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Chapter 32

The scene struck Luthor as extremely funny.  He laughed so hard he had to hold his stomach in with both hands.

There stood the biggest genuine legend Luthor had ever met, surrounded in this time-snatcher cab by the super-scientific technology of the Galactic Arm.  This Man of Steel had bested all that surrounded him.  He had, at least for the moment, confounded a brilliantly conceived and nearly executed scheme for massive conquest.  A scheme that might still prove successful, owing in large part to this lunk-headed hero's amazing lack of imagination.

"Well, I don't see what's so funny, Luthor.  I just said I think it's a trap.  It's too much of a coincidence for Earth to be the Master's planned starting point for his takeover."

Luthor fell off his chair, trying to catch his breath, laughing.

"Keep up that heavy respiration, Luthor, and you'll use up your oxygen supply."

He laughed some more.

"I mean, if you were the Master and you wanted to get somebody like me out of the way, wouldn't you go somewhere where I'd feel on home territory to spring your trap?"

"You hopeless loon!  I thought I was conceited, but—"  Luthor lost his breath again and rolled over, nearly belching out his diaphragm.

"The universe is sinking slowly down around our ankles, and you think it's a laugh."

"Listen—" he broke up again.

After a few moments Luthor snatched back his composure long enough to tell his strange ally what he thought was going on.

"You think you're the only thing that's happening on Earth, don't you?" Luthor's tone became accusatory.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you're always accusing me of trying to make myself emporer of Earth, aren't you?"

"You've practically admitted it."

"I've said there are less worthy pursuits for someone of my intelligence and talent."

"If you say so."

"There are worlds around with greater natural resources, more developed wealth.  You know that.  And worlds without super-heroes parading around the place in funny clothes making sure nobody's tougher than they are. And I think I've made it clear that I'm altogether capable of finding and conquering myself a planet or two."

"I'll concede that point."

"But I've hung around Earth for a reason.  I don't know why you kick around the place looking for work yourself if you haven't realized that what's happening on Earth right now is something any conquerer would give his Captain Video secret code ring to have."

"I'm afaid I don't think along those lines.  What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about a global culture whose scientific wealth has outstripped by a light year its social and political development in just one or two generations.  I'm talking about a race with a population of humans that the planet manages to support far beyond its apparent ability to do so.  I'm talking about four billion—count'em—four billion inteligent, incredibly industrious creatures.  Capable of making decisions, with the manual dexterity to tie knots and pull triggers, who can navigate courses and plan complicated procedures over not only the next hour or the next day, but the next century.  What's the intelligent population of the planet Regulus-6?"

"About 760 million."

"And at what stage of scientific development are they?"

"Last time I was there, someone had just figured out the steam turbine."

"And it'll be centuries before anyone comes up with the idea of putting it to use in transportation or trade."

"When were you on Regulus-6?"

"Remember when I broke out of jail last year and nobody knew where I was for three weeks?"

"You went to Regulus-6?"

"Give the man a cigar."

"I'm impressed."

"Listen.  The population boom on Earth has gotten out of hand.  There are whole cities—countries—continents—full of people aching for something useful to do with their lives.  Talented, intelligent people.  And what's more, the whole cockamamie world is wired for sight and sound.  There isn't a grain of sand on the globe that doesn't have radio waves slicing through it, cauterizing it with electronic mumbo-jumbo twenty-four hours a day.  The first Hitler type that can coordinate all that communications paraphernalia has the immediate galaxy's greatest living resource in the palm of his hand. And if it's title to the Galactic Arm the guy wants, then all he's got to do is convince all these intelligent, obedient, bored creatures that it'd be a kick to go off and do some heavy conquering for him.  It worked with the Crusades, and look at all the trouble that caused."

"If you've realized that all along, why haven't you done it yourself?"

Luthor was beyond amusement.  "What the sizzling suns do you think you've been keeping me from doing all these years, Jocko, playing Monopoly?"

"Great Krypton!"

"You talk funnier than I do, you self righteous lunk.  That hybrid clown isn't on Earth to trap you.  He's there despite you.  And the longer you stay here worrying about it, the likelier it's going to be that he'll be able to—"

But Superman was gone, and Luthor wondered why the big guy kept winning.

Luthor had work to do, too.  If those twenty-one facsimiles of the planet Oric were allowed to continue hanging there in orbit much longer, the original would inevitably turn into space dust in a cataclysm visible clear to Andromeda.  As long as he was going about setting straight the balance of worlds today instead of dismembering them, he might just as well put everything here back the way it belonged before he went home.  Besides that, there was something on Oric he had to pick up before he left.

The big Videobeam television screen in the sidewalk window next to the Galaxy Building was the first thing that struck Clark Kent as odd.  Dan Reed, the newscaster who generally subsituted for Clark during vacations, was on the air with the 4:55 P.M. billboard.  This was the five-minute summary of news headlines to be expanded on an hour later on the evening news.

As Reed signed off he said, "This is Dan Reed with Wednesday's headlines from the WGBS newsroom.  Join me for the full report one hour from now."

Wednesday.  Was it possible that Superman had miscalculated his space-warp travel and returned a day before he left Oric, or was the station simply runnning a tape of yeserday's news for some reason?

Clark stepped into the lobby for a newspaper.  Yes, it was Thursday all right.



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