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Chapter 22

Luthor remembered nothing that had happened since he turned the dial to roll in the eighth arm of his Black Widow.  He needed a fairly stable place to set down the rounded bottom of his bulb, and the obvious site was the slightly truncated tip of this pyramid.  He congratulated himself on both his successful touchdown and its spectacular nature.  He was still congratulating himself when he found himself prone on a flat surface, waking up, completely unclothed.

The floor was a kind of plastic, or maybe some sort of porous concrete.  It was about as hard as the floor of a gymnasium.  The room was blue and had twelve equal walls as well as a thirteenth about twice the width of each of the other twelve.  Each had a disc on it; the one on the thirteenth wall was larger and blank.  Luthor at first thought the other twelve were pictures of some sort.  Pictures of the faces of different unfamiliar aliens.  The faces seemed to be pictures until one, with mandibles and antennae like a giant green cockroach, wiggled its left feeler and moved its mouth and a sound came out.

"The subject appears conscious," the roach said.

Luthor heard the words in a kind of squeaky, chirpy voice.  The kind of voice one would expect from an anthropomorphic insect.

There was a blue glow in the room.  Even Luthor's skin appeared to have a blue tint.  There was a round object hanging from the peaked ceiling about thirty feet over Luthor's head as he stood, but it didn't seem to be the light source.  Maybe it was the loudspeaker.  The light seemed to come from the walls themselves.  The bug's face appeared on the big round screen on the largest of the thirteen walls.

"Identify yourself, humanoid," the grotesque face demanded.

"Where am I?  Am I inside the pyramid?  Am I still on Oric?" Even naked and imprisoned, Luthor was not to be dominated.  He was used to incarceration and the attention it brought.

"You will answer these inquiries.  Are you Luthor the Earthling technician?"

"I prefer the term Terran, actually.  Earthling always sounded kind of sappy to me."

"Non sequitur.  Are Earthlings not Earthlings?"

The insect was replaced on the large screen by another of the faces from around the wall.  This one was a yellow-skinned character with scales and a beak for a mouth.  Luthor recognized it as a native of the Polaris group.  "I believe the subject does not realize he is hearing the intentional translator over his head.  When any of us refers to your racial ancestry it is translated in you perception into whatever word you expect to hear."

"You mean I hear you saying Earthling but if I wanted to I could hear you say Terran?"

"Non sequitur," the bug-thing said again.

"I know, I know.  They sound like the same word to you." Luthor was very pleased.  He'd learned something new.  "What's my race now, bug-eyes?"

"As I referred to you before, you are a Terran.  I am a bug-head.  The creature who just addressed you is a vulture-face.  We will ask all further questions."

Luthor wondered if any of his interrogators could fathom the reason for his wide grin, or if they knew what a grin was.  Here he was, twenty-six light-years from home, locked in some crazy room in his birthday suit listening to his jailers insult themselves.  He hadn't enjoyed being locked up this much in years.

"Please attend, humanoid," the beak-nosed being came back to the main screen.  "Are you the Terran scientist Luthor?"

"Yes.  Yes I am, worm-digger.  You must've seen the label inside my prison fatigues, right?"

A crystalline creature, like a huge diamond whose only asymmetric feature was a belt around its apparent waist, came on the screen.  "What is the nature of your vehicle?"

"My vehicle?  Oh, the one you took away from me along with my clothes.  Hope you know enough not to send the sails to the laundry with the fatigues.  The cruiser is a highly efficient solar energy absorber.  It soaks up power from the stars much in the way a sailboat catches the wind, only my craft has the capability of storing massive quantities of energy like a battery for use in propelling it through planes of existence where starlight may not be available."

There was a pause in the questioning.

Presently another questioner came on the screen, a flat-faced nearly humanoid being with teeth and whiskers like a rat and a nose below its mouth.  "How is it a creature from a society as technologically underdeveloped as your own is capable of designing a craft more efficient than those in use on Oric?"

"Technology has nothing to do with it.  The principles of solar energy are very simple.  The only problem was in coming up with a new way to use them.  I chose to merge the idea of a sailboat with the use of power from the stars rather than from the winds.  I am very good at that sort of reasoning, if I may say so."

"Why did you choose Oric as your destination?"

"Well, it wouldn't prove anything about interstellar navigation if I went to Poughkeepsie, would it?"

"Non sequitur."

"No sense of humor at all.  You remind me of this guy I know who flies around in his underwear.  Look, to tell you the truth, I came because of this character Towbee who turned up on Earth a few days ago."

Another pause in the questioning.  This time all the screens went blank, and when they lit up again there was a new questioner on the big wall.  Luthor had no idea what part of this being was its face, if it had a face.  It looked a lot like a cross between a record turntable and an electric broom.

"How is it that the minstrel inspired your visit to this world?" the spinning vacuum cleaner asked through the translator.

"He sang some nonsensical song about the coming of some big honcho who'd rule this arm of the Galaxy when certain things happened.  I looked at a map of the Galaxy and figured it was this arm, because there's no other promontory of the Galaxy that looks like an arm.  He said this guy was a hybrid from Vega and when I got here this was the only planet that seemed capable of supporting complex forms of life, hybrid or otherwise.  Something in the song about sailing ships used for starflight made me think of the thing I flew here in.  I wanted to get in on the action, that's all.  Earth's a bust, you may have heard."

There was yet another pause in the questioning, although this one was different.  For a moment Luthor sensed a new quality in the manners of his questioners, as if the very texture of the air in the room were changing.  Then he fell unconscious.

The image on the big screen rippled into the face of the Master.  He conferred with his twelve slaves.

Luthor wondered why he was suddenly lying on the floor again.  Then he realized he had probably been put to sleep again for at least a few moments.  He wasn't angry about this, it was part of the game he was playing.  Vulture-beak addressed him.

"The Master would have you enter his service.  He frankly has doubts about your sincerity which he would like allayed.  Have you any information or commodity for the Master who has made you a gift of the privilege of his service?"

"He wants me to go to work for him and he wants me to give him something?  He ought to give me something - like maybe retirement benefits at least."

"Non sequitur."

"When I give him something, it's a privilege; when he gives me something it's a non sequitur.  I get it."

"The Terran is approaching arrogance." Luthor had wondered how long it would take them to notice.

"Look, how would the Master like Superman?  Does he qualify as a commodity?"

Another pause.  A longer one this time.

The diamond creature was back on the big screen.  "The humanoid Superman is reportedly on Oric at this moment, although his reasons for visiting are unknown.  How can you furnish the Master with Superman?"

"He's here?  Ahead of me.  Wish I knew how he knew I'd be headed here.  But I do know one thing, and that's that I know him as well as he knows me.  I know how he'll react to just about anything that falls his way.  Just do what I say.  I'll need the help of about four of you, and freedom to wander around the civilized parts of this planet, of course.  And I won't be doing it just for this Master of yours.  That bone-brained muscleman's tracked me down everywhere on Earth already.  Now he's followed me here.  If this Master wants Superman he can have him, but it'll be my score I'll be evening up."

All thirteen screens went blank for Luthor didn't know how long.  Solitary confinement on Earth was nothing like being alone even for moments trillions of miles from home.  But his would-be tormentors who were his companions were back again, the broom speaking.

"The Master has directed us to act according to your specifications," it said.



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