Into the Ironosphere
Winging his way through the starry blackness of space he came: STRONGMAN, the mightiest superhero in Galactic history! His golden cape rippled smoothly as he sped, its edges flickering with reddish highlights as it absorbed the hydrogen flux. His muscles bunched and flexed smoothly within his blue tights. Yet his noble brow was furrowed in unaccustomed thought. The untimely destruction of the star system Unicorp 7 [as chronicled in Installment 47 -Ed.] had left him with a terrible quandary: his assignment to defend that pivotal region from the ravening fleet of Kroxetime invaders had met its abrupt end before he could find a single still-living representative of that system's erstwhile inhabitants to sign his time sheet.
For although he was without doubt a bona-fide superhero, a peerless paragon of both might and mercy, capable of endless superhuman feats of superior, well, superness, Strongman was nevertheless not his own master. In the multigalactic, post-automation service economy of the Umpty-Umpth Century, Strongman was... a temp. And the accountants at his employer Supertemps, who (only metaphorically speaking, of course) held the contents of his taut blue codpiece in their legume-enumerating paws, were not going to be pleased with the incomplete nature of the paperwork Strongman was bringing back from this job. They might even dock his pay. And he needed that check to make the next payment on his ultra-top-secret Stronghold of Fortitude, for which he had unwisely locked into a ruinous 37.4% APR.
Such was the conundrum that occupied Strongman's normally far-ranging attention as he flew through the Keanuvian Sector, a dim expanse of space not known to be occupied by any intelligent life, its emptiness interrupted only by a few small nebulae, burnt-out remnants of past quasistellar activity. Strongman flipped through his time sheet as he flew, scanning the numerous directives printed in microscopic gray-on-yellow type on the back of the first sheet of flimsy NCR paper, in a futile search for a loophole that might favor him...
Strongman's head rang like the hull of a Class B star freighter as it (his head, not the freighter - that was just a simile) collided with a vast, dark shape. Unhurt but somewhat dazed - a state to which, it must be admitted, he was not unaccustomed - Strongman backed off slightly, then matched velocity and course with the unknown object as it hurtled through the inky expanse of the Keanuvian on a course very like his own. There wasn't supposed to be anything in this sector... and certainly nothing this big! Strongman sensed a sinister purpose at work.
Seeking answers, Strongman flew over a nearly featureless plain of dull black metal... and flew, and flew. The smoothness of the object's surface was broken only by endless lines of rivets arranged in seemingly perfect squares. He attempted to cast his super-senses below the surface, but they were repelled by a layer of pure Effluvium-180. He did detect an almost infinitesimal curvature to the riveted plates, which told him that what he was examining was, indeed, likely to be a sphere, before the blinding headache that always afflicted him when he contemplated E-180 (or the menu at an ice cream parlor) took hold and he was forced to desist.
Ironic that this artifact, which Strongman had encountered in the midst of nowhere, was plated underneath its surface with the one substance by which Strongman's senses had ever been stymied. Ironic, indeed... in fact, the entire sphere's skin seemed to be made of iron!
Suddenly galvanized, Strongman leaped, and then readjusted the fusion battery that powered his boot rockets so its terminals didn't poke him in the side and make his muscles spasm. Then he brought the vast powers of his super mind to bear, deducing that the most likely place for an entrance to this artifact must surely be at one of its poles, and determining with his superkeen eyesight that the curvature of the plates narrowed... there, towards that gigantic yellow arrow with the blinking lights spelling out "To Polar Entrance."
Changing course in a smooth, powerful curve, Strongman streaked towards the pole of the Ironosphere.
* * *
At last a difference in the blank iron surface of the sphere appeared on the horizon. Even Strongman's enhanced perceptions couldn't resolve it at first, so vast was the expanse across which he sped. But Strongman flew closer, and eventually he was able to make out a huge transparent dome, framed in delicate-looking iron filigree, and boasting a triangular doorway in its base.
Strongman thrust one fist forward and accelerated, knowing that even Effluvium-180 could be breached, but only if he used the entirety of his super-strength in one concentrated attempt. The triangular doorway beckoned, its iron-clad bulk swinging inward...
Strongman found himself desperately trying to backpedal as the obstacle he'd steeled himself to penetrate by force swung away before him, revealing an airlock chamber inside. His boots dug furrows in the surface of the Ironosphere, even scratching the Effluvium beneath, as he skidded into the airlock.
Arms windmilling, Strongman's entrance into the lock was less than graceful - he crashed into the far wall of the chamber, leaving a huge dent. Behind him, the triangular door closed silently, emitting only a muffled thump at the very end, transmitted through Strongman's smoking boot heels. A roaring noise became louder as the chamber began filling with air.
Trapped! The airlock, like every other surface Strongman had encountered on the Ironosphere, was completely lined with Effluvium-180... and he wouldn't be able to accelerate sufficiently in this confined space to breach the deadly trap!
He rushed to the interior door and grasped it with his broad hands. It opened easily... too easily, in fact, spilling Strongman out into a wide, carpeted corridor lit dimly with flickering gaslights.
A shadowy figure stood at the end of the corridor. A familiar figure it was to Strongman, a figure from Strongman's deepest past, from the very beginnings of his insufficiently-compensated fight against super crime.
Although its legs didn't move, the figure drew closer. An eerie greenish face glared at Strongman, its outlines framed in a rectangle of blackness atop the figure's broad shoulders.
As the figure approached, the illusion of its perfect face dissolved into a rapidly-shifting array of alphanumeric characters, displayed on the face of an ancient monochrome CRT. Though Strongman had never been this close to him before, he recognized the features of his arch-enemy.
"Dataface!" Strongman spat. "I should have known you'd be behind this. Prepare yourself... to be RANDOMIZED!"
Upon the last word, Strongman gathered his mighty thews and leapt towards Dataface, who stood unmoving in front of him. One skeletal hand reached into a hidden pocket of Dataface's black cloak, pulling out... a piece of paper.
Once again, Strongman was brought up short, as he squinted at the flimsy tactic Dataface had chosen to defend himself.
The paper was familiar. The stylized 'S' at the top and even the smudged repro thumbprint at the bottom were familiar. The paper was a contract, the standard one Supertemps provided for every one of Strongman's temporary employers. And Strongman's own name was blazoned unmistakably in large Early Times Roman across the top.
"Glad you could make it, Strongman," hissed Dataface. "Your supervisors at Supertemps couldn't tell me when you'd be done with your current assignment, but I told them I'd take you when I could get you." Dataface chuckled. "I trust you concluded it satisfactorily?"
"Gub," was Strongman's response.
Dataface gestured languidly. "No matter. Let's talk about your new assignment."
Dataface rotated smoothly and glided away. Strongman shook himself, consciously willing his muscles and sinews to relax from their state of combat readiness, and followed the faint orange glow coming from the back of Dataface's head as it receded down the hallway.
* * *
The journey was short. Just around a bend in the corridor, Dataface led Strongman into a palatial office. The far wall was one huge transparent pane, curving to show a panoramic view of the Keanuvian Sector's meager charms. A flat expanse, yards wide, floated without apparent support in front of the view. It held on its surface, off in the middle distance, a pen-and-pencil set; Strongman deduced from this clue that it must be a desk. There were chairs of sumptuous cultured vole leather scattered around, and a sideboard upon which java was brewing in a series of alembics, the ebon end result dripping with a hiss into demitasse of the finest vapor-deposition china. Strongman recognized much of the layout - it was a luxury interior option he'd considered but been unable to afford for his Stronghold of Fortitude.
"Looks like we go to the same stronghold dealer," Strongman grated, unwilling to concede even that much in common with his arch-enemy.
"Oh, really?" Dataface inquired. "I was under the impression that your Stronghold of Fortitude was supplied by a Kroxetime Kut-Rate Kenter, and was never more than a knockoff of my Calamari original. But come," Dataface said as Strongman bristled, "we aren't here to discuss decorators, are we? Come, sit."
Strongman took a seat, remaining tautly erect in spite of the sybaritic comfort massage that began as soon as his rump touched voleskin.
"Would you like some java?" asked Dataface.
Strongman swelled proudly. "I never touch addictive drugs; it'd disappoint the children who look up to me as a role model. Got any white wine?"
His display flickered not a bit - well, not a bit more than it normally did - as Dataface turned from the java array and whisked a dust-covered bottle from a temperature-controlled vault beneath the sideboard. He displayed for an instant the label of a fine chardonnay from Deneb V, before inserting a long serrated fingernail into the cork and drawing it smoothly out. Pouring a glass, he handed it to Strongman, then took a delicate cup of java for himself.
The face on Dataface's CRT showed every indication of bliss as the ASCII image closed its eyes, pursed its lips and appeared to inhale the fumes rising from the java. The rendering was really well done. Then the cup seemed to disappear into the voluminous folds of Dataface's robes, and reappeared, empty, on the sideboard.
Dataface remained standing as Strongman took a sip of his wine.
"Ugh! What's this?"
A large black fly, long dead, was floating on the surface of Strongman's chardonnay.
"Well, isn't that ironic?" Strongman grumbled.
"No, not at all," Dataface sighed. "Just distressing. Here, let me get you another glass."
Dataface poured Strongman another glassful of the wine, then moved to a position directly in front of the superhero.
"I have some work for you."
"Does it involve wiping you and your ilk from the face of the Galaxy, infoscum?"
Dataface's image on the CRT never wavered, though a dry chuckle issued from the speakers hung on either side. "Of course not, my old rival. I merely need you to retrieve my daughter. She's been captured and... brainwashed... by a gang of Naderenes."
Strongman couldn't restrain a gasp. Though the competition between Unicorps and Kroxetime sometimes became violent, it kept him in business, and both of those mighty gigacorps at least shared the tenets of profit maximization and cash flow that had made Galactic civilization the Galaxy-spanning entity it was. Naderenes, on the other hand, were fanatics, heretical creatures so alien to all that was decent that Strongman had at times found himself doubting that they ever could have existed... to have their presence in the Galaxy confirmed by Dataface was a terrible shock.
Looking up at Dataface at least in part for reassurance, Strongman noticed a small area of his CRT's image that, strangely, was not in constant flux. About five characters wide by five tall... it had looked like a mole until Dataface leaned closer. Without letting his gaze shift from Dataface's rendered eyes, Strongman devoted a portion of his super-sensitive attention to that tiny region.
Surrounded by ASCII flux, the region took on significance by its very stasis:
DTFCE HASNO DGHTR WANTS UDEAD
Strongman memorized the sequence and assigned a subtask of his great, if often somewhat distracted, brain to its analysis and translation... but Dataface was continuing, and Strongman had to pay attention or risk Dataface discovering that his own face had betrayed him.
"I have here information which should lead you right to her. If my informants are correct, she has been taken to the uncorporated planet Granolia, where the Naderenes have a colony, sort of a religious retreat. All you need to is infiltrate the colony, retrieve my daughter, and return here with her safe and sound. Her name, by the way, is Kala."
Strongman wavered... the mission didn't sound complicated.
"Plus, you will see that I've authorized you to be paid at double your usual rate."
"On my way, boss!"
Snatching up the contract and the packet of information Dataface proffered, Strongman gathered his strength for a leap upward.
"Wait!" Dataface hissed like static, holding out one hand. "At least let me retract the dome." He waved that hand in the air and a wide aperture irised open in the apex of the hemisphere. Strongman gathered his strength again and leapt upward, one clenched fist in front of him, the other arm clutching Dataface's packet of information to his burly chest. Behind him the aperture closed...
* * *
Strongman hurtled away from the Ironosphere, out of the Keanuvian Sector, at many times the speed of light, charting a Galactic Great Circle course directly for the planet Granolia...
DON'T MISS OUR EXCITING NEXT EPISODE:
Strongman Vs. the Intellicrats
Installment 49: The Planet that Time-Warner Forgot
Coming soon to a screen near you!
Original content on this page © Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
This document last updated December 6, 1997.