Superman: The Unkindest Cut, Chapter 5: Devil’s Bargain

by Starsky Hutch 76

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If looks could kill, the entire Scrubb Empire’s defensive fleet would have perished under the icy scowl Brainiac gave them as he stared with impotent fury at his view screen. His computerized brain ran another thousand possible scenarios with which he might give attack. In all of them, he suffered an unacceptable level of damage, even in the ones where he was victorious.

He had to find a way across that line. He had conquered entire worlds in his never-ending fight against Superman. This wasn’t just one world’s army, though. He now had the force of an entire interstellar empire arrayed against him, and they were all honor-bound to defend his enemy. If he were human, he would have been in the throes of a stress-induced migraine at that moment.

“Penny for your thoughts?” a deep, aristocratic voice said, shaking his focus away from the screen. With a mental order, Brainiac’s command chair spun around to face the voice’s owner. He found himself staring at a tall blond man clad in a white tunic under a green vest, green leggings, and a green cape. One of Brainiac’s eyebrow’s raised up in annoyance. Who was this caped intruder — one of Superman’s JLA cronies come to rescue him? If so, he was a little late.

Two halves of a glass dome rose out of the control panel, meeting to enclose Brainiac’s pet chimp protectively. “Sorry, we’re not open to tourists,” Brainiac said snidely. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

Suddenly, the wall behind the intruder opened to the vacuum of space. Koko jumped up and down in alarm, his shrieks contained by the protection of the dome, as any loose object whipped around the cabin before flying through the opening along with the breathable atmosphere. Both Brainiac and the intruder stared at each other as if oblivious to the maelstrom. The blond stranger’s hair whipped about in the violent winds, but otherwise he was unmoved. Brainiac gave a sigh, and the opening in the hull of the skull ship grew closed once more.

A ray shot down from the ceiling, bathing the intruder in green light. The stranger brought his hand up to his mouth as if stifling a yawn.

“Well, there goes that theory,” Brainiac said. “So you’re not a concerned relative from Rokyn, either. Who are you, then, and what do you want?”

“Oh, it’s not what you can do for me, it’s what I can do for you,” the green-clad stranger said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Neron.”

“Very well, then, Neron,” Brainiac said, resting his chin on his knuckles as he gave him an interrogating stare. “Explain yourself.”

“I am here to help you on your way with the remainder of your journey,” Neron said.

“And what journey might that be?” Brainiac asked.

“Why, the voyage of self-discovery you began on your last visit to Rokyn,” Neron said. “You rediscovered your emotions… your lost humanity… your very soul. I can take you the rest of the way. I can make you flesh once more.” A scroll appeared in one hand, and a quill in the other. The scroll unrolled to reveal a contract. Neron’s smile grew broader, more sinister. “All I need you to do is sign.”

Neron had thought he had seen every possible reaction to his proposal. Brainiac’s would be a first. The green-skinned android threw back his head in laughter. “My lost humanity? Oh, how marvelous. Tell me, Mr… Neron, was it? What about the name ‘Brainiac’ led you to believe I was an idiot? My cybernetic eyes can read the fine print from here, no matter how small you choose to make it… Oh, look at that — it’s growing smaller… No, I can still read it… Oh, do stop it.

“Countless mythologies throughout the cosmos have that same contract,” Brainiac continued. “Ancient Khundian lore says the Arch-Demon Stygus led the first king to his doom and dishonor with such a contract. The cybernetic lifeforms of Grenda believe such a contract was used by the Anti-Programmer to lower the great firewall, causing a system crash that wiped out an entire nation. And Earth…” Brainiac locked eyes with Neron and gave him a knowing smile. “…Earth has all sorts of names for you and stories where you have led the unsuspecting astray with such pacts.” Neron stiffened as his mouth locked into a grimace.

“If I were to accept your offer, I would be giving myself over to you in… what? … mere decades at the least… or perhaps a century or two, if I was a typically long-lived Coluan. Even if the threat of hellfire were not hanging over my head, I would still not take your offer. The Computer Tyrants made me immortal when they transferred me to this form. Long after my son Vril’s bones and those of his children and those of all the sons and daughters of Colu have crumpled to dust, I shall still be here. So, no, Mr. Neron, I do not want you to restore my humanity.”

His chair gave a half-turn, and he swung his arm dramatically toward the view screen. “If you truly wish to give me my heart’s desire, then make yourself useful. Get me past that blasted armada!”

Neron’s mouth broke into a smile, though the anger still remained in his eyes. “Your wish is my command.”

After only a moment more, Brainiac suddenly appeared in an alley between two buildings in the capital city of Bodace. Bewildered by the sudden change of location, Brainiac moved slowly toward the entrance of the alley. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and found himself in the middle of the bustle and noise of the crowd of city dwellers from countless species. Both the street and air were filled with a variety of vehicles moving back and forth. Ad-bots zoomed back and forth, displaying holographic billboards loudly hawking assorted products and services. He looked up, and his eyes widened as the horizon just appeared to be one skyscraper after another, going on into the great distance. It was just all so… so big. Never had he felt so small, so exposed, so vulnerable.

Brainiac backed up into the alley again, flattening himself against the wall of one of the buildings. If he were human, his heart would have been racing a mile a minute. What was wrong with him? Had the demon done something to his mind? Instantly, his computer mind analyzed the problem and told him that all the years of being secluded to the safety of his ship and suddenly being ripped from it had given him acute agoraphobia. He wasn’t a cold, emotionless machine, though, at least not anymore. Simply knowing what the problem was would not be enough. What was he going to do about it?

***

The smaller spacecraft approached the skull ship of Brainiac at a slow, stealthy pace. “I can’t believe we’re so close,” Blue Devil said. “Does this thing have cloaking technology like on the Sun Devils TV show? How soon before we de-cloak and duke it out?”

“We ain’t cloaked,” Tigorr said as he continued to calmly work the controls. He had deftly taken the spacecraft through the wormhole into the Scrubb Empire in another galaxy, and even the veteran space traveler felt a pang of nervousness at the thought of being stranded here so far from the Milky Way and the Vegan system.

“We’re not cloaked? So he can see us? How… why did he let us get this far?”

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Superwoman said, standing behind the seated Blue Devil.

“Why is he letting us get so close?” Valura Tur-Thol said nervously. The youngest of the rescue party, she had actually been born in the bottle city of Kandor. For most of her years, Brainiac had been a mythical being parents used to scare their kids into behaving. “If you don’t eat all your Brakwa, Brainiac will show up and shrink you down to nothing.” Her first experience with the real thing had been both surreal and terrifying.

“He either wants us to get this close, or something’s wrong,” Primus said.

“If he wants us to get closer, then why are we doing it?!” Shlagen exclaimed, making Tigorr wish that they had not met up with more Omega Men along the way. The yellow-skinned, bird-like being from Slagg could be brave when the situation absolutely warranted it, but his usual state was one of nervousness and apprehension, which got on Tigorr’s last nerve. Primus felt they needed every tech person on hand, though, since they were dealing with a computer intellect such as Brainiac. So he was there, along with Doc, Artin, and Green Man. Their newest member, Starfire, had insisted on coming along for the ride as well when she’d heard Superman was in trouble.

“This is odd,” Artin said from the monitor he was viewing.

“What is odd?” Primus said, turning to the artificial life form.

“I have sent a code to the skull ship to initiate docking procedures…”

“What?!” Primus exclaimed. “I gave no such orders!”

“I knew enough from the time we shared one mind to know that this would eventually be your order, so I took the liberty–“

“Uh-oh,” Green Man said, knowing how Primus felt about that sort of thing.

“I see,” Primus said stiffly. “See that you take no such liberties in the future. Now, what is the result you find so strange?”

“I estimated that there was a 99.8 percent probability that such an attempt would be disregarded, or that the skull ship would use the attempt to infiltrate our system. I had a defensive firewall prepared if that was the case. Not only was no such infiltration attempt made, but the skull ship didn’t even try to stop me. “

“Really?” Primus said, raising an eyebrow.

“In fact, no defenses are in place. The ship is completely open. I am already taking control of their docking station and preparing us to intercept and board.”

Once their party had boarded, they walked slowly through the meandering halls of the skull ship, taking in their surroundings. Hidden lights activated at Artin’s command as they moved forward.

“The structure of this ship doesn’t make sense,” Tigorr grumbled.

“It’s certainly like no ship I’ve ever been in,” Green Man agreed.

“Perhaps it doesn’t make sense from a technical standpoint,” Doc said, “but from a medical one. It almost seems to mimic organic structures.”

“This ship was frightening from the outside when the Titans and the rest of Earth’s heroes helped Superman fight Brainiac’s army when he attacked Earth,” Starfire said. (*) “It is no less eerie from the inside.”

[(*) Editor’s note: See “Showdown,” Action Comics #546 (August, 1983).]

“I can’t believe he hasn’t already sent something after us,” Blue Devil said with a grimace. “It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“According to the schematics I’ve downloaded, we should be at the command center soon,” Artin said.

The metal doors slid apart to reveal Brainiac’s control room. Their eyes spanned the room, landing first on the large view-screen displaying the Scrubb Armada, then to the glass dome protruding from the control panel that contained a green-furred monkey beating weakly against the walls of his domed prison.

“Oh, you poor thing!” Valura Tur-Thol said, racing toward it.

“No, don’t!” Shlagen exclaimed. “It might be some sort of bloodthirsty beast!”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Can’t you see it’s terrified?”

“I know the feeling,” Shlagen muttered.

The Green Lantern’s power ring created a glass cutter and cut a large hole in the dome. The monkey leaped forward and embraced her rescuer. “Don’t worry,” Valura cooed to it reassuringly, stroking its head. “It’s going to be all right.”

“Poor little fella,” Tigorr said, reaching out a paw-like hand toward the monkey.

Koko shrieked and bared his fangs as he tried to swipe Tigorr’s hand away before burying his head in the crook of Valura’s neck, huddling against her harder.

“Brainiac’s pet doesn’t like me? I suppose I should be insulted,” Tigorr growled.

“Or maybe he’s the one who knows a bloodthirsty beast when he sees one,” Green Man chuckled.

“Looks like nobody’s home,” Superwoman said, looking around.

“Looks that way,” Primus said. “But where did he go?”

“I have accessed the security logs,” Artin said. “Perhaps it should give us some clue.”

They played back the tapes of the last moments when Brainiac was on the ship.

“Is he talking to the chimp?” Blue Devil said, watching the tape.

“No,” Primus said. “He’s facing away from it.”

“It looks like he’s talking to himself,” Valura Tur-Thol said.

“Or someone the camera can’t see,” Superwoman said.

They watched as the side of the ship opened, creating a maelstrom within the confines of the control room, then seal shut again. He continued to carry on a conversation with someone who wasn’t there — someone he called Neron. Then he suddenly blinked out of existence.

“Well, that was certainly uninformative,” Doc said.

“It does raise more questions than it answered,” Primus agreed.

“So what do we do now, Chief?” Tigorr asked.

“We have his ship, at least,” Primus said. “Artin, open a channel to the armada and let them know we’ve taken the ship. Then we set course for Bodace.”

***

Rat’lar rested his chin on his hand, giving the assorted sycophants surrounding him a bored, aristocratic sneer as he watched them jabber excitedly, plotting and planning to put him back on a throne to which he was completely ambivalent. Truth be told, he had come to enjoy his captivity.

The royal prison of the Scrubb Empire was hardly Takron-Galtos. Its occupants enjoyed all the luxury and pampering that was expected of citizens of royal blood without being allowed any of the responsibilities. As if that was punishment. For the first time in years, he had felt relaxed. He wasn’t alone in that sentiment, either. A generally tame attitude eventually fell over all the pampered royals who found themselves confined within its walls. Unfortunately, that led to security at the prison being cut to a minimum, since no one ever tried to escape. This, in turn, made it all the easier for these prattling fools to “rescue” him. His rescuers would have been stunned to know how much he loathed them for giving him his so-called freedom. The last thing he cared about was trying to avenge the slight the nobles felt at having a commoner usurp the throne. Oh, how he missed his beautiful servant girls, catering to his every whim.

Rat’lar raised his head up to peer toward the doorway as another one of these fat, spoiled fools raced in, excited and out of breath. He was carrying a small, ornately carved wooden chest.

“Did you get it?” someone asked him.

“I did indeed,” he said, beaming proudly.

The gathered conspirators moved in eagerly as he walked to the table in the center of the room and sat the chest down. He lifted the lid and stepped back, gesturing to the interior of the chest, where sat golden plates bearing an ornately carved design. “Gentlemen, I present to you the imperial seals of the Scrubb Empire.”

“I can’t believe you succeeded,” another one said.

“There are those in the royal court sympathetic to our cause,” he said smugly.

“We had better succeed,” another said nervously. “If it is discovered we have this…”

“By that time, it will not matter,” another said forcefully. “With this, we can convince Lobo that Hun’ya is the one who wants the match to be to the death. By the time our actions come to light — if they ever, in fact, come to light — we will have already won.”

A chorus of cheers went around the room — from all, that is, except Rat’lar. He slumped dismally back into his chair and rested his head on his chin, wistful memories of his lovely servant girls filling his head.

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