Superman: Civil Rites

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Issue #15

 

#15

By David Marshall


Lex Luthor worked feverishly to loosen the control panel located behind his cot. He hoped accessing the panel would grant him freedom before Brainiac returned to kill him. He still wasn't sure where he would run since he and Superboy were prisoners aboard the android's spaceship, but at least if he was free he could run. The panel wasn't cooperative. His armor was equipped with an emergency toolkit to implement repairs if necessary, but with the panel cover lacking anything as much as resembling a screw; his screwdriver was only useful for prying.

The cell he shared with Superboy behind Brainiac's impenetrable force fields was lit by a glow that mimicked the effect of Krypton's red sun and sapped the Boy of Steel of his formidable powers. How easy it would be to slay his powerless enemy but there was no glory in victory if the entire world couldn't witness Lex's triumph!

"Maybe there's a better way out," Superboy suggested, peering over Lex's shoulder.

Lex shook his head and pointed toward the double doors leading to the room beyond their cell. "Sorry alien but I see no emergency exits and since your so-called super-strength has gone the way of vaudeville, my armor is our best bet! Now keep an eye on those doors and tell me if you see old red-eyes!"

"If we work together we can…" said Superboy.

"Shut up and watch the damned door!" Lex demanded as he tugged on the screwdriver's handle with all his might. The upper right-hand corner of the panel peeled away from the smooth metal wall. "We're in!"

"Can you fit your hand into the opening?" Superboy asked after a brief moment of celebration.

Lex plunged the fingers of his left hand into the void but couldn't make his thumb small enough to fit no matter how he positioned it. At last he gave up and retracted his fingers from the opening. "Damn it!"

"Maybe I can…" Superboy suggested as he reached his hand toward the opening.

Lex pushed Superboy's hand away and placed the head of the screwdriver beneath the panel once more. "Look! If you want to help then watch the door!"

"Brainiac!" Superboy warned. "He's early!"

The screwdriver disappeared into Lex's armor like a magician's wand and he jerked to his feet. He wished he knew how to look innocent but figured a lowly human was beneath Brainiac's notice anyway.

Beyond their cell, the double doors hissed open and Brainiac returned as he promised. "I am here for the hairless one!"

Despite the grave danger, Lex felt at peace. Superboy still lived so he knew it wasn't his time to die. "Do your worst Brainiac! I won't go without a fight."

"I won't allow you to harm Lex!" said Superboy, stepping in front of Lex.

The gears in Lex's armor whirred as he shoved Superboy aside with surprising ease. "Will you stop playing hero already? I am a Luthor and not some helpless damsel-in-distress awaiting your rescue! I can fight my own battles, alien!"

"There is that vaunted human compassion again," said Brainiac, mocking Superboy. "The hairless ape rejects your concern, Kal-El."

Lex couldn't help but laugh. "Compassion! Bah! Were humanity to eradicate such weakness from our DNA we could conquer the very stars themselves!"

Braniac paused as if weighing Lex's words. His eyes glowed white and the force field dissipated. "You will come with me hairless one."

"And if I don't?" Lex asked.

Brainiac's eyes glowed red. "I will slay you where you stand."

Lex considered his options. If he had to die at Brainiac's hand then he preferred Superboy to watch. Knowing his death would haunt the Boy of Steel would at least make dying worthwhile but Lex swore to live another day or die trying. "Lead the way. I will meet my fate like a man."

Superboy grabbed Lex's left shoulder and tried to pull him back. "You do understand he's going to kill you?"

Lex grabbed Superboy's wrist and flung him across the cell into the contoured back wall. "Do not place your hands on me again, alien!"

An audible gasp escaped Superboy's lungs as he slumped to the floor and writhed like a lowly worm. The punch-drunk Teen of Steel crawled toward Lex with an outstretched hand. "Please, Lex! Let me help you!"

"Help me?" Lex bellowed in amusement at the sight. "You can't even stand!"

Superboy reached Lex's leg and tried to pull himself up but Lex kicked him away.

Somehow the Boy of Steel stood and staggered heavy-legged toward Brainiac. He took a wild swing at the android but the gesture proved futile as the android blocked it with his force field. Superboy was a selfless, noble creature despite his alien origins. Not many would fight so hard to rescue an enemy. It made Lex despise him even more.

A blast from the magenta dots on Brainiac's forehead head brought Superboy's feeble charge to an end. The caped teen collapsed to the floor a final time and didn't move.

Horrified, Lex rushed to Superboy's side. He shook the Boy of Steel but found him unresponsive. He placed an ear to Superboy's chest. His breathing was shallow and that was unacceptable. Lex turned to Brainiac. "What have you done?"

"You are a curious creature, human." Brainiac bellowed. "Your enemy's annihilation stirs your compassion?"

Lex lowered Superboy's head to the floor and stood. "Do not mistake my concern for compassion! This alien is mine alone to kill and at a time of my choosing! You will not deny me that pleasure!"

Brainiac paused, as if computing the weight of Lex's words. "Perhaps I have misjudged you hairless one! Come! Let us converse. Continue to intrigue me and you may yet live!"


Outside Smallville, The Home of Eula Jefferson

A frantic series of light-knuckled raps on the front door tore Jonathan Kent from the radio. "Stay here Martha."

His worried wife nodded and Jonathan inched tentatively toward the door. He prayed trouble wasn't waiting on the other side.

The polite knocks escalated to a deep pounding thunder as heavy as Jonathan's own heart as he reached for the doorknob. He turned it and pulled the door toward him slowly. Lana Lang stood on the crumbling front porch with tears in her eyes.

"Lana?" Jonathan asked. "Come in! What's wrong child?"

Lana pushed him aside and rushed into Mrs. Jefferson's living room.

Jonathan's wife Martha embraced her but Lana broke her attempt at consolation. "I'm sorry Mr. and Mrs. Kent but there isn't time for that now! Clark is missing!"

Martha eyed Jonathan with a knowing, worried look and reached for Lana once more. "I'm sure he's at school, my dear."

Lana shook her head. "No ma'am. Mrs. Peters sent him home from school early. He was sick. Didn't he come here?"

"We haven't seen him," Jonathan replied. Clark's secret identity forced him into more little white lies than he was comfortable with but they were a necessary evil to protect their family. He sure hoped the Lord understood.

Lana covered her mouth in horror. "Oh no! What if he dropped by Dr. Smith's office on his way home? That would mean he's in Smallville and with that terrible thing hanging in the sky over the square! You know how timid he is!"

"I'm sure Clark's a million miles from downtown," Jonathan lied again. "As you said, he's certainly not one to rush headlong into trouble!"

Lana shook her head. "My gut tells me he's in there! I just know it! They say that alien ship's prying the town loose from its very foundations! Can you imagine being trapped inside? Poor Clark! He must be frightened out of his mind!"

Martha led Lana to the sofa and sat with her. She hugged the frantic young girl. "I'm sure he'll be along any minute now! Why don't we wait for him?"

Jonathan nodded in agreement. "Absolutely! Wait with us! I'm sure Clark's perfectly safe!"


Brainiac's Ship, The Red Sun Room

Superboy thrust his arm into the force field that held him prisoner. Azure energy crackled from his elbow to his fingertips before the matrix built up enough resistance to hurl him back again. His whole body throbbed from many such failures but he had to do something! Brainiac had Lex somewhere in the ship and he had to escape to rescue his nemesis from certain death.

Though Brainiac's prisoner, the android gave Superboy plenty to think about. The Boy of Steel always knew he was an alien but Brainiac filled in many of the missing pieces that haunted him his entire life. He was from a world called Krypton. His father was a man named Jor-El.

His father…

He felt guilty thinking of anyone but his Pa in that role. It was he who instilled within Superboy a sense of humanity and taught him right and wrong. He was the one who sung Clark to sleep when he was probably too old to still insist upon their nightly ritual but hearing his father's voice soothed the burning questions in his mind. The baritone strains of "Amazing Grace" beneath the pale Mississippi moonlight flooding in through Clark's window made an eight year-old boy feel safe enough to dream sweet dreams in a world rife with terror. He was the man who still carried scars on his hands from when he rescued Clark from his burning rocket. It was his wisdom and advice that kept Clark sane through the bullying and taunts associated with his feeble act to protect his secret identity and gave him the character to overcome.

And just like that another man was his father? Superboy always knew he had a biological family out there somewhere but to put a name with the man who fathered him was bittersweet. The man was certainly his "birth father" and Superboy was thankful for the gift of life. In the back of his mind he always hoped to do his biological family proud, but there was something about knowing the man's name that shook him to the core of his being. Would he have the same values had he grown up on Krypton? Were his biological parents good people? Would he still be the kind of young man that would make Ma and Pa proud?

And speaking of names, he learned his Kryptonian name as well - Kal-El. He was used getting used to the idea of a dual identity - Clark Kent and Superboy - but could even his shoulders support the weight of this Kal-El person too?

And what of his birth mother? Though he didn't know her name he couldn't help but think of her too. Who was she? Was she as motherly as the woman who raised him in her stead? Would they like one another? Would his birth mother be proud of him? What would it have been like for her to dry up his tears? Was she as good a cook as Ma? He shook his head. Of course she wasn't. That was impossible! Would she have a look that could cut through the El men the same way Ma did with the Kent men?

The El men. It sounded so odd in his head that he couldn't say it aloud.

Superboy sat on one of the small cots and poured himself a glass of water. Thirst was alien to him but something about the weird red glow not only weakened him but left him craving water. Was this what dehydration felt like? He sighed. The green ore beneath Lana's farm wasn't the only thing that sapped his powers. The red sun rays that bathed the room also left him powerless but at least they didn't hurt him like the green rocks! Could anything else take his powers from him? He couldn't help but wonder.

As he gulped down the lukewarm liquid, he spied the panel Lex pried loose earlier. The force field was impenetrable but the panel was vulnerable. But if Lex struggled to open it with his armor's added strength what chance did Superboy have beneath the red sun rays? He bent down and tried to pry it loose. He pushed his fingers into the opening Lex made earlier but his hand would go no further. If only he could get inside! Of course it could prove to be nothing but at least he felt like he was doing something.

He removed his fingers from the opening and ran them through his tight, curly hair. His thoughts returned to his thirst and the thought of water gave him an idea! What if he didn't need to access the panel?

He retrieved a glass of water from the pitcher and knelt by the panel. But instead of drinking the liquid he splashed it into the opening Lex tore loose earlier. The red lights flickered. Excited, Superboy splashed more water into the opening, again and again until the glow died completely and so did Brainiac's force field.

He stared long and hard at the blank expanse blocking his freedom. Superboy was afraid of what would happen if it suddenly powered back on while he tried to cross the beam. Numerous times he realized he could have already been free if he had only acted sooner. He imagined a clock ticking on an imaginary wall somewhere. What if he only had a small amount of time before the field powered back on?

He gathered his courage and steeled his eyes before stepping out of his cell. He was free! The most advanced technological wonder Superboy had ever seen was defeated by one of the simplest compounds in the known galaxy - water! Perhaps the android wasn't invincible after all!


Elsewhere Within Brainiac's Ship

"So the cell you designed drained Superboy's powers?" Lex asked.

Brainiac offered what passed as a nod. "The red glow simulates Krypton's star and negates the much more intense rays of your planet's yellow sun."

"So beneath the radiation of a blue star or something even higher in wavelength, he would be stronger?" Lex asked.

"Possibly," Brainiac replied. "Assuming the radiation inherent in the wavelength wouldn't kill him instead. Gravity also plays a significant role in the equation."

"This… Krypton," said Lex. "It was a giant planet many times the size of Earth?"

"Affirmative," Brainiac acknowledged.

Lex rubbed his chin. "It makes perfect sense. The tremendous gravity on such a world would require evolution to adapt accordingly. Someone from such a world visiting Earth would walk or fly like a god among men."

"And though Kal-El has lived on your tiny world his entire life, he retains the Krytponian genetic imprint," said Brainiac. "The combination of Kryptonian genetics, him absorbing your sun's yellow rays, and Earth's decreased gravity are a perfect storm of evolution and chance."

"At least I know where his powers come from now," said Lex.

"And what of your great power Lex Luthor?" Brainiac asked. "Your armor makes you much more formidable than the average human."

Lex's chest puffed with pride. "It serves me well."

Brainiac gestured and the ship's gleaming hull gave way to smoke-filled haze rising from below

Lex realized they were looking out from the "eyes" of Brainiac's ship with Smallville still blazing in utter chaos below. For the first time, he realized how Brainiac viewed Earth. Never before did it look so primitive or savage. His father died believing their kind was the apex of creation when in reality all men were barbarians. Regardless of race, humanity was small and insignificant. Perhaps they deserved to be crushed like ants beneath a child's finger.

"An intoxicating view, is it not?" Brainiac asked.

Lex nodded. "Indeed. It is truly fascinating and now I understand."

"You understand what?" Brainiac asked.

Lex turned away and paced with his hands behind his back. "I understand why you view my world with such disdain and contempt. From up here it is easy to see the wasted potential. It makes one feel like a god."

"Do you know what I find fascinating Lex Luthor?" Brainiac asked.

Lex couldn't imagine what someone who travelled between stars could find fascinating about Smallville. "No idea," Lex replied. "Humor me."

The sarcasm was lost on the android. "The mineral which powers your armor is among the rarest in the known universe," Brainiac explained. "Even on Krypton it was prized as the rarest of gemstones but it didn't affect Kryptonians the way it did Kal-El earlier. Why do you think that is?"

Lex shrugged his shoulders. "You said Krypton exploded?"

Brainiac nodded.

"My working theory is the ore became radioactive at some point after the explosion," Lex replied. "Perhaps it passed through a radioactive gas cloud or similar anomaly."

"I concur," Brainiac replied. "Most of Krypton's matter was blown into its sun when it exploded but I have discovered trace amounts of this now-radioactive ore the Kryptonians once called Kryptonite in other parts of the universe but never such a large single specimen or one with the purity of that which powers your armor."

Brainiac's comment was indeed interesting. If the so-called Kryptonite was as rare as the android claimed then Lex had the leverage he was looking for. The fist-sized rock that powered his armor paled in comparison to the heavy boulders of the ore his workers removed from the Lang farm. The leverage was good but Lex couldn't tip his hand. "A rather narcissistic name, Kryptonite. Wouldn't you say?"

"Asks a being whose species long believed their inconsequential blue sphere the epicenter of the universe," Brainiac answered.

"Touche," said Lex.

A gentle hum emanated from within the android as he grew silent. For the first time he seemed less human and more machine but finally he broke the silence. "How did you come to acquire it?"

Brainiac's intellect and technological capabilities seemed limitless but negotiating with a Luthor was like charging the beaches of Normandy with a pocketknife.

Lex shrugged. "The Smallville Five and Dime?"

"Do not get glib with me human!" Brainiac warned. "I will slay you where you stand!"

Lex shook his head. He finally understood his father's lust for the art of negotiation. It was far more intoxicating than mere love, sex, drugs, money, or even revenge. "I don't think so. You need me."

The android looked ready to blow his gaskets and gears. "You must acquire the Kryptonite for me."

It was just as Lex's old man taught him. "The first to yield equilibrium in a negotiation will be the first to make concession."

"What's in it for me?" Lex asked.

"You keep your life," Brainiac replied.

Lex shook his head. "Not good enough. I want more."

"Humans are truly a puzzling lot," said Brainiac. "What more can I offer you?"

"The pleasure of killing the one you call Kal-El," Lex replied. "The world must know I am his superior."

"Unacceptable," Brainiac replied. "The Kryptonian is mine to subjugate."

Lex laughed. "You aspire to cage him like an animal and believe you can make him serve you? Surely the mind that designed such a great vessel as this can see the folly in such a foolish plan? Superboy is perhaps the most physically powerful being in the universe! He rocked your ship with but a single blow and that was with your supposedly impenetrable force shield protecting it! The only reason Smallville isn't yours now is because he damaged your harvesting matrix. It's inevitable the relentless fool will challenge you at some point! And you hope to contain him forever in a red sun room? One slight malfunction and he will destroy you."

Again silence hung in the air.

"There is logic to your words," Brainiac confessed. "Kal-El's very existence poses a threat to me. Very well! You may kill him but I will claim the body as a trophy!"

"Agreed!" said Lex.

"So you will obtain the ore for me?" Brainiac asked.

Lex nodded. "But I will require the use of some basic tools to retrieve it properly."

"My inventory is at your disposal," Brainiac replied.

Lex thought for a moment. "I have the necessary equipment on site but will need something to collect the ore into for transport back to your ship."

"You may use my terraformer," said Brainiac. "Time is of the essence and it is much more efficient than your crude machinery. You must return with the ore before the harvesting matrix is complete."

"And your force shield," Lex pushed.

Brainiac shook his head. "Unacceptable, human. You have yet to earn such trust."

Lex pointed toward the Red Sun Room. "As inexplicable as it seems, my entire planet seems to admire that Super-Ape in there! He was recently exposed to Kryptonite in public and nearly perished so when I return with your terraformer loaded down with the only known substance that can kill him…"

"You are concerned for your safety," said Brainiac.

Lex shook his head. "No for theirs. I will not tolerate an attack upon my person."

"But sharing my force shield with you will weaken the aura around me," Brainiac replied.

Lex smiled. "And what does one such as you have to fear? The only threat to your safety in the known galaxy is locked away here inside your vessel."

"Again there is logic in your words human," Brainiac replied.

Lex imagined himself a deep-sea fisherman reeling in his catch. "And we are partners after all! How can I trust you if you won't trust me?"

Brainiac's gears hummed louder than ever as he computed Lex's argument. "Very well, Luthor. I will fit your armor with my force shield technology."

Lex was thrilled the android agreed so easily and the offer to upgrade his armor was more than he hoped for. "Excellent! I'm sure ours will prove a most fruitful partnership."


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