11 May 2017

Improbable Tales #231 [May 1972]


[Written May 1972]
N
o-one who saw him on the street would have taken him for anything but an ordinary comic collector. And he was a comic collector. The comic he carried under his arm was a long sought prize, an early issue of All-Star Comics which he had possessed previously solely in a coverless copy.
Finding it filled a gap in his collection, and he hoped to get home before darkness made it impossible to savor it. In this he failed.
The characteristic retching struck while he was still within the city. He fell to the sidewalk, writhing.
In a pause between attacks he fumbled for his neutronium capsules, and swallowing one, was transformed. The symptoms passed away and he stood shakily.
He picked up his magazine and examined it closely. It was undamaged. Smiling, he surveyed the superheroes depicted on the cover. He had them trapped and safe in an invincible plastic prison, trapped as he had trapped many before them. He remembered them. Batman, Plastic Man, Aquaman, Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain Midnite, Captain America, the Vision, the Spirit, the Skull, the Hulk, the Heap, the Flash—he had them, friends and foes alike, classified, organized and labeled. Trapped.
Again he smiled, for no-one knew that he, mild mannered comic collector, was in reality the Improbable Sadoman.
His body reacted to the transforming effects of the neutron­ium, and he felt the need for action. He climbed up the wall of the building, his suction-cup hands gripping stone and cement with insect-like sureness. Then, spreading his cloak, he glided away from the building.
Rapidly he combed the city. There was no-one. Nothing moved. Sometimes he strode the streets, bold and unafraid, for he was the Improbable Sadoman; sometimes he leaped from building top to building top. He met no-one. There was only him and the shadows.
Abruptly a familiar figure caught his eye. Caped and cowled, there could be no doubt of who it was. No sooner had Sadoman seen the figure than it had melted away into the dark­ness.
A foe at last! Triumphant, Sadoman howled his challenge.
“Batshit! Show yourself, you skulking flea-carrier! It's me, Sadoman. Remember? I beat you once and I'll do it again!”
There was no answer. Nothing disturbed the shadows in the street below.
"Come on out, damn you! I know you’re down there! You can’t escape me! I’m your master!”
Sadoman paused, and then launched himself into the shadows. “I’m coming, Batshit!  Don’t try any tricks with me!”  The streets were empty. There was no sign of the caped superhero. “Damn you! You’ve cheated me of my triumph! But we shall meet again, Batman! I promise that!”
A shadow crossed the moon. Sadoman scanned the skies. Yes, there was the object. For a moment he strained his eyes, then he remembered. There was no doubt about it. That was Steel Man, out of the pages of Archon Comix. As he swung into action he recalled what he could of the silver superhero. In reality An­drew Undershaft, wealthy munitions maker and helpless cripple, only when he donned his armor did he become the nearly invinci­ble—and highly improbable—Steel Man. But no one was more im­probable than Sadoman. Laughing, he scaled a building, spread his cloak, and launched himself into space, using a concealed jet assist he had improvised for the purpose.
“Steel Man!” he shouted, feeling the air whistle under his arms, “Steel Man! Turn and fight! You’ve met your doom at last!” As he followed the armored crime-fighter he exulted, feel­ing the keen enjoyment of the anticipation of battle. There was no doubt of who would be the victor; he had all 52 issues of Steel Man, and his adventures in Improbable Tales before that, locked in the iron vaults of his collection. “Undershaft!” he called, “Turn and meet your master!”
Slowly the steel figure in the distance swung around to face his antagonist. Moonlight glinted silver on his armor, and the light from his propelling jets vanished. For a moment Sadoman felt fear of the conflict he had so lightly thrown himself into, fear of the silent superhero who was to confront him, but he shook it off. Instead he considered tactics. Unarmored, he was surely no match for Steel Man—and he was unarmored and unarmed, save with his own natural abilities.
A ray leaped forth from the steeled figure's glove. It hit Sadoman with the force of a ten ton truck and sent him plummet­ing. He had forgotten Steel Man’s most famous weapon, the force rays that were his to command at the change of an electron in a transistor.
Shakily he dived into a window of a conveniently abandoned apartment. If he couldn’t go after Steel Man, then Steel Man would have to come after him.
“Andrew Undershaft!” he shouted. “Your precious secret’s a secret no longer! All your enemies will know that the invincible Steel Man’s a helpless cripple without his armor! You’ll have no place to hide! No place that’s safe! You’ll—”
The Improbable Sadoman dived for cover as a Force Ray tore the side from the building. Hiding in the hallway he watched the superhero alight in the room he had just occupied.
How do you fight an armored foe? wondered Sadoman. He had fought them before, he remembered. There was Dr. Doom, whom he had defeated in a dank Latverian castle by the mere expedient of reversing the polarity on one of the Doctor’s own weapons. And surely there were others, but somehow, no method he had used seemed quite appropriate. As usual, he must improvise.
With heavy clanking steps, the superhero turned and blasted the room wall. But Sadoman was already gone. Stealing a trick from another superhero he clung to the ceiling as the armored Steel Man passed below.
With a cry of triumph, Sadoman leaped from the ceiling and wrapped himself around the back of the departing figure. They toppled heavily to the floor. With the pressure of his suction cup fingers he pulled loose a section of steel plate where the power supply was hidden. But Steel Man was swift. With a power­ful swing he drove his iron fist into Sadoman’s face, hurling him into a brick wall. Spitting out some superfluous teeth, Sadoman staggered weakly to his feet. The stark figure of his opponent raised his armored arm.
It took a mere fraction of a second, but to Sadoman it was all the time in the world. It was the end, he realized. A force ray, or deadly laser beam, would lash out and remove the Improba­ble Sadoman forever from the face of the earth. Sadoman would die. It seemed incredible that he, who had defeated Superman himself, should be destroyed by a second-rate superhero like Steel Man.
Without thinking he activated his jet assist and began to shoot forward. Slowly, it seemed to Sadoman, the steel figure fired where he had just been, and then off guard he was thrown off balance by the collision as the two met. Like a human bullet Sadoman drove the other into the brick wall opposite.
With his powerful grip the Sadoman crushed the exposed power unit. Steel Man flailed helplessly and then, unplugged, was still. Sadoman ripped open the armor, throwing cogs and wheels down the hallway. The steel corpse lay half-rotted under his suction-cup fingers. The Improbable Sadoman rose.
“You bastard, Undershaft!” he shouted to the empty city. “You sent a robot against me! You robbed me of my victory! But” he promised, “We’ll meet again, Steel Man, we’ll meet again!” He plunged out a window, down a wall, to the streets below.
After the conflict he felt drained, empty. It was past the peak, he realized, and time to relax in his room. The experimen­tal hallucinogen that had kept him alive when all other people had died of a mysterious plague, and had made him the last super­hero on earth, was wearing off.

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