Both Dr. Cyber and Starfire sensed that Nasthalia Luthor was getting into the home stretch with her narrative of the Life of Luthor, and they were grateful for it. But, all the same, they were intent on learning the last revelation. The bald guy with the big brain had turned out to be a lot more interesting than either of them had expected.
"You all know about a lot of the fights Lex has had with Superman, so I won't go into all that," said Nasty. "The time he got closest to killing Big Blue was with Virus X. When the Lexorians found out about that, their image of Lex as hero fell about a hundred notches. They saw him as a murderer...their big hero, a killer. You know how it is when your idol develops feet of clay. The Lexorians started smashing his statues, marring his monuments, hassling Lex's wife Ardora, and they were about to rename the whole planet.
"Then Superman got better, on account of some Bizarros had thrown some White Kryptonite at him and it killed off the virus. He went back to Earth, and got back to work. The Lexorians got wind of it, and just like that, they changed back. A lot of them were convinced that Superman had staged the whole thing, just to blacken Luthor's reputation. So they repaired the statues and the monuments and built a few new ones, and Ardora stayed on as queen regent."
"Hmph. Except for the last, almost sounds like Watergate," said Starfire.
Nasty looked at her. "And Watergate didn't end with the United States getting destroyed."
Cyber said, "So this planet, Lexor, isn't there anymore? And Superman had something to do with it?"
Nasty replied, "According to Lex, he had everything to do with it."
In the living room of the Danvers house, the two Linda Danverses gazed at each other for a long moment.
The Linda who wasn't Supergirl finally broke the silence. "Kara? I mean, it is you, right?"
"Why, yes, of, of course it's me," started Linda / Supergirl. "But who the blazes are you? Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute. Are you..."
Edna Danvers spoke up. "She's the other Linda, Kara. Remember?"
The other Linda Danvers smiled.
Kara sighed. "Sure do. This is the Linda-clone, my genetic sister. Honey, I didn't expect to see you ever again."
"Me neither," said the duplicate Linda. "But it's good to see you again, too." She went up and hugged Kara, as a sister hugs another sister, and Kara, after a second, smiled warmly and hugged back.
"Great Rao, I wish I'd had you when I was growing up," said Kara.
"Not if I was still six little girls who fought you," murmured Linda Danvers II.
In a life that had no lack of strange occurrences, the genesis of the second Linda Danvers was one of the strangest. It had begun, as so many events in her adult life had, with a villain.
During Supergirl's tour of duty as a heroine in the City of the Big Hog Butcher, as Sandburg had dubbed Chicago, she had battled a nuclear-powered villain called Reactron and been irradiated in a way even her super-physique wouldn't shrug off. She had fallen, almost helpless, into the hands of a criminal scientist. This man, a balding, bespectacled, dumpy little fellow named Drake, had perfected a cloning process.
It involved making tiny, foot-high replicas of the subject, little homunculae, and killing the subject in the process.
Luckily, the second part of the operation failed, but Supergirl still had to deal with the first part. Being attacked by six little Supergirls the size of Barbie dolls would, on the face of it, be the sort of thing one mentioned at super-hero parties to get a laugh. Except that these tiny women each had the power of Supergirl at her peak, and the irradiated Girl of Steel was hardly that at the time.
Nonetheless, she prevailed, mainly by being accidentally cured of the radiation sickness by fumes from the Disintegration Pit of the Fortress of Solitude, in which they fought. Actually, she prevailed by exposing the little clones to a chunk of Gold Kryptonite, a rare form of the mineral from Krypton which permanently removes the powers from Kryptonians. Then she put the tiny women in suspended animation, intending to deal with them at a later date. Supergirl returned to Chicago, intending to settle accounts with Professor Drake. She found out someone else had settled them first, and left him dead.
Within the Fortress, the six miniature Supergirls communicated telepathically with each other, and bargained all on a chance to leave their paralysis by merging, first psychically, then physically. For six normal, full-sized, woman-born humans, this would have been impossible. But the clones were not quite as humans were, and they managed it. First, their six minds became one. Then their bodies flowed together, spreading cell-by-cell across the chamber floor to a central location, and reformed into a full-sized duplicate image of the Girl of Steel.
But the mind-melding took its toll. Even as the new "Supergirl" boarded a skycraft that would take her from Fortress to Chicago, her memories of her origins as six small clones had faded. By the time the craft landed in Lake Michigan and she waded ashore, dressed in normal American clothes and with brown hair provided by a quick dye job before leaving the Fortress, the new "Linda" believed herself to be the real Linda Danvers, and moved into the original Linda's West Fargo apartment in Supergirl's abscence.
The real Supergirl had returned, though, and had restored the clone-Linda's memories. The second Linda, now unable to abandon her unified shape, had broken down in tears. But Supergirl had comforted her, and offered her a new alternative. "It's a big world out there," she said, "with plenty of room for two people with this one face. We can find a place for you, a name of your own." And the second Linda had hugged the first one, and was very glad they were not enemies anymore.
They had decided on a new name for her: Carol Raines, taking the "Kara" name for the first syllable of each name. The Fortress computers had forged a phony history for her (it wasn't legal, strictly speaking, but Kal had done that for super-heroes who needed cover i.d.'s before). She'd gotten a job in a secretarial pool in Seattle, and things were working out for her. At least they had been the last time Kara had talked to her on the phone, some weeks before the Black Flame incident and her leaving for Rokyn.
Now she was here, in the home where Kara had spent over two happy years. Thanks to shared memories, it could also be thought of as the clone's home, except for the fact that she had never lived there. Before now, that is.
Fred said, "Linda's come to stay with us for a little while, Linda...uh, should I call you ‘Linda One' and your, uh, sister ‘Linda Two'?"
Her foster dad was not his greatest during such social situations. "Why don't you call me ‘Linda', Dad, and her ‘Carol'? That was what we named her when we split up. Of course, I call myself ‘Kara' all the time now, but I don't think we should make a habit of it here."
Edna Danvers stepped in. "I don't think we can do that now, honey. You see, Linda here calls herself ‘Linda Danvers' now, too. And she's here for a very special occasion." Mom was beaming. Whatever it was, Kara decided it had to be something on the order of winning the Irish Sweepstakes.
"So, okay," said Kara. "I'm here to help hunt for Superman. That's my special occasion. What's yours?"
Linda II grabbed Kara's hands excitedly and squeezed them. "Kara, I'm getting married. To Dick Malverne."
Lena Thorul was as nervous as she had ever been in her life. Even in a wig, even in a brown Toyota which was not the car they had started out in, even with Val lying down in the back to be out of sight, even on a route to Metropolis that was well off the main drag, her hands were sweating through the gloves and she wished like hell she could just stop this thing, turn off at the next exit, go to a small town, call the cops, and have them both put into protective custody.
But her brother would find them. And he had dozens of ways he could break them out of prison, and bring them to him.
The only thing to do was to get to Metropolis and go to the Daily Planet. True, Superman was missing. But they would be able to use their media power to contact other super-heroes. She had no idea how well they would fare against Lex, but she would feel safer in their hands than in the police's or the government's.
"Mom, I've gotta go to the bathroom," came Val's voice from the back.
"There's a bottle with a lid on it under the front seat," she said. "Use that. We'll be in Metropolis in a couple of hours, honey."
"What if somebody sees me doing it?"
"I don't care. Just do it."
Lena took a deep breath, calmed herself, and kept driving. The traffic here wasn't as bad as it would be closer to the city, but she'd driven in Metropolis before. Just take it as it came. What was ahead couldn't be as bad as what was behind.
At that point, just when she didn't need it, she got a vision.
She struggled to keep control of the car, and succeeded. It was doing two things at once, but she managed it. Part of her saw the highway, the cars above and behind, the roadside gas stations with their 50-foot-tall signs and the convienience and fast-food stores lining the areas just off the asphalt.
Then there was the vision.
Of all things, it was a vision of a bar.
Somehow, she seemed to see herself and Val there. Damned if she knew why. She didn't drink, and Val was way too young to be admitted. Nonetheless, they were there. And some guy she had never seen before was defending them both, with blows against some half-seen foes, delivered with the strength of a superhero.
She saw the barkeep hiding behind his bar, and saw a sign over the bar signifying that it was Irving's Place.
The stranger was throwing a punch at somebody.
The vision faded before it could land.
"Ah," said Lena. "Ah..."
She had to put on the brakes before she could rear-end the Plymouth just in front of them.
Val's head came up from the back. "Mom, what's the matter? You wanna let me drive?"
She sighed. Val had been taught to drive, but it would be awhile before he could even get a hardship liscence. "No, honey. It was just one of Mommy's visions. I'll be all right. But I'm going to pull over for a couple of minutes at the nearest exit. You be good, okay?"
"Sure," he said. "Why are we doing that?"
"Mommy has to look someplace up. She also has to go to the little girls' room. Want a hot dog?"
"How's about some barbecued chicken?"
"Sure. If we can get it on the run."
Starfire and Dr. Cyber prepared to hear the last segment in the life history of Lex Luthor. Nasthalia continued her story.
But they both noticed that she hesitated for a long moment before she began speaking.
"Lex and Supes had just had another fight, and, as usual, Lex got the worst of it," said Nasthalia. "He was pretty banged-up, but he managed to activate a robot while Superman was gone to take care of what Lex had been working on. The robot got Lex into a starship and sent him to Lexor. When Lex got out, he was in a hospital bed on that planet. The first thing he saw was his wife, Ardora, and his baby son."
"His son?" Starfire's visible eye widened.
Nasty nodded. "Right. During his last visit to Lexor, Lex finally got Ardora pregnant. He was born about a year before Lex made his next appearance. She called him ‘Lex Luthor the Younger', Lex, Junior by our standards. Now, Lex was a daddy. And he loved it."
Both members of Nasthalia's audience knew how the story was going to end, now. But they didn't interrupt. They didn't dare.
"He finally had something he could value, for once. He finally had a son. Sure, he'd loved Ardora, but he wasn't willing to live on Lexor, even so. Even if Superman had let him. He still had that grudge match going. But now it was different. He not only had a wife, he had a son. And he was set on being there for Lex, Junior, for all that kid's life. I think it was because of the way he felt towards his father, how he felt Jules had betrayed him and abandoned him. He told Ardora he was going to put his war with Superman behind him, and stay on Lexor, where he had a family and where the people saw him as a hero again.
"For a good while, it worked. Lex used his skills and his brains to help out the Lexorians. But inside of a month, he found out that he just couldn't suppress those old feelings. He hated Superman. Hated him like poison. That was the only thing that was still tying him to Earth. That was the only thing that made him feel like a failure. He held it back from showing Ardora or the kid. But, like he told me himself later, he felt that if he could just kill Superman, that'd sever the last tie to Earth for him. That'd finish up that unfinished business."
"The Justice League would find out about it," murmured Cyber. "They'd get him for it."
"Not if it was on Lexor," Nasthalia said. "Not if they didn't know about it. They'd know he was missing, but they wouldn't know he was dead, and they wouldn't know where he'd gone.
"Anyway, back on Earth, Lex's robot had activated an old invention that put Metropolis in danger, and Superguy had to take care of that. Then he figured that Lex was probably on Lexor again, if he wasn't on Earth. Lexor is under a red sun, but Boy Blue had a kind of sunblock lotion that he could put on to shield him from its effects for awhile. If he could wrap things up within 24 hours, he could operate under a red sun, with powers.
"At the same time, Lex was doing things on Lexor that he thought would attract Supes's attention, because he figured even Supes was smart enough to check out Lexor after awhile. He'd discovered this ancient laboratory underground, from back when Lexor was still a super-science kind of place, and used what he found in there to build some stuff according to his specs.
"First, he built this big metal rod that extended darn near to the planet's core, because he'd checked out some earthquakes that had been happening, and he figured out Lexor had a uranium core just like Krypton had. He called this thing the Neutrarod, and it was designed to damp down the nuclear reaction underground. With that, Lexor wouldn't be going the same way Krypton did. This thing he built strictly on the up and up, because he really didn't want the planet to blow up.
"But he also built what he called a warsuit. This was modified from some offensive armor that the ancient guys on Lexor had used in battle. It was powerful enough when they'd used it, but after Lex had finished with it, it was strong enough to use against Superman--and he did. First, though, he used it on Lexor, on the sly. He started using it to cause disasters and such, and made sure people saw him, even though they couldn't tell it was him inside the suit. They called him the ‘Mystery Marauder', and the Lexorians were all trying to get Lex to do something about it. And he just smiled and said he would. He was thinking that after Superman came to Lexor, he'd retire the warsuit for good.
"So Supes did come to Lexor. And Lex did get into his warsuit, and they fought. He was really holding his own against Kid Krypton, too, according to him. He'd tricked out that suit with every kind of deadly energy he knew, and he hit Supes with a big, hard blast of it, and really rocked him.
"But Superguy's body was still strong enough to make the energy blast ricochet. And it did. Right into the Neutrarod."
Cyber and Starfire were completely silent.
"The energy overloaded the thing, and transmitted it right into the planet's core," said Nasthalia. "It happened faster than Superman or Lex could have done anything about. I don't even know if they could have done anything about it, even together. Lex knew, in an instant, what was going to happen. He broke off the fight and tore off, heading for his home, and there was Ardora, standing on the balcony with their son, and she saw him, and she reached out to him, and he got close to them. He didn't know if he could save them or not, but he was going to try. He told me he got close enough to reach out to them, close enough to touch the fingertips on the hand she was reaching out to him.
"Then the planet blew up.
"That was it. Several billion people, erased. Vaporized, mostly. Superman couldn't do anything about it, couldn't save a single soul. He was pretty sick about it, too, from what I hear. Anyway, the time limit was running out on his red sunblock, so he just headed back to Earth and left it there. He figured Lex was gone for good, that he'd blown up his own planet just like Krypton.
"But he was wrong.
"Lex's suit was strong enough, and had a force-field strong enough, to save him from the blast. He rode out the explosion on a rock fragment that turned into an asteroid. He wished he hadn't, but in a way he was glad he had. He'd just seen his wife, his son, and everybody on Lexor get killed. All because that bolt ricocheted off Superman and hit that rod he'd created.
"He said that he only thought he hated Superman before that moment. After that, he said that he hadn't really known what hate was."
The only sound for several seconds was the breathing of the three women and the gurgling of the water fountain in the room.
Starfire said, "So what happened then?"
Nasthalia said, "After that, he managed to use the Warsuit to get him back to Earth. He got himself together a gang...the Statlers, Wanda Nordo, Louto Malono. He was out to ruin Superman, to rub his face in the dirt, and then to kill him. He had a weapon, the warsuit, that was powerful enough to do it. But it didn't work out that way. Supes just had too much luck. It damn near drove Lex crazy...but he couldn't quite beat him.
"That is, until now. That's where you ladies, and myself, come in."
Both women facing Nasty now relaxed a bit, and Starfire smiled. "So tell us, dearie," said Starfire. "What are we supposed to do for your dear relative? And where is he, now?"
At that moment, a schussing noise behind them startled Starfire and Cyber. They turned, seeing an opening in a wall where none had been before, and noticing what amounted to an elevator car coming up in it.
"Where do you think he'd be, ladies?" murmured Nasthalia, in great satisfaction. "He's here."
Lena pulled up in front of Irving's Place. It was an unprepossessing bar, near the docks of Metropolis, and it was a long, long way from where Lena wanted to be. But she had learned to trust her visions, whether she liked them or not. There were several unsavory types lounging outside, and she already hated the vision. But it was still a vision.
Val's head had bobbed up and he took in the sight. "Jeez, Mom," he said. "Are you sure this is where we're s'posed to be?"
She fumbled in her purse for a few seconds and handed him a spare set of keys. "I'm not going to be here any longer than I have to," she said. "I'm going to make a phone call to the Planet. I'm hoping that whatever is supposed to happen, happens quickly. If it doesn't happen in five minutes, we're out of here. If somebody tries to get in the car, you take off without me. Understand?"
"Mom, I can't leave without you!"
"Val, I am not going to argue with you. Our lives are in danger. If somebody tries for you, you take off, get to safety, find out where the nearest police station is, and go there and tell them our story. Understand? I'm going to make sure the Planet knows about us."
"Why couldn't we go to the cops first?"
She drew a deep breath. "Because I'm afraid my brother already knows about us. Don't let anybody in. Keep the windows up and the doors locked."
"What if I do have to take off ‘thout you, Mom? What'll you do?"
"Mommy will take care of herself," said Lena. Steeling herself, she opened the door lock, raised the handle, and stepped out of the car. Her dress was more K-Mart than Saks, but she knew she looked a lot more upscale than whatever women would be found in this place. If any were. As soon as both of her flat-heeled shoes were on the street surface, she slammed the door behind her and made sure that it locked.
The three sots outside the bar gave her a look. She ignored them, as much as she could, stepped up to the door of the bar, and went inside.
She wanted to run back to the car immediately. But she didn't dare.
Within, it was dark and redolent of booze and bathroom odors, and there were maybe six people beside herself and the barkeeper. One fellow in jeans and a gray shirt sat at the bar, nursing a beer. A couple of sailors were at a table, arm-wrestling, too drunk to know that if their arms were forced far enough to the right, they'd slop over the plastic pitcher half-full of suds sitting there. A biker type sat alone, in shades, despite the darkness, with more tattoos than she had ever seen on a human being.
She didn't know how they could see so well in there, but she saw their heads turn in her direction when she walked in.
As quickly as she could, she made her way to the bar. The proprietor's mouth worked briefly as he saw her, and he knew that he was giving her the eye, from head to foot and back again, and then once more for good measure. He didn't say anything.
"Uh, excuse me," she said, trying to keep her voice in neutral. "May I use your phone?"
He shrugged. "Over there," he said, nodding to a black pay phone hung on the wall behind a booth.
Lena tried to control her breathing. "Thank you," she murmured, and heel-clacked her way over to it. On the way, she passed a table. A denizen of the bar, looking no better or no worse than anyone else there, took notice. "Hey, lady," he called. "Hey!"
He reached out for her and she moved out of his reach quickly. He swore. She walked as fast as she could to the phone without running. Showing too much fear might set the jackals off.
Once at the phone, she opened her purse and fumbled for two quarters, then took the receiver off the hook and plunked the first quarter in. The second one dropped from her nervous fingers. She stooped and picked it up from the floor.
She saw a pair of shoes before her. She looked up and saw the face of the guy who had reached for her.
"Hey, lady," he said, grinning. "Wanna come sit with me? Looks like you might be in need of a man."
"Uh, thank you, but no thank you," she said, her voice shaking as she stood up. "I'm, uh, just passing through. Just wanted to make a call." She plunked the second quarter into the slot.
His hand reached out and pushed the plunger to cancel the call. The two quarters clinked into the return slot. Behind her makeup, Lena Thorul went ghost-white.
"I think you wanna come sit with me," he said, and his smile was not benign at all.
"I kinda think she doesn't," said someone else, and a hand appeared on the punk's shoulder.
The punk tried to turn his head. He didn't quite make it before the fist got there.
It connected solidly, pulped the guy's nose (which was no prize for looks beforehand, anyway), rocketed him into the metal body of the wall phone, and knocked him colder than a mackeral. He slid down the wall and went thump on the floor.
Lena looked at the man who had conked him.
He was balding, had one eye in a squint, and wore jeans and a grey shirt, whose sleeves were rolled up past the elbows. Both arms had anchors tattooed on them. He was also smiling, and not in a lecherous way.
"Some swabs just don't know common courtesy, ma'am," said the man. "Go ahead and make yer call. I'll see that ya is not disturbed."
She swallowed. "Thank, uh, thank you very much."
A new sound drew their attention. A noise of smashing glass, and a child's voice, and several male voices. "Oh, my God," said Lena, throwing down the phone and letting it swing back and forth on the end of its metal cable. "Oh, my GOD--"
She started running to the door. She was only halfway there when it opened, and she stopped.
Five people came in. One, a woman, was holding Val, who had a scared look in his eyes. Two were Siamese twins. The last had a black head-mask on, and had what appeared to be a metal arm.
"You'd better come with us, Miss Thorul," said one of the Siamese twin guys.
"You're going to come with us, Miss Thorul," said the other. "And so will your kid. Mr. Luthor's waiting for you."
Lena had time to draw two breaths.
After that, a powerful hand came from behind her and pushed her back. It belonged to the fellow who had rescued her by the phone.
He was taking a pinch of something from a pouch around his neck and putting it in his mouth and chewing it and swallowing it.
"Much obliged, boys," said Captain Strong. "They told me ya's sometimes showed up around here. Kinda makes the whole day worthwhile, after all."
Lena, despite herself, felt a rush of relief. The vision was accurate, after all.
This guy might not look like a superhero, but she'd take just about anything, at the moment.