A Man's Got to Know His Limitations
I've seen a few stories, beautifully written, in which Superman realizes he can't withstand the burden of his powers and his responsibilities, and so he takes Gold Kryptonite to get rid of his superpowers. He contentedly goes on to live "a normal life" for a human. The stories I saw didn't go into what would happen later, if there were a big catastrophe that no one could stop because Superman no longer existed.
I don't think he'd do that. I think he'd do something else if it all got to be too much for him.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters. In retrospect, the story is highly derivative of DC Comics' "The Death of Superman" by Jurgens, Ordway, Simonson, Stern, Bogdanove, Grummett, Guice, Breeding, Burchett, Hazlewood, Janke and Rodier. "Smallville" is the property of DC Comics, the WB, Gough & Millar, Tollin & Robbins, and possibly some other people I'm missing -- not me. This is all just for fun; please don't sue.
Many many thanks to myownspecialself, Rissa and Hope for graciously agreeing to beta-read this. I really appreciate it. They were kind, intelligent, and wonderful. Any remaining errors or offenses against common decency are mine and mine alone.
Chapter One: First Draft of History
They say that journalism is the first draft of history.
It seems like I've been a reporter my whole damn life. I've worked and sweated and toiled, and I'm damned if I'm going to choose to regard my life's work as a piddling little first draft. Besides, if the stuff that I rigorously research and expose and double-check and polish is the rough draft, what the hell do I call this?
They say that history is the distillation of rumor.
Well, rumor's a tricky thing.
I remember the day I met Clark Kent. Perry had just finished yelling at me for something or other. Blah blah blah Lois blah blah blah lawsuit blah blah blah. My attention was wandering just a little bit, and I saw a guy come into the newsroom. Tall, dark-haired, broad-shouldered. Mmmm. Then he tripped over a piece of invisible lint or something and fell on his face, and when he got up I could see that he had these huge, ugly, Drew Carey glasses and a mild, foolish, sheep-like expression on his face. Oh, well. I prefer my men to be sharp and, I don't know... masterful. Although I hate a guy thinking he's in charge of me. Which pretty much puts a finger on why my relationships never last long.
Anyway, Perry made the new guy, Clark Kent from Smallville, into my partner. He could have been a hell of a reporter if he'd ever managed to concentrate on one damn thing for more than half an hour at a time. Kept me on the straight and narrow, more or less. Had the skill-set for a journalist, though he really lacked the killer instinct. Could have been a lot worse, from my point of view and from Perry's.
What made him special, of course, was Superman.
I don't know why none of us ever asked at the time. What made Clark Kent the guy with the direct line to Superman? How did this cub reporter from Podunk come to the attention of the Man of Steel? Why did Clark get the interviews? Why was Clark the one who could get hold of the hero in an emergency? How come Clark never got pushed off a building and had to be rescued like the rest of us? You never saw them together. Clark always left, sometimes running and squealing like a little girl, whenever serious trouble came down. Then Superman would show, and the day would be saved, and then Clark would just turn up again later. Sometimes it was the next day, and sometimes they'd just barely miss each other. We got used to the thought that Clark wouldn't have had time to do anything shifty in such tiny increments of time. It never occurred to us that if Clark had been Superman -- if CLARK had been SUPERMAN! -- it wouldn't have been a problem.
I remember the night I met Lex Luthor. Perry was mad at me again that week, so I was covering the social whirl. I can write absolutely anything. He doesn't have to suspend me to get my attention; he can just sentence me to commenting on the gowns and the Armani and the who's seeing whom. It was opening night at the Metropolis Opera. Clark wasn't on Perry's shit list that time, so I was alone. I caught Luthor's eye from across the room, I guess. He sure as hell caught mine. Elegant, self-possessed, sexy. Mmmm. Masterful, too, and I loved the crooked way he smiled. When he came over and we talked, I could tell he was a little shaken that I was with the Daily Planet, but he stayed and smirked and chatted me up. There was something behind those gray-blue eyes. You could only see it when he was close. The genius was right on the surface; the larceny was just one layer down, but there was a hidden something like a secret sorrow. I guess I'm a sap.
I was enough of a sap (or maybe just a lustbunny) to get sucked into his lovely, lovely world. I was dumb enough to be flattered and say 'Yes' when he asked me to (of all things!) marry him. But whenever I stopped thrumming long enough to think and to notice, I could see he was after something more than just me. He wanted information. At the time I thought it was about the Planet, and he was trying to protect his moderately sullied business reputation from our special brand of meticulously documented muckraking journalism. Now I think he was fishing for something else. I thank the stars every night that I weaseled out of that engagement. I got out of it with nothing worse than damaged pride, which makes me the luckiest girl in town.
Looking back, I can see that Clark acted funny whenever I mentioned Lex, and, stranger still, Lex acted funny whenever I mentioned Clark. I didn't speak to Superman at all the whole three months I was engaged, which is odd in retrospect as well.
Now, after everything that's happened, I think I know more.
I remember the night Superman died. The Extra-Terror (name courtesy of Merle Johnson at the Inquisitor -- I have no idea why it stuck) had attacked Tokyo early in the evening of the longest night of the year -- the Winter Solstice. It fought Superman one-and-a-half times around the world before they finally killed each other at the Metropolis Public Library. The fire and resulting residual radiation have made that part of the city off-limits for re-building and human habitation for at least the next fifty years. Everyone who was there at the end of the fight -- including myself, several dozen members of the Kansas National Guard, and the Metropolis Fire Department crew that stopped the fire from spreading to the rest of the city -- had to be treated for radiation exposure. They buried Superman right where he fell, under the rubble of the library. There wasn't time for anything more appropriate.
During the two days that the Extra-Terror was on Earth it killed more than ten thousand people. About thirty thousand were hurt. It did billions of dollars worth of property damage.
It killed Superman.
At least he stopped it.
I was a wreck after that night. I had been right there at the end. I saw Superman's burnt, broken body. I felt the cold and stillness where there should have been warmth, a bull-strong heartbeat, a vibrant hum of life. I watched the Guardsmen and the Firemen bury him in the wet, smoking wreckage of the beautiful temple of learning that Lex Luthor's great-grandfather had built for this city back in 1895. The men who did the work were wonderful. They stopped the fire, and they found out about the radiation. They got people to the hospital and started to clean up the mess. They took care of everything, and all I could do was cry.
I went in to work two days later. The Planet and the Inquisitor had cooperated to get a paper out the morning after the catastrophe, but after that first day both organizations were able to pull together the staff and resources to resume independent publication. Some people didn't turn up.
One of them was my partner, Clark Kent.
He'd left work a little early the day before the Extra-Terror hit Japan. There was big fire down in Suicide Slum, and he said he'd try to call a story in before deadline. The story had been called in from a pay-phone (I don't know why Clark would never carry a cell) in time to be a small item on the bottom of page three of the issue which carried the front-page headline "Monster Attacks Tokyo." That was the last anyone had heard of him. Superman had been at that fire, too. He saved the lives of a woman and two little kids.
The next day's headline was "Superman Dead." Clark Kent didn't make the paper until Christmas Day, when we published our lists of Kansas Missing Persons and Kansas Slain.
Chapter Two: There's a Saying in Kansas
There's an old saying in Kansas: "There's so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us." People say that the late Kansas Governor Edward Hoch wrote that in his newspaper, the Marion Record. My dad used to repeat it sometimes. It was more honored in the breach than the observance. I suppose if he'd found it easy advice to follow, he wouldn't have had to repeat it so much.
I have things I tell myself all the time, too. You can't save everybody. All you can do is your best. It's not the end of the world. Even now, I have to say them over and over, and they do about as much good as my dad's reminding himself to not judge people and gossip.
Before, it was worse.
Cities are loud; it's their nature. Millions of people crammed into a few square miles are going to make a certain amount of noise. Some of them are bound to be in trouble at any given time. There's always going to be someone crying, or screaming, or dying. It's hard to hear that and not try to help. It's really hard to do triage on their cries, to only help the ones that need help most and that are most likely to actually benefit from your actions. It's super hard (ha!) to do triage in your head all the time and hold down a steady job and save the world from big threats like scary alien invaders.
When I put it that way, I'm almost glad I finally failed.
The last one -- I hope it was the last, not just the latest -- was a year or so ago. I think it was a year. What with one thing and another, sometimes time gets away from me a little. It was big, bigger than me, smaller than a city bus. It was of extraterrestrial origin, I'm almost sure. I think it knew stuff about me. It didn't tell me anything; it never said a word. I think it knew about me because of the way it fought, and because it had little chunks of kryptonite decoratively arranged on its costume. They were just the raw mineral, though prettily carved; if they'd been that refined stuff the Luthors came up with I would have failed even sooner and even worse than I did.
I used to keep CNN on all the time. It's a heck of a thing for a print reporter to admit, but I thought I could just add the world to the aural mix that way, and it would help me take care of the planet. It was the tail end of a long December night and I had just dragged myself home after helping to deal with a four-alarm fire in the worst part of Metropolis. I'd saved three people from the top floors of the building; the firemen had saved thirty-seven more from lower down; eight people had died. It was a bad night, and it wasn't over. I went in my apartment window and heard the TV saying that there were reports of a big flying monster rampaging through Tokyo. Hundreds of people were being reported dead, and thousands injured. I zipped right back out the window and headed for Japan. In retrospect I probably should have headed east and picked up some daylight on the way, but I didn't know what was going to happen, and I headed west.
When I first saw it, I was actually relieved. Stupid, huh? You hear "monster," "rampaging," and "Tokyo" -- you just naturally think Godzilla, don't you? This was a lot smaller. No buildings were actually down, although there were several fires. It seemed to be concentrating on killing and maiming people. It could shoot fire from this weird little nozzle thing on its forehead. As soon as I saw it, I got straight to work. I slammed into it, but it was strong and quick, and it had those dang rocks on it. A man has to do his best. I tried to use my head, and hit it with things: broken pieces of building mostly, and wrecked cars. That sort of worked, or it seemed to. The thing would fight me for just a little while and then fly away quick, always to the west. If I wasn't right on top of it, flying as fast as it did, then it would land somewhere there were people and kill them while it waited for me to catch up. When I tried to get ahead of it, it would stop or go north or south for a while, find some place where there were people, and kill them until I caught up with it. There was nothing I could do but tag right along with it.
The obvious thing was to get rid of that armor/clothes thing it was wearing that had the kryptonite embedded in it. The fire-shooting didn't bother me much personally; I'm not real flammable. I tried to burn its outfit off, but it was apparently fireproof. I tried to cut it off with the lasers, but it didn't work -- maybe the color was too close to the color of my eye-beams. I even tried freezing it, but no joy. You can see why I thought this guy must know something about me. I kept trying to think, and I kept fighting, and the monster kept fighting and fleeing and killing people.
The thing was unbelievably fast. It didn't take more than a couple of hours to know that it was keeping to a definite timetable. I'd met it in Japan a little after sunset, and everywhere we went it was the early part of the night. The creature was making sure that as long as I stuck right with it, I wasn't going to get any sunlight. Whenever I didn't stick right with it, detouring to try to put out a fire or come up with a plan or a trap, it just settled down to killing people, right and left. I tried to steer it north, to less-inhabited areas, but it didn't work very well.
Europe is full of people, and there were historic structures for the thing to destroy there, too, so it dawdled a little. Kryptonite sucks. I really hate it. I kept fighting, and it kept fighting, and I wished that people would just have the sense to stay the heck away from a big fight like that, but they kept coming close enough to be killed. There was nothing I could do about it. Finally the monster took off over the Atlantic Ocean at a tremendous speed, and I had to try to catch him.
I had to leave behind the screaming, crying, dying people of Europe and Asia to try to catch the thing.
The first trip over the Atlantic Ocean was the last time I thought I might win that fight. There were no victims available for him but me. I got him in a headlock at one point and plunged us both into the sea. It turned out that I could hold my breath longer, but he could hold his longer than I could stay that close to the kryptonite. I spent the rest of our time over the ocean trying my best to rip his clothes -- sissy way to fight, huh? I did some damage, and I slowed him down enough that I could almost smell the sunrise, but I didn't stop him, and then we were at New York.
I don't want to think about New York. He killed a lot of people; I saved a few; it distracted me, and he gained enough distance on the sun that I started to know there was no way I was going to win. He settled for just setting towns on fire in passing until we got to L.A., and even there he didn't linger as much as he had in Spain. I think I'd spooked him a little in the Atlantic. Across the other ocean like a shot again, and I knew I had to stop him. I'd picked up a big piece of I-beam in New York, and I used it like a bat. It must have worked pretty well, because he charged me and grappled long enough for me to get really sick and drop it, although I know I did him (and his dang jammies!) some noticeable damage before he broke away and fled. The kryptonite and the lack of sun were telling on me, but he was slowing down, too.
He skipped Hawaii, for which I am grateful. We came ashore in New Guinea. He slaughtered only a few people and then ran. We flew across Indonesia and Thailand. He was keeping well ahead of me, which meant that the kryptonite wasn't poisoning me the whole time, but it also meant that he was gaining on the sun again. In India he stopped to engage in carnage for a while, and I caught him up and we fought.
Thinking about it now, the worst thing of all was when people were hurt or killed while we were fighting, because we were fighting. He'd deliberately throw me into these ramshackle buildings, and they'd go down and people would scream and hurt and die. I couldn't stop to help, because he'd be killing somebody else in the time it took me to get back to him. I'd try to hold him down, but the rocks weakened me. I'd work on the little rip I'd gotten started in his clothes, but then the rocks would make me sick, and he'd throw me into a building. I'd rush back into combat as quickly as I could manage, and we'd repeat. As soon as he'd decide we'd been in one place too long, he'd take off to the west, and I'd follow as fast as I could. We crossed India like that, and the Middle East, and Africa. The Atlantic Ocean was next again, and it was my last chance -- not to win, too many people had died already for that, but just to stop him.
I finally ripped his stupid jacket off during that pass, but unfortunately he dived for it and got it back. He wadded it up in his fist and used it for a weapon for the rest of the fight. Considering that Pete Ross once knocked me unconscious with one poor-quality chunk of green meteor rock in his bare fist, ripping the dang outfit didn't really profit me much. However, it did slow down and hinder his killing-the-bystanders abilities, so call it an upside. Another small mercy became apparent when we hauled up in Florida. The National Guard was out in force, and that kept the onlookers down to a minimum. Jeeze, I was tired, and hungry, and cold. He didn't seem a whole lot better. It seemed like we'd been fighting forever.
I steered the fight as best as I could. I wanted the Great Plains rather than anything further south -- the fewer people around, the better. He sort of let me drive as long as we kept heading west. We thrashed and rolled and bit all through the cold frozen Midwest, through mud and snow, and inevitably we ended up in Kansas. I sure wish I could have stopped it before we hit Metropolis.
He was convinced he had me beat, and I pretty much agreed. He had the kryptonite to hit me with, and I had nothing. He had buildings full of people I cared about to slam me into, and I had nothing. He had the will to murder as many people as it took, and I had nothing. He had me on the ropes, and I knew I was going to die.
I knew I had to take him with me.
He was a little slowed down from before. I'd done him some damage, so I knew he wasn't completely invulnerable. He'd made me decide he was a monster, not a person, so it was like killing Godzilla and not executing a criminal; that made it a little easier, too. I grabbed a burning car and threw it, then charged when he dodged. I got my arms around his neck and set to work to pull his doggone head off. He beat me with his kryptonite-studded coat. I felt him break my ribs, and I felt the kryptonite killing me. I didn't let go. His blows became weaker. I squeezed and pulled with all my remaining strength.
We were on the steps in front of the Metropolis Public Library when his head came off, and his body went up in intense blue flames. Even the cloth that I hadn't been able to burn before was consumed, and nothing was left of my opponent except for the hot kryptonite rocks that fell onto my back and burned through the remains of my suit, settling into my flesh. The library caught fire, too. I remember thinking, "I should probably put that out."
I fell face-down on the dirty pavement. People were rushing around and yelling. The National Guard was probably trying to keep order, or put the fire out, or something. There were people screaming and crying all over Metropolis. I could hear people further back along our trail of destruction, too. I could remember people screaming and crying and dying all around me, all over, for the last -- two days? Was that all it was? It seemed like years. The kryptonite on me hurt, but I couldn't seem to even roll over to try to get rid of it. I was so tired, and so cold. I remember trying to say, "Help me."
I heard Lois coming. I'd know the sound of her footsteps anywhere. "Lois will help," I thought.
She was screaming. She was crying.
I don't remember anything else for a long time.
Chapter Three: A Pearl of Great Price
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
My mother was a religious woman. I don't think I've known one since. She was good and sweet and kind, and I can't remember exactly what she looked like anymore. She's been dead for more than thirty years.
My father was a bastard. He was the most evil person I've met so far, and I associate with some of the worst. Or I have, in the past. I don't think I will in the future. He died five years ago.
My brothers: one a holy innocent, dead in his crib -- the other more a bastard than his father, even, and mad as his mother's genes could make him. I've outlived them both.
I've had sex partners -- I won't call them lovers -- by the dozen, enemies by the score, rivals by the hundreds. I'm still here. Most of them aren't.
I've had one friend.
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When Superman finally met his match, I was discreetly overjoyed. The Extra-Terror (what a stupid name) had even had the good taste to demolish that ornate monstrosity of a library that my great-grandfather inflicted on Metropolis back in the 1890's. For once, LexCorp hadn't borne the brunt of the property damage resulting from one of Superman's little debacles. Our losses of personnel and materiel had been minimal, and one of the most persistent obstacles to our daily pursuit of profitable business opportunities had been eliminated. Better yet, it meant I'd be able to dissect an extraterrestrial biological entity. The Extra-Terror had had a disobligingly effective self-destruct device, but Superman was just as alien, and our previous disagreements could only make the knowledge I'd gain from dismembering and analyzing his corpse that much sweeter.
Radiation is not a problem with proper equipment. The night of Christmas was the time to send my people in to retrieve the specimen. There would be few witnesses because of the holiday. The city authorities would have had long enough to put up barricades to keep their citizens out of the contaminated zone, so the National Guard would be gone. It was an acceptable plan.
I remember wondering briefly why I hadn't gotten a card from Clark that Christmas. Every year since we'd met, he'd sent me a Christmas card. They always had reindeer or poinsettias on them; he was never religious either. I had two dozen of them hidden under the flask of brandy I kept in my left-hand lower desk drawer. They were the only Christmas cards I received from anyone who wasn't either a business associate or hoping to become a business associate. Clark even sent one the year that he and Lois did an expose that nearly got me indicted for the Mayburn scandal. I vaguely hoped nothing had happened to him.
It hardly seemed worth worrying about, though, considering the extraordinary Christmas present I was getting. I had my subordinates deliver the specimen to my old laboratory in the mansion near Plant Three. No one ever bothered me in Smallville anymore. The town had become even smaller than before, losing population to Metropolis as the city's crime rate had plummeted. My father, who was the only person who had ever thought of concerning himself with what I did there, was dead. I could be assured of privacy.
My employees had conveyed the specimen in a crate, which I had them leave in the lab. I dismissed them back to the city to enjoy the remainder of their holiday, and prepared to enjoy mine. My kryptonite knives and saws had been awaiting this day for a long time. I unboxed the specimen and rolled it out onto my work surface.
The firemen who buried the body had wrapped it in the library's scorched and tattered flag as a makeshift shroud. I unrolled the body from the cloth, and it landed prone. The cape had been burned or torn away, as had much of the underlying blue costume. I disengaged the locks on the weighing platform and took the weight of the body in toto -- eighty-eight kilograms. (193.6 lbs.) I re-engaged the locks so I could work without spoiling my scale's calibration. The length of the body was one hundred ninety-five centimeters. The body had been mildly to moderately burned, but there were no signs of decomposition. Upon inspection, glowing fragments of green kryptonite were revealed embedded in the flesh of the back. I removed a total of six, ranging in mass from 0.75 grams to 1.33 grams. They were faceted like gemstones. The mineral specimens stopped glowing when removed from contact with the alien's body.
I turned the body over and gazed upon the face of my nemesis. Whenever Superman and I had met, it had generally been a matter of him slamming my face into a wall while yet another of my more ethically-challenged laboratories burned in the distance and he scolded me about my responsibilities to mankind. Sometimes he would stand atop a building heroically with the sun at his back and warn me away from some nefarious scheme he'd heard I was contemplating. Whenever I had him trapped I usually was in a hurry to make good my escape. I never got the chance to look him in the face for long.
I hadn't expected such eyelashes in a superhero. Or such lips.
Suddenly I remembered when I'd seen faceted kryptonite before. I got the little green gemstones out of their lead container and looked at them again. They were very like Lana Lang's old meteor rock necklace, the one that I'd taken off of Clark that time.... I held the jewel close enough to Superman's chest to make it glow. When that eerie green light shone again on that battered, beautiful face, there was no doubt. So many years had passed, but it was undeniably the same. I slammed the lead box shut and swept all my kryptonite paraphernalia hastily away.
Superman was Clark Kent.
Superman was Clark Kent, but was he truly dead? The green rocks still glowed in contact with him, might that not mean something? I tried again, putting a piece of kryptonite against Clark's unburned left hand. The gem glowed, and the skin of the hand became greenish, and the veins stood out. I snatched the gemstone away and slammed it back into the lead box. The hand slowly regained its original appearance. That had to mean something. I needed Clark to be alive.
Superman was Clark Kent. That explained so much. How could I have been so blind? I needed to think, but my mind kept running in circles. With all the things at which Superman had caught me, I could never understand how I hadn't been incarcerated years before. It wasn't that he was an idiot and accidentally destroyed so much evidence in his feckless enthusiasm. It wasn't my luck finally kicking in and proving that crime was my forte after all. It was the fact that Clark was my friend and didn't want me to get in trouble. He stopped my criminal behavior whenever he could, but he tried his best to keep me out of prison as well.
Damn it, he couldn't be dead. I started searching through the laboratory cupboards almost at random, and I found a sample of the red variation of the meteoritic rock. When I put the red stone against Clark's skin it glowed, just as the normal kryptonite did. It didn't seem to do Clark any additional harm.
Then he sneered at me. He didn't open his eyes, and he still didn't seem to be breathing, but his mouth definitely twisted into a scornful expression. I was so startled I dropped the stone. His face relaxed into blankness again.
He had to be alive. He had to. I picked up the red kryptonite stone and set it on Clark's abdomen. His lip curled in a grimace. I remembered the CPR class I'd taken more than twenty years before, not long after the first time Clark had saved my life. I checked for breathing and a heartbeat as well as I could remember. There was no breathing I could feel, and I thought there was no heartbeat, but then suddenly I felt one big thump. Mouth-to-mouth assisted breathing seemed like the right thing to do, although the fact that he'd been dead and buried for several days tended to make the whole idea seem a little insane.
I proceeded nevertheless, tilting Clark's head back to clear the airway, sealing my mouth to his and pinching the nostrils closed, breathing into him and counting, feeling for his heart (keep beating, damn it!) and checking periodically to see if he could breathe on his own. After a few long minutes his eyes snapped open. I was shocked. I hadn't genuinely dared to imagine that he might be alive, just because I so badly needed him to be. His eyes were battered and bloodshot, and I think they were glowing red, too, like the red meteorite.
"Sunlight," he hissed.
"Right. Clark, hang on." I should have realized. I'd read all the newspaper reports about Superman; I even remembered commenting to my assistant that the Extra-Terror was clever to keep the Big Dumb Alien in the dark during their long combat. Superman was solar-powered, and I had him in my basement. A month earlier, it would have been delicious.
I shouldered Clark in a fireman's carry and somehow got him up two flights of stone stairs. I could feel broken ribs shifting inside him while we moved. By the time I found a good east-facing window and dropped him on the floor, I'd lost the red stone somewhere. Clark's eyes were closed again, but he was still breathing, so I didn't go look for it. The black sky was studded with sharp frigid stars -- more than we ever got in Metropolis -- but there was fortunately a little glow showing at the eastern horizon. The mansion was absolutely silent except for Clark's slow labored breathing. I sat on the cold floor next to my friend and hoped for sunrise.
After about ten minutes I couldn't stand it anymore. My nurturing skills are vestigial at best. It was easy to convince myself that there was nothing more I could do for Clark until the sun came up. I thought of something I could do that might help, that was also out of the house, away from the battered broken body of the man (alien!) who was my only friend and my most unconquerable enemy. I shucked my lab coat and rubber gloves, found my driving gloves, hat, and greatcoat, and left.
Once I got into my car everything was harder to believe. I wanted to just drive and never stop, but I wasn't a kid anymore, and Clark needed me.
Superman was Clark Kent.
The Talon was still in business, oddly enough. I gave my interest in it to Lana as a wedding present when she married Pete Ross. I still had a key, though, and could get in even at this ungodly hour on the day after Christmas. There was a telephone call I didn't want to make from the mansion. Clark was alive; I wouldn't let him die. He might want his job back at some point, which meant I should call him in sick to the Planet. Believe it or not, that made sense to me at the time. There was an answering machine; I had to leave a message, so I disguised my voice. Suddenly I started to panic, which I never do. I was afraid Lana or someone would catch me and figure out what was up. I didn't even know what was going on, exactly, but I was sure I didn't want other people to know. I got in my car again without being seen. Again, I wanted to just drive, run away to Metropolis or Gotham or, hell, Canada.
Superman was Clark Kent. I couldn't leave him alone. He needed me. It had been years and years since Clark had needed my help. Even when we were enemies (were we really enemies?), Superman saved my life two or three times.
I headed back to the mansion.
The sun was just peeking above the horizon when I arrived. I stopped off in the kitchen and put a big mug of water into the microwave to boil. I knew I was putting off going up to look at him again, but I told myself I should bring him something warm -- tea or soup. Then I decided that was nuts; I should just give him water. Then I was suddenly afraid he was dead again. I left the mug in the microwave, grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and ran up the stairs.
Clark was lying right where I'd left him. He was still breathing but still unconscious. I was shocked at his appearance; in my short time out of the house I'd forgotten how badly he'd been beaten and burned. He smelled burned, too. Somehow I hadn't noticed the smell when I'd been preparing to dissect him. I went into the bathroom and threw up, then got some towels and a basin of warm water and brought them back to Clark. I removed the remaining tatters of his costume and washed the blood, dirt and char from his skin. I carefully kept him in the puddle of pale winter sunlight as I manipulated his inert frame.
When I returned from pouring out the second pan of dirty water, I found that Clark had rolled onto his side to face the sun. His breathing still sounded terrible. He was cold to the touch. I decided not to cover him, despite the chill, because the sunlight would probably do him more good than the dubious warmth of a blanket.
Did I mention that I'm no good at taking care of people? All I could think to do was sit and stare at him. After a few hours the sun seemed to be getting too high for this window. I spent almost an hour deciding where to lay him down next. I was doing trigonometry in my head, trying to decide. When I got back to check on him, the sun had moved and Clark was in shadow. He was barely breathing. I pulled him back into the dwindling light that still came in through the window; I warned him not to dare die on my property and swore at him for being such an idiotic, stupid, alien busybody.
My shouting and fuming woke him up. He blinked those big green-blue eyes at me and licked his cracked lips. I sat heavily down on the floor beside him. He wrinkled his forehead in that cute way he had when he was confused.
"Lex?" he breathed.
"Yeah, Clark." I made my voice as gentle as I could.
He blinked some more, but then his eyes stayed closed.
"Wait!" I yelled. "Clark! Don't. You need water, or...." I scrambled for the water bottle I'd brought up before.
When I got back to him, his eyes were flickering again. "Here, drink," I said.
He opened his mouth like a little bird and I carefully poured some water in. He blinked and swallowed, and we did it again. After about a quarter of a liter, he whispered, "Thanks," and closed his eyes.
I took a minute to compose myself and re-cap the bottle. Then I made sure Clark was lying where the sun would continue to hit him for a few minutes and went to make up a pallet in the spot I'd selected for him. The building did actually have a solarium, a room with many windows and a southern exposure, originally designed to be a warm sunny spot in the gloom and cold of a Scottish castle. If I'd been thinking properly, I would have put Clark there right away. Once he was settled again, on a few blankets this time instead of the stone floor, and with a pillow under his head, in the sunniest room the mansion afforded, I sat and looked at him.
Superman was Clark Kent. Clark Kent was Superman.
The Clark I thought I knew would have been embarrassed to be lying here nude, even wounded as he was and understanding the necessity. Superman went around all the time as good as naked. I'd seen Clark injured only once -- that had been broken ribs, too. Superman, for all his vaunted invulnerability, had been battered and bloodied more than once by various extraterrestrial and/or super-powered foes. I remembered smiling at those news reports, and I felt sick again.
I realized I hadn't eaten anything all day, so I went down to the kitchen and heated up some soup. I brought the pan up with me to the solarium, in case Clark woke up and I could try to feed him some. I decided that if I was going to stay I'd need to bring some staff in from Metropolis.
What the hell? When did I decide I was going to stay in Smallville?
When did I decide I was going to change my whole life?
Chapter Four: A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed
"Nothing is there more friendly to a man than a friend in need." That's from a really ancient play written by a man called Titus Maccius Plautus. Being a writer, and with a dad like mine, I've looked up quite a few of these old sayings. People might not agree with me, but I mostly think they're all true.
After the fiery end of that long, brutal fight, I don't remember anything for a long time. When I woke up, I was lying in a heap of blankets on the floor of a room I almost recognized. There were big windows, and the sun was streaming in, which was unbelievably comforting. It looked like late afternoon, about an hour until dusk. I hurt all over, and I was naked, and cold and thirsty, but the sun was shining, and no one was actively trying to kill me, and it was quiet. No one was crying or screaming as far as the ear could hear. For miles around, all I noticed was a few cars whizzing by, and some animals in the fields and woods, and a middle-sized peaceful town in the distance. There was also the sound of someone typing on a computer keyboard behind me.
I rolled over (which hurt my back a lot) and saw Lex Luthor hunched in a wicker chair, working on his laptop. I was very surprised. "Lex?" I asked. My voice was really hoarse.
He looked up at me, startled, and smiled. It wasn't what I expected; it wasn't one of his mean smiles. It wasn't bitter, or even rueful. It wasn't a Luthor smile at all; it was more like the old smiles we used to share sometimes in Smallville a long time ago. He looked awfully tired, though.
"Clark," Lex said in a relieved tone. "Are you really awake this time?"
That confused me a little more, but I answered, "Yeah, I think so. What's going on?"
He shifted down to sit on the floor beside me, leaving the computer on the chair. He grabbed a bottle of water from somewhere, unscrewed the top, and held it for me to drink. I think he was surprised when I was able to hold it myself, but he quickly recovered and propped me up a little so I could finish it. Man, was it good. While I drank, he asked me, "What do you remember?"
Oh, great, time to think of a good lie. I closed my eyes and felt like crying for a few seconds. Unexpectedly, Lex's voice came again, very gently.
"I'm sorry, Clark. Let me just tell you. You fought the Extra-Terror all around the world for two days. Thousands of people were killed or injured." Then I really did start crying, and I missed the next little bit of what he was saying. He stopped and waited quietly for me to calm down, and then went on again. "You finally stopped the monster once and for all in Metropolis. Its body went up in a small nuclear blast. You were... well, Superman was... everybody thought you were killed. The firemen and the National Guard buried you hastily beneath the wreckage of the library." This didn't make sense, but Lex kept talking. "They enshrouded you in the U.S. flag that had been flying over the building, illuminated day and night as per the terms of my great-grandfather's will. All of those who were present for the grand finale suffered from some degree of radiation exposure, but they have all received appropriate treatment and are responding well."
I had my eyes open, now, and I was looking at Lex, but suddenly he couldn't look at me. "I had my people retrieve your body from the rubble a few days later. I wanted to dissect you. I...." He broke off and closed his eyes for a minute. Then he suddenly glared at me furiously and exploded, "Why the hell didn't you ever tell me you were Superman?"
I couldn't help it; I cringed. "I'm sorry, Lex. I didn't know what would happen. And I kind of thought you already knew."
"Well, I didn't!" he retorted. Then his face softened. "I didn't know until I had you there in my lab, and I thought you were dead. Then I finally recognized you, and fortunately I figured out that you were still alive."
This was going better than I ever would have thought it would. I still felt like crap and couldn't, for instance, sit up by myself, but Lex didn't seem to want me dead. "What happens now?" I asked.
"How do you feel?" he asked. "I think you should... do you want some more water?" I nodded, and he helped me drink. "Are you hungry?"
"I've been trying to keep you in the sunlight ever since I got you breathing again two days ago. I had a red meteorite rock that seemed to stimulate you a little; that helped, and you hissed 'sunlight' at me when I put it on you."
"The red rocks make me kind of crazy and mean. You might remember a couple of times...."
"Yes, I do."
We were both silent for a while, then. The colors of the sunset were starting to show through the windows.
"Do you want something to wear? I thought it might be better for you to have as much exposure to the sun's rays as possible, and your Superman suit was destroyed, so I.... It's not that I'm just keeping you nude for my own pleasure, or anything."
I smiled up at Lex. "It's okay, really. Thanks. Do you even have anything here that would fit me?"
"Ha! I thought about that." Lex got up and produced a big terry-cloth robe from a round wicker table that had been shoved to the side of the room. "Let's try this." Getting the robe on was a painful process which seemed to take forever and left me exhausted. Lex's hands felt so warm against me. That was novel; usually I was warmer than a human, and Lex had always seemed so cool, so collected.
The window was completely dark. I fell asleep.
The next thing I knew, it was daytime again. It looked like late morning. The blessed sun beamed in at me, and I felt much better -- still pretty much like crap, but cheerful crap that might be able to sit up if it worked at it real hard. Lex was nowhere to be seen, but I listened around and picked up on him in another room. He was having a one-sided conversation, probably by telephone, with someone, probably some sort of underling.
"Yes, I'm serious. I know perfectly well how much more money we could get for that asset from other parties, however I am the controlling shareholder and CEO of LexCorp, and I have decided to dispose of this property in the manner described. You have your orders, and you will carry them out." Lex hung up the phone. I heard him moving around to some other room, and some clanking noises -- suddenly I realized we were in the Luthor castle just outside Smallville. I knew it like the back of my hand, and I could tell now that Lex was in the kitchen. It sounded like he was heating up something from a can. There didn't seem to be anybody else here but him and me. The whole situation was beyond strange.
Lex came upstairs and brought soup with him. I struggled up to sit leaning against the wicker chair. When he came in, he looked surprised but happy. "You're up! How do you feel? Do you want some soup?
"Yes, please," I answered. He held the bowl for me, but I managed the spoon. Half a bowl of soup wore me out. It felt good, though. I lay back down in the sunny blanket nest and looked sleepily at my old friend. "Who were you talking to?"
I expected a guilty look from him, but I got something else. He looked uncertain, but determined. "I'm divesting LexCorp of a few of our more... questionable ventures. Mike, my assistant, thinks I've lost my mind."
I just kept looking at him, and he went on. "We'll lose some money, but not more than I'm willing to, and when I'm done.... Well, it will be cleaner; I, you won't have to worry...."
"You're selling off all your illegal stuff," I guessed.
"Not exactly. If I were doing only that, Michael would be one hundred percent behind me. Some of my programs and subsidiaries need to be dismantled, not just sold, and some of my key personnel have to be dealt with rather delicately."
"If you were just plain selling some of it, it would only end up in more dangerous hands."
"Exactly. I'm trying to be careful. Not that I've ever proven myself terribly successful at that."
"You can do anything you set your mind to, Lex." I smiled at him, and he looked a little reassured. Then I fell asleep again.
The next time I woke up, the sun was rising. Lex was scrunched up asleep in the big wicker chair. He looked uncomfortable. I felt okay, considering. I sat up, and that went pretty well, so I leaned on Lex's chair and levered myself up to my feet. Wow. It had been years since I'd last felt dizzy. Leaning on the wall all the way, I carefully made it to the bathroom. It didn't take long to decide on a bath over a shower -- falling down on wet tiles would be too easy. I'd just settled gratefully down into a tub of warm water when I heard Lex's panicky cry, "Clark!"
"I'm in the bathtub!" I called.
He rushed in. "You were gone, and I was afraid it was... " He blinked at me sleepily. "All a dream," he finished. He closed the toilet lid and sat down heavily. "You look a lot better."
"I feel like crap. But a lot better than before." I smiled at him.
He smiled back. "It's good to have you back again."
"I was just thinking the same thing."
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
I thought for a second. "Could you help me wash my hair?"
"I don't have any shampoo," he apologized.
"Soap works just fine." I slid down and got my hair wet. Lex had to help me sit back up again. The water wasn't deep enough to drown in. I leaned my elbows on my knees, and Lex tentatively scrubbed my head. It felt good. I was almost asleep just sitting there when he announced that was the best he thought he could do and I should rinse off. He helped me again, then helped me out of the tub and wrapped me in a big towel. I leaned on him all the way back to the solarium and fell asleep again as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next thing I remember the sun was rising again. I was naked and alone, but the robe from before was lying neatly folded next to my pillow. It looked like it had been washed. I put it on with hardly any trouble at all, and felt so much better that I decided to get up. Listening around, I heard Lex in the kitchen, so I staggered downstairs to find him.
He was rummaging around in a cupboard and didn't seem to hear me come down. I leaned on the doorjamb and said, "Don't you ever sleep?"
He stood up in a hurry and grinned at me. "You're up again. Want some more soup?"
"Oh, yeah." I was starving. I came the rest of the way into the kitchen and plopped myself down on a chair.
Lex busied himself at the big steel range. "How do you feel today?"
He chuckled. "Good. And it's good to see you up and around. We need to get you some clothes."
"There's some stuff still at my folks' house. It's a Kent family trait to never throw anything away." Actually there was quite a lot of stuff still at my parents' house. When Mom died, a year earlier, I hadn't had the heart to sort through everything and dispose of the junk. I just kept paying the property taxes and coming back home to do the routine maintenance like I had been since Dad died, three years before that. The only difference was that I could only stand to come once a season instead of every other weekend, and the house was empty.
"Well, I'll just have to go break in. Good thing I can still pick a lock." Lex brought me a bowl of soup, then got a cup of coffee for himself and sat down at the kitchen table with me.
"Can't have you breaking and entering." I looked carefully around the kitchen and found it. "There's a key behind the turmeric in your spice cabinet. Mrs. Digman used to keep one for Mom. Ow!"
"What!" Lex looked worried.
I rubbed my forehead with both hands. "X-ray vision headache. Jeeze, I haven't had one of those in twenty years. Don't worry. It'll be gone soon."
Lex looked at me dubiously for a little while. When I stopped wincing and started eating my soup again, he relaxed and got up to look in the spice cabinet. "Huh," he said. "I've had a key to the Kent farmhouse in my kitchen for all these years?"
"You could have come over any time. I always thought you knew that, though. Is there any more soup?"
Lex came over and poured the remaining soup from the pan into the bowl. He put the pan in the sink. "I'll drive over and bring you back some clothing. You'll stay with me here until you're better." The look he gave me turned it from a command to a request, and I smiled my agreement.
"Thanks, Lex. Drive carefully."
"Of course." He gestured expansively. "Make yourself at home. I'll be back as soon as I can."
I finished my soup and put the bowl and spoon in the sink with the pan. I wandered out into Lex's study, which still had a big TV and a sofa, just as it had in the old days. I lay down and found the remote. The TV was set to CNN.
There was breaking news.
I wasn't exactly dressed for heroics, but there was nothing to be done about it. I knotted the belt of my robe as securely as I could and hurried out the front door. At least Chicago wasn't very far away. I hoped I'd be in time to help.
I hoped I'd be able to make it that far. I hoped I'd be able to help at all. Hope springs eternal.
Chapter 4.5: Happy the Man
"Happy the man who far from schemes of business, like the early generations of mankind, works his ancestral acres with oxen of his own breeding, from all usury free."
Horace, c. 29 B.C.
"Clark? Why are there chickens all over your porch?"
Clark threw open the door between the enclosed back porch and the kitchen. "You didn't let them out, did you?"
I couldn't help it; I threw a glance over my shoulder to make sure I'd actually closed the outer door securely, even as I said, "Of course I didn't, Clark. What do you take me for?"
Clark grinned at me and took my coat as he ushered me into his warm fragrant kitchen. "It's only temporary, Lex. Merritt said I could have them yesterday, but the coop needs work for Kansas in February. The porch is in better repair, and it's certainly warm enough for poultry. As long as nobody lets them escape or anything."
"I'll just have to use the front door until you fix your chicken coop, Farmer Kent." Clark smiled at me and busied himself about the kitchen. He looked good. It was hard to believe I'd found him unconscious and almost buried in the gravel of my front drive a month ago, when the People's Reactionary Front destroyed the Sears Tower, and Superman was too broken to help. It was even harder to believe that three weeks before that, he'd been dead.
Superman was Clark Kent. Clark Kent was Superman. Come on, Lex. Get a grip.
I settled myself at the kitchen table. "Would they really try to escape when it's barely even light outside yet? Shouldn't a chicken have a better sense of self-preservation than that?"
"Chickens are pretty dumb, Lex. Why do you think they call them birdbrains?" Clark helped me to a warm apple muffin and a couple of scrambled eggs. The apples must have been from the last batch Martha Kent had ever canned. Clark had probably been up for hours already this morning, pruning the trees. The eggs were obviously from my new porch-dwelling acquaintances. The milk in my coffee wasn't Kent Organic Milk, but by the end of the summer it probably would be. Clark had given up on Metropolis.
Breakfast with Clark had been a comfortable daily ritual ever since he'd recovered enough to move back into his parents' old farmhouse. "Happy the man whose wish and care/ A few paternal acres bound,/ Content to breathe his native air/ In his own ground. Alexander Pope. 1700."
Clark sat down across from me with his own plate and mug. He smiled. "It's not exactly my native air, Lex."
I shrugged and smirked at him. "Technicalities."
Over the course of just two months, my luck had changed more than I had ever remotely been able to imagine. My last enemy was gone - unexpectedly revealed as my dearest friend. I couldn't believe how successfully LexCorp was being transformed. Giving up on the Criminal Mastermind business had freed up my attention for other things. I'd literally forgotten how much of LexCorp was actually legit. There were whole divisions that had been languishing neglected for years while my mind was on more sinister pursuits. Once I took an active interest in the legal enterprises I owned, they began to flourish. I had become an Honest Respectable Businessman, and my stock prices were up! The most unbelievable thing of all, though, was that here, in this jerkwater little town in the middle of nowhere, I had something I'd never really had before -- a home.
A Luthor doesn't acknowledge any Higher Power that influences his life. I hadn't prayed in more than thirty years. Nevertheless, I felt a profound sense of gratitude and relief. I was grateful for my tall, tousled friend, shoveling eggs into his mouth across the kitchen table, babbling about organic compost. I was grateful for the old-fashioned kitchen, still furnished with all of Martha Kent's things. It could have been a million miles from anywhere, nothing intruding from the outside world except for the quiet contentiousness of the poultry on the back porch and the muted muttering of the all-news station on the counter radio. The rising sun shone in through the homemade wooden window blinds. I sipped my coffee. I was at peace.
Suddenly Clark loomed up from the table, breakfast forgotten, all his attention focused on the radio.
I hadn't been really paying attention before, just letting the sound wash over me unheeded, but now I listened and heard. The VentureStar space plane was in trouble. They had collided with some of the inevitable detritus of Man's Quest for Space, and the seven astronauts and a few billion dollars worth of hardware were doomed. Statistically speaking it was bound to happen, of course, and astronauts certainly knew the job was dangerous when they signed on for it.
It was obvious that Clark felt differently.
Apparently the clothes don't always make the man. When he lay before me broken and unconscious, even dressed in the tattered remains of his ridiculous primary-colored spandex, I'd recognized him as Clark Kent. When he stood before me, heroically determined to fly off and Save the Space Plane, even dressed in his ridiculous blue-plaid flannel and denim, I recognized him as Superman.
I was on my feet and beside him in less than a second. "No, Clark," I let my hand press lightly against his chest, even though there was no way on Earth I'd ever be able to physically restrain him. "You can't."
He looked down at me with calm blue eyes. "I have to."
"Clark, no. You're not a hundred percent yet. You can't. You don't have a re-breather, or anything -- you'll suffocate!"
Superman's smile was different from any of Clark's. His voice was deeper, too, and more sure. "I can hold my breath in vacuum for more than two hours. They won't last any longer than that without help."
I took my hand off him and stepped back. He strode masterfully out the back door, through the chickens, out into the yard. I followed along behind. Before he took off, he turned back to look at me. It was Clark's smile again, Clark's voice. "A man has to do what he can, Lex. If I'm not back in a day or so, you better tell Merritt to take the chickens back."
I opened my mouth and closed it again. Then I said, "Be careful. Come home safe."
"I will," he said, and flew away.
"Dear God," I prayed. "Don't let that be the last lie he ever tells me."
Chapter Five: An Accurate Mind Overtaxed
Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtaxed."
It's an interesting theory.
Most of the world didn't realize, really realize, that Superman was gone until five lunatics with an incomprehensible agenda blew up the Sears Tower in Chicago. Our own alien savior had been dead for three weeks, and we humans were back to mass destruction of innocent civilian targets.
What I couldn't stand were the commentators who said it was all Superman's fault. The argument went something like this: After the World Trade Center catastrophe back in '01, all sorts of intrusive, inconvenient safeguards were put into place to make sure nothing like that could ever happen again. When Superman started routinely and painlessly rescuing us from that sort of madness, the safeguards gradually went away. Then, as soon as he was gone, terrorists took their chance to wreak havoc, and there wasn't anything else set up to stop them. The pundits never said what they thought Superman should have been doing instead of saving us. Hardly any of them blamed the FAA or the airlines for letting their paranoia lapse. It made me mad.
There was no doubt that the death of Superman had irrevocably changed the world. Metropolis had nine square blocks of radioactive no-man's-land right downtown, surrounding his grave. Chicago's skyline had a gap that history would never repair. Thousands of people had their lives altered in unpredictable ways. Clark Kent quit the Planet. Lex Luthor, according to strictly off-the-record LexCorp employees, lost his mind. Perry and Jimmy, I'm sure, thought I'd lost mine as well.
Someone, a woman, had called Personnel a couple of days after Christmas and reported Clark sick. She didn't leave a name. If I'd been on my game, I would've investigated that better. How the hell did Clark Kent know a woman? His mom was dead. I tried calling his apartment, and there was no answer. I even found his parents' phone number in an old directory, but it had been disconnected. I called the Smallville Town Library and asked if Clark Kent was in town, staying with a woman. I could tell by her tone of voice that the librarian was shocked at the very idea. She informed me that Clark Kent had moved to Metropolis years ago. Of course, the bastard didn't have a cell phone, or even a pager. Nobody heard from Clark himself until the end of January. I was writing a feature about The Families Left Behind, comparing Chicago's recent tragedy with Metropolis's. There was going to be a sidebar about air safety. The phone rang, and it was Clark.
"Hi, Lois." He sounded like shit.
"Clark! My God! Are you okay? Nobody's heard from you in a month! When are you coming back in?"
"Um. I'm not. I'm sorry. I just got off the phone with Personnel."
"What do you mean, you're not? What the hell happened to you, Kent?"
"Um, I'm. I just. Well, broken ribs, and concussion, but that's nothing too unusual for a guy from Smallville...."
"Yeah, yeah, Rockwellian childhood spent falling out of trees. I get it. Why aren't you coming back?"
"I'm just. I'm -- maybe I'm not really cut out for a reporter. I've had a lot of time to think, and I was always letting you down, and Perry, and.... There's the farm, still, and I can do that, and not have anybody have to rely...."
I interrupted him again. "Clark! Not cut out for a reporter? Are you nuts? You've been a reporter for fifteen years! We're great together! What...."
He cut me off that time. "You're great alone. You know you are. All I was ever really good for was keeping you out of trouble, and you're a big girl, now. You don't need a baby-sitter."
"You're not...." I was starting to tear up. Damn the man! "It'll never be the same here without you."
I could hear that calming smile in his words. "It'll be fine. You'll be great. And if you miss me so much, you can come visit me in Smallville whenever you want. Kent Organic Farm. Ask anyone in town for directions."
"I'll do that."
"Good. Take care of yourself, Lois." He hung up before I thought to ask for his phone number. Damn! What the hell had happened to my brain?
Thus ended the longest and most civil relationship I'd ever had with a man.
Speaking of short, uncivil relationships, Lex Luthor seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. No one could get any sort of an interview with anyone on the record, of course, but I was still acquainted with several of his employees, and people do talk. LexCorp was changing shape. There was a definite intelligence behind it, but the Business Section reporters were so baffled they were asking ME what was up. If we all hadn't known better, it would have looked like Lex was trying to make his company into one of those socially responsible enterprises beloved of the Global Sustainability crowd. A couple of divisions which had been so secret that nothing was known but their names were summarily shut down and their assets disposed of at scrap metal prices. Some of his key people got lured away unexpectedly into academia, too, always going to universities with impeccable ethics committees.
LexCorp's charitable wing pumped tons of cash into the rehabilitation of the Extra-Terror's Path of Destruction (name courtesy of that jerk Merle Johnson again), but Lex didn't show up at the ribbon-cuttings or press conferences. It wasn't like him to skip the kudos.
Some people, including his own staff, seemed to think he'd become unhinged by the sudden death of his greatest enemy, Superman. If that were so, though, wouldn't the LexCorp transition have been more disorganized? They were still a profitable company, and the stock didn't even fall much. Others, mainly Perry, thought that Lex was cleaning house so he could run for office in a couple of years. That made more sense to me, but shouldn't he have been taking bows right, left, and center for the re-building funds they were donating? Did he have something going on that was so much more important? If so, what? It was a puzzle.
Unfortunately, it was a puzzle that I really wasn't up to figuring out. Perry had been worried that I might get the Planet into legal trouble without Clark as a steadying influence, but he shouldn't have bothered. The crying jags that had started when I touched Superman's broken, lifeless body for the last time had just gotten worse. Most days I managed to keep my composure during working hours, but nights spent weeping tend to take some of the fire out of an investigative reporter. Perry called me into his office at the end of February. He told me that he wasn't firing me or suspending me, that my work was still in the average-to-good range, but that I'd slipped a lot, and he wanted me to take a vacation. I had strict orders not to come back until I'd used up my entire eight weeks accrued time, and if I still couldn't pull myself together he was going to refer me to his ex-wife's shrink.
I was totally professional in the office. I didn't start crying until I was almost home. Then I cried at home until lunchtime two days later. Then I packed up a bunch of stuff in the back of my Honda and started driving west.
I had a nice time on the road. If there had only been more than one radio station, or if my CD player had been working, I could even say I had a great time on the road. I had an idea that I wanted to see San Francisco, and I stopped at Yellowstone National Park along the way. The geysers weren't affected by the death of Superman. The mountains were ignored by human terrorists. The pristine snowy forest didn't care that the biggest billionaire in the country was going nuts. The path I was taking hadn't been touched by the Extra-Terror. Nobody called me on the cell. I could forget about things.
I hadn't been to California since college. Berkeley hadn't changed. I lucked into a room with a view at the Radisson and settled in for an unending round of bookstores and coffee shops. To my surprise, I found that there were some guys in Bay Area bars and restaurants who would flirt with me -- it had been a long time since I'd felt attractive. I always took care of myself, and simple pride made sure that I always looked my best, but no one had looked at me just as a pretty woman since Lex, and that was only until he actually knew me. Still, it was good for the ego, and after I'd been there a week and was starting to get a little bored, I suddenly realized that I hadn't had a crying fit in four days.
I called Perry to see how things were going in Metropolis. He sounded genuinely glad to hear from me, and that was nice, too. I told him I felt fine, and he said that was great, but I couldn't come back to work for six weeks. I swore at him a little, and he laughed, and we both hung up feeling better, I think.
The space plane was hit by orbiting junk the same morning that I decided to drive to Yosemite.
California was blessed with a multitude of radio stations. Some of them were "All News." I was flipping around the radio dial when I blipped past one of those, reporting on the story about the space plane. I backpedaled and tuned in, making sure to keep my eyes on the road. Apparently, Kent's constant nagging over the years had sunk in.
The radio newsmen didn't have all the details, but the story seemed to be this: The VentureStar Space Plane, on its way up to the International Space Station, plowed into the remains of some unidentified satellite just over the western edge of the Pacific Ocean. It had happened about half an hour before I tuned in. The crew had managed to scramble into their suits before the air was gone, but the space plane was damaged over so much of its exterior surface that the commentators were saying there was almost no chance of landing it safely. NASA was just about to order them to try re-entry anyway when all radio contact was lost.
I was on Highway 99 between Turlock and Atwater. It was early on a Sunday morning, and there was hardly any traffic. I pulled over and looked up. Maybe it was a ghoulish impulse, but it was comforting to think that my nose for news was finally poking up out of the sentimental quagmire I'd been wallowing in for so long. Perry would probably accept an eyewitness account of the VentureStar crash, even if I wasn't supposed to be working again 'til next month. I remembered the Columbia, which was destroyed when I was in college, and I expected to see a fiery streak across the sky.
What I saw was quite different.
The radio guys weren't looking out their windows. They kept blithering on about expert opinion this and historical record that. They didn't know that the space plane was coming straight down at a relatively sedate jet-airplane-standard speed, in complete violation of everything I ever thought I knew about physics, just off Highway 99 in Central California. I jumped back into the Honda and sped off to intercept.
Judging by the road signs I seemed to be following, the VentureStar had put down at Atwater Municipal Airport, formerly Castle Air Force Base. There hadn't been a big fireball or any sort of explosion; there was no plume of smoke. I found my way onto the tarmac (not to incriminate myself or anything, but I always made it a point to travel with bolt-cutters), and there it was. The VentureStar Aerospace Plane was sitting in the middle of a huge Cold-War-era concrete runway. It was upright. The landing gear had not deployed. I could see half-a-dozen large craters, each a yard or so across, on the forward surfaces. As I watched, the passenger compartment hatch opened, and the astronauts started coming out. Even with their spacesuits on, they looked shell-shocked. I moved in quickly to get my exclusive interviews.
Astronauts are tough. The seven of them were bruised and shaken, but not seriously hurt. I used my cell to call NASA and 911 for them, and they graciously agreed to talk to me until Emergency Services showed up. Their story was unbelievable. The space plane had crashed into a trail of tiny debris at 17,500 miles per hour, three hundred miles above the Pacific. The damage had been extensive, but they were going to have to try to land it anyway. That much the radio had gotten right. What happened next was a Lois Lane exclusive. The space plane suddenly decelerated at twenty to twenty-five G (ejection-seat type forces) until its velocity tangential to the earth was about zero. Then it headed straight down to the planet at roughly six hundred miles per hour -- not fast enough to overheat the damaged craft, but fast enough to get it down to the ground before their limited air ran out. They set down with barely a bump on the huge underused runway of the former Castle Air Force Base. Physically speaking, it was all quite impossible. Mission Specialist Karen Johnson said, "It was like the hand of God just rescued us or something."
That was my story, and I had to get it called in before anybody showed. I heard sirens in the distance, so I bid the astronauts a fond farewell and hightailed it off the runway to lurk among the old base buildings. I ran (thank God I was on vacation and not wearing heels) past a bunch of old barracks and ended up at the Castle Air Museum. I called Perry and told him the whole story. He was happy with me. I felt better than I had since December.
The museum was just opening. I decided to pay my ten bucks and look inconspicuous for a while. Maybe more information would turn up. Besides, I like old planes.
I wandered out among the vintage aircraft. There were nice paths and benches scattered around among the planes. I was surprised to see someone out there already; I was sure I'd been the first paying customer of the day, but there was a dark-haired man lolling on a bench in the chilly sunlight. He looked familiar, and my heart lurched.
"Clark Kent!" I shouted.
The man gave a guilty start and stared at me like a deer in the headlights. He didn't get up, though, and I went over and sat down next to him.
"Lois," Clark faltered, "what are you doing here?"
"Never you mind what I'm doing here. What the hell are you doing here?"
Clark took a heavy breath. He looked terrible. His plaid flannel shirt was open, and his (kind of impressive) chest was all bruised. "Contemplating the SR-71 Blackbird," he said.
I was irate. "What?!"
He took another deep breath and coughed a little. Then he went on. "It was the fastest plane in the world, but it was top secret. For years, the record books had the wrong information about the fastest flight, and the pilot who really had gone the fastest couldn't say anything about it. By the time anyone could tell the truth, it wasn't the fastest anymore."
He really did look terrible, and he was rambling. I gentled down some and tried again. "Clark. What are you doing here?"
He blinked at me for a moment before he answered. He didn't have his glasses on, and his eyes looked bluer than they usually did. "Sitting in the sun for a while before I try to get home again. Can I borrow your cell phone? I'll pay you back for the call."
"Knock yourself out, Smallville. Unlimited weekend minutes."
He thanked me and tried to dial, but his hands were shaking, and he couldn't. I ended up dialing the number he told me. A man answered before the first ring was finished.
"Lex Luthor. Clark, is that you?"
"Hi, Lex," I purred. Knowledge was humming in my blood like wine, and it made me indulgent. I handed the phone to Clark without bothering to give Lex a hard time.
"Hi. I'm fine; the astronauts are fine. Nobody saw me. Well, except, yeah, Lois is here. No. What's done is done, Lex. See you later." Clark gave me back my phone, but Lex had already hung up.
"So," I gloated. "You're Superman."
"Superman's dead. Nobody's Superman anymore."
"Why the hell didn't you ever tell me? You jerk!" I whapped him on the shoulder, and he winced.
"Ow," he complained. "Leave me alone, Lois."
"As if," I scoffed. "So this whole Death of Superman thing -- was it all a big scam? And why the hell didn't you do anything about the Sears Tower last month?"
He looked at me with big wounded eyes and then leaned his head in his hands. "I tried. I tried to get to Chicago. I crashed before I even got off the property. Lex says I didn't wake up for two days." He lifted his head and looked at me again, and there were tears in his eyes. "I tried."
My heart went out to him, which is not a thing that happens much. I knew then that it had been no scam. "It's okay, Clark." I rubbed the shoulder I'd just hit, as gently as I could. "I'm sure you would have helped if you could."
He looked so grateful that I was almost ashamed of myself. "What's up with you and Lex Luthor, anyway?"
"He was my best friend, you know, back in Smallville."
"I've seen the Smallville Ledger stories about how you saved his life, but that was years ago. What's up with you two now?"
"He had his goons dig up my, um, body after that thing, um...."
He didn't want to say it any more than I wanted to hear it, so I interrupted him. "I was there, remember? But Luthor wasn't."
"Yeah. Well, when he got a good look at me, in his, uh, lab, he realized who I was. And that I wasn't really dead." Clark smiled bashfully. "I guess, overall, I was more his friend than his enemy. Anyway, he helped me -- took care of me, until I was better." He looked up at me with hopeful eyes. "I think he's changed."
I snorted at him. "People always think men have changed. I myself have sometimes thought Lex Luthor had changed."
Clark's smile at that was just blinding. "You two would have had beautiful kids."
That left me speechless for a minute. "Shit, Clark," I sputtered, "where the hell do you come up with these things?" The bastard had the nerve to laugh at me, which made him cough, and it served him right. I thumped him on the back a little, and then I asked, "How are you getting back to Kansas?"
He sighed. "Well, I guess I'm going to try to fly back. Maybe I'll wait until dark. The more sun I get before I try to take off the better."
"No offense, but you look like shit. There's no way you'll be able to make it."
"You've always had such faith in me," Clark said. He snorted and shook his head. "I'll be fine."
"Hey," I ventured. "I'm out here because Perry made me take all my vacation time. I've got my car. I could -- you up for a road trip? I could give you a lift; you could tell me all the stuff you've been keeping from me for the last fifteen years."
He thought for a minute, then smiled. "I did say you were welcome to visit any time. You'll enjoy springtime in Smallville, I think. Thanks."
Damn, I felt cheerful. I sprang to my feet. "Let's go, then. The open road awaits."
"Great," Clark said. He struggled for a moment, then gave me that dorky, mild-mannered, helpless look. "Help me up?"