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Chapter 21

Clark Kent had seen this phenomenon on Earth once, when Robert Redford was starring in a movie being filmed in Metropolis for Galaxy Studios and the studio gave him an office in the Galaxy Building.  Clark noticed Redford in the lobby buying a copy of the Daily Planet.  Redford, nosing through the paper, didn't notice that although it was mid-morning when the lobby was generally empty, the population of the area where he was standing had increased several hundred percent since he walked in.  During a period of nine minutes absolutely no one who walked by him either stepped out of the lobby or onto an elevator.  Apparently Redford noticed none of this until a middle-aged woman walked up to the newsstand to buy a magazine, looked at him absently, and quite against her will she squealed.  Redford looked around at the scores of people trying to be part of the decor, smiled nervously, and darted into the nearest elevator.

Similarly, Superman quickly decided that as long as he was on Oric he should not stand still in any public place.

The world was a wasteland, mostly.  Four-fifths of it was liquid, primarily water and ammonia, which was adequate for the gilled Lalofins from the Sirius system, but the sea did not even support life of its own any more, if it ever had.  Most of the land was under a great equatorial glacial belt which grew and shrank only slightly as the seasons changed.  Oric was tilted nearly 80 degrees to its orbit.  There was only one collection of land masses on the planet in a region temperate enough so that hundreds of diverse races could adapt and function with relative equality.  This region was on a tight group of islands referred to simply as the Archipelago, since it was the only archipelago on the planet and needed no more specific name.

The largest of the islands did have a name in most languages.  The English equivalent was probably some variation of the word cybernetic, like Cybernia or Cyber Island.  Cyber would have been an architect's nightmare and a technocrat's wet dream.  Fortunately there was nowhere in the known Galaxy other than Earth where the craft of architecture was anyone's sole professional concern.  There were lots of technocrats—as well as inventors, industrialists, engineers and salesmen—many of whom were considered successes in their field because they did most of their business here.

The island was tear-shaped, 78 kilometers long and 43 kilometers at its widest point.  Presumably the ground under Cyber Island's city was mostly granules of silicon and green clay, as was the land surface left visible on the six other large islands in the Archipelago, as well as the scores of smaller ones.  There was not a square centimeter of uncovered land anywhere on Cyber, and the paved surface extended several kilometers beyond the shore at all points in order to provide living and working facilities for creatures better adapted to liquid than gas respiration.

When Earthmen reached the stars—that time would be no longer than two generations, Superman knew—and moneymakers inevitably followed in the trail of the pioneers, this world of Oric would be a fine home away from home for them.  In all his travels Superman had seen only one society more encumbered by rituals and traditions than the civilization of Oric, and that was Western society on Earth.  The tradition and ritual here were a kind of artificial bond holding together an artificial society of disparate forms of life.

Most of the ritual, naturally, had to do with trade, which was the essential purpose of this society.  Wandering over the byways of Cyber Island, leading a crowd of the curious, Superman paused to watch a merchant who apparently had just returned from the Spice Shower.  This was a collection of meteoroids streaming through the void a little over a light-year from Sirius, which were rich in elements that could be refined into taste-enhancing food additives.  These spices were very popular among bulk feeders like humanoids who had taste faculties.

Beings would pause at a small stand where the merchant displayed his wares and offer him elaborate gifts which the merchant traditionally refused.  In return for the gracious offers, though, the merchant would insist that the beings taste his spices.  When someone admired the taste of one or more of them at length the merchant would offer it as a gift, which the being would accept or decline.  The being, if he accepted, would then offer his own gift in return and he and the merchant would dance around with various offers until they could agree upon an equitable exchange.  At no time did either the buyer or seller actually say that one so-called gift was in payment for the other.  It was all very amicable.

A crowd gathered like barnacles around Superman when he paused to offer the merchant a lump of coal from the pouch in his cape.

"Pardon me?" the merchant said.

"Coal.  Carbon.  You can write with it.  You can burn it for a long time."

"How dense is it?"

Superman let the merchant weigh the object in his hand.  He didn't seem impressed, but couldn't figure out how to tell the celebrity that this commodity was not even a suitable gift for a Pleiades microbe.  The crowd murmured, or did something like murmuring.

"Oh, excuse me," Superman said with a smile, "but I don't suppose you'd want to burn it, anyway." He closed the lump in his two hands and squeezed.  A tiny jet of black dust escaped through a crack between his two thumbs, but the last few specks of that dust seemed to twinkle before they hit the ground.  He opened his hands and held a new object between thumb and forefinger.  "Possibly you like it better in this form."

The merchant gaped for a moment, then fell back into his ritualized behavior as if he had not been caught by surprise.  "I certainly could not accept such a gift from so august a personage as yourself, but for the gracious offer I insist you try my spices."

A single grain of each of a dozen spices touched to Superman's tongue was enough.  He found the one he wanted.  The merchant offered him about two grams of it in a sealed ceramic vial as Superman handed over the diamond that used to be a lump of coal.  The crowd murmured again.

Apparently Superman gave the merchant the diamond too soon after the merchant gave him the spice.  It seemed the merchant was offended.

"Oh, is that mine?" Superman tried to recover by handing back the little spice vial.  "No, this is for a Terran friend.  They have overly developed taste glands, you see.  It is much too strong in this form.  Keep the stone, of course, as a token of my esteem."

"Your esteem for me is its own reward.  I need no token." He handed the Kryptonian the diamond and the onlookers seemed soothed.  It worked.

"I can certainly see that the spice is diluted.  Is ammonia the proper fluid for Earthlings?"

"Water would be better, but if you prefer to work with ammonia—"

"No, no, Superman sir.  Water is no problem." The merchant riffled through the mess behind his stand and produced a beaker of water which he mixed with a small quantity of the spice and presented to Superman.

"Why, thank you," the hero paused a moment.  "Tell me, might you have some use for a diamond stone?" He was starting to get the hang of it.

Superman estimated that he had a few hours to be visible on Oric before Luthor arrived and told someone in authority the story upon which they had agreed.  The Kryptonian passed a small structure which was apparently a real estate office where a machine-like being was describing subdivisions of a completely inorganic satellite circling a planet in the Outer Darkness region of the Polaris system.  Odd, Superman thought.  He did not recall that particular planet's having a moon.

Several kilometers to the west, on the Master's island, an outlandish, bulbous craft made a landing on the truncated tip of the pyramid and sat there like an egg in a cup.  The Master immediately had his associates disable and investigate the vehicle.



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