The doorway schussed open and Kara stepped into her home, Green Lantern behind her. He looked about the entry hall. Holoportraits of Kara with her family, Kara as Supergirl with Superman, and Kal alone were along one wall. As for the rest, Hal was used to non-Earth dwellings, but he found it interesting to see where Earth's expatriate Supergirl now dwelt.
"I've got to call my parents and my boss, Hal," Kara said over her shoulder. "Then I'll get a couple of things and we can take off."
"Okay, Kara, but please hurry," allowed GL. "I've got a full day ahead tomorrow. Even with warps, it'll take us some time to get back."
"Don't I know it," said Kara. White Star, her orange cat, ran out from under a table and almost tripped her rubbing up against her legs. She scooped him up and cuddled him in one arm while making her way to the communications device. With her free hand, she dialed up Ghi-Sonn III.
A digitized image of himself appeared on screen, which probably meant she had caught him in mufti. "Mother moon, Kara, one of these days I'm going to tell you what I've got a secretary for," he grumbled. "Another great idea?"
She chewed her bottom lip. "Not exactly, Ghiior. There's an emergency situation. It has to do with my cousin Kal. I'm leaving for Earth right away."
"You're WHAT?" The screen faded and was replaced by Ghi-Sonn, whipping a robe about himself in his sun room. "You've got a multibillion credit picture you've just started trying to sell us on, to sell me on, and you want to go to Earth? What for?"
Kara felt like she did when she had had to tell her mom about a bad school grade. "Because Kal is missing. He has been for the last month. The Green Lantern of Earth is here with me, and he came to tell me and bring me back to help search."
Ghi-Sonn was still incredulous. "That planet must have a hundred heroes, and he's the biggest of ‘em all. You could put it in Rokyn's front pocket, and it wouldn't bulge. And you're telling me that all of them can't find him on that? Did it ever occur to you that he might have good reason for being gone, like maybe a vacation? What am I going to tell our stockholders, Kara? What am I going to tell my board?"
The golden girl of Rokyn put her hands on her hips and looked as fierce as she dared with her boss. "He's been absent from his place of work for a month, too, Ghi, without leaving notice. You don't know Kal like I do. He'd never do that. He's my cousin, and he's Superman. There is no way that, if he's in trouble, I'm just going to hope against hope that he might be all right, and then have somebody come tell me he's dead. I have to go."
Ghi-Sonn spread his hands. "Kara, your cousin is in bad with half the sons of babootches in the universe. He's got a whole Revenge Squad dedicated to doing him in. Is this not a man in constant danger? And yet he has managed to live through all of this for the past 31 years of his career. Is he not able to take care of himself?"
She sighed. "He usually is. But if it were me gone for a month, Ghi, and he knew about it, he'd be over here in a minute. I can't let him down. But at the same time, I want to make this picture. I am going to make this picture, if there is any way I humanly can. I am an actress, Ghiior, and I am a friend of yours as well, and this is going to be one of the most important films Rokyn has ever seen. It could be the big breakthrough to the Earth markets for you. All you have to do is give me a chance. Let me take the time off, and find him. Then I'll come back, I promise, and we'll work straight through on it until its done."
The executive sighed and rubbed his temples. "I'ya. Kara, you say you're an actress, but every time there's trouble, you go charging right back in. You know how long we've got till Rokyn is out of phase again?"
"Three weeks," Kara replied.
"Right. Is your Green Lantern there?"
"I'm here," said Hal, who had come up behind her.
Ghi squinted at the screen. "Oh, there he is. Good day, Lantern. First time I've met one of your Corps, but I really don't have time to talk right now. You can get her back even if the planet's out of phase, right?"
"I can," Hal responded, showing his professional pride. "It just takes longer."
"All right. All right. Father Rao and Mother Moon, what have I got myself into again? I will tell you this, Kara. I will go in to the Board tomorrow and I will tell them the situation. I will assure them that you can get this affair wrapped up in three weeks, and that if you do not, the picture is over, scrapped, finished. And this, I mean. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Tanth Ghi," she replied, unflinchingly.
"You have to start making a choice, Kara," Ghi-Sonn went on. "You are either a working girl on Rokyn, or a Supergirl on Earth. You came to me with an idea you think could be big concept. You sold me on the idea you could star in it, co-write it, make it work. This depends on me, on everyone, being able to rely on you. If, in the midst of this picture, the universe is suddenly in danger of falling into a black hole, I want you to stand your ground, leave the problem to the Lantern Corps and whomever else takes care of such things, and keep working for me. Do you understand this?"
"Quite perfectly, Tynth Ghi."
He sighed. "Three weeks. That's all. Break contact."
"Blessings on your house, Tynth Ghi. Break contact," she said. The screen darkened.
Green Lantern whistled. "Hate to say this, Kara, but looks like you've really got your butt in a crack."
"You don't know the half of it," she said. She was already punching in the designation of Van-Ol's residence. The screen came up with a scene of him in his office at home, a wire lead attached to his headband and a telewriter machine transferring his thoughts to a hard drive and a viewscreen. He looked up at her. "Hello, KZ," he said. "How'd the meeting go?"
"Strained, but he agreed," sighed Kara. "Look, Van, you're going to have to really pull for me while I'm off-planet, okay? The boss was less than overjoyed at me taking off."
Van nodded, seriously. "I can imagine. Major achievement you got him to let you do it, but he does like you. But I wouldn't test that affection too much more, Kara."
She said, "I hope I never have to. The way my life goes, I'm not sure of anything right now. What I need you to do is keep pitching this thing, work us up some usuable scripts, keep the thing alive. I've got three weeks, and if I'm not back by then, the project's cancelled."
"Um. And what about Superman?"
"If he's not found in three weeks, I don't know," she admitted. "I don't want to think he's dead. But dead or alive, I have to help find out."
He nodded. "Yeah. To us, he's a favorite son. To you, he's family. I wish you could get him to come here and stay, KZ. He'd be so much safer."
"He thinks I'd be safer on Earth. I guess we have different perspectives. I don't have much more time, Van. Just please, please, please, keep the fire burning under this thing until I get back. It's the chance of a lifetime for us all, and I don't want to blow it."
"I'll do my best, KZ," said Van. "Tomorrow I'm going to hit the board with some of Luma Lynai's steamiest love scenes on vid. I guarantee you, those old guys will be headed home for a long lunch afterward...and they won't be eating."
Kara grinned. "Spare me the details. You're solid, Van. Just one last thing?"
"My name is Kara. Quit calling me KZ. Break contact."
"You got it, Kay-..." was all she heard before she keyed him out.
Kara next dialed her parents. She told them briefly what she was about to do, and asked them to come over, get White Star, and keep him while she was gone. Both looked very, very troubled. In the end, Zor-El said, "Kara. I don't want you to go."
"Neither do I," said Allura, quietly.
Kara replied, "I know, folks. But I've got to go. All I can say is I hope you understand. Now we've really, really got to leave. I've given you the access codes to get into the house. I'll call you the minute I get back."
"Kara," said Zor-El, "why don't you send your cat to Earth and let us keep you for three weeks?"
"Goodbye, Daddy." She keyed him out.
Hal said, "Show me what you need to pack."
"Oh, that's all right, Hal," she said, turning back to him. "I can get packed inside fifteen minutes."
"Just show me."
"Oh, all right." She went to a hall closet and thumbed a control that retracted the doors into the wall. A large amount of clothes of different kinds were hanging inside. The closet ran the entire length of the wall, hollowed out, and the clothes rack was automated to bring the outfits forward on a belt from which they were hung.
Hal's power ring flashed.
Suddenly, there were no clothes in the closet, and a medium-sized green grip had appeared at her feet. She looked down at it, drop-mouthed, and then looked up at him. "I didn't want to take all those suits," she said, a bit peevedly.
"They're all compressed," said Green Lantern. "They'll expand to normal size once you open the suitcase."
"I need to get some underwear and some stuff from my bathroom."
"Lead me to ‘em," said Hal. "We leave in five minutes."
Starfire, Dr. Cyber, and Nasthalia Luthor were touring one of Luthor's Lairs. This one was located midway between Metropolis and Smallville, on the site of a long-defunct farm for which the property taxes were always paid through a dummy account. The only access was through a dirt road and there were several devices hidden in the cattle guards that made sure no car got in without approval. If you didn't know where the entrance was in the dilapidated barn, and didn't know the proper way to get access, you didn't get in.
But, once inside the underground complex, you would be able to walk through several levels of Spartan utilitarianism mixed with the scientific apparatus created by one of the world's greatest minds, with a living annex that was as sumptuous as a Gotham City penthouse apartment. Within it were a number of stolen art masterpieces, and not all of them came from Earth.
There were no others present in the Lair besides the three women, but hidden cameras, sensor devices, and recorders were checking them out every moment they were within it. If any of them had not checked out with the Lair's identification system as friendlies, those who were identified as unwanted guests would have been destroyed on the spot, automatically.
Nasthalia held her palms against two glass scanners beside a metal door and fitted her head to a retina-identification device that went over her eyes. In three seconds, the door schussed open and she, Starfire, and Cyber entered an area in which a fountain spurted gaily in the center of an ivory-white room in which exotic plants reposed in planters and were nourished by banks of sunlamps just above them. The rest of the room was comfortably bright, and Nasthalia led the two others to a white metal table around which three chairs were arranged. They all sat.
"At least he's got a clue about interior design. But I could do better," sniffed Starfire.
"A home away from home, underneath it," said Cyber. "I've built a number of secret lairs over the years. Your cousin has the basics down."
Nasty was a bit put off that neither of the women seemed much impressed by Lex's work. But she decided that they might be faking it. "All right, then, ladies, let's get to the basics.
"Both of you know something about Lex. But I'd still like to educate you on his background, and my own, before we go any further."
Starfire waved a hand disdainfully, flashing reflected light from the large diamond on her ring. "Oh, what really do we need to know about him, dearie? He's fought Superman several thousand times, and been beaten every time. That's the compressed version, isn't it?"
Nasthalia responded, "Yes. And you've fought Supergirl only a few times, gotten beaten, and never dared challenge her again. Have I got the basics on that?"
Stella's head snapped up. She didn't say anything, but the look on her face made Nasthalia struggle not to back her chair away from the table. Fortunately, Cyber put a restraining hand on Starfire's arm. "Don't let her rile you, darling. Bad business sense. That is--" And she looked at Nasty, challengingly. "--That is, unless she really wants a fight, right here."
"No, I don't," said Nasty, and meant it. She was far from a wimp, but Starfire was very tough, with a black belt or the equivalent in several martial arts disciplines. Once, when she had depowered Supergirl, she'd beaten the hell out of Kara in a hand-to-hand fight. "Let's just forget about what I said, all right? After all, this is a big operation you're buying into. If we didn't think you were good enough...Lex wouldn't have asked you."
Starfire seemed somewhat mollified. But she said, "Next time, honey, there won't be time to say you're sorry before I give you the power to look at your own ass without turning around."
"All right," said Nasty. "But let me tell you about Lex, and about myself." She settled herself, and began.
"Lex's parents were Jules and Arlene Luthor. The family lived in Smallville in the 1950's. Lex was born in Smallville, but his family moved away when Lex was 5, and they came back when he was 13. Jules became the city water commissioner, and they also had a small farm they inherited. That may have been the reason they came back. Besides Lex, they had a younger daughter named Lena. My father was Robert Luthor, Jules's brother. He goes by the name of Ronald Latham now. He's a shrink in Scarsdale. I haven't seen him in years. I doubt that he'll ever want to see me again." Nasty gave them a slightly wicked smile, and both of the others picked up on it and needed no further information about the matter.
"Lex was born in 1947. He was a prodigy and a half, and then some. Having conversations at the end of his first birthday, reading, doing higher math, the whole nine yards. If Superboy hadn't shown up in 1955, I think Smallville would have been known as the home of Lex Luthor. But, what the hell."
"Hometown boy makes good," snickered Starfire.
Nasty ignored her. "Lex was a polymath. His hero was Albert Einstein, and it still galls him that he never met Albert when he was alive. He won science fairs in school. He was skipped three grades. If Superboy hadn't come along, Lex would have gone on to MIT on a full scholarship. Sometimes I think another thing that pushes Lex is what he might have been, if the vendetta hadn't begun--a master inventor, a captain of industry, the kind of guy who could have taken America to the stars when they were just struggling to get to the Moon.
"Now, understand. Lex isn't just a theorist. He isn't just an engineer. He's also a leader, an organizer, a student of human psychology, and, as you both know, a criminal mastermind. Lex has built a functional time machine. He's a whiz at building robots, space ships, weapons, just about anything you can imagine. He's shaken hands with beings from other worlds and dimensions. He was ruler in absentia of a whole planet. They named it Lexor, after him. He has achievements that could fill a whole volume of the Who's Who. But it's all come down to one thing, since the late Fifties."
"Killing Superman," said Cyber, seriously.
Nasthalia nodded. "That's it. Now, you've probably heard the story of how they went bad on each other, but you haven't heard it from one of his family. Let me tell you about it.
"When Superboy first showed up, in 1955, Lex was fascinated by him. He was like a phenom that all his science couldn't explain. Strength that could move a planet, speed that made light move like a turtle, eyes that could see across the universe, and a body that couldn't be hurt by anything except Kryptonite or magic. He was like a total Superboy fanatic. Lex studied all the news stories about the kid, collected souvenirs, went to places where Superboy made public appearances, even if he had to hitchhike to do it.
"At the same time, Lex was really shy of meeting him. Well, I think he'd been in a line where everybody filed past to shake hands with him once, and maybe asked him a question or two in a forum, but that wasn't really meeting him one-on-one. Lex told me that he was more scared of meeting Superboy than he was of meeting Jayne Mansfield, back then. It was real hero-worship, believe it.
"I also have to let you know, Lex was really vain about two things: his brain, and his hair. He had a mop he was really proud of, spent at least an hour combing it to make it look right. Jules used to call him ‘Kookie' after that kid with a comb on 77 Sunset Strip. Believe it, Lex had looks back then, and the girls in Smallville were getting to the stage where they'd be giving him the eye, too."
"Oh, dear mad scientist, let me have your love baby," hammed Starfire.
"Shut up, Stella," muttered Cyber.
Nasty continued. "So, anyway. Jules had a bit of land outside of town, and it'd been a farm in days past, and Lex was allowed to go out there and set up a lab in the barn. Lex was even applying his brain to farming, and he had a ‘dozer out there and he was clearing land.
"Now, along comes Superboy, just flying overhead, maybe wanting to get a look at the kid genius. As soon as he lands, wham--a big Kryptonite meteor falls out of the sky. Don't ask me how it happened. I don't know if the Revenge Squad was operating back then or not, but Blue Boy had pissed off enough aliens that any one of them could have nudged a meteor at him when they saw their chance, once they found the thing. But I don't think it was just chance.
"So Superboy's on his knees, in pain, hardly able to see straight. What does Lex do? Puts the ‘dozer in gear, gets the blade in front of the meteor, and shoves it away. There's a gully on the property that's got a quicksand pit at the bottom. Over the edge goes the meteor, and floop...right into the pit.
"As soon as it sinks out of range, Blue Boy comes back to normal, and thanks Lex. And like Lex told me, it wasn't like meeting God. Superboy was just some black-haired kid with a spitcurl, a little shorter than Lex. He came on like Mister Normal, you know, a regular farm kid. Two seconds after Lex shook his hand, Superboy wasn't a myth to him anymore. He was just another guy.
"But he took Supes inside the barn, and showed him the part that wasn't a lab. It was where he kept all his Superboy stuff. The books, the framed photos, a rock with the kid's handprint in it, a twisted girder. You could find a lot of stuff like that around Smallville, and some people collected it. Lex was the biggest Superboy fanboy in town, and that maybe meant in the world. I don't know, maybe some rich cats built up a bigger collection with their money, like investing in stamps and coins. But Lex had an advantage."
"Get back on track, honey," said Cyber, boredly.
"Okay. So Lex told Superboy that he thought he was the quote, ‘greatest boy in the world', unquote. Not the greatest man--for him that would've been Einstein. Supes is pretty tickled by it, Lex can tell. When the kid asks Lex about the lab, Lex told him that his ambition was to be the world's greatest scientist, and that he'd like to be as famous, someday, as Superboy.
"That pushed the right buttons, that and saving Superboy's life. So the kid says, ‘Hold on, I'll be right back.' And Lex didn't know what was going on, maybe he was going to stop a holdup he'd just seen in town. It turned out he went to a junkyard, persuaded the owner to let him have some old rustheaps and various other things, and he gathered it all up in that cape of his and, half an hour after he left, was back at Lex's barn. Lex was like double goo-goo eyed. He didn't know what to expect. And Superboy says, ‘You saved my life, and I want to express my gratitude.'
"And boy, did he! Inside of an hour he had that junk reshaped into lab equipment, the busted glass in those windshields melted down and blown into test tubes and beakers and such, all calibrated, all better than anything Lex could have bought. Maybe better than some of the big commercial labs had, back then. Lex couldn't believe his eyes, I tell you.
"On top of that, Superboy dug up rocks around there, pulverized ‘em and mixed ‘em with water and reshaped ‘em and dried ‘em out with his heat vision, and built him a really neat-looking concrete lab. He chopped down a few trees with his bare hands and sliced ‘em up into planks and made ‘em into a roof. He didn't need to nail them together, he just fused ‘em together with his hands. They didn't come apart. He made some nails and tacked the whole thing onto the building, and made a door and hung it in the hole he'd made in the side of the place, and then he moved all the lab equipment he'd just made inside of it."
"I don't believe it," said Starfire, resting her chin on her hands. "That guy just never did know when to quit."
"Well, that's just the point. He wasn't done, even then. He burrowed down in the ground, got some rare ores and chemicals, and put them in the lab for Lex to experiment on. Then he dusted off his hands and asked Lex, ‘Well, what do you think?'
"I'll never forget what Lex told me he said. He just looked at
the whole mess, gleaming under the lighting Superboy'd installed, and said,
‘This is the one time in my life that I find myself unable to think.'
And he darned well grabbed Supes and hugged him. Can you believe
it? I mean, guys just didn't do that back in the Fifties. They'd
have thought he was, you know..."
"Queer," offered Cyber.
"Well, you said it, not me," said Nasthalia. "Anyway, getting back to it, Superboy warned Lex to be careful with some of the stuff he'd given him, because some of it could be dangerous. Lex told him not to worry, he was smart enough not to make TNT unless he wanted to blast a stump. Then he showed him a big stack of papers he'd just brought in from the barn, and said that it was a formula he was working on. When it was done, he was going to be the, quote, ‘most famous boy scientist on Earth,' unquote.
"And Supes made a joke about there not being much competition for the title, and he asked to take a peek at it. Lex wouldn't let him do it. Told him it had to be a surprise. Blue Boy said, well, if he really wanted to, he could look at it with his super-vision. Lex told me he froze up just then. But then Supes hit him with the punch line, that he wouldn't think about snooping on a new friend. And Lex gave this kind of nervous laugh and said, ‘Of course you wouldn't.'
"But he told me later that he always wondered after that, ‘What if he did?'
"So Superboy flies off after telling Lex he hoped they'd always be friends. And for a little while after that, they were. Lex helped out Superboy on some of his cases, can you believe it? One time the Smallville Sentinel ran an article called ‘The Two Superboys of Smallville'. It showed ‘em both in a photo, and each one of ‘em had a hand around the other's shoulders. I mean to tell you, an issue of that today goes for upward of $7,000, if you can find it.
"Now I've gotta tell you about Lena. She was maybe six years old back then, and Superboy had brought Lex some kind of alien life-form. He called it a ‘space-brain', and it was in some kind of protective bubble. Lex asked to see it, to study it, because, you know, he'd never seen an alien before, outside of Superboy, who didn't look alien. So he talked Blue Boy into letting him have it for a week.
"And one day that week, Lex had to babysit Lena out at the farm while the folks were gone. So Lena gets tired of watching TV and playing outside, and comes truckin' into the lab, just where Lex has told her seventeen times already she is not to come inside. He's got his back turned, because he's already working on something I'll tell you about in a minute. He's so wrapped up in what he's doing that if an elephant stomped through the door, he wouldn't know it until it wrapped its trunk around him.
"He said that Lena was the kind of girl who couldn't be trusted not to touch a hot stove until she'd done it three times to make sure it was still hot when the knob was turned. And here is this globe with this weird-looking thing inside, and she's tiptoeing around, trying not to let Lex know she's around there. So she kind of sidles up to the thing, and it looks scary enough, but she knew it was behind that glass globe and couldn't get to her. Kind of like a king cobra in a glass case at the zoo. She finally gets up the courage, and she reaches out...and she touches the globe.
"That's when Lex heard a big crackling sound like somebody'd stuck a butter knife in an electrical socket. He heard Lena scream, just once. He turned around so fast he almost spilled the stuff he was working on.
"Lena was out cold on the floor, and her hair was sticking straight out. He said her lips were starting to turn blue. He dropped right down and gave her mouth-to-mouth right there, and she started breathing again. Then he ran with her into the farmhouse, and he rang up the emergency service, and they got an ambulance out there, and all the time he's massaging her wrists and the rest of her and just praying as hard as he ever prayed before. By the way, Lex does believe in God. He thinks He put him here probably to take care of Superman.
"Anyway, the first one to show up was Superboy. Don't ask me how the kid knew, but the kid knew. Maybe he listened really hard for stuff like that. He took one look at Lex and Lena, said, ‘Good job, Lex,' and then did something with his hands, I don't know, maybe a heart massage or something. All of a sudden, Lena kind of shudders, and coughs, and wakes up. She sees Superboy and the first thing out of her mouth is, ‘Superboy. You come save Lena from the bad thing?'
"That was about the first time, I guess, that Lex really felt jealous of Superboy. I mean, he'd saved Lena's life with mouth-to-mouth. She wouldn't have been there for Superboy to do what he did, if Lex hadn't given her that. But there Lena was, thanking Superboy for saving her. And Blue Boy said to her, no, it was Lex that saved you, I only helped things along. But Lena still thinks Superboy saved her. Supes asked Lex if it was all right with him to take her to the hospital, and he said sure. So Superboy flew her to Smallville General, and a few minutes later he came back for that space-brain thing and took it away.
"Lex got to thinking that maybe he was a lamebrain for leaving that door open and not looking after Lena any better than he had. But when he thought harder, he said, he thought Superboy was a lamebrain himself for giving him that alien thing, even after he'd asked him to. He thought Superboy should have had better sense than that. What can I say?"
Starfire thought she might say that her cousin was a guilt-transferring jerk, but she kept her peace.
Nasthalia continued, "When Jules and Arlene got back, Lex got a royal chewing-out, and Mom was all over Lena, and all Lena could talk about was Superboy and how he'd saved her and the ride he'd given her in the sky. Then, about a week after that, Lena started making predictions. She said that somebody'd be making a surprise visit that afternoon, and they would. Arlene lost her keys, and Lena just closed her eyes and in a few minutes, she told Arlene just where they were."
"ESP," said Cyber.
"Right," said Nasty. "The space brain had opened up part of her mind, the part that had latent psychic powers. Lex was kind of soured by it. He thought she'd been turned into some kind of little freak, even though it wasn't hurting her any. Once Jules and Arlene found out what was going on, they told Lena not to tell anybody about her powers, or show them off to anybody. They told her she had to keep it her secret identity, just like Superboy. She thought that was cool, so she did, but she still showed off around the house.
"That didn't help things between Lex and Superboy, either. But he still thought of himself as Superboy's friend. And he was still working on his biggest experiment. He used some of those chemicals that Superboy had given him, and maybe something he'd picked up from observing that space-brain, but mostly he just used his own brain. And he created the thing that he was sure was going to make him the biggest scientist on Earth, while he was still a teenager."
Nasty waited for them to give her a cue, relishing their attention. Finally, Starfire asked, "Which was?"
"Life," said Nasthalia.