The first sign that somehow, something had gone horribly wrong, was that when she opened her eyes, she was in what looked to be an extremely expensive penthouse.
The second sign was the bald man in the extremely expensive looking tailored purple suit studying her as though she were some manner of yet-to-be categorized insect, and he was weighing up what taxonomy would best fit.
“Um,” said Maree, sitting bolt upright and staring right back. “What the hell.”
The man’s lips pressed together. “I do believe that if anyone is in a position to have their questions answered here, it is me,” he said in a clipped North American drawl.
Maree blinked, and backed up further away on the couch.
“Uhhh… I respectfully disagree? Because this is not the couch I fell asleep on.”
“Indeed?” the man said flatly. “And yet here we are.”
Maree looked down at herself and was mildly appalled to see that she was wearing what she had been when she had fallen asleep, waiting for her housemate to come home – her slightly ratty dressing gown, over a cheap singlet, baggy cotton sleep pants with toucans on them, and black ugg boots.
Well, it could definitely have been worse, but the fact remained that she was somewhere unfamiliar in her pyjamas, with a strange man staring at her like he was considering dissection as an option. Not exactly a way she had ever hoped to wake up.
“Look, mate,” she said, “are you going to tell me what the hell is going on? Did you abduct me or what? Because if you’re looking for ransom money or something, my family is pretty much flat broke.” She swallowed. “And if you’ve got some other plans in mind, feel free to not keep me hanging, because I’ve got a vivid imagination and you look like you’re two steps away from stroking a white cat while you monologue your plans for world domination.”
The man stood up, and Maree immediately cringed back against the couch cushions.
“What is your name,” he demanded.
“Fair’s fair, I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” Maree said, her hands balling into fists.
“Ladies first,” the man replied, making a mockery of an ‘at your service’ gesture.
“Maree Sullivan,” Maree responded, leaning away from the man’s hands.
“Sullivan,” the man said slowly, as though tasting her surname. “Any relation to Gabriel and Chloe Sullivan?”
Maree’s brow furrowed. “The names ring a bell,” she admitted, “but I’m pretty sure that they aren’t cousins of mine… Wait. Weren’t they characters on that old TV show?”
If anything, the man seemed more interested in this.
“And what TV show would that have been?”
Maree shook her head. “Not important. You going to tell me who you are?”
The man slammed his hand on the couch back next to her, and she flinched.
“Since you have somehow contrived to infiltrate my home, I will be the one asking the questions here!” the man snarled.
Maree curled in on herself. “I didn’t do shit!” she insisted. “No need to get fucking violent! I don’t know who the hell you are or how I got here, and frankly I just want to go the hell back home.”
“And where is home to you?” he demanded.
Maree startled. “Wait. We’re still in Australia, right?”
The man tilted his head. “You live in Australia?”
Maree nodded. “Ashbury, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia,” she babbled as the man stared at her.
Something in his expression suggested to her that wherever she was, it was not near where she had started.
“So if we’re not in Australia, then where the hell are we?” she demanded.
The man took a step back. “I had noted your Antipodean accent, and the fact that you did not appear to recognise me, however I had not considered its relevance.” He frowned.
“Sorry, are you supposed to be famous or something?” Maree wondered. “I don’t watch that many blockbusters, and I’ve got a terrible memory for names and faces.”
The man’s frown deepened. “I am not an actor.”
Maree shrugged a little. “Then what, are you a talking head? A politician? A scientist? I don’t know man, I don’t keep track of celebrities. I mean, good for you I guess, making it big, but just because we get a lot of news and pop culture from the US doesn’t mean that I personally spend a lot of time memorizing everyone in it.”
The man stared at her. “Does your news not get the Fortune 500?”
Maree snorted. “As though that’s relevant to me, considering I’m just happy being able to afford rent, internet and groceries.” She looked him up and down. “Sorry mate, I’ve got no clue what you sell.” She scowled. “It might jog my memory if you told me what your name is.”
The man nodded, looking more thoughtful. “Interesting,” was all he said. “Are you aware of the Justice League?”
Maree blinked. “I’m here in your apartment in my pyjamas, and you want to talk about superheroes?” she shook her head, saw his expression, and blanched. “On second thoughts, sure. Why not. Superheroes. Cool.” She seemed to be at this guy’s mercy, so if he wanted to talk superheroes? Sure. What could it hurt.
“I’ve always liked Wonder Woman,” she said, “but some of the old Aqua Man stuff was pretty fun I guess.” She shrugged. “I read a bit before this comic books archive that was online got pulled down for copyright infringement, and the Brave and the Bold edition of him was ‘Outrageous!’” she said, gesturing a little like he had in her favourite animated Batman series.
The man appeared enlightened. “Tell me, did the ‘comic book archive’ happen to make any mention of a Lex Luthor?”
Maree scoffed. “Obviously,” she said. She looked him up and down. “Don’t tell me, he’s your favourite?” A niggling crazy thought occurred to her then, but she promptly dismissed it. No. No fucking way.
The man smirked. “You could say that.” He pulled over a chair to face her on and sat down on it, just far enough away that Maree did not quite feel the need to scoot backwards again to get him out of her personal space bubble.
“Fair enough.” Maree said, adapting to the subject change with the ease of a long-term geek. “I mean he’s basically a stand-in for the excesses of capitalism, but written right he’s one of the more interesting ones at least.” She winced. “Some of those depictions are just so tacky. Kevin Spacey’s chewing of the furniture in that sequel was bad enough before he completely failed at denying the pedophilia accusations.” She shook her head. “Also, why they keep writing him as being obsessed with real estate scams is beyond me. The man obviously has more money than god and is supposed to be some kind of genius, he’s probably got enough sense to take a look at the US real estate market and see how badly that bubble was always going to pop. I mean on the one hand they say hindsight is 20/20, and I think that movie was written before the Global Financial Crisis, but still, people saw that coming from a mile off, and he could definitely afford better financial advice than a bunch of boomers taking out a loan to buy a second investment property.”
The man nodded along with her explanation, expression serious. Considering that he apparently liked the character well enough to cosplay as him, Maree guessed he must be a Serious Business Fan. If this was what she had to talk to him about to get him to explain what the hell was going on, then so be it.
“Do you have a favourite depiction of Lex Luthor?” he asked her.
“I did like what they did with him in Red Son,” Maree said. “And the Smallville depiction was surprisingly good, despite the fact that the actor must have just outright quit at one point because the resolution of that storyline was almost hilariously bad.” She shook her head. “Like, I thought the decision to make Lex Luthor best friends with Clark Kent as a kid was a bit bizarre, but they made it work, you know? Uncomfortably Romeo and Juliet in some parts, and Clark was the worst friend, seriously,” she grimaced as the man’s eye’s widened. “Weirdly he might have been a better friend if he was just a better liar, but after a while it was almost absurd how dumb he seemed to think Lex was. Not to mention all the concussions the poor bastard was getting from being knocked out... but the actor did a decent job I thought with what he was given... huh.” The niggling thought reoccurred to her, with a secondary point of evidence for her consideration. “Wait. No. Nope. No way.”
“What?” the man asked.
“No,” Maree said again, shaking her head. “That’s ridiculous.” She forced out a laugh. “It’s just… I just remembered where I remember the names Gabe and Chloe Sullivan from.” She shook her head. “It’s funny, me and my partner at the time had a joke about it. Chloe Sullivan, friend of the year, every year, because she was literally the only character that wasn’t consistently laughably bad at it, including the one time she betrayed Clark for Doomsday or whoever it was, because that was just a case of her being Doomsday’s friend instead of Clark’s. And who could blame her,” Maree added, “because she got pretty screwed over from what I can remember.”
The man nodded. “Indeed. However, I must admit that I am somewhat surprised at your insistence that Clark Kent was a terrible friend.” He ran his fingers over his bald head. “Should he not have been wary of dealing with a Luthor?”
Maree leaned back into the couch cushions, eyeing the man warily. She had a horrible suspicion, but she was in no hurry to have it confirmed. “I mean, sure, to be fair Lionel Luthor seems to have been a complete piece of work. I never did understand why the hell Martha Kent gave him the time of day, since as far as I could tell she knew exactly what he was.” She wrinkled her nose. “Although on the other hand she did marry Jonathon ‘Parochial Values’ Kent, so maybe she just wasn’t that good a judge of people.”
The man laughed, and looked surprised at himself for doing so.
“That said,” Maree grimaced. “Look, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be wary about a 20-something man wanting to suddenly hang about with a painfully naïve teenaged boy that I had custody of, but from what I remember, it took a few seasons before Lex did anything that was actually problematic, and it was mostly because he was sick of being kept in the very, very obvious dark. The gifts were a bit much, especially that truck, and he was maybe a little too invested with romantically setting up a pair of teenagers, and then there was the bit where he lost his mind and married Lana 'inexplicable appeal' Lang, but honestly, this was a guy who had so few real friends that he had teenager as his best man at at least one of his weddings.” Maree inhaled and decided that this was a terrible idea, but it would immediately prove her suspicions one way or another. “And considering that the last time someone did a genuinely loving gesture for him it was murdering his little brother in his cot, I can see why materialism was the only way he knew how to express himself.”
“Stop,” the man gritted out.
Maree looked up, and saw that he had gone dead white, and was staring at her in something between horror and calculation.
“Fuck,” she admitted to herself. “You are Lex Luthor, aren’t you.” She raised both her hands defensively. “I swear, I’ll sign any NDA you can think of writing up, if you promise not to hurt me. I’ll even tell you what you might want to know, with the proviso that my information is based on multiple continuities, and that just because I saw it written down somewhere, doesn’t mean that it’s true in this dimension.”
Lex Luthor, Superman’s alleged greatest nemesis, continued to stare at her.
“You would sell out the Justice League,” he sneered, “to me?”
Maree slowly lowered her hands. “I can’t remember all of their identities,” she half-lied, “especially because I was always more of a Marvel fan, but I’m sure a man as intelligent as you can see the importance of having someone to handle the intergalactic threats that seem to hit Earth every so often.”
“Your flattery is a paltry attempt at manipulating me,” Luthor said, “but you are not incorrect that Earth needs some manner of response for threats of that calibre.”
Maree nodded, waving her hands in denial. “I’m not trying to flatter you, I’m just stating an outright fact. The one thing that everything I’ve ever read agrees on about you is that you’re a genius. Occasionally you’re imprisoned, sometimes you’re President, and sometimes you’re even very temporarily bankrupt, but always a genius.” She bit her lip. “Hell, in the Red Son continuity, you’re a scientist that’s the only thing standing between Superman and the sovereignty of the USA.”
Luthor tilted his head to one side. “Interesting. You mentioned that ‘continuity’ before. What is its premise?” he asked her.
Maree considered momentarily whether what she was about to divulge was ethical, and then shrugged internally. “Thought experiment. What would have happened if instead of landing in the middle of a Kansas cornfield, Superman had landed in Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War?”
Maree nodded. “Yup. Probably just as bad as whatever you’re thinking. I mean, sure, fine if you were doing okay under the Soviet Regime, but not so much if you’re a fan of American style capitalism.” She shuddered. “At least most American Superman continuities have him believing enough in personal liberty to not interfere on a political basis. The panopticon is no doubt a thing, but he’s more interested in hunting down muggers and helping with natural disasters than monitoring political dissidents, be that for better or for worst.”
“And yet,” Luthor said dryly, “he always seems to find the time and justification to interfere with my business.”
Maree shrugged. “Don’t know what to tell you about that.”
Luthor narrowed his eyes at her. “Oh, don’t stop now. You’ve so far showed some… insight. Go on. Tell me. Why does Superman, if he does, as you say, believe in personal liberties, insist on interfering with my business on such a regular basis?”
Maree gulped. “It could be he takes it personally because you both used to be friends,” she hedged. After all, if it was rich people committing unethical business practices he had an issue with, then why not go after Queen Consolidated or Wayne Industries?”
Lex Luthor blinked. “You consider Queen and Wayne to be committing unethical business practices?”
Maree snorted. “You don’t get that rich by being a saint. If you have the ability to buy a developing nation three times over, then you or your ancestors have not been paying your workers what they are actually worth to you. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s justice. Considering that they probably get all their charitable donations back in tax breaks, it’s not as though their philanthropic endeavours are making a real dent in their bottom lines. It’s outright unconscionable that anyone should be earning literally a factor of ten more than their mid-level employees, let alone those at the bottom of the ladder who might need two jobs just to make rent in this economy,” she complained, before suddenly remembering who she was speaking to and pulling back. “I mean—”
Luthor threw back his head and laughed.
“So you’re saying that Superman is a hypocrite?” he chortled.
Maree shrugged awkwardly, grateful that he had decided to focus on that instead of her effectively insulting him on the basis of being a CEO.
“At the very least, he doesn’t seem to be even handed regarding his social injustice,” she agreed. “Also, for someone who is probably not an idiot, he does tend to solve quite a lot of his problems by punching them into the stratosphere.”
As though in direct response to this, suddenly, the wall to their left dissolved into rubble.
Maree threw up her hands to protect her face, curling into a ball as she was pelted with brick dust.
“Luthor! What are you up to!” came a booming voice.
Maree peeked through her fingers, and saw a blue and red blur shoot across the room to stand between her and Lex Luthor.
“Nothing,” said Luthor rather smugly. “Just having a little discourse about ethical business practices, aren’t we Miss Sullivan.”
“I prefer Ms,” Maree corrected absently. “Was breaking the wall absolutely necessary?”
Superman looked down at her from his hovering position. “Are you alright?” he asked. “Batman detected an interdimensional anomaly, so I decided to check it out, and your heartbeat sounded distressed.”
Maree goggled at him. “Holy shit. How does my heartbeat sound right now?”
Superman frowned. “…More distressed.” He lowered himself about five centimetres closer to the carpeted floor. “I apologise for startling you.”
Maree buried her face in her hands. “Jesus Christ. I mean, full points for style, zero points for good thinking.” She looked up. “You realise that technically you just committed criminal property damage? Come to think of it, also stalking.” She turned to face Lex Luthor. “How is it that you don’t have a restraining order out against him?”
Superman’s feet hit the floor, as he dropped out of the air, and Luthor shrugged expansively. “Who has the capacity to take him in if he violates it? I’ve managed to recoup some of the damage to my properties via the Justice League Reparation Fund by producing court orders and my insurance costs, but the legal proceedings are expensive enough it’s only the principle of it that makes me continue to continue to demand for repairs.”
“Wait, what?” Superman gaped.
Maree groaned. “Oh god. Please tell me this isn’t a Snyder continuity. Did your adoptive father die in a hurricane that you could have saved him from, or was it a heart attack?”
Superman gave her an odd look. “Neither. He’s still alive.”
Maree blinked. “Shit. Since Chloe Sullivan apparently exists in this universe, probably Smallville fanfic then. Well then, that just increased the level of possible continuities this could be.”
Luthor cocked his head to one side. “How so? What do you mean by… fanfic?”
Maree grinned. “Depends. What would you do if Superman offered to blow you in exchange for you improving the ethical standards of your labs?”
Luthor appeared to choke on air.
Maree turned around and saw that Superman’s mouth was gaping open.
“Huh,” she said. “That was not a no.”