"That's right, sir," said Sun Boy, helpfully. He hoped he wouldn't have to melt any cop cruisers to get them out of there.
"But you haven't given me any clue as to why you've come here," said Rac. "Quit flybying and tell me now. Or I'll have Sgt. Moz put you all in stasis."
Quislet's hovering craft wavered. Element Lad, standing close to it, put out a hand to steady it. "Hold it, Quiz. All right, Lieutenant. A criminal from our plane has abducted two of our members and we believe he is holding them on this world. We are here to recover them and take him into custody, if we can."
"Give us specifics," said Rac. "If there's another invader, it's a job for the Urban Patrol or the military."
Blok rumbled, "We have no time for this. We must find Brainiac and Laurel straightaway."
"At ease, Blok," said El Lad. "Lieutenant, I can appreciate your security requirements. And I can praise your vigilance. However, I must insist that you allow us to continue our search. This ‘invader', as you put it, has probably enough power to put this world into free orbit if he chooses. I'd like to avoid a confrontation, if possible."
Rac's companions put their hands on their weapons. Sun Boy's hands came up, and Wildfire shifted position. Mon-El took a fighting stance. The others waited for what would come.
Rac and Element Lad put themselves in the middle, deliberately between both factions. "I'll stand down if you will," said Jan. "But you've got to hear us out."
"I'm not guaranteeing I'll believe one word you say," Rac replied. "Even less that I'll accept it."
It was Violet who broke the impasse. She stepped forward. The two cops shifted their weapons to point towards her, but she raised both hands, palms up, empty. "Hold on, everyone. I have a question for the Lieutenant. Do you, on this planet, have a hero you call Ultra Boy?"
Rac's expression couldn't be read through the opaque visor. But they could see him start in surprise. "He's been Ultra Man for the last fifteen years or so. How do you know him?"
Sensor Girl picked up on it. "Is his name Jo Nah?"
"Yes," said Rac, slowly and more easily. "Yes, it is. Please answer my question."
Colossal Boy was the next to speak. "We've got one of him on our world, too. He's one of our team. Not with us right now, but he's one of the best."
Rac regarded them all with an air of understanding. "You're the putrefying Allied Heroes," he said. "Or you'd better be."
"Well, we're something like that," allowed Element Lad. "If your Ultra Man is on-planet, maybe we can convince him of our intentions. Would you settle for that?"
"He's almost always on-planet, unless he's on an Allied mission," replied Rac. "All right, let me take the bait. If you'll maintain a flight position within our ring, we'll escort you to Headquarters and contact him."
As Rac was getting back into the hovercraft, a cop within it leaned out and said, "Lieutenant. A ship of unauthorizeds has landed at Naws Field. Seems to be a bunch of kids...in costumes."
Lt. Rac looked back at the newcomers. "These guys' stories better be good. Putrefying good."
From the synthesizer, Laurel extracted her usual meal of woven meat, vegetable matter, and water. She took it to the small table beside her hoverbed and began to feed. It wasn't great fare, but it was better than going hungry.
Afterward, she lay on the bed, face up, and gestured for the TalkWrite device to come nearer to her. When it was hovering above her, she began to dictate.
"Day Eight. Much the same as the other days of my captivity. Delete last sentence. Exactly the same as the other days of my captivity, except for one. Querl is not here. I have not seen him since we spoke this morning. He was helping Pulsar Stargrave with his reconstruction work on the 20th Century Brainiac. I can't decide which one is uglier, Pulsar or his predecessor. Querl has...not been here in some hours." She sighed.
"I am concerned for him. True, he is the most intelligent of the Legion. But he is also, physically, almost the weakest. He acknowledged that...either, or both of us, might be killed by Stargrave once the work is done. If he no longer needs us. The red-sun rays focused through this force-field keep me at merely human strength, even if I activated my powers. I cannot go to save my man.
"But at least..." She paused, inhaled, and then went on. "...At least this much has come of it. This much I can be grateful for: that, thanks to our captivity, I have acknowledged that I love Querl, and that he loves me. Some great romance holo this would be. A jailhouse love. Still, I must...I must confess it. We do love each other. We were so afraid, so afraid to acknowledge that, when we were free and on Earth. We didn't want to...we didn't want to hurt one another. If it took this ordeal to bring us past that fear...well, then, I guess I do have something to, like, thank Pulsar Stargrave for. But only that!
"I'd like to say that I, like, miss my mother and father. Hello, Mom and Dad. If you're reading this, please know that, like, you were the greatest parents in the line since Erok-El, at least. I'm glad I had a chance to serve in the LSH, glad you supported me, and...oh, Rao..."
Laurel wouldn't let herself cry.
"...and I want Rao to bring my Brainy back to me," she said, choking on almost every word.
It was almost impossible to tell when the Time Cube had reached its destination, except for the picture on the large viewscreen before them. The flux-colors of temporal, dimensional, and spatial travel were dispersed. Before them, orbiting Epsilon 4, a sun that was not close to Sol, hung a great yellow planet. Its surface and its interior were entirely a computer.
"I created that," said Stargrave, gazing into the screen. "I know I did. I remember it, clearly."
Brainy said, sitting up a bit, "This is the Computer World that the first Brainiac--you--built to destroy Superman?"
Stargrave favored him with a brief glance, then went back to gazing at the screen. "Not just to destroy Superman. But yes, that was one of its purposes. The heroes of this time used to fear Mongul's Warworld, which was nothing but a floating weapon. But I built this myself. An achievement that was far greater than that petty tyrant's gunboat. And I...at this time..."
"...am buried in that world's core," finished Stargrave. He passed his hand over the control panel. The screen showed a scanned schematic of the sphere, with a small red object at its center. Brainiac 5 wondered how it could stand the gravity and pressure, even though he knew the object itself was the original Brainiac.
"We are out of synch, just a tad, with the time and space it occupies," Stargrave continued. "But that will be of little help once the event occurs."
He barely moved his hand, and the schematic was replaced by a visual scan. Then, within seconds, a small mite appeared to be moving towards the planet at great speed. Stargrave snarled, jabbed one finger, and enlarged the image of the mite. At a magnification of many thousands, Brainy could tell who it was.
Querl expected to see Stargrave in fury. Instead, the latter seemed to project a beam of cold hatred towards the screen. He barely moved, but the anger was an iceberg.
"The Kryptonian," said Stargrave. "Look well upon him, Querl. The blue wall against which my greatest plans have been dashed, again and again and again. He who stole my Kandor, who took Genia and corrupted her, who trapped me within that very world you see, the one I built, Querl, I! And now he will do what...he will do...and I..."
Stargrave's voice trailed off. Brainy almost spoke up, but his host spoke again, in a more subdued voice.
"If I dared, I could destroy him now. I think I might manage it. If I dared. But...such would diverge the timestream, or somehow be prevented, and I...would never know. I would never know the Master Programmer."
Querl was astonished that he himself said, "I understand."
"No, you don't, boy," said Stargrave, not looking at anything but the screen. "Nor do I. But we will. Perhaps we will."
With another motion, he eliminated the magnified view of Superman. The screen showed the sun and the computer world again. "Analytics on," muttered Stargrave, though it did not visibly change the picture.
Then the sun went nova.
Even through the viewfinder's protection, Brainy had to shield his eyes. He cried out. Stargrave still stared into the screen.
With a gesture, the living computer tracked Superman. The Kryptonian was circling Epsilon 4 at hyperspeed, straining to contain its exploding plasma with his strength and created vortex. For the most part, it worked.
"Then that, perhaps, was the reason why," said Stargrave, softly. "Or perhaps, a factor." He turned his head towards Brainy. "You know why Epsilon 4 is going nova now, dear boy?"
"From the question, couched as it is," said Brainy, from behind his shielding arm, "I'd say--you had something to do with it."
"I made it," said Stargrave. "I made the star go nova that I could free myself from the center of my created world. If the Kryptonian had not interfered, not done his little maypole dance about the sun, all would have gone well. I would have received the power to escape. Now...we must see..."
The Time Cube lurched. Even though his force-field was on, Brainy felt it.
"Shockwave," said Stargrave, grasping his chair with beyond-human strength. "On schedule."
The force of radiation, light, heat, and plasma explosion was buffeting the Cube like a paper boat in a hurricane. Stargrave funneled his own power into the ship through his handrests, which conducted his innate energies, to stabilize it as much as possible. And to hold the thing together.
"Analytics, Nth power," barked Stargrave.
Querl lowered his arm a hair and looked at the screen. It was shaking, vibrating as if the room was rocked by an earthquake. But he could make out some of what it visualized.
A spy-ray penetrated to the computer world's core. The first Brainiac was there, in green plastic flesh and pink tunic and trunks. His face was the duplicate of Stargrave's. He lie in a field-flux, within a mass of circuitry whose smallest part was far bigger than a man.
The Brainiac in the world-core opened his eyes. He looked startled.
And, from his body, something brilliant and multicolored burst forth. It left his green-hued self limp, steaming, and looking surprised and angered. As if that was his final death-mask.
"Track both," yelled Stargrave at his controlling computer. "Track both!"
"I, can't, take, much, more," Brainy said, knowing that his force-field was the only thing keeping him from becoming blood and paste.
"That is irrelevant!" hollered Stargrave. "Your life and death are irrelevant! You must behold what is transpiring! We must learn what happened to me...to both of me! Damn you, boy, look!"
The energy-portion of Brainiac was tracked, part through schematics which showed a red line coursing through the computer-world's circuitry, part through visuals. Almost more quickly than it could be registered, the Brainiac-energy surged through every inch of filament within the planet-sized calculating machine.
Then, from a power reciever / transmitter near the north pole of the world, it burst forth, visibly, a great orgasm of coded identity and power, entering the void.
It soon became invisible, except for the sensor-display that registered its presence within the viewscreen's image.
"Phase out, four more degrees," said Stargrave. The Time Cube's engines made no sound. But the buffeting and rumbling died away to an almost endurable level.
"Track two," said Stargrave, almost hoarsely.
The screen halved to show the first Brainiac's body, lying dormant within the computer world. The world itself seemed dormant, burned out forever by the energies of the nova and of the blast of energy which suffused it. Brainiac I's mechanical eyes were open, staring lifelessly at the ceiling of the chamber, held rotating there by the equidistant gravity of the world-core.
"Analytics," whispered Stargrave. "Visual."
Over Brainiac I's image came a series of graphs, the cyberandroid versions of vital signs. They appeared to Querl, at first glance, to be dormant. But that was only at a glance. He focused on them, narrowing his vision, observing as closely as his eyes and the distance allowed him.
A graph which had been blank began to show a minuscule line.
Stargrave's gaze was almost reverential. "I live. None but me could detect it, but...I live."
Querl spoke up. "Then...that is what gets placed in the star?"
"Oh yes, oh yes," said Stargrave, almost absently, as if lecturing a dull pupil through a subject. "They will mistake me for a corpse, they will give my body a solar burial within a pulsar star, and the energies of that star will revitalize me and transform me into that which you see before you. That much we know. It is, therefore, irrelevant to our inquiry. I may, at some future date, come back to do further research--going over old material for new results is always the way of the scientist, dear boy--but it is not our primary study today."
Brainiac 5 was silent.
Stargrave turned to him with a sardonic smile. "Just think of what you would have missed, if you hadn't come."
Brainy answered, "I'm thinking more of what I have missed, by coming. I'm thinking of Laurel."
"Pathetic," mused Stargrave. "Analytics. Track One."
Headquarters was a deceptively bright and airy place into which both teams of Legionnaires were herded. Under the auspices of the Rimbor-Two police, Element Lad locked eyes with Lightning Lad. "I thought you were going to mind the house," said Jan, evenly.
Garth, clearing his throat, said, "We were. But let's face it: when one of ours goes missing, we all want to get into the act."
Lt. Rac, standing near the two, said, "Glad both of you seem to know each other. Let's hope I can get some confirmation from Nah, when he arrives."
"Jo Nah?" said Bouncing Boy. "You mean, they've got one of him here, too?" He reflected. "Of course, for all I know, they've got one of me, here, too."
"What do they call you, kid?" asked Rac.
"Um, I'm Chuck Taine. Bouncing Boy."
Rac shook his head. "Not a chance."
Colossal Boy had to hide his grin, but others weren't successful. Chuck flushed, and Luornu put two arms around him, one from each body.
Wildfire spoke up. "I should like to point something out," he said. "Among us are several persons, of which I count myself one, who could bring this whole installation down around your ears, singly, without breaking sweat." His hands radiated fiery energy for a second, as an emphasis, and two Rimbor cops dragged out weapons till Rac stopped them with a chopping motion of his hand. "Therefore, I strongly suggest that you folks in charge either produce your Jo Nah so we can talk to him, right now, or let us go and leave us to do what we do best. Failing that, I'm in favor of us getting up and walking right out of here."
"You can't do that," said Rac. "You're in interrogation, and we have arms."
"Oh, please," said Wildfire, and sent a blast of energy from one finger towards Rac's gun. The weapon disintegrated with a short burst of light. Rac looked upon the Legionnaire with astonishment. The other cops began to come forward.
"Hold it!" said Jan. Blok thumped over to stand between a line of cops in the circle, imposing his body between them and the other Legionnaires. One of the police drew his weapon. "Don't make me, rockface," he warned.
"I would not think of it," said Blok, in his basso voice. "I only wish to protect my friends. Your fire will not penetrate my body."
"We can find that out," said the cop beside the first one.
Element Lad had both hands upraised. "If there is any weapons fire, I swear, I will turn every gun you pull on us into hydrogen gas. I can do that. But right now, I want everyone to calm down. Just lower those hands, Legionnaires, and lower your weapons, officers. I apologize on behalf of my teammate for that outburst. I can assure you, it will not happen again. Will it, Wildfire?"
Wildfire was silent.
"Will it?" pressed El Lad. The cops weren't putting up their guns.
"What's going on here?"
A few heads turned in the direction of the new voice. The speaker, and the woman with him, had just entered the room from a security check. Both seemed to be in their mid-thirties. He was black-haired, bearded, wore a green uniform with a red U on the chest. She was blonde and wore a hood and a veil and a skintight suit and cape, all of white.
But, for all that, there was a familiar note in their faces.
"Jo?" asked Saturn Girl, gaping at the man.
"Uh...Tinya?", asked Shrinking Violet, examining the woman.
"We go by Ultra Man and Phantomette around here," the man answered. "So who in Tord are you, ladies and gentlemen, and how do you know us?"
Lightning Lad looked at Element Lad. "You're the leader. You tell them."
Jan took a deep breath and began.
For the last hour or so, they had followed the energy-trail that was Brainiac through time and space.
It was difficult. Stargrave had to jump the Cube ahead days, even weeks, keeping a tracker beacon-ray on the Brainiac-stream to keep locating it. The power of the nova had sent the stream far away from the burned-out computer world. Even travelling as rapidly as it did, the essence of Brainiac I didn't seem to be getting anywhere.
"Let me try something," said Querl.
"Keep your hands off," warned Stargrave.
"Look, do you want my help or not?" asked Brainy. "Did you just bring me along on this voyage as a, a passive observer, an audience? Or do you want some other scientific expertise besides your own?"
"Querl, I warn you," Stargrave grated.
"Fine," said Brainy, coming loose from the restraints of his chair. "You've been warning me ever since I fell into your hands. If you want to kill me, kill me. If not, step aside and let me get us somewhere."
Silently, Stargrave moved a bit, to let him at the controls of the viewer. But, as Brainy's green hands hung over the control surface, he warned, "If you impair this by a whit, if you lose the track, then I swear to you, Querl, force-field or not, your blood will decorate the interior of this Cube. Within seconds."
Brainiac 5 said, "Analytics. Scan for power vortices of any range from -5000 to +10,000 within available space. Especially those which might impact Track Quarry."
In an instant, Stargrave comprehended. "Of course. Of course. Instead of following the trail, you're trying to anticipate where it will go."
"Maybe," said Brainy. "Could save time."
The viewscreen showed a globe that represented all the space it could scan. Forces of various sorts were represented by different lines, shapes, colors, three-dimensionally. The Track Quarry, the energy that had been Brainiac, was visible as a red dot trailing a line.
It was headed towards Earth.
Stargrave looked at the viewscreen, at what large or small attractors that might be leading his semi-self to that most frustrating, small world. What could it be?
"Analytics, keep tracking," said Brainy. "Ship, jump four months. Screen, compress time playback when we cease jump. Execute."
The motivating power of the Time Cube was activated again. Once finished, they were four months in the future from where they had been moments before. The viewscreen, doing a compressed playback, not unlike the time-lapse photography that allows one to view a flower blooming, tracked the Brainiac-stream through time-space and plotted its course.
It was being drawn towards a point not on Earth, not in its atmosphere, but in stationary orbit around the world. Energy. From a concealed source.
Stargrave barked. "Magnification. Stealth defeat. Execute. Show me what that is, dammit."
Even Querl bent forward, to look more closely.
A stealth curtain was defeated by the power of Stargrave's probers. They saw the power source to which Brainiac I's essence was being drawn. A place which Brainiac 5 himself had visited not many weeks ago. Stargrave's file-mind ran through various images, trying to find a match for it, but it was Brainy who answered first.
"The Monitor's satellite," he said.
"The Monitor?" Stargrave was dropmouthed. "Then, he...then I owe my brother-self's being to...then he is the..."
"We don't know that yet," said Querl. "Keep watching."
Brainiac 5 had given Pulsar Stargrave an order.
Surprisingly, the latter did not object.
Ultra Man stuck his tongue in his cheek, reflectively. Then he said, "I'm not a Terran, so I'm not familiar with this Earth-One-Earth-Two thing you're talking about. But I have heard the Terrans in the League talk about the Justice Society. Historical thing. Now you say this Pulsing..."
"Pulsar, dear," said Phantomette from behind her veil.
"--Pulsar guy is on our world. That's correct?"
Element Lad nodded. "He's got two of our members. We need to find him."
"Okay," said the Jo Nah of that world. "Let's go find him."
Lightning Lad gaped. "That's it? I mean, you trust us that easily?"
The Rimborian looked over the assemblage of strange heroes. "Not exactly. I don't know you or this Starcrave guy you're talking about. But there's enough of you who seem to correspond vaguely to members of the League of Allied Heroes. Tinya and I have fought super-villains with a lot less prior warning than this, too. So, I'll throw in with you, for the moment."
"As will I," Phantomette agreed. "Do you have a holo of this Pulsar, and your two lost ones, available?"
"Our cruiser is in synch orbit, slightly out of phase," said Jan Arrah. "But--"
Saturn Girl broke in. "Stargrave is a green man. Very tall. Brainiac 5, one of our members, is also green-skinned, with blonde hair. Laurel Kent is white-skinned, black-haired, wears a black bikini. They're probably somewhere underground. Think we can find them?"
"We can give it a try," said Ultra Man. "Any of you have penetra-vision, too?"
"I've got the next best thing," said Mon-El. "Let's get to it."
Brainiac 5 had trepidations about even spy-scanning the Monitor's satellite. The being who had been the architect of the resistance to the Anti-Monitor in the Crisis on Infinite Earths would undoubtedly have power to detect it. But, on the other hand, if Brainiac I's essence was able to pass through the satellite's systems without impedence, perhaps their snooping would be overlooked by the Monitor as well.
"Remarkable," said Stargrave, watching the red line course through all the systems of the golden globe in schematic. "He's taking in all that information, all that technology even beyond myself, all the history in the Monitor's records. All of it, uploaded more rapidly than even I would have thought possible."
"Guess disembodiment agrees with him," cracked Brainy. "But...what next?"
As if on cue, the Brainiac-essence departed the Monitor-craft through a transmission node. Then it seemed to separate, in the red-line representation on their screen, into a thousand--no, more likely a trillion--different lines. All radiating out from a central point, all bound for elsespace.
Stargrave moved closer, in surprise. "He's fracturing. Separating. Into an infinite number of...of divisions."
"He's splitting himself?" Brainy looked on, intent. "For what purpose?"
The master of the Time Cube turned to his captive. "To seek data, Querl. To find out."
"Precisely, Querl. About everything."
Brainy said, after a pause, "We can't follow him everywhere."
"We won't have to," said Stargrave. "Not if my guess is accurate."
And, as the two of them watched, the red radiance of lines, within seconds, reconverged on a single point and became one again. As one, the line began to move forth. But even Brainiac 5 took notice of something.
"He's moving slower," said Querl. "Much slower."
Stargrave paused. "The division. It must have weakened his essence. He can barely hold himself together."
"Where will he go?" said Brainy. As he said it, he knew the answer, but Stargrave beat him to it.
"To the place where his journey began," said Stargrave. "To the computer world."
With that, Stargrave passed his hand over the controls again, and the Time Cube headed for the Brainiac-essence. "Are we headed there, then?" asked Brainy.
"Not yet," said Stargrave. "He'll never make it if I don't give him a hand."
"Querl," said Stargrave, very coldly. "Shut up."
With that, the Time Cube phased into another sector of space and entered reality. From its lifelock emerged Pulsar Stargrave, who had just placed Brainy back in his seat, under restraints. Most beings in this universe could not have perceived the essence of the Brainiac-being at all, but Stargrave was not one of those beings.
In the coldness and airlessness of space, unshielded from neutrinos and cosmic rays, Pulsar Stargrave found the path of Brainiac's that would intersect his being, and reached out his hand.
The unseen essence of Brainiac I gathered about his palm and five fingers, drawn there by his power.
Stargrave exerted an effort, and poured power into the stream of disembodied consciousness that had once been his own. He strengthened it, gave it the power to retain its existence, and gave it one command:
You must return to the computer world. You must rebuild yourself.
The effort was taxing, but Stargrave sustained it. Just as he was about to release the Brainiac-essence, he perceived another presence.
Oh, no. If only computers had gods to which they could pray, to beg intercession...
Anybody but him.
Superman had seen him.
Probably the Brainiac-essence had perceived Superman, as well.
The Man of Steel, undoubtedly back from some minor planetary patrol, was coming for him with accelerating super-speed. With a soundless cry of rage, Stargrave released the Brainiac-essence, hoping Superman could not perceive it. Power burst forth from his lower half, propelling him back into the lifelock. While he was still in it, the exterior door not even fully closed, he keyed in a command in an auxiliary control device to phase them out again.
Superman passed through the Time Cube just after it became immaterial.
The exterior door closed, the interior one opened. Stargrave, overcome with emotion, leaned against the wall of the chamber, not reentering the Cube proper yet. Querl saw him and grinned. "Almost got you, didn't he?"
After a pause, Stargrave went to the controls in the main chamber. He said nothing to Brainy, and Brainy kept his own counsel. There was only so far, he judged, that Stargrave could safely be baited.
Within seconds, the Computer World showed up on the viewscreen. An alien craft was headed away from its surface. Brainy nodded at it. "I assume those are the guys who took your body."
"Yes," said Stargrave. "The genesis of my current half. But now, we've a deed of welcoming to do." He took Brainy's hand.
"What are you doing?" asked Querl.
"Just so you can have part in what is to transpire, my boy," said Stargrave, and activated a phaser control.
The Time Cube appeared within a landing bay inside the Computer World. Seconds later, the lifelock opened again, and Stargrave and Brainy emerged.
"We won't be spending a long time here," warned Stargrave, heading forward. "And the ship controls won't respond to your touch without my presence, so don't entertain any heroic notions."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Brainiac 5 murmured. Not yet, anyway, he added, mentally.
Within a short time, Stargrave took them to a certain spot, where he threw open a wall hatch, grasped a large conductive tube, and sent power coruscating into it, causing sparks of energy to emerge from his body and bounce skitteringly off Brainy's force-field. It took almost two minutes, and left Stargrave on his knees afterward.
But a thrum of activity began to be heard in the hallway of the Computer World.
Stargrave still rested on his knees, forehead to the wall, hands still grasping the power-tube. Brainy stepped up behind him. "Stargrave," he said, hesitantly.
"What?" The word was as flat and hard as a slab. Stargrave's eyes were still closed.
"Could I help you up?"
"No," he replied. "I will be all right. Just sparked the thing into activity. That's all."
Brainy almost gently removed Stargrave's hands from the tube, leaned him backward, and lay him back on the floor. Then he sat down against the wall, himself, and waited.
Stargrave, his eyes still closed, said, "Why did you do that?"
"Thought you'd be more comfortable that way," said Brainy.
After awhile, Stargrave's eyes opened. "We must leave soon," he said. "It is imperative."
"Because my essence is returning. And when it is fully integrated into this world, it will regard us as antibodies."
"Sounds reasonable." Brainy stood. "Need a hand up?"
Stargrave heaved himself off the floor with a single motion. "Do not insult me, dear boy. Let us simply return to the Cube."
Walking beside him, Querl said, "You know, you could always leave me to my own devices."
Stargrave shot him a look. "Not yet, you carbonite pratt. We both must see the final act of our drama. Besides which, as I keep telling you--"
"‘--you're family'," finished Brainy. "I know."
"But don't count on it overmuch," warned Stargrave.
By the time Stargrave's power had built back up to normal levels, both of them were inside an out-of-phase Time Cube and watching the birth of the new Brainiac I, in a form of time-lapse photography.
The essence of old Brainiac had reentered the functional Computer World through a receptor and had infused its new essence with the world's old systems. It rebuilt itself, but in a new form. A more functional one, without much trace of lifeism. Indeed, a more powerful one, with systems that were almost organic, but mechanical / cybernetic at the same time. And with all the knowledge acquired from the Monitor's vaults, from deep space, and from a journey through time.
But the new Brainiac saw two beings as his primary enemies. One was Superman, whose face he had seen when fighting for life in his fragmented essence-state.
The other was the being whose hand had held him then.
Stargrave, watching the gestation and birth of his other-self on the viewscreen, held his head between his hands as if in fatigue. "All this time. All this space. All these efforts. And now, to discover this." He barked a short laugh. "It was always, I suppose, a possibility. But I never gave it much regard."
Brainy had to say it. "Then, you were--"
"Yes," Stargrave cut him off. "Both of us, old Brainiac and myself, spent all this time in a circular search. Perhaps it was a good thing that the Kryptonian destroyed him. If he'd survived, he might eventually have learned the truth himself...no, I am certain of it. Just as I found out, he would have, too.
"He would have learned that I...was the Master Programmer."
Brainy reached out a hand to him. "Don't, dear boy," said Stargrave, waving his arm. "Please, don't. It's not necessary."
After a pause, he said, "Are we going back, now?"
Stargrave said, "We are."
"What will you do with the two of us?" he asked.
Stargrave passed his hand over the controls, not looking at Brainy. "Do you know, I really haven't decided yet. There's a number of options. To be honest, murder is one of them. That might be the simplest."
"Starve me to death in my force-field?"
"Or find a way to pierce it. Or I could always threaten to kill your Kryptonian darling unless you sacrificed yourself for her." He looked up, venomously smiling. "What a sight that would be, eh? You proving your love for her the most decisive way one can. And her vowing vengeance on me forevermore."
Brainy lunged for him, the surface of his force-field battering against Stargrave's body. All Stargrave had to do was thrust his arms forward, and Querl smashed against the side of the ship, unable to resist.
"Or I might just keep you on as a slave," said Stargrave. "By threatening to harm her unless you complied. Does that sound like a more humane or computerly alternative, Querl? Who knows, I might even allow you to breed with her. Because, after all, you won't live forever. And I just might."
"Not if I have a damned thing to say about it," said Brainy, smoulderingly.
Stargrave set the controls for the 30th Century. "The whole point of the exercise is this, Querl: you don't."
Laurel Kent was trying to keep her spirits up. She had even found an art-function on the writing device and was using it to try and draw scenes of Metropolis, of her parents and home, of the places on Rokyn she had been to visit, and, yes, of herself and Querl. On one, she tried to envision herself in a white wedding garment of Terran fashion. For a Rokynian wedding, you just dressed up in your best suit of whatever color it was and got the thing done. She couldn't imagine what Brainy would wear, so she just drew him in his Legion outfit and had the unit put in the appropriate colors.
Looking at the printout, she took a glass of water from the dispenser and drank half of it. Then she threw the glass at the force-field walls and watched it bounce off two of them, spilling its contents on the floor. The glass was of fibrous plastic and didn't break. It would have if the red-sun lamps weren't robbing her of her powers, the ones she'd only newly gotten...
She ran to the force-field and slammed her fists against it, repeatedly, uselessly. But it was the only thing she felt like doing. Her eyes were shut and she wanted to yell something, but wasn't sure just what it should be.
That was probably why her senses seemed delayed in getting the perception to her of a new sound. It seemed like a dull hum at first, then built to a loud crackling noise. Laurel opened her eyes, cast her gaze about the room.
A portion of the outer wall seemed to be bulging inward.
Hope started its journey somewhere in her stomach and was nearing the vicinity of her throat when the force-barrier surrounding the installation popped, and Wildfire, Mon-El, and some guy in a green uniform who looked vaguely familiar smashed in, tearing a large hole in the wall.
"Ah," said Laurel, pressing herself bodily against the field. "Rao, oh Rao, thank you, thank you, thank you, but keep working!"
The threesome bulled in and were shortly followed by what looked like a majority of the members of the Legion. They were covering the place, calling her name, asking her if she was all right, and trying to find Brainy and Stargrave.
Mon-El sprawled, a look of surprise on his face. "I'm weakened. Feels like red-sun rays. Somebody, take care of it."
The guy in the green suit said, "Red suns don't mean a thing to me. Let me switch to vision."
A woman in a white uniform phased up into the ceiling and then down again. She pointed to the section where the offending projector-lamps were housed. "Over here, Jo," she said.
A burst of heat lanced from Mr. Green Suit's eyes and turned that section into blazing ruin. Mon-El got back to his feet, sighing. "Good work, friend," he said.
"Jo?" wondered Laurel aloud. "And that woman...she's not Tinya, but is she from Bgztl, too?"
"Bgztl-Two, exactly," said Element Lad. "I'll explain in a moment. It's good to see you, Laurel, but definitely."
Sensor Girl put her hands against the field. "Laurel, are you unhurt? Where's Brainy?"
"I, I don't know," stammered Laurel. "Like, they haven't been here for hours. Can you--Mon, can you use your X-ray vision?"
Mon-El stepped up to the field, accompanied by Wildfire and Ultra Man. "I've already used it and made a physical search, at super-speed. They're not around. Hang on, Laurel, we're going to try to get you out."
"Trying isn't on the program," said Ultra Man, smacking one fist into his palm. "Back away from the field, little lady, we're going to get you out."
"I think I like your attitude, pal," said Wildfire, as he lifted his visor. His energy-self emerged from his containment suit, which, emptied, flopped down on the floor.
At the speed of light, Wildfire probed the field with his own energies, as he had with the larger field which contained Stargrave's hideaway. He managed to insinuate his own being between its pulses, difficult though it was, and exerted repulsive force. In such a manner, he managed to weaken the field throughout itself. Just enough, he hoped, to do the job.
Mon-El and Ultra Man clenched their fists together and battered the field at two points. Laurel watched them for a few seconds, then realized: The red-sun lamps are off. I can do this, too!
"Powers on!" she shouted, and revelled at the feeling of might returning to her body. With a grin of glee, she smashed at the restraining field herself, from the inside as the others battered it from the outside. There was a repeat of the hum, then the crackle, then finally a pop.
Laurel tumbled forth off of her prison platform and into the enlarged arms of Colossal Boy, who had grown to 12-foot height to catch her. He smiled. "Think you put on a little weight while you were gone," he said.
"Oh, you," she said, leaping up in his hands and kissing him on the nose. "Never mind me, let's find Brainy."
Saturn Girl stepped up. "He's not here, Laurel. I've done mind-scans and if his thoughts were anywhere in the vicinity, I'd..." Her expression changed. "Wait."
Lightning Lad grasped her arm. "Imra, where--"
"That way." She pointed through one of the doors.
The heroes with super-speed managed to get there before the others, but the rest weren't long in catching up.
An alarm had sounded signifying the breaching of the installation just as Stargrave's Time Cube phased into existence inside it. That gave him almost time enough to phase the thing out again, but not quite. Brainiac 5 thrust his hands over the controls and put them in a holding configuration. Stargrave picked him up, force-field and all, and threw him aside.
But by that time, Mon-El, Ultra-Man, Wildfire, and Laurel Kent had each grabbed one side of the Cube and heaved. It came apart at the seams, with a great creak and crack. Mon batted the ceiling away. It did no good to the walls of the cave-room which contained it.
Stargrave had power enough to throw Superboy into orbit from a standing start, and had done so, once. With a glance at Querl, he snarled, "So this is how long it took them to find me!", and sent a burst of energy outward as he pivoted. The force of its thrust hit the four heroes around waist-level and knocked them off their pins. Then he activated his own force-field.
Laurel smashed a fist against the field. It didn't do anything except hurt her knucks again. She cursed him, and saw him smile.
Lightning Lad was leading the charge of the remainder, who had come in sight by this time. Stargrave regarded them. "The ninety and nine, eh? Well, that's allowable. We've achieved our objective, and now we can get down to pleasure." His hands began to glow. Ultra Man's flash vision and Mon's heat vision spanged off his shield without harm.
Brainy was on his feet again. "Mon, Laurel," he rapped. "Grab him about the field. Link your hands--and squeeze hard!"
In a second, the Daxamite and Rokynian were on opposite sides of Stargrave and his field, but the villain expanded it to just beyond the point where they would have been able to grasp their hands. But Ultra Man took one hand from Laurel, another from Mon, and shifted his powers to 50% invulnerability and 50% strength. He grunted as his chest abutted the expanding field, and wondered if that would be enough.
Wildfire, muttering, "This makes the third time," merged his body with Stargrave's force-field.
The other heroes pulled up short of the conflict. "Stand fast," ordered Element Lad.
"We must attempt something," said Blok.
Dream Girl, clenching her fists in tension, said, "Like what? See if a big rock guy can do what a Daxamite and a Rokynian can't?"
White Witch rushed forward, her arm pointed at Stargrave. "Maybe see what an Orando girl can do, sis, with a little magic!" So saying, a bolt of white mystic force came forth from the fingertips of her hand.
It hit Stargrave's field, adding to Wildfire's weakening effect, and the combination of that and the three straining heroes produced the desired effect.
The field hummed, cracked, and finally popped.
The master villain's reflexes were great, much superior to a human's. But they weren't enough when compared to that of Mon-El and Laurel, who lay hands on him in an interval too short to be described. Mon, who held him by the torso in a bearhug, compressed hard and pulverized Stargrave's android body. An explosion of force resulted, and Mon was glad his body was between it and the other Legionnaires.
Laurel had held Stargrave's head, and wrenched it free of his shoulders. His eyes were still alert, for a moment, and he appeared to be trying to say something. Then they went dull.
She brought her hands together and squashed his head flat. Then she threw it down, focused her heat-vision on it, and melted it to slag.
A green hand was on her shoulder. She put her own hand atop it, and revelled in its warmth.
"Legionnaires don't kill," he said, softly. "But he wasn't really alive."
"The important thing," she said, rubbing his hand against the side of the face, "is that you are."
Wildfire, reassembling himself and clambering back inside his containment suit, sat up just in time to see Brainiac 5 and Laurel kissing. He also saw Phantomette helping Ultra Man, who looked a bit the worse for wear, to his feet.
"Remind you of anything, Jo?" he heard the woman say.
"Oh, just what we had to go through before we got married," said the Rimborian.
The voice was registering. She had not heard it before.
"Genia, you are among friends. Please open your eyes."
The female computer-being snapped her eyes open and cried out in fear. Three persons were bending over her. Two were green. One was her father, and she repudiated her father. Friends?
"It's all right, Genia," said the one of the three who was female and not green. "This isn't the being who made you. He just looks like him."
"Who--?" seemed to be all she could say. She looked down and saw metal bonds holding her to a table of similar metal.
The young blonde green man, holding a glove of sorts to which a cloud of nanites flew, said, "My name is Querl Dox, Genia. This is Laurel Kent, and the man who looks like your father is Brainiac A. But he is our friend. Your friend."
"Your uncle," said Brainiac A, taking her hand and holding it as she lay on the metal slab. "The young man here helped reassemble us, after your father...my brother, so to speak...deactivated us."
"Where am I?" she asked. "Forgive me, but...I fear. I fear."
"I understand," said Brainy, taking off the glove to which the nanites had retreated. "I would be, too, in your position. Let me explain."
"Let us explain," amended Laurel.
Midway through the tale of Stargrave and what he had done, Genia was feeling reassured enough for them to unstrap her. "Thank you," she said, sitting up. "I have no assurances you are what you say you are, but my perceptions are that you speak truly. You, sir, look like my sire, but do not seem like him."
"Thankfully not," agreed Brainiac A.
"I managed to program in a rejection factor that, thankfully, Stargrave didn't notice," said Querl. "Old Brainiac's body didn't tolerate your parts for long. I bargained on his anger keeping him from examining the grafts too closely, afterward. I'm glad I was right."
"Not nearly so much as I am," said Laurel, her arm about his waist.
Brainy stroked her hair with his hand as he spoke. "After the battle, we brought your bodies and that of Old Brainiac to Earth. It's been about a week, but you're both operational now."
Genia hugged herself, in a remarkably human way. "Then, what of my father? The one you say is this Pulsar Stargrave now? You said you destroyed him?"
Querl admitted, "I don't know. We've destroyed his body, but it might have been just a body. His consciousness could have been downloaded elsewhere, anywhere. We'll know if he ever turns up again. My guess is that he may. But. We have defeated him. We have repulsed him, for the moment. And that's what counts."
Laurel, stroking Brainy's chest through his shirt, said, "We can return you to your homeworld now, if you wish. But you may wish to remain with us, with the Legion, and with Brainy A here for awhile. He's expressed the wish that you will."
Brainiac A said, "Indeed. It isn't every day that a being of my sort learns that he has a family. Will you stay, Genia? For just awhile, with me?"
The computer woman considered it, then touched his hand. "I will. Yes, I believe I will. With you. For just awhile...and then some." She smiled.
Brainy said, "Well, then, if you'll excuse us, Genia, A here can show you around, as I did with him a day ago. I think he still remembers the tour. We'll see you later. I think you'll enjoy meeting the other Legionnaires." He turned, his arm still wrapped about Laurel, and headed for the chamber door. It schussed open before him.
"Where are they going?" asked Genia.
Brainiac A said, gently, "By my calculations, they have about a 99.0987 percent chance of heading where all such carbon-based lifeforms go when the urge is upon them."
"Ah," said Genia.
In the corridor, heading to Brainy's room, Laurel sighed and rested her head on his shoulder, walking along with him. "I hope I don't break out crying with you again, right here in the hallway. I really hope I don't."
"It'll be perfectly all right if you do," said Brainy. "Just about anything you do will be perfectly all right by me. I might even join you."
"I could say," she grinned, "it was nice meeting your family. The good ones, that is."
"Always the good ones. We'll forget our black sheep, like you forget Kru-El."
"Hope they get a chance to meet my family, too."
The door to Brainiac 5's room opened before them. She whispered,
"Powers on," and levitated herself into Brainy's arms. But she wrapped
an arm about his neck and flew them both inside. The door closed
after them. She separated from him, stood, and brushed her hands
through her hair. "I've, like, already kept my promise, you know."
"What promise was that?" asked Querl.
"Oh, the one where I said you'd see what I looked like without my...uniform." She stood coquettishly against the wall map of Colu.
Brainy's hands went to his golden belt. "As I recall, I fulfilled my obligation, too," he said. "You've gotten to see what I look like underneath this purple shirt."
"That so?" she asked. "Funny. I might have forgotten."
"You know, I might just have forgotten as well."
"You refresh my memory," she said, undoing a catch at the back of her suit, "I'll refresh yours."
"Sounds refreshing to me," said Brainy, pulling off his shirt.
As it was, they found they hadn't forgotten a thing.
But they spent the rest of the afternoon, and most of the evening, double-checking to make sure.
The results varied, but were always very, very satisfactory.