by Martin Maenza and Libbylawrence
“The Luck Lords never look twice at the same sentient.”
That old Venturian proverb echoed in Kern’s mind as the assassin glanced down at his cards and then impassively looked across the table at the other men in the game. Shalto always wiggles his antennae when he has a good hand, thought Kern. He’s as still as a Klorran on the Doll Planet! He’s got nothing!
The five men were sitting within a hidden base in which bloody deeds were as common as dirty deals. Kern knew his luck was good this evening, yet he did not have anything to match the wealth squandered so freely by Bremtos or Mulka. He looked at the composite being, and as tiny Mulka sat perched on the shoulders of the hulking Bremtos, he thought he noticed the slightest sign of concern. They are bluffing, he thought. The body language says it all! I have to match their stakes! If I do, then I’ll clean up!
Smoke filled the air, and a chill was evident in spite of the therma-units that lined the huge complex. Bremtos said nothing as usual. He let the diminutive Mulka do both his speaking and his thinking, but then that was the norm among symbio-sentients.
“So, what do you have?” said Mulka.
“I fold!” said Shalto.
Wendak raised his hands in a placating gesture as he said, “Me, too!”
Kern suddenly came to a decision. “I’m in! Here’s my stake!” he said as he removed a small golden ring from his pocket and started to place it in the pot.
But before he could do so or light could do more than gleam briefly off the ring, a hand shot forward to grab it away from the assassin. “That’s mine! I’m taking it back!” said a stern voice.
Kern turned to see a handsome youth standing over them. He had approached them with such silence that none of them had even noticed him until he had acted with a speed that caught them all off-guard. “You are wrong,” said Kern. “I found this. I was unaware it was yours!”
The younger man frowned and said, “You are aware now. This is mine! I feel that!” I don’t know where it came from or who gave it to me, but I know it is mine! he thought as he moved away from the others into the darkness of the chamber.
Kern cursed and started to stand up when he heard the sound of a woman’s voice from the next room, and he sat down rapidly. I’d be a dead man if Alita had heard that exchange, he thought. If the mistress ever found out that I had robbed the funeral urn of the man whose ashes she sent me to steal, she’d spread my own ashes across this infernally cold wasteland!
“The Luck Lords never look twice at the same sentient.”
The proverb came to Kern’s mind once more as he lowered his eyes and withdrew from the game.
At the Legion of Super-Heroes Headquarters in Metropolis on the planet Earth, each Legionnaire had his or her own private room. The décor of each room differed widely. Brainiac 5 had altered the walls of his room so that they acted as holographic projectors that allowed the genius to display and work with the advanced formulas and calculations that fascinated his twelfth-level computer mind.
Shrinking Violet’s room contained the ancient mysteries she loved, as well as items designed for the Imskian beauty’s comfort at her normal size or in her shrunken state. Mon-El’s room was full of star charts that appealed to the explorer from Daxam. Each room was designed to meet the needs of its occupant, but none of the rooms could compare to the odd scene within the luxurious confines of Sensor Girl’s room. Normally, exotic silks and precious fabrics decorated the plush and extremely feminine chambers of the heroine from Orando.
However, on this evening and for hours earlier, within her private room, the former Queen Projectra of Orando sat before a flaming brazier and stared into the smoke that rose from the embers.
The platinum blonde woman was staring with a wide-eyed gaze that seemed to look directly through the flames and smoke. However, in truth her eyes saw images beyond anything any casual intruder would ever notice. Projectra was lost in a revelry of the past. In these odd and powerful memories of the past given vivid new life by a combination of her memory and her power to alter sensory perceptions, Projectra was finding her first love anew.
The tapestries and canopied bed that normally occupied the room could not be seen. In fact, the walls that defined the room could not be seen. Her remarkable powers of illusion-generation had changed the view, and now as she gazed into the mystical fire, she relived her earlier days as the environment changed to match every locale drawn from her memories.
She was a teenager again, and she wore her hair in an elegant upswept hairdo. Her costume was a brief blue bodysuit that left her legs bare and her arms covered with long white gloves. A regal red cape covered her shoulders. Instead of seeing a room, she looked at Earth and its largest commercial center, Metropolis Spaceport, with fresh and innocent eyes. Earth was a planet with highly advanced technology, while her own birth-world Orando was rigidly pre-technological in every way.
It had taken a great deal of personal courage and resolve for this princess to depart from the world that would one day be hers to rule, but it was her duty to do so, and she was proudly determined that none of her father’s subjects would ever be able to say that the regal daughter of Voxv failed in her duty. She also knew that her rather hostile grandmother Hagga would delight in any display of weakness or frailty on her part.
She had journeyed from Orando to Earth in order to see something of the world which was so dominant within the organization called the United Planets. Orando had been invited to join the group, and after Khundish spies had been spotted in Orando’s space sector, such an invitation seemed very appealing to King Voxv.
Princess Projectra had found Earth to be both full of wonders and very lonely. Thus, she had decided to join the famous Legion of Super-Heroes, where her powers would be of use to the team of brave teens in their quest to protect the United Planets. She smiled to herself as she imaged herself — princess of royal blood and all — embarking on a quest like those undertaken in her father’s name by his paladins.
Still, membership in the team had been somewhat easy to secure. She was one of four new members, and she still thought of their tryouts with some slight amusement. She knew the group could hardly refuse to accept a member of royalty who would represent a planet new to the United Planets, but the experience had initially been a bit daunting for her. She was not accustomed to being put on display, as it were, for any purpose. Princess Projectra had sent the heroic youths into something of a passing panic by using her illusion-generation power to make them think she had cast them first into space and then into the oceans. That impressive show of the gifts she had been granted by right of membership in Orando’s elite Council of Orakills was enough to secure her a place in the team.
She smiled as she remembered the warmth and quiet confidence of manner she had quickly noticed when she looked at Val Armorr, the Karate Kid. Perhaps he will be my knight in shining armor, she had thought in a playfully teasing manner.
He was kind and certain of movement and self. He lacked any obvious superhuman power, though Val Armorr was a master of every known form of the martial arts, including some techniques that could be called super-karate. He had demonstrated his prowess during his own tryout by battling Superboy himself with results that were commendable.
Princess Projectra had been drawn to Karate Kid almost immediately after their first meeting. She also wondered about the other two new members of the team. Nemesis Kid, alias Hart Druiter of Myra, and Ferro Lad, alias Andrew Nolan of Earth. The blond and commanding Nemesis Kid came from a world of alchemists and owed his own unique ability to counter the powers of any single attacker to such lore. Projectra thought she might have much in common with him, since their worlds shared cultural elements that embraced magic. Nemesis Kid had not been particularly appealing to her, since there was something about his manner that was decidedly off-putting. Perhaps the same process that allowed him to make himself an adversary to any single foe also made him personally repellent as well.
As for the shy, yet sweet Ferro Lad, he concealed so much behind his cold iron mask that he reminded her more of one of her father’s knights in that the boy was distant in manner, yet respectful and loyal in every way. Time would reveal Nemesis Kid to be a Khundish-employed spy and would bring about the noble sacrifice of Ferro Lad when he died stopping the Sun-Eater’s deadly progress through space. (*) The betrayal of one member and the death of another had left Projectra and Val alone amongst the survivors from their original group of four who joined the team at the same time.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “One of Us is a Traitor,” Adventure Comics #346 (July, 1966) and “The Traitor’s Triumph,” Adventure Comics #347 (August, 1966).]
Projectra knew that Val was alone in other ways as well. He never spoke of his own family, and he seemed to go out of his way to change the subject when the others spoke so warmly about their parents or siblings. She saw him, and the room changed as the image of the heroic youth with his dark hair and serious eyes appeared before her, and their surroundings changed to depict the Legion greenhouse. Val had often retreated to the solitude of that location during his time off when he was not working out in the gym or painting. She had been surprised that the man whose hands could be destructive weapons could also arrange flowers with such artistry. He had hobbies and interests beyond the purely physical, and his paintings appeared in the air for a moment as she thought about his creations.
She lowered her eyes and saw again the wizened features of the man Val called Sensei. Toshiak White Crane was an elderly Japanese man who had trained the young orphaned Val in all the martial arts that would later serve him so well. This teacher had been the only parental figure in Val’s life, since both his father and his mother had died under different circumstances during his infancy.
Projectra first met the wise old man during her wedding to Val some years after she met her beloved, but she knew that he had shaped her lover in terms of his own values and character. The first case that took her back to Orando began when Dr. Mantis Morlo’s Chemoids attacked several Legion-related planets. The peace of Orando was threatened, and several of the young heroes, including Karate Kid, had joined Projectra on her trip back home to defend the beleaguered world. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Chemoids are Coming,” Adventure Comics #362 (November, 1967) and “Black Day for the Legion,” Adventure Comics #363 (December, 1967).]
Val had been slow to bow to her regal father, King Voxv, and that moment was forever stored within her mind’s eye. She saw the whole scene again as her powers transformed her room into the royal throne room of Orando, where the carved images of the Spirit King itself loomed high above all human occupants.
She had been kissed by Val for the first time beneath that ancient carving, and he had referred to it as a type of mistletoe.
That kiss reoccurred as her powers recreated the moment, and she seemed to feel his touch and his lips once more. It was through this type of self-delusion that she had found her strength during the long and painful moments since his death.
Elsewhere, the sultry and brilliant Alita had her own concerns about her newest ally. Val Armorr was a perfect assassin in terms of his incredible physical prowess, but Alita was astute enough to see that the magically and scientifically created clone’s subjection to a death and rebirth via the process known as the Lazarus Pit immersion had not been enough to fully cloud his senses. He was simply too confident in his own values and actions to make a dutiful pawn. She wondered if her thrall was fading rapidly, since he had displayed a marked distaste for her other pawns after returning from the hit on the Earth target.
I was able to control him enough to make him obey my commands, but even now, as I watch his taciturn meditations, I fear that he is regaining his free will and perhaps his memories, she thought. A Legionnaire who once dared hunt down the Fatal Five on his own is not to be toyed with, even by me! Perhaps wisdom teaches me that my best action now would be to cut my losses and end this trail before it brings his comrades down upon me.
Ubu stood by and waited. He was not going to ask his mistress her thoughts or what her wishes were, but he knew her well enough to anticipate that she was indeed wrapped in her own schemes as a spider entwined in a web. She is up to something, he thought. I almost pity this Karate Kid. May his gods watch over his newly rehoused soul!
Alita turned to her loyal aide and smiled coldly. “Ubu, I have not labored to this extent to place my organization in peril,” she said. “It is time to sever our connection to Karate Kid and his Legion. I gained much data from my experimentation upon him, and thus I count the project as a success. Now, it is time to make a sacrifice of our newest addition to the ranks. I suspect the investigation on Krltos that was conducted by the Legionnaires could compromise us in time.”
Ubu reached for his saber and said, “Shall I eliminate Val Armorr, my lady?”
She shook her head as red curls cascaded around her lithe shoulders. “No. I prefer a way that lacks your rather blunt approach. Since the noble youths of the Legion are seeking answers, we shall merely provide them with enough data to ensnare them and lead them to a goal of our choosing.”
Walking over to a computer, she sighed with pleasure. “Ubu, in time you may realize that one may accomplish much with the deft touch of a keyboard. The sword is not the only way to destroy an enemy.”
Ubu nodded slowly as she worked rapidly.
“There!” she said. “I lack the resources to invade the Legion’s own computer system, but I may still plant a seed or two of data elsewhere that will lead them to where I want them to be.”
Nodding in satisfaction, she added, “My esteemed ancestor led this group to greatness by avoiding direct contact with any costumed heroes… with one or two notable exceptions. Thus I wish to remove the threat by removing our weak link.”
Ubu agreed with his customary stolid loyalty.