Superman Through the Ages

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Chapter 24

The Tripedal at the entrance to the decontamination chamber was a pushover.  All Luthor needed to cajole him into giving passage was a good word and one of the diamonds Luthor found in Superman's cape pouch when they brought the Kryptonian down outside the hotel.  Substances of dense matter were, as a rule, considered valuable on Oric.  In the pouch Luthor also found some colorful trinkets in the shape of wafers.  They were apparently some compressed material placed there for safekeeping, some sort of woven plastic, maybe.  Luthor had no time to analyze the wafers chemically, and he did not even stop to wonder what Superman would want with the pair of eyeglasses he found there also.

Luthor had no time to worry about that sort of trivia now; he was too busy being horrified.  There was an urgent matter to take care of, and Superman, unconscious in the interrogation room beyond the decontamination chamber, was the only hope for a solution.

The past three days for Luthor were among the finest he could remember, and he had no scruples about letting his old enemy spend some time getting his mind homogenized by the Master and his merry men.  Luthor was doing what he did best: science with undercurrents of intrigue.  At this point the Master claimed to trust Luthor, but still had not shown the Earthman his face.  It was probably grotesque.  The Master was reputedly a hybrid of more races than anyone had ever accurately determined.  It was the boss's slaves who stashed Luthor in a room outfitted to his specifications with a blackboard, a desk, a drawing board, a robot calculator that followed him through the halls as he paced and was activated by voice commands, a big garbage can, and reams of paper for filling it up.  Also, Luthor now wore a copy of his purple-and-green flying suit, complete with all sorts of neat gadgets for blasting through walls, delivering electric shocks, injecting deadly serums, and that sort of thing.  Luthor never ever, not even once, told anyone the fact that he took secret delight in the fact that he was born under the sign of Scorpio.

A written memorandum from the Master himself gave Luthor the problem he was to solve.  He had to calculate from gravitational data the number of black holes along the inner border of the Galactic Arm, as well as each hole's size and mass.  It was a delicious game of mathematical cat-and-mouse.  And so as not to get bored with momentarily insoluble questions, Luthor spent spare moments collecting data from his robot computer about the Master's base of operations here with an eye to getting clues as to the whereabouts of the Einstein document.

Here was how the Galaxy was held together:

All matter was effectively the same.  Matter's basic elements were protons, electrons, neutrons, and such smaller particles as helped certain atoms and molecules to specialize.  Even among the specialized atoms and molecules, the major function of any matter was to expend energy.  Most of the energy expended by matter was a cohesive force called gravitation.  It was gravitation that not only held the molecules of planet-bound objects together and attracted objects to planets and stars in a very orderly fashion, but gravitational energy also held planets and other bodies in orbit around stars and held stars fairly close to each other so that there was a well-defined Galaxy.  Stars attracted each other with gravitation and stuck together in their various orbits.  But with simple computation it became clear that there was not enough matter in all the stars and planets to attract bodies across expanses of light-years and hold something as big as the Galaxy together.  The visible heavenly bodies, in fact, provided only about half the cohesive force necessary to hold the Galaxy together.  The rest was provided by black holes.

Black holes were bodies of very heavy matter that once were stars.  Young stars, like Earth's yellow sun, burned themselves up with reckless enthusiasm for tens of millions of years.  Old stars, like Krypton's giant red sun Antares, were no more than amorphous masses of gas and vapor without anything that could be called a solid surface, but which were so large that once they burned themselves down and the stuff that made them up fell cold toward the core of the dying star, the particles of mass exerted so much gravitational force on one another that their very molecules intersected.  The resulting object, the dead husk of a once flaming star, was a black hole, an object ranging in size from several cubic centimeters to a few thousand miles in diameter, and so dense that even pure energy could not escape its gravitational force.  What little starlight they still generated never got off the surface.  The black holes were the glue of the Galaxy.

As Luthor played hide-and-seek with the black holes over the expanse of space that separated the Arm in which Vega and Sol burned from the rest of the Guardians' sphere of influence, that silly little doggerel of the space minstrel played handball off the back wall of his mind:

When the minions of immortals spread Galactic,
When a thousand cultures dwell in Vega's glow,
When a sailing ship for starflight is a tactic,
When these things all come to pass then we will know

That a hybrid born to Vega has been spreading
Massive strength through an empire built on trade,
And a path to an Arm's rule he is treading;
'Gainst his rule need for freedom sure will fade.

Luthor asked his computer friend—he had named the machine MacDuff—how many distinct races, at the last count, frequented the markets of Oric.  The answer was 997.  From what he could decipher from data he coaxed out of the computer he could see that the Master's biggest concern was real estate.  He apparently specialized in subdividing the surfaces of totally dead planets and setting up communities dependent on his shipping and teleportation operations for their life-support.  Luthor could actually coax a lot of information out of MacDuff using various computer codes he figured out.  Most of what he got, though, seemed to be gibberish.  Somebody would understand it.  Superman probably would, he grudgingly admitted, but not because he was any great intellect.  His intelligence was above average, and that along with total recall would make it possible for Superman to explain the meanings of all these alien symbols which certainly held the answer to the location of the Einstein document.  But locating either the document or Superman seemed a problem of great difficulty.

The scientist wondered, not a lot, because he was enjoying the other complex matters on his mind, exactly why this character with designs on the rule of an entire sector of the Galaxy was interested in the location of black holes.  Industrialists, politicians, bureaucrats, Luthor knew a lot of them and this faceless Master was all those things.  People like that were so concerned with the trappings and textures of the empires they sought to build that they wasted valuable commodities like Luthor's intellect on self-indulgent matters like mapmaking.  That was certainly the only reason the Master was so inordinately concerned with the uncharted black holes that were sprinkled over his prospective kingdom.

Luthor dismissed the Master as the latest in a long line of false Messiahs who ached to make an ancient prophesy come true about himself.

Here was something interesting, Luthor thought, as he pulled a plasticine tape from a feed slot on MacDuff.  If his previous assumptions about the mathematical codes used in the Master's computer indexes were correct, then this piece of read-out had something to do with time travel.  No, not time travel.  Actual mass shipments of materials through time.  What was this character planning? An import and export business with the Stone Age?

Luthor put the read-out on a growing pile of alien computer gibberish he was collecting in a corner of the room and sat down at his drawing board.

"MacDuff," Luthor addressed the machine, which responded by lighting a red signal on its front plate, "get me a three-dimensional projection of the planetary system of the star Delphinus immediately preceding the time it became a nova."

The robot wheeled out of the room.  Luthor fiddled with his adjustable protractor trying to triangulate the location of a massive invisible body somewhere between Delphinus and a star yet undiscovered by Earth astronomers which Luthor named after himself.  He looked up in the middle of ruling a straight line and his mouth fell open.

Nine hundred ninety-seven races, he thought.  Sailing ship, he thought.  Time shipments? Real estate? Black holes?

Somewhere Luthor had heard, or he had read, or he had reasoned, that the Guardians didn't consider wandering stars within their jurisdiction.  They considered them outside the Galaxy because they did not orbit the Central Cluster as did the other stars.  Wandering stars were just passing through, not held to the main body of the Galaxy by attraction to black holes or other stars' gravitation.  The immortals apparently felt that anything not part of the actual Milky Way unit by permanent attraction was outside their concern.

Could it be that the Master had a practical concern with the location of the black holes Luthor was charting? He ran down the hall after the robot MacDuff, knocking down or pushing out of the way six or eight creatures from as many worlds who were the Master's slaves, or employees, or elves, or whatever they called them here.


The robot stopped and spun around, flashing its red signal.

"Get back to my office.  The request for the data on Delphinus is countermanded."

Luthor spent the night with no more thoughts of locating black holes.  He had to decode as much information as MacDuff could intercept from other computer units with regard to Superman.  Where was he? In what kind of condition? Has he ever been conscious at all since his capture? Maybe if Luthor could find the document, he could find Superman.

Luthor had dealt with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Soviet KGB, and a score of other monomaniacal institutions across the Earth that had made a religion out of secrecy.  The Master was a little-leaguer by comparison.

After several hours of feverish button-pushing, nonsense code-word repetition, and mathematical calculation Luthor learned that the Einstein document was in the interrogation chamber one level below the base of the pyramid.  After a few minutes he was able to ask the robot what was in that decontamination chamber.  As Luthor expected, the answer to that query decoded into the word "Superman."

Luthor established that the entrance to the room was guarded by a single Tripedal, so as to allay any suspicions by those who should not have any suspicions.  Luthor obtained a psychological profile, such as it was, of the dull-witted guard.  He also requested an account of Superman's physical condition.  A combination of drugs and a bombardment of external sensory stimuli put the hero into a suggestible state.  For about an hour each day he was left alone and dazed so that he didn't regress into permanent catatonia and become useless to the Master.

Luthor requested a series of chemicals from MacDuff.  For safety's sake, he told the robot that he wanted them to mix a superior type of ink.  It was true that the blue soup with which the Master provided him ran all over the paper and Luthor could not abide sloppy calculations.

A few minutes into the hour that was to precede Superman's fifth day of interrogation Luthor entered the interrogation room.  He found his old enemy lying across a slab of what, on Oric, had to be a terribly expensive chunk of hard rock, his head propped up on a silvery pillow you could get lost in.  If Michelangelo were here to see the massive alien lying helpless and motionless as a statue, he would drool with envy at the work of a superior hand.

Luthor tried to pick Superman's head up but a touch of the pillow gave him an unexpected electrical shock.  He couldn't hold the Kryptonian's head up by the wiry hair, for he would end up with slashes all over his hand.  He ended by clutching the terribly potent chemical mixture gingerly between two fingers as he pried the hero's jaws open with both hands.  For the first time Luthor was glad that hard labor in prison had kept his arms in shape.

Luthor dumped most of the liquid between the deadly rows of bleach-white teeth before they snapped shut.  He pounded and pressed on the man's throat until he could feel the mixture of antitoxins and amino acids passing by.  This might bring him around; it would probably kill him.



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