by Starsky Hutch 76
Superwoman let out a startled gasp as she saw her husband for the first time since their ordeal had begun. “Clark! You look terrible!”
“Thanks,” Superman said, chuckling ruefully. “I love you, too.”
“Have you slept at all?” she asked, taking a spot next to him on the sofa on the opposite wall from where Jor-El and Lara’s hospital bed lay.
“Just once,” Superman said, rubbing his temples wearily. “You wouldn’t believe the nightmare I had.”
“I understand,” Kristin Wells said sympathetically. “This whole thing must have been a nightmare for you. You should try to get some more sleep, though. Your body can’t keep carrying on without rest. Not without your powers.”
“You don’t understand,” Superman said. “I can’t have them come back just to lose them again. I’ve already been through this sort of thing with my adoptive parents.”
Kristin knew the incident of which he spoke. It was the time when Kobra had plucked Jonathan and Martha Kent out of the past shortly before their deaths. Sending them back with the knowledge that they would soon die had been the most miserable experience of his life until now. (*) “This doesn’t necessarily have to end the same way,” Kristin said, taking his hand in hers. “They could still pull through.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Sandstorm that Swallowed Metropolis,” Superman #327 (September, 1978).]
“Jor-El was the best mind Krypton had to offer,” Superman said in a world-weary voice. “If he thought the situation called for something so drastic as freezing themselves in a death-like state and casting themselves into space in a coffin for two…”
“No one could cure it on their own stranded on a remote planetoid like that with no resources, not even the celebrated Jor-El,” she said. “There’s hope now. And you don’t have to carry all of the burden by yourself. Not this time. I’m here for you. I’ll watch over them. And Blue Devil is just outside the door, keeping an eye out just in case other troubles should arise.”
“Brainiac… or Lobo?” Superman sighed as if he’d been trying not to think about them.
“Lobo, at least, we don’t have to worry about,” said Kristin. “He has plenty to keep him busy for the time being.”
“I hope Hun’ya knows what he’s doing,” Superman said.
“They got him to agree to do the match by traditional rules,” Kristin said. “So Hun’ya should be OK. Primus said Lobo has a pretty strict code of honor he lives by.”
“I wish that code had included not working for alien invaders or trying to kill people in their own homes,” Superman said. “It took forever to put the Fortress and my robots back together.”
“I bet your idea of forever is different from everyone else,” Kristin smirked. “How long did it really take you?”
“An hour or two,” he said with a weak smile. “But only because I was so banged up at the time.”
“I thought as much,” Kristin said, smiling. She caught him trying to stifle a yawn, and she said, “You really do need to try to get some rest.” She eased him back on the couch. “I’m here to watch over them for you,” she promised, standing to remove her cape to lay it over him like a blanket. “If anything changes, I promise I’ll wake you.”
“I’m so lucky to have you,” he said, smiling up at her as he gave her hand a squeeze.
“And don’t you forget it, buster,” she teased. She watched him as he closed his eyes for a quick nap, and her reassuring smile turned into a concerned frown. She glanced over at his parents and then back at him.
Kristin Wells was a historian from the twenty-ninth century, having traveled back in time to see this era firsthand. She had read in her own era’s history books that there had been a time when Brainiac was reformed, prior to his taking the skeletal form he wore before his current one. (*) She found that difficult to believe. How could anyone who had ever had a decent thought in their entire existence be capable of this sort of cruelty, especially toward someone like Superman? He had done so much for so many. Could fate really be so cruel as to reward a lifetime of service to his fellow man this way?
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Countdown of the Killer Computer,” Action Comics #514 (December, 1980).]
She sat down next to him on the couch where he lay and stroked his hair lovingly. With any luck, she could help make this sleep less fitful for him.
Primus appeared deep in thought as he sat in the large chair situated in the middle of the opulent suite the Imperial Court had provided their guests. His elbow rested on one gilded arm of the chair as he rested his jaw upon his knuckles.
“What’s on yer mind, chief?” Tigorr asked as he noticed his leader’s unusually pensive state. He knew enough about him not to take his moods lightly.
“Du’cat’s words earlier,” Primus said.
“That blowhard?” Tigorr said. “Don’t you think he was just showing off? Trying to impress us with how important he was?”
“I’m sure there was some of that, no doubt,” Primus said. “But I got the distinct impression he firmly believed everything he was saying, especially when comparing our situation to that of the Scrubb Empire.”
“It bothered you that he seemed sympathetic?” Tigorr asked.
“Sympathetic to King Primus,” Primus said, rolling his eyes. “Not to Primus the commoner who grew up to marry a princess, to the dismay of the aristocracy of Euphorix, and now leads a rebellion made up of other commoners and refugees. His attitudes are no different than those of the blue-bloods back on Euphorix who sneered and talked about me behind my back for daring to step above my station, even after I saved their hides more times than I care to count.”
“You mean we saved their hides,” Tigorr corrected.
“You know what I mean,” Primus sighed. “I felt the same attitude from Du’cat toward their emperor that I’ve put up with since the first day I became involved with Kallista, and it makes me uneasy. Something is brewing here — something bad.”
Images flashed past the monitor screens at a rate that would appear as a blur to the normal human eye. To the android known as Brainiac, they played out at a leisurely pace. News broadcasts, entertainment programs, sport shows, and commercials flashed by at super-speed, giving Brainiac a full picture of the society in which he was now stranded. One thing was very clear. He wasn’t in some backwater corner of this foreign galaxy. Bodace was the chief economic hub of both the military and economic power for the Scrubb Empire, which dominated most of this galaxy and had recently been making inroads into neighboring galaxies, such as the Milky Way. If anything happened in this part of the galaxy, it had to go through Bodace to do it. The opportunities here, he realized, were endless.
One program in particular caught his eye. It was a commercial touting the upcoming fight between Lobo and Emperor Hun’ya.
“Interesting,” Brainiac said, smiling broadly. “Very interesting.” A monitor next to the one with the commercial began to display the statistics of the two fighters at blinding speeds. While Hun’ya was skilled and certainly more massive, Lobo’s prowess and experience in a wide array of techniques would give him the edge. He would see what he could do to even up the odds. Not that he was feeling particularly charitable toward the Scrubb Empire. He had his own lesson in store for them as well.
On the day of the big fight between Lobo and Emperor Hun’ya, it was as if all other news across the empire had come to a halt. In the years since his bout with Muhammad Ali, Hun’ya had personally led troops into battle on many occasions in the defense of the empire, so the legends of his prowess were still as strong as ever. Hearing of his exploits were one thing, though, and seeing them televised was quite another. The excitement in the air that day was like an electric current running through all Scrubbs, from the oldest doddering dowager to the smallest toddler waving his favorite Hun’ya action figure at the holo-screen as he waited for the match to start.
Holo-emitters floated through the streets to give those not well-heeled enough to afford tickets the opportunity to still see the fight. Throngs danced through the streets, weaving through the holo-emitters, singing their beloved emperor’s name. The people took him into their hearts because he was one of them — their champion.
None of Hun’ya’s adorers stood a chance of getting a ringside seat for the event. Those had been quickly grabbed up by the members of the aristocracy. Their demeanor was less excited and more predatory. The occasional commoner who saw one of them on screen would wonder innocently what this Lobo person had done to make the bigwigs so mad as they watched them take their seats.
After a cue from one of the event’s producers, a signal was given to the conductor of the enormous orchestra, and he turned to face them, raising his baton. The auditorium was filled with music. It was a powerful ballad designed to fill the listener with nationalistic pride. Everyone rose and turned to the doorway as imperial guardsmen entered, followed by Hun’ya’s entourage. Glitter and confetti rained down from the ceiling as dancers, jugglers, and acrobats pranced about.
The music reached a dramatic crescendo, and the audience cheered as Hun’ya himself entered the coliseum. The green-skinned Scrubb emperor was dressed in golden trunks and a golden robe that was draped over his massive shoulders. The robe fell as he brought his arms up in a triumphant gesture that brought a roar from the crowd. One of his handlers quickly swooped up the robe and put it back in place for the rest of his walk to the ring.
The tone of the music suddenly took a dramatically ominous turn as black smoke billowed out of the hallway opening on the opposite end of the coliseum. The smoke parted to reveal Lobo’s entourage, surrounded by scantily clad dancing girls who danced lewdly, whipping their hair back and forth wildly with the loud, bass-driven, heavy metal beat.
Lobo’s banner was held above the group by two long poles carried by two Scrubbs in demonic-looking costumes. Each pole was mounted with a skull. It was clear that Lobo had been cast as the villain in this spectacle. It was also clear from the smirk on Lobo’s face that he had absolutely no problem with that.
After both men entered the ring, an android announcer moved to the center and said in an amplified voice, “Citizens of the Scrubb Empire, the moment you have awaited has arrived. Two juggernauts of warfare, known throughout the universe for their skill and prowess, will face off in this ring today to decide who is the most fearsome warrior alive!” A roar rose through the crowd.
As soon as the noise died down, the announcer continued. He pointed to the corner where Lobo stood and said, “In this corner, standing six-foot-four and weighing three hundred and five pounds, hailing from the capital city of Czarnia, the last survivor of the planet Velorpia… the deadly… the bloodthirsty… the main man, Lobo!” The enormous coliseum was filled with the sound of boos and jeers, much to Lobo’s amusement.
The announcer turned to the opposite end of the ring. “In this corner, standing eight feet and weighing five hundred pounds, the warrior who triumphed in the Khundian border wars, who personally drove back the invasion of the Spider Guild, and has won over two-hundred title matches… the champion and emperor of the Scrubb Empire, Hun’ya!”
The crowd rose to a fevered pitch as they cheered for their emperor, who raised his gloved fists above his head and issued the battle cry that was also his name. “Hun’ya!” The roar of the crowd took a full five minutes to die down. The smirk never left Lobo’s face.
“All right, gentlemen. You both know the rules,” said the referee, who wore ceremonial armor, “so I don’t have to spell them out for you. Follow them well, and do not dishonor this ring.”
“I will honor this forum, Sh’gyun,” Hun’ya said, bringing his gloves together and giving a deferential nod.
“Uh, what he said,” Lobo grunted, doing his best to mimic Hun’ya’s gestures.
“This sure is different from the fight he had with Ali,” Blue Devil said, watching the match from the holo emitter in the lounge outside the Els’ hospital suite.
“The Ali match was made to mimic an Earth match,” Tigorr said from his place on the couch diagonally facing Blue Devil. He had come to check on Superman and stayed when he realized the match was about to take place. He wouldn’t have missed seeing Lobo thrashed for all the credits in the sector.
“The story is that Rat’lar wanted to humiliate Earth’s champion on his own turf. He couldn’t have the match on Earth without having Superman powered up, but he could do the next best thing by booking an Earth announcer, Jimmy Olsen, using Earth rules, and setting it in an arena that completely mimicked a boxing match on Earth. Since Hun’ya’s a lot more respectful of his opponents, they’re using traditional Scrubb ceremony.”
“Huh,” Blue Devil mused, taking a swig of soda as he stared at the holo-screen. “Too bad Lobo isn’t as respectful.”
“Don’t let him fool you,” Tigorr said. “He’s pretty rough around the edges, but he’s got his own sense of honor that he plays by.”
The two fighters brought their gloves together in the show of mutual respect before moving to opposite sides of the ring. Unlike Earth fighting rings, this one was actually a circle.
Lobo moved first, throwing a right cross that failed to connect as Hun’ya dodged with a speed completely unexpected for someone of his size. Hun’ya countered with a jab of his own that sent Lobo spinning on his heels. Lobo fell back into the ropes, hanging from them and shaking his head in stunned amazement. The crowd roared with delight.
Quickly shaking off the effects of the punch, Lobo returned to his feet. He raced toward his opponent, dodged a right cross from Hun’ya, and delivered a series of blows to the larger man’s midsection. Hun’ya doubled over, and Lobo swung his fist upward to connect with his chin, sending him flying backward. Before Hun’ya could rise up, Lobo was on top of him, raining blow after blow upon his head. Hun’ya looked up in bloodied outrage as Lobo began to remove his gloves. “Time to finish this,” Lobo said.
“You defy the rules and dishonor this forum!” Hun’ya growled.
“Rules are for poozers,” Lobo said. “Besides, this was your idea.”
“You will find I do not fall that easily,” Hun’ya said, clenching his fists and causing his cloves to explode in a shower of padding and leather.
From his hideaway in the central media center, Brainiac watched the match with a knowing smile. “Yes, you’re right, Lobo. It is time to finish this.”
He brought up the schematics of the impenetrable force-field that protected the Scrubb planet, Bodace. As it played across the screen, he began typing at an enormous speed, rewriting the code.
Lobo and Hun’ya stared at each other from opposite ends of the ring, equal determination in both sets of eyes. Both were a bloodied mess. Lobo’s advanced healing factor allowed him to keep going, but the larger man continued to dish out punishment to replace what healed. Hun’ya had no such factor, but he simply refused to fall.
The crowd was in an absolute frenzy. This was the most evenly matched bout any of them had seen in years, let alone one with the mighty Hun’ya.
The roar suddenly died down, and the crowd grew quiet. Their attention diverted from the two fighters in the ring, and all eyes moved to the glass-domed ceiling of the arena. A gasp moved through the crowd as the sun appeared to change from red to yellow, filtered by Brainiac’s changes to the force-field.
“What the…?!” Lobo exclaimed, looking up.
His gaze shifted back to his opponent, whose posture began to straighten as all of his injuries began to heal before his eyes. A ferocious grin spread across Hun’ya’s face.
“Aw, frag,” Lobo sighed.
Superman sat in the chair between the two still forms of his parents as they lay in the hospital beds. Silently, he prayed that they would wake and give some sort of sign that all hope was not lost. His wife Kristin stood behind him and rested her hands upon his shoulders, offering what comfort she could. It was more than she realized.
His eyes suddenly widened in surprise as the greenish tint began to fade from his father’s skin, and his eyes began to flutter before opening. He looked over at his mother and saw that the same thing was happening to her. Had his chemical treatment for kryptonite poisoning finally begun to take effect?
“Clark,” he heard Kristin say from behind him, “look out the window. What’s happening to the sun?”