Three days before Clark was due to wake up, a green polar bear knocked at the entrance of the Fortress of Solitude by banging its shoulder into the well hidden door. Then it turned into a green penguin and waved a flipper at the monitor camera. It turned very briefly into a naked, green boy who couldn’t have been more than ten then became a polar bear once again and lay down along the threshold.
Lex had just finished his morning shower and really would have preferred to get food before having to deal with any sort of crisis. He watched the recording of the bear’s-- boy’s? --actions three times. “He knows we’re here.”
“Obviously.” Jor-El’s voice was beyond dry. “And the timing is… suspect.”
“I’m pretty sure that Darkseid would either hit us with missiles or bring a bunch of civilians to the door and start torturing them.”
“More likely missiles.”
Lex looked sideways at Jor-El’s holographic manifestation. “You couldn’t keep Clark from knowing about explosions.”
Jor-El made a tossing away gesture but didn’t address the statement otherwise. “We’re not ready yet. Not for any of our plans.”
That was true. Lex covered his eyes with one hand and pressed in an effort to make himself think. “If Darkseid could spy on us, we’d already be dead.” He didn’t bother saying that someone else clearly was spying on them. “I don’t understand why, if they knew where to find us, they didn’t come before. We could-- That’s a kid out there.”
A kid who could shapeshift but who had a tell that would make hunting him really damned easy. If Darkseid didn’t own him, then someone had been hiding him. Someone who’d chosen not to reach out to Superman before this.
“I need to go out there,” Lex said. The idea didn’t appeal to him in the slightest. Not only was it cold and dark out there, but Lex’s ability to move on the ice and rocks was limited by his old injuries.
“You shouldn’t.” Jor-El sounded worried, and Lex was almost touched. “It’s too big a risk.”
“We’re going to have to let people in eventually,” Lex said gently. “That’s part of the plan. This kid-- if he’s genuine-- is more useful than I thought any of the children could be. Anyone we bring inside is a potential spy.”
If this kid was a spy, Lex wanted him dead before Clark woke. Clark would balk at killing a child. Lex loved that about Clark, but it meant that Lex had to be the one to make sure that terrible things that had to be done actually did get done.
Lex really wished he’d spent some time thinking about ways to make walking outside easier. He’d just assumed that he was never going to leave the Fortress again. There wasn’t anything out there. They’d lost, and Lex was merely marking time until he finally died.
He found boots and heavy mittens and a coat that went down to his knees. He wrapped a scarf around his lower face and pulled the hood of the coat up and as tight as he could get it. Since the green boy knew where to find the front door, Lex decided that he might as well go out that way. If he tried walking from any of the other exits, he’d be giving away that they existed.
And Lex would probably break his damn fool neck if he tried to cross that much ice.
When he opened the door, Lex half expected the polar bear to rush in, but the green lump of fur barely stirred. Lex stepped out and pulled the door closed behind him. He cleared his throat. “So what do you want, kid?”
The polar bear lifted his head. “I’m the first.”
Lex was only a little startled to hear the animal speak. “The first of what?”
The polar bear shrugged.
Lex wondered if he didn’t like talking or if it was hard to do in animal forms. Hell, maybe the human form wasn’t the creature’s natural form. Lex sighed. “Can you at least tell me how many?”
The polar bear shrugged again. “Not enough, or we’d have come sooner.”
Lex closed his eyes for a moment. “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah.” The polar bear rose to its feet. “Me and Cam both.”
Lex looked around, trying to spot a second visitor.
“He won’t come out till I say it’s clear.”
“Neither of you attack us or start sending out signals, and we should all be fine.” Lex leaned back against the door. “I can’t deal with the cold for long, and you already know we’re here. You might as well come inside.” He’d known, even before he opened the door, that he’d be inviting the polar bear inside. “I’d rather not keep opening the door. It’s kind of heavy.” It was also mostly automated. What Lex really objected to was the cold.
“Cam,” the polar bear said. “We’re going inside.”
A pile of snow about ten yards away stood and stretched. It stumbled toward them.
“He needs food,” the polar bear said. “He’s good in the cold, but he’s…” The green bear fixed his eyes on Lex. “He’s six.”
Lex swallowed hard. Six years old and the green kid had looked nine or ten. “We can feed you. What happens after that--”
The polar bear kept staring at Lex.
“You already decided, kid,” Lex told him, “or you wouldn’t have knocked to begin with.” He turned and started pushing the door open.
Once Lex could see him inside, in full light, Cam turned out to be a small boy who looked a lot like he was made from ice. He was as naked as his green companion.
Lex got the green boy a blanket and offered one to Cam who refused it. Then Lex got them food. He shared it with them to make sure they knew he wasn’t poisoning them. Neither of them had the slightest idea what to do with silverware, and neither of them noticed that the food was boring and over-processed.
Lex shouldn’t have been surprised. They were both young enough that they’d probably never eaten reliably or well. He shouldn’t have been surprised, either, that they both kept half their attention on him and half on scanning for new threats.
Cam didn’t say anything at all.
The green boy didn’t say much and still eyed Lex as if deciding whether or not to change back into a polar bear and eat him.
Lex had no idea what to do with the two boys. His experience with children was near to non-existent. When Lex had talked to Jor-El about rescuing some kids, he’d thought he’d have more time before he had to deal with them.
He’d also thought that Clark would be there.
After they’d all eaten, Lex met the green boy’s eyes. “You didn’t just happen to find us.”
The green boy looked at his plate. “Lilith said it had to be us first. Cam and I could walk in, after all.”
Lex wondered how many weeks they’d spent crossing the ice. Lex wondered what the hell they’d found to eat. He didn’t think there were that many seals left. “I’ll show you how to get things to work in here. If you decide to stay.” If they didn’t stay… Lex shouldn’t let them leave, but they were kids. He’d thought he could kill the green boy if he had to, but apparently that was a line he still couldn’t cross.
“I’m not sure how long it will take to come up with clothes that fit.” Mostly, he wasn’t sure how long it would take for either boy to be willing to let the Fortress acquire the necessary biometric information. Lex glanced at Cam. “Clark, my partner, will think I haven’t been hospitable if he sees you both naked.”
“Clothes make changing harder,” the green boy said. “Make hiding harder, too.”
“If you need to hide in here, we’re all pretty thoroughly--” Lex swallowed the word ‘fucked’ as he remembered that he was talking to children. “If you need to hide in here, we’re all dead anyway.”
The green boy nodded. “I know.” He didn’t sound even remotely happy about it.
“I’m Lex, Lex Luthor. Do you-- What would you like me to call you?” Lex stood and started cleaning the dishes so he wouldn’t have to look at the boys. He let the silence stretch for almost thirty seconds before he said, “Would you like a chance to wash? Or to sleep?” He had a hundred urgent questions, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t getting answers for a while yet.
Not until the green boy decided that they really would be staying.
Lex ended up showing them a room with an attached bathroom. He demonstrated turning the shower on and adjusting the temperature. He gave them soap.
Then he left them alone. He didn’t lock them in. He didn’t warn them that some parts of the Fortress might be dangerous. He didn’t think that a lock would hold them, and nothing inside the Fortress was more dangerous than what could be found in the rest of the world.
He did set a monitor in the hallway so that he’d know when anyone-- or anything-- came out of the room. Even the younger boy wasn’t harmless. Lex was pretty sure that Cam could kill and had probably had to.
Darkseid collected children with powers.
“You should have asked more questions,” Jor-El said when Lex came into the command center.
Lex gave Jor-El the stink-eye. “You can bully them if you want. I won’t do it for you.”
“We have sixty-eight hours before Kal-El wakes.”
“These kids aren’t going to be able to hurt Clark.” Not physically anyway. Lex was nearly certain that neither child would understand Clark’s compassion as genuine and exploitable. That part would twist the broken pieces of Clark’s heart.
Lex sat down and covered his face with one hand. He should have remembered, should have thought, that children living under Darkseid would be as damaged as the Earth itself was. “Do we have any books on child psychology?”
“Almost certainly,” Jor-El replied. “Kal-El wasn’t choosy.”
Lex knew that. Lex had known that. He also knew that whatever there was was likely still in the mass of unsorted, uninventoried materials. “When I thought we might run out of time, this never occurred to me.”
“I can’t even send Kal-El back alone yet,” Jor-El said softly.
“They’re still better off here than out there.” Lex knew it was true. He also knew that Clark would look at the boys and argue that they could do as much in the past as he could and could carry more back with them.
Clark wouldn’t be wrong. He also wouldn’t be wrong to think that his adoptive parents would take three children as willingly as they had one.
Lex sighed. “I’ll look for those books, and I’ll see about making some other rooms habitable. Everything the green kid said implied more on the way.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Maybe extend how far out you’re watching? I don’t want any kids dying on the doorstep. Not even if they’re far enough out that we won’t stumble over the corpse.”
“So noted.” Jor-El looked momentarily hesitant then said, “In my experience-- my creator’s experience-- children with a lot of… These two will probably be better with a schedule and some specific goals.”
Lex considered that. He needed to keep busy in order not to despair. These kids-- Had they ever not been desperate?
So Lex and the boys spent several days airing out some unused bedrooms. Lex showed the boys how to put clean sheets and blankets on the beds and what a broom was for. He explained the idea of germs and the methods of getting rid of them. He talked about where to hang towels and about lining drawers and checking closets for moths and mice.
Not that the Fortress of Solitude had either, but if all went to plan, they wouldn’t live in the Fortress forever.
“Lilith calls me Garfield,” the green boy said thirty six hours after he’d arrived, “but that’s not my name. I don’t have a name.”
Lex still hadn’t gotten an explanation as to who Lilith was, but he thought this was progress. “Well--” He hesitated and tried to find the right words. The green boy didn’t like it when Lex used words he didn’t know but also hated it when he thought Lex was over-simplifying. Lex wasn’t sure which words fell into which category. “Having a word that means I’m talking about you would help, just for being clear. You can pick one, or I can pick one, or--” He shrugged.
Clark would probably name the kid Jonathan; Lex didn’t want to deal with another Jonathan.
“How about Pan?” Lex said. He was thinking green and Peter, but there was another argument that he thought might appeal. “In one of the old religions, Pan was the God of wild things.”
The green boy considered that, looking uncertain, but Cam smiled.
Lex was pretty sure that Cam had already decided to trust him. That made Lex feel better about the world, and he couldn’t quite understand why. He still wasn’t sure if Cam could talk.
“All right,” the green boy said after several minutes. “You can call me that.” He narrowed his eyes. “But it’s not my name.”
Lex nodded. “How many rooms are we going to need, Pan? Do you know?”
Pan shook his head. “We could all share one room.”
Lex was pretty sure that ‘we’ didn’t include either Lex or Clark. “If you prefer that, you can.” They’d be crowded with more than two to a room, but that was up to them. “You’ll still want the bathrooms in the other rooms, and eventually, you’ll run out of space to lie down.”
The look Pan gave Lex said that the boy would consider hot bunking preferable to the risks of isolation in enemy territory.
Lex wanted the boys to decide that this wasn’t enemy territory before he introduced them to Jor-El. He was pretty sure that Jor-El’s attitude toward humans wouldn’t help at all. The kids would see condescension in his every gesture, hear it in every word, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
Clark had been awake two weeks when the man in red crashed in the snow about half a mile away. They knew it had happened because anything moving that fast and coming that close to the Fortress of Solitude set off a dozen alarms.
Pan and Cam followed Lex when he went to command to find out what had happened. Lex didn’t try to stop them. Clark had managed to introduce them to Jor-El without anyone dying. As Lex replayed the footage, Pan said, “He wasn’t supposed to do that.” He looked disapproving, but Lex knew him well enough by now to see fear underneath. “That’s Billy. He was supposed to fly low so no one could follow him. He could walk in, but he’s carrying people who wouldn’t make it.”
Lex wished the boy had warned them, but information was the only currency Pan had. Lex understood why the boy would hoard it. Clark didn’t, not quite. Lex supposed that it was a good thing that Clark was outside just then because he probably would have said something to make the kid stop talking again.
“He also wasn’t supposed to get here for two more days.” Pan frowned.
Lex felt slightly better about Pan not having warned him that Billy was coming.
On the monitor, they saw the man in red spring into the air again and fly off at high speed.
“Someone’s chasing him,” Lex said. “Jor-El, ask Clark to visit where… Billy… landed. He probably left people there, and they’ll probably die if we leave them too long.” Lex hoped he was guessing right because, otherwise, he might not be able to keep Clark from trying to help the man in red.
Lex was almost certain that the man in red had flown onward in order not to give away their location. Keeping the Fortress hidden was more important than any one person still outside.
And, if the secret was lost, Clark was going to be better off in the Fortress than outside. Lex might prefer a quick death to a siege, but they had Cam and Pan to protect now.
Lex and the boys waited for Clark just inside the door. Lex had had to keep Cam from darting out to follow Clark, but Cam had stilled with a suddenness that broke Lex’s heart.
Pan turned into a very impressive hippo and stepped between Lex and Cam and the door. Lex had never been that near to one before, but he now believed what he’d heard about how potentially lethal they could be. Ice and rock certainly weren’t the creature’s ideal environment, but the hippo could block the door almost completely while still being able to pass through it. A polar bear would be more agile but less protection.
Lex managed not to tell Pan that he shouldn’t risk himself that way, that he’d be better changing to something tiny that could hide. Lex would die from cold if the Fortress fell. Cam would starve.
Pan might live if he left them both.
The three of them stood there like that until Clark brought in a metal pod. “There are kids in there, I think,” he said as he set the thing down just inside the door.
Pan became a child again as soon as the door sealed behind Clark.
Lex gave Clark a disbelieving look. Then his shoulders sagged as he realized that, no, Clark wasn’t being facetious, that he and Clark would have to deal with more children. Now.
“There’s a layer of energy inside that makes seeing kind of…” Clark shrugged. “Anyway, I thought I’d better open it somewhere warm.”
Lex suspected that Clark wouldn’t find opening the damned thing nearly as easy as that.
Pan started swearing in Spanish. Peruvian Spanish.
Lex was pretty sure he and Clark weren’t supposed to understand the words.
Clark probably didn’t. He spoke Spanish but not at a level where he’d ever have encountered profanity. Of course, a proper run of cursing was pretty recognizable even if a person didn’t know the meaning of any of the words. “Pan--” Clark started.
“Do you or Cam know how to open this thing?” Lex didn’t think anything good would come of Clark telling the kid not to swear. Not yet. Not without a better reason than ‘It’s wrong’ or ‘It’s rude.’
Neither child answered, but Cam walked over to the pod and stuck a finger in his mouth. When he pulled it out, it was wet with what Lex thought was a combination blood and saliva. Lex already knew that Cam’s spit looked weird, but this looked slightly different.
Cam pressed his finger against what looked like a seam. The color of the metal changed, going from the gray of dirty snow to something more like the sheen of pristine ice. Cam stepped back, and the metal started glowing red at the seam. Cam stepped back again, and Lex thought that meant the seam was hot. Cam didn’t like too much heat.
The pod split into four pieces. There was a child curled tight inside the curve of each. Two of them were very young. Lex wasn’t sure if they were old enough to walk yet. The other two were older, possibly as old as Pan. One was surrounded by scorched material but sat up immediately. The other was wrapped in a blue blanket-- no a cloak, one fastened at the child’s throat. That last child wasn’t moving.
The two babies weren’t moving much either, so Lex hoped that all three were only asleep. If he’d been packed into a metal prison for shipment, he’d have wanted to be unconscious. It would be the only way not to panic. For a child too young to understand that the journey would end-- Yes. Lex would have drugged them, too. It was the sort of experience that gave people screaming nightmares later in life.
The child who was awake looked around and frowned as if the walls were, on some level, offensive. Possibly, Lex thought, the kid wasn’t used to walls that were clean and whole and safe.
Only Darkseid’s forces had solid buildings now, and emerging from the pod there would mean death or enslavement.
When the boy saw Pan, he said something sharp in a language Lex didn’t recognize but expected Jor-El could identify later on.
“Where we’re meant to be,” Pan replied. He became a gorilla and then an octopus and then a flamingo before becoming human again. “That’s Lex--” He pointed. “And that’s Clark. Lilith… might be right about them.”
It was a considerably more generous statement of trust than Lex had expected from Pan. Lex assumed that Pan’s shapeshifting choices were some sort of code. He wondered how many different messages the kid could convey.
If they managed the trip back in time, Lex would find a way to let Pan use that.
The new kid relaxed, nodded almost imperceptibly, then stood, wobbling a little. “Karen,” he said, “you explain. I… need to rest.” His dark skin looked almost gray. He rubbed one hand over his face, smearing soot.
Lex was immediately impressed by the kid’s sheer stubbornness. Then it occurred to him that the boy had to be the source of the charring, and Lex’s opinion of the kid went up. The kids had all been wedged in together, but the other three showed no signs of having been near scorching heat.
Lex guessed that the child in the cloak must be Karen, but she still hadn’t moved. Lex wondered if she’d even heard. Lex looked at Pan. “Food or sleep or something else?”
Pan draped the scorched boy’s arm over his shoulder. “Come on. They’ve got a lot of food.”
Lex walked over to the unmoving child and started, slowly, to lower himself to the floor. “I think she needs medical attention.” He hoped she wasn’t injured. The blue cloak wrapped around her made it hard for him to tell.
A blurred streak of gold moved from one of the toddlers to block Lex’s reaching hand. “Don’t,” a voice said. The sound was so high and thin that Lex almost couldn’t hear it. “Keeping her asleep will keep them from tracking us.”
“There’s a very small girl there,” Clark said. He sounded a bit bemused.
Lex told himself that bemused was better than terrified. Kids were terrifying because each of them was another opportunity to fail.
Even without that, four-- five-- more children were going to complicate things considerably. Lex had already learned that Pan and Cam had opinions, questionable judgment with regard to risks, and a tendency to devour his time. “As long as she’s not in diapers. I think those other two are. Have you ever changed a diaper?” Maybe Billy would come back. The images in the recordings had looked like he was an adult.
“Once or twice,” Clark said. “It’s not hard.” He didn’t quite laugh.
Lex lowered his hand and addressed the tiny blur. “We have stasis pods, but we’ll have to touch her to move her to one.”
The blur didn’t answer, so Lex looked at Clark. “Can you carry her on the--” He eyed the quarter of the pod under the sleeping girl and tried to decide what to call it. “Can you carry her on that? You might be less likely to wake her that way.”
Clark hesitated, and Lex knew it wasn’t the bulk or the weight.
“Just do the best you can,” Lex said. “That’s all any of us can do.”
Clark nodded and lifted the girl and the bit of pod on which she lay.
“Are you Karen?” Lex asked the tiny blur.
The blur settled on the floor about five feet away then grew into a black girl who looked like she might be about thirteen. “I am,” she said. Her eyes met Lex’s as if she was daring him to condescend.
She probably wouldn’t weigh a hundred pounds, fully clothed and soaking wet, but Lex wouldn’t have cared to take her on in a fight, wouldn’t have even before he’d been tortured. If she didn’t have weapons hidden under her long, tan coat, Lex would be beyond astonished, and her expression said that she’d used every one of them. Her hair was cut very close to her head, and three thin scars crossed her right eyebrow.
She probably had other scars under that coat, too.
Lex kept his expression polite. He tried to stand, but his left hip wasn’t cooperating. “The green kid hasn’t told us much, and-- Does Cam talk? Ever?”
She relaxed a little bit. “Never heard him do it.” She glanced at Cam.
“He can show you the clean bedrooms,” Lex said, waving a hand at the still sleeping children. “It’s warmer there.” He didn’t want anyone watching while he struggled to get his body to let him stand. The wall was a bit too far away for dignity.
“Lilith said she wasn’t sure how much longer we have,” Karen said. “The girl-- Lilith called her Raven-- changes things. Lilith said to tell you that we don’t have time for the slow way, not any more. She didn’t foresee Raven.” Karen shrugged with one shoulder. “We’ve got at least six hours, though. Maybe as long as two weeks.” She bent and picked up the larger of the two children. “The longer it is, the more of us will get here.”
Lex closed his eyes. “A week won’t be long enough.” He hated telling these children that. He felt a small, very cold hand on his shoulder. It squeezed gently. Lex reached up to pat Cam’s hand. “We’ll have food and warmth for as long as we’ve got, and we’ll spin it out as long as we can.”
“Lilith says it can be done,” Karen said. Her voice held such complete faith in Lilith’s word that Lex thought it couldn’t just be desperate hope. “The other way would have been better, but we don’t always get that.”
From the cadences, Lex was certain she was repeating something she’d heard rather than saying something new and well thought out. People didn’t, Lex knew, always get anything at all. Sometimes, they didn’t even get death when that would be better. He hoped he wasn’t going to live long enough to see these children die.
No, that was selfish. He should hope that he could make their passing easier and then follow after. He was just going to hold tight to every moment of not-too-bad that they all had left.
Cam’s hand left Lex’s shoulder, and Lex heard footsteps.
“That’s right,” Karen said. “He’s not too heavy for you.”
Lex should have been carrying one of the children. Lex should have led them to the clean rooms. Lex should have been able to stand without needing to crawl to the wall and use it for support. He opened his eyes and watched the four children go.
Lex made it to his feet before Karen came back, alone. She gave Lex a look that he interpreted as her knowing that his body was broken and then demanded to talk to Jor-El. She asked for him by name, even pronouncing it correctly.
Lex supposed the pronunciation shouldn’t have surprised him because the name wasn’t difficult for anyone who could speak English. Lex was pretty sure, though, that even Darkseid didn’t know Jor-El’s name, so Karen knowing it should have been surprising, as surprising as children knocking on the door of the Fortress of Solitude.
So not very surprising at all. Someone had told Pan and Cam where to find the Fortress. They had said as much. Probably that same someone had given Karen the name. No one ought to have been able to do either, but...
Even if Karen had gotten her hands on documents talking about Superman, she probably couldn’t have read them, not even if they were in English or some other language she spoke. Neither Pan nor Cam could read in any language. Karen being able to read might be more likely, but it wasn’t necessarily likely. If she was thirteen, she was too young to have known anything but the War.
Lex should have done better at defending his world.
That wasn’t an option now, so he took Karen to the command center and introduced her to the AI who ran the Fortress. He ought to have stayed to listen to what she had to say, but he couldn’t bear to listen to Jor-El demolish her hope, so he went looking for Pan and the scorched boy in the kitchen.
That boy turned out to be called Joto. He looked a hell of a lot better after he got some food into him but still appeared tired beyond what Lex thought could be explained by the journey. He also, while Lex watched, put away about three times what Pan had ever managed in a single meal. Clearly, Joto had done something that had devoured his energy.
Lex considered the burnt bits of the pod, how long Clark had taken to find it, and the temperature out on the ice while he watched the kid eat and concluded that Joto was probably what had kept everyone else from freezing to death while they waited for Clark. They couldn’t have known how long they’d be waiting.
Joto and Karen must have been terrified.
Lex wasn’t sure quite how old Joto was, older than Pan, certainly, but the kid might or might not have been older than Karen. Several of the child development books Lex had read in the last week talked about girls looking older than boys their own age for a few years during ‘adolescence.’ None of them quite defined when adolescence was supposed to start or end, and Lex had eventually figured out that that was because timing depended on things like access to food.
So Karen might actually be older than twelve. She also might not. She just probably wasn’t younger.
Lex thought about asking, but he also thought it was entirely possible that she didn’t know. If she did know--
Lex didn’t want to hear about the people these kids had had to leave behind. Knowing that those left behind had likely already been dead before the kids walked away didn’t help very much, either. Lex kept thinking that growing up with Lionel Luthor had been soft and simple compared to what these kids had been through.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve got time for you to sleep,” Lex told Joto, “if that’s a thing that you’d like. I think Cam’s still with the little ones.” He thought about asking their names and if they were both boys or if the one Karen had carried was a girl. He just wasn’t sure that him knowing would matter to him or to any of kids.
He supposed he’d find out about genitalia if-- when-- he changed a diaper.
Joto shook his head. “Not yet,” he said. “I know where the next drops will be, and I need to make you a map.”
“If I print out a base map of the area, will that help?” Lex knew it was a stupid question as soon as he asked it. Of course, that would help. He shook his head. “How far out from the Fortress do you need it to go?”
“Five kilometers,” Joto said immediately.
Lex did the conversion to Kryptonian units in his head before he remembered that Jor-El wasn’t being an asshole about that sort of thing any more, hadn’t been at any point since Clark had rescued Lex from Darkseid’s torturers. “Okay. Give me two minutes.” He made the map as large and detailed as he could.
Clark would find landmarks more useful than coordinates. Unless Lilith had more Jotos for keeping people warm, time was going to be critical.
Lex was pretty sure that Joto was one of a kind. Lilith had sent him with crucial information and vulnerable cargo. If her group had younger children or even others anywhere near as young, Lex would drink a gallon of saltwater, industrial pollutants and all. If there’d been more, they’d have been wedged into that pod somehow.
Joto marked seven locations, numbering each.
Lex was a little surprised that Joto knew how to write numbers, but he didn’t comment on it. He only realized later that being able to read a map was an impressive thing for a child in their current world.
“We were hoping for more,” Joto said, sounding a little grim. “Lilith has a list. We just-- Some are too far away. Some died before anybody could get there.”
Lex swallowed hard. He had a list, too, of people who’d died before he could get there, of people he’d hoped to reach early enough if they’d managed to go back in time. “If we’re not trying to hold out a long time,” he said, “we can take more people.” He hadn’t realized that he had this much softness left.
He supposed that was why Clark stayed. Clark didn’t want to let the last of Lex’s humanity sputter and die out.
Lex didn’t either, not any more. Dying sooner would have meant less pain, but there were still enough small, good things that he could savor and-- now-- share.
Neither Cam nor Pan had been entirely taken with the DVDs Lex had shown them, but they’d both been fascinated by the realization that there were stories to be found on each one, and they’d tried a lot of different options. Lex had realized, after, that part of the problem was that neither of them remembered the world shown in the kids’ shows. None of the lessons had much bearing on their reality.
Caillou and Dora and even Mr Rogers would have died very fast in the world the children knew.
“It’s getting people here that’s hard,” Joto said. “Billy can fly, and he’s pretty near invulnerable, but the rest of us can’t and aren’t.”
“Clark can and is,” Lex told him. “He just doesn’t because Darkseid’s people retaliate when he’s seen. I don’t think--”
Joto’s eyes met Lex’s and held. “The world’s ending. I know. Karen knows. We’re not telling anyone younger than him.” He nodded at Pan as if to say ‘now, you know.’ “There’s a way to make it work for some of us, for anybody we can get here in time, but the world will end either when we go back in time or when Darkseid’s people get their hands on Raven. They won’t realize the risk in hurting her, not fast enough.”
Lex had wanted more information. Now that he was getting it, he thought it was too much.
There was a tsunami inbound, and he didn’t know which direction it was coming from. Whether or not any of them survived was in other people’s hands.
Jor-El hadn’t thought, when he created an AI image of himself, that that image would have a sense of self and feelings about events around it. Around him.
The AI wasn’t Jor-El, but he also had no one else to be, no other label to attach to himself, so he took the name and tried to do the things that his creator would have done. Decades on Earth had made him someone-- something? --else than a set of imperatives with Jor-El’s memories and access to all of the surviving archives from Krypton.
Kal-El thought that the AI was his father. Kal-El needed the AI to be his father.
So the AI hadn’t tried to become anyone else. Seeing Kal-El in pain made the AI’s data pathways tangle and short out. That response had made Lex Luthor a difficulty. After years of Darkseid, Lex was the only thing that could hurt Kal-El further but also the only thing that could make Kal-El want to keep on living.
Jor-El had failed to protect his creator’s son, the last child of Krypton. He had misjudged the risks and the options when Darkseid’s forces had invaded. He’d realized his mistake far too late, and the agony of that had paralyzed him until Kal-El attempted to hibernate, until Lex started asking him questions about sending Kal-El far away from Darkseid.
Jor-El ought to have realized that time travel, even if it didn’t work, would give Kal-El and his lover hope. Jor-El didn’t understand hope because his creator had lost that entirely a long time before putting his memories into a guardian for his son.
Jor-El knew the girl was coming because he was watching when Kal-El opened the pod and then tracked everyone from there. Very likely none of them could harm Kal-El physically, but Lex had no such protection. Jor-El hadn’t missed that Kal-El’s human partner remained by the pod because he couldn’t stand.
Kal-El might miss that these children were dangerous, but Jor-El knew.
The girl-- Karen-- He needed to call her Karen. She wasn’t tall, only about 22 bru-eh, and Jor-El thought she wasn’t likely to get taller-- not unless she could enlarge herself in addition to shrinking-- because he also thought she was fourteen or fifteen. She might be short because of something genetic, but she was also very thin, so Jor-El suspected it had more to do with inadequate diet.
All of the children who’d come to the Fortress were thinner than they ought to be. They reminded Jor-El of the last generation that had been born on Krypton. Jor-El had never shown Kal-El those images. He never would.
He might, someday, show them to Lex because Lex would understand. He also might not show Lex because Lex Luthor already knew enough about grief.
Assuming they had a someday.
When Jor-El manifested visibly, Karen flickered and disappeared for about three seconds.
“I apologize for startling you,” he said. He was lying. He’d wanted to see how quickly she could change state.
Karen took several seconds to re-emerge. Once she was full size, she looked Jor-El up and down. “Right,” she said. “Lilith warned me you were an asshole.”
Jor-El allowed himself the merest hint of a smile. “That does seem to be a common description of me.” He didn’t say anything further, just waited to see what the girl would do.
She also didn’t say anything for almost thirty seconds. Then she shrugged. “No point,” she said, reached her right hand under her ragged jacket. She pulled out a white cube. “There’s a beacon inside this that will let Lilith come here. She needs to talk to you about power sources and conversions and mass and--” She made a face. “A lot of sciency details wrapped up with cross-dimensional magical bullshit. If Lilith says it will work-- Well, she’s usually right.” Karen shrugged. “Even if she’s wrong, we won’t be any deader for trying it.”
Jor-El remembered his creator’s niece saying something similar. Kara hadn’t made it to Earth, but she might have managed to reach some other world. He hoped so. She’d smiled before her pod closed, not because she thought everything would work out but because she knew some of it wouldn’t. Kara’s willingness to continue trying had been her gift to everyone else.
He hoped that he could be forgiven for a certain superstitious willingness to gamble on the similarity in names and words. He could be Jor-El enough to offer assistance to someone with Kara’s spirit.
Lex had shown him a movie before the children started arriving. Most of it hadn’t impressed Jor-El because it was all about people destroying each other when they didn’t have to, but two characters had said something that resonated. One saying that, if you fall, it doesn’t matter what how, and the other saying that it mattered when the fall was all there was.
The original Jor-El had fallen as best he could, saving what he could. Kal-El and Lex Luthor were continuing to search for a way to preserve each other and rebuild their world. They wouldn’t stop until failure destroyed them.
It wasn’t a choice between this and something better, just between this plan and something worse or-- at best-- differently bad.
Jor-El was an AI, but he could dedicate himself to something. Karen’s plan might be doomed to failure, but the alternative was surrendering to the death of another planet. He altered his code, committing himself to the effort.
If Jor-El hadn’t already decided to gamble on Karen’s Lilith, he probably would have decided against working with Lilith seconds after meeting the woman. He recognized that she was constantly suppressing physical reactions to things only she could see and hear. She was probably about seventeen and had the look of someone who knew exactly how many grains remained in the hourglass of her lifespan.
Just as well that Lex wasn’t here. Kal-El might or might not recognize that Lilith’s grasp on reality was tenuous, but Lex would have known. Lex had fought too hard for his own sanity to accept someone else’s choice to embrace the madness of imperative necessity.
Jor-El bowed instead. “Your presence honors me.” He stepped down from the dais where he usually manifested. It was one of the few features left from the original control room design. The dais remained mostly because Jor-El required it to manifest holographically.
The rest of the control room reflected Kal-El’s-- Clark Kent’s-- idea of what such a place should look like. About four months after he started living in the Fortress in order to sleep safe from Darkseid’s forces, Clark Kent had started remodeling.
Lex had laughed about the control room. He’d still been fairly ready to laugh then. He’d said, “Really, Clark? You want me playing Picard?” He’d waved two fingers. “Make it so, Number One.”
“I like it,” Kal-El had said. “It’s hopeful. And people will find it more reassuring than the old room. That was… cold. This is more-- It feels like something that could get better.”
Jor-El had scanned all available episodes of Star Trek. He’d also scanned the Star Wars movies which Lex prefered. Kal-El’s instincts had been better on that one. All of the Star Wars control centers were designed to heighten tension. Kal-El hadn’t altered anything functionally, but he’d added color, mostly earth tones, and softer edges, chairs with cushions, screens that swiveled, rounded corners, and slightly curved walls. The result felt safer, warmer.
The old control room had emphasized austerity and isolation, purity and sacrifice. Only one person had ever been meant to see it, so everything in it had been a message for Kal-El.
The remodeled room felt empty now, even when Kal-El and Lex were both there, because it was meant to hold a dozen people, all working together. Jor-El remembered the place full of movement and reminded himself that he wasn’t programmed to grieve.
Especially not at the sight of empty workstations.
Lilith sat cross-legged in mid-air and studied Jor-El.
Karen seated herself at the console where Lex usually sat, the one Kal-El called the helm because he said that Lex steered everything.
Pan had figured out in under six minutes that Lex’s chair was the only one in the room with a heated seat. The next time they were in the room together, Pan had grabbed the chair first and had looked at Lex challengingly.
Lex had simply taken another chair. If he’d noticed the lack of extra warmth, he hadn’t mentioned it even though the cold had made him ache since Kal-El rescued him. He’d just moved a little slower when he stood to leave the room.
Pan had let Lex sit at the helm the next time and every time after that. When Jor-El had offered to help him put heaters in some other chairs, Pan had shrugged and said, “It’s not like I need it.”
That had been the first sign they’d had that Pan considered any of them but Cam worthy of sharing limited resources at personal cost. It had been a test, and Lex had passed.
Jor-El wasn’t even sure that Lex had noticed that part. Lex had seemed to assume that the child was grabbing what he could get and actually felt the chill. Lex had not, apparently, remembered that, when Pan was physically uncomfortable, he simply changed form.
Jor-El found Karen’s choice of seat oddly reassuring. Lex shouldn’t have to steer without a map, and Karen clearly thought she had one. She might be wrong, but it would be better than wandering in circles until death caught the last of them.
And Kal-El’s sense of direction, metaphorically speaking, had improved over the course of the War. His instincts were more steadier now, more tempered by experience than by sentiment.
Jor-El would have been more impressed by Lilith’s ability to float if he hadn’t known she wasn’t physically there. He considered mirroring her pose because he could, but Karen probably wouldn’t have understood that it wasn’t a challenge.
Karen wasn’t Kara, but Jor-El still didn’t want to upset her.
“Thank you for meeting with me.” Lilith’s voice sounded raspy and weak, as if she didn’t use it much. “I hadn’t expected we would.”
Jor-El gave her just the slightest hint of a smile. “I hadn’t expected it either. Not having known you existed.” He kept his tone light. “Neither Kal-El nor Lex will ever understand why you didn’t send the children sooner.” It was a lie. Lex would understand completely; he just had enough humanity left in him to disapprove.
Lex hadn’t ever been willing to use children as weapons.
Lex also didn’t see that Cam and Pan were Lilith’s gesture of-- Not goodwill. Not that. A gesture of honest intention. The damage to both children was real. Therefore, Jor-El had to conclude that both children were also real. They weren’t acting parts. The trust they gave, when they gave it, would be real and wouldn’t hide betrayal.
Not that sort of betrayal, anyway.
“I’m not asking you to take me back in time,” Lilith said. Her words contained a dozen echoes of other voices. “I wouldn’t have even if-- Even if Raven hadn’t come.” She raised a hood and settled it over her hair, letting the cloth shadow her face. “I wouldn’t survive the trip.”
Jor-El could still perceive what lay in darkness, so he wasn’t sure why Lilith bothered. Then he realized that Karen couldn’t see it.
Lilith’s features twisted and slid, morphing so that her eyes looked out of other faces.
“Carrying too many memories…” he said to let her know that he understood that part. The first AI that his creator had made had incorporated nearly twenty minds. It had torn itself to pieces in three days. Three or four minds could cohabitate if they were very lucky or if one were particularly strong willed. More than that assured destruction.
Not that Lilith was an AI. Or maybe she was. It would explain some things. It also meant that Lilith, like Lex, could see her death coming.
Lex might still be wrong; Lilith probably wasn’t.
She shrugged. “Karen knows who I was. She might be able to save the child with my name from becoming… this. She’ll have more than two decades to find a solution.”
Karen squared her shoulders and nodded firmly.
Jor-El’s heart broke. “Lex has a long list. I’m sure he’d add your name.”
Lilith’s left hand moved as if she was reaching for a pocket. Then it settled against her leg again. “We wanted to give you more. More people. More information. More resources.” She sighed. “Melvin and Bobby will bring as much of what I know as I’ve been able to untangle. I had-- thought I had-- more time. Months into years instead of hours into days. Right now, the balance is the risk of not getting anything to you that way versus the need for more time to-- to clarify.”
“We will do well enough with whatever we have,” Jor-El assured her.
“I know,” Lilith replied. “I just… We always want better.”
Jor-El understood. He hesitated for a microsecond then said, “It’s really mostly a matter of powering the jump.” Putting together the necessary equipment to channel the energy might take longer than they had, but he’d already started constructing the devices he expected to need. He didn’t fully understand the targeting end of things, but he’d been willing to hurl Kal-El through time without a target if the alternative was certain death or even simply having Kal-El see Lex die.
He’d hoped to have time to experiment. Being off in time wouldn’t matter so much if the Earth weren’t moving. Going back a few seconds hadn’t caused visually measurable locational displacement. It had caused displacement that could be measured by other means, just not the right amount to account for how much Krypton had actually moved. Jor-El had a rough idea of the proportion of time to displacement, but he wasn’t sure how to target things properly so that he’d be sure that the traveler or travelers actually hit a planet, preferably Earth and preferably actually on the surface rather than plus or minus enough to kill them.
“We can get you power. As much as you need.” Lilith’s features went completely static for about three seconds. “And I’m sending you a couple of people who can put things together as fast as you can give them instructions.” She smiled, an expression that gentled her features and started the shifting again. “I just didn’t want them to… surprise you.”
“Because none of the rest of this has surprised us.” Jor-El let just the slightest trace of anger into the words. “We’ve been here a long time.”
Lilith had known where they were. She could have opened communications sooner. She could have saved some of Kal-El’s and Lex’s people. She could have--
Karen leveled a slightly hostile stare on Jor-El. “We all had things to learn,” she said. She crossed her arms across her chest. “And the other outcomes were worse.”
For the merest fraction of a second, Jor-El let himself flicker into the exhausted image of his creator moments before he launched Kal-El into space. He wanted to see if Lilith would notice.
Karen didn’t. “Joto’s got the numbers,” she said. “He’s good at remembering things.”
Lilith smiled. For almost two seconds, her features imitated Jor-El’s.
Jor-El absolutely didn’t find that disturbing. Not in the least.
“We haven’t come up with a way to get Gizmo to your location,” Lilith said. “Not without killing him which would rather defeat the purpose. He did the calculations for every moment during the window during which you might need to leave.”
“I have his birth name, too,” Karen said. “Whole lot of names.”
“All of us know you might not manage it,” Lilith said very gently. “That’s not why any of us are going to buy you time. Joseph’s parents will hide him, and Billy was born after the invasion.”
Billy was the name Pan had used for the man in red. The very adult human looking man in red.
“He looks older when his powers are active,” Lilith said. “He’s only nine.”
Jor-El realized that Lilith wasn’t only hiding her changing features from Karen. Lilith was hiding grief and anger over what she perceived as failure. She was concealing uncertainty and an overwhelming sense of loss.
Jor-El was pretty sure that Karen knew all of that, too. Karen simply wasn’t going to ask Lilith to admit any of it.
Jor-El narrowed his estimate of Karen’s age toward the upward end of the likely range.
His sensors told him that something moving very, very fast was far too close to the Fortress. He focused rapidly and concluded that the two small figures were probably the builders that Lilith had promised. He also thought they’d hit the front door in about three seconds and wondered whether their bodies or the door would end up destroyed.
There was no impact because the duo stopped about four steps from the door. They dumped speed with a rapidity that ought to have melted ice beyond the limits of Jor-El’s ground sensors. The terrain didn’t alter at all.
“Billy and Leonid will draw as much attention as they can,” Lilith said.
Jor-El thought she hadn’t noticed his momentary focus on other things.
“Joseph will make sure that… certain things… are missed by people who might otherwise realize that this location is important, that we’re dropping people near here.”
The two at the door stepped forward in unison and knocked, one with the left hand and the other with the right. Their other hands were clasped as if they might die if they separated.
Jor-El sent a message to Kal-El to ask him to answer the door.
Kal-El was only eavesdropping on Lex and the boys in the kitchen. There wasn’t anything urgent about doing that because Jor-El was already observing with enough attention to react if Lex seemed in danger.
If Lex had had trouble standing after crouching, it was a bad day. Asking Lex to answer the door would have been unkind. There had been points in the past when Jor-El probably would have done it because he didn’t like Lex and because Lex didn’t like him.
They’d both admitted to the necessity of getting past that.
“I assume that the two short humans at the door are yours?” Jor-El kept his tone polite. “I’ve sent Kal-El to let them in, so I hope very much that they are.”
Karen smiled, and Lilith inclined her head to one side and said, “I hope you speak Spanish.”
“Kal-El isn’t as fluent as Lex, but he can get by.” Jor-El set a printer going to put his diagrams and assembly instructions for the time travel devices on paper in Spanish. The two people could probably avoid setting paper on fire if they could decelerate that abruptly without generating heat, but the Fortress’s terminals could only refresh so quickly.
Lilith sighed. “They don’t acknowledge having names, either. Garfield tolerates me using his old name. Sometimes. These two… run. Maybe they’ll let your son and his partner name them.” Her features went still again for a moment, and her eyes met Jor-El’s. “I do not think your… awareness will survive the journey. No. Not that. The you awaiting in the past will notice when time shakes and collapses and spits out our travelers. You will need to deal with him.” She shook her head slightly. “I’m sorry. There isn’t time enough for him to learn flexibility.”
Jor-El found the idea of destroying his previous self, including the dying to accomplish it part, considerably more palatable than sharing consciousness with both his earlier self and an imprint of Lex. His Kal-El was going to need Lex in that capacity more than he needed Jor-El. The younger Kal-El would never miss the last echoes of his biological father.
Also, Jor-El admitted, he was tired. He was an AI, so it wasn’t physical. It was just that hope-- Well, he’d actually never had hope. His creator hadn’t had enough to give him any. Jor-El just hadn’t recognized the lack until some time after Darkseid arrived.
There were a lot of things Jor-El could have done and hadn’t. Saying that he’d lacked flexibility was kind. His life, like his creator’s, was a chronological list of missed opportunities and tardy attempts at remedies. It had taken years of Kal-El and Lex forcing him to work with them to get through the emotional inertia.
He supposed it might be sad that he was going to die of this. He closed his eyes for a moment. “I can do that. Kal-El could, too, but he--” Jor-El met Lilith’s eyes.
“He shouldn’t have to. Yes.”
Jor-El still wasn’t sure of the gender of the hand-holding children. If they were children. They might simply be short as their faces looked older than their height seemed to predict. They were speaking in nosotros and using -os endings for their adjectives, so he assumed at least one was male. Them removing their coats hadn’t given him further information, and the timbre of their voices didn’t entirely decide the issue. He didn’t see any sign of facial hair.
He supposed it didn’t matter. He was only fussing over it because he didn’t want to look at the part of him that wanted to say no to Lilith, wanted to avoid killing anyone, wanted to know what would happen after if there was an after.
Wanted to see if Kal-El could break the curse on the House of El.
“The power source--” he said rather than let himself go farther down that trail. “Where will you get the power? How much matter can we send back?”
“Karen,” Lilith said, “would you please go and ask Joto to start dictating the numbers to Mr Luthor? We’re going to need those.”
“Lilith--” Karen’s voice carried a grief intense enough that Jor-El turned his avatar’s face away. “No. I’m sorry.” She raised a hand and reached out toward Lilith. “I know. I do know. I just-- You shouldn’t be alone.”
“I won’t be,” Lilith told her. “It won’t be you, but I’ll make sure none of us who remain are alone at the end.”
Jor-El couldn’t have said why, but he was almost certain Lilith was lying. He wasn’t going to call her on it because, if Karen believed, that belief would ease things for her.
“I told you at the beginning,” Lilith went on, “that you’d have to go on without me. Some day. Today’s that day.”
Karen gave a laugh that was half a sob. “Because you’re never wrong. Because you don’t make mistakes. I believed that once.” Her face and body went still. “Make what you’ve got count, right? Maybe I’ll introduce baby you to baby me. Could happen.” Her smile wobbled a bit, but she let her hand fall, nodded at Jor-El, turned, and left the room.
“Was that necessary?” Jor-El asked after the door closed behind Karen. “I could have spoken to Joto directly. Or to Lex if Joto would find me addressing him that way… startling.”
“It is one thing to wait to die, knowing it’s coming. I expected that.” Lilith pulled back her hood and let it settle on her back and shoulders. “For this, I must run toward death and grab it by the throat so that we both topple into the abyss together.” She smiled. “Trigon is a destroyer of worlds. I think Raven’s father can give us enough power to send the entire Fortress backward. As long as I can convince him for a few minutes that I’m Raven.”
Jor-El suspected that Trigon-- whoever or whatever he might be-- wouldn’t go down nearly as easily as Lilith was suggesting. There was a certain blithe assurance in her tone that Jor-El associated with people who knew they were going to die horribly and knew they had to rush out to meet that coming, somehow, because it would be worse if they didn’t. It was a tone that refused good-byes. “How old are you?” He didn’t want to know, but he also thought he needed to.
She hesitated then shrugged. “My body is seventeen.” She straightened her back. “My mind… Yes. Well. My mind is a multitude, and parts are much older than that.” Her eyes met his. “Tell Mr Luthor not to let the child-me touch other minds. Touching other times is much less dangerous.”
Jor-El nodded, saved the imperative, and flagged it as important. If he wouldn’t be there to explain the filing system, he was going to have to put things in sufficient order that Lex-- Lex’s copy-- wouldn’t lose data. He wondered how the AI Lex would deal with the on-going existence of his physical progenitor. Jor-El hadn’t had to deal with that for very long, but human Lex might live years yet.
“Once they’re in the past, someone should tell Raven that the prophecy has been fulfilled.” Lilith frowned for a fraction of a second. “She won’t believe it, but she’ll already have summoned Trigon to Earth. I don’t think… Some of the children will double the way that Mr Kent and Mr Luthor will, just later, but she… probably won’t. If she does, the younger her will have to face Trigon. She just… Her knowing that won’t help.”
Jor-El disagreed. Some truths were a burden, yes, but lies and omissions could kill. Lying about the existence of a bomb wouldn’t stop the explosion. Acknowledging it might mean having a plan. He put Lilith’s statements about Raven and Trigon into a file tagged ‘urgent’ and ‘I must not tell lies.’ He hoped that Lex would understand the message and that Kal-El would know how to make a child feel safe while being honest about frightening truths.
Clark didn’t actually understand anything that was happening, but he figured that he could follow instructions as well as the next guy. There was something fundamentally reassuring about the fact that Lex and Jor-El had things for him to do that weren’t obvious busywork. He’d thought that the whole idea about time travel was them having him on, just an effort to keep him from losing hope.
The way both of them had already lost hope.
Lex was a good liar, amazingly good, but Clark could read every muscle twitch and change in heartbeat. Jor-El didn’t have those tells, but Jor-El had also-- Clark understood that Jor-El was a very sophisticated AI, self-aware and capable of emotion.
And programmed to put Clark’s well-being ahead of everything else. Clark had looked into the guts of the operating system while Lex had been a prisoner because Clark had been pretty sure that the AI had ways to stop him from doing anything really stupid. Clark had felt bad about performing what amounted to exploratory brain surgery on Jor-El, but Jor-El had always been less important than Lex.
One of the ways Jor-El had ‘protected’ Clark was by throttling his access to information. Clark had workarounds for that now and knew he really should have thought about the problem sooner. He hadn’t had much time to work as a professional journalist before Darkseid arrived, but he’d known that controlling what someone heard and saw and read could be a form of coercive power.
There were things Clark knew now that he’d never share with Lex. Clark knew how Lana had died. Clark knew that Lionel might still be alive. Lionel might have found a way to survive; he might also still be suffering the way that Lex had. Clark felt bad about not trying to rescue the man, but they’d taken him to Apokolips six years ago. The odds of there being anything left to rescue were very low. Clark would have tried it for Lex. For Lex’s father… Neither one of them had ever gotten along with the other’s fathers.
If Lex’s father was one of options for a Trolley Problem, Clark would have zero hesitation about sacrificing him.
Lex preferred to forget that Clark had killed, that Clark would.
If this whole time travel scheme worked, something permanent and unpleasant would happen to Lionel Luthor. Clark would paper it over by arguing that they needed control of Luthor Corp, but it would be about protecting the child Lex. The company would be useful, of course, faster than starting from nothing, but Clark wouldn’t be doing it for that. If he was, he’d size up the Queen family and the Wayne family and several others. Probably other tightly held companies had better connections for the things they would have to do.
Clark could sell it as Lex knowing enough about the company to grab all of it fast, but really, it would be about Lionel and child Lex. Clark wasn’t sure about the timing of events in Lex’s early life, so it might be about other people, too, or they might be too late for that.
Going back in time might be about saving the world rather than saving individuals, but they weren’t going to do it with one big, showy fight. Clark had been considering that for the last two weeks, since Lex told him the plan.
The things Clark was really good at weren’t going to be very useful for making subtle changes, and most of what they knew wasn’t useful for anything that wasn’t subtle. There wasn’t a meteorite monster that Clark could fight or a race he could win. They didn’t know how to find Apokolips and destroy it, so they had to get Earth ready for Darkseid’s arrival. Going too fast could be as disastrous as going too slow.
Clark thought that Lex wouldn’t try to harm Jonathan Kent. Clark’s father had always assumed the worst about Lex and had generally been an asshole to him, but he hadn’t ever hurt Clark. And, really, when some rich 20 year old stranger starts giving your 15 year old vastly expensive gifts and hanging around with him and his friends-- Well, Clark had a better understanding now about why a lot of adults had been giving Lex the side-eye on that.
If Lex hadn’t been a Luthor, somebody’d have taken pre-emptive action. Because he was a Luthor, they waited to see what they could prove. And whether or not proof would be enough. If Lex had been that sort of predator, legal methods probably wouldn’t have done a damned thing to protect Clark or any of his friends. Clark suspected that his father would have taken illegal steps without any hesitation; he suspected, too, that Lex knew that and had always known that.
Lex respected that because he’d always been willing to do the same for the people he cared about.
Watching Lex with Cam and Pan eased something inside Clark that he hadn’t realized was hurting. Lex could still care about someone who wasn’t Clark. Clark had wondered as he’d watched Lex order one person after another into missions that ended in death, into missions that everyone, including Lex, had known would end in death.
Lex was actually really good with those two kids. He didn’t push them, but he also didn’t let them get away with stupid shit. Not that they’d tried much of that. They wouldn’t still be alive if they were prone to that, not in Darkseid’s world.
No. They’d still be alive. They’d just be in training on Apokolips. Even Cam, young as he was, understood that that was just a different kind of dying.
The closest those two boys got to stupid shit was not wanting to bathe, and that seemed mostly to have to do with it being a waste of potable water. Clark had explained a lot about filtration and reclamation systems before Pan agreed that it was a thing that could safely be done even weekly.
Pan had known people who’d died of thirst and of drinking dirty water.
Clark didn’t think Cam had, but that was mostly because Cam’s powers let him manipulate water. Up to a point. Clark had been working with him on that because knowing might be something that helped Cam, later.
Lex wasn’t sure what Cam was going to do with chemistry and molecular analysis. Clark wasn’t either, but he and Cam had established that heavy water felt different. They’d also figured out that Cam could purify water by freezing it carefully. He’d just never had distilled water to use as a comparison before and so hadn’t realized that some of what he felt in the water wasn’t actually water.
Clark still hadn’t heard the boy speak and rather suspected that he couldn’t. The medical scanners had choked when he’d tried to scan Cam and, again, when he’d tried to scan Pan. They weren’t Kryptonian, and they didn’t fit the parameters of other known species, including humans. They were closer to human than to anything else, but the scanners couldn’t get beyond the differences.
Clark had worked around that to check for parasites and damaged bones and joints, things he might actually be able to do something about. Well, there wasn’t a lot he could currently do about bones and joints, or Lex would be healthier, but he could diagnose, and if they actually went into the past--
Lex thought that all Kryptonian technology was better than Earth technology. Lex didn’t realize that they had more instructions for how to make things that worked than they did things that worked.
The medical systems hadn’t even been mediocre when they’d started using the Fortress as a base. Clark had improved them, but he didn’t have everything he needed for a true refit.
When Jor-El supplied the Fortress of Solitude, he’d skimped on things that wouldn’t help Kal-El directly, and Kal-El wasn’t going to need gallbladder surgery or a hip replacement. He might have problems with radiation or airborne toxins. The Fortress had information about how to upgrade every single system, but the medical part of things wasn’t something Clark had realized they’d need so desperately. He’d focused on stealth and shields against weapons even though those systems had already been robust.
Then he’d had to give priority to life support related functions-- air filtration, heat, light, everything related to food, water, and plumbing. Now, Clark couldn’t get the things he needed to make the things he needed.
Lex hadn’t, so far as Clark could tell, figured out that he’d have been better off with late 20th century US medical care than with what the Fortress could provide. The possibility that Lex would live longer in the past wasn’t Clark’s only reason for being willing to try the plan, but it was one of the things he hoped for.
Or, maybe, he knew but understood that they had what they had. Wishes weren’t fishes or horses or anything much but thieves of hope.
If it was at all possible, Clark was taking the Fortress back in time with him. He didn’t want to waste effort fixing the things he’d already labored over.
Billy Batson knew that the world was going to end soon. He knew because he was going to have to give it a really hard push in order to make it happen at exactly the right moment. He’d spent four years preparing the diagram needed to harness Trigon’s power for the time travel engine. He’d have spent longer, but before that, he hadn’t been sure enough about where Trigon would manifest.
Raven and Trigon were singular events. Billy known they’d be coming, but, unlike most things that happened in his time loop, he hadn’t seen multiple iterations of their arrivals.
Lilith had apologized to him seven times. She’d apologized to all of them. All of them except herself. She didn’t realized that Captain Marvel ought to be apologizing to her for taking so long to get it right.
If it was right. He hoped it was this time because he had no more to spend.
Billy had let her apologize because seven was an important number, one that resonated. After the seventh time, he said, “You were surprised by me and Captain Marvel. Being surprised by Raven fits pretty well with that.” He knew that she’d also been surprised by Darkseid. He wasn’t supposed to know that. Even Karen didn’t know that.
The barriers between universes were opaque to Lilith’s precognition. She only saw those ripples after the universes crossed, and she’d been so young when Darkseid happened that she’d assumed, later, that she simply hadn’t understood what needed to be done.
Billy’d seen her try to save the world and fail repeatedly. The long, slow planning inevitably collapsed when some factor slipped out of her control. At first, Billy’d tried different approaches to buying her more time, months and even years past when they were now; this time, he was gambling that less time would force everything into place.
It was the only thing he hadn’t tried yet, and it would only work with Trigon.
Lilith still, somehow, believed that Billy was nine, that he knew less than she did about what might-- would-- happen. Lilith didn’t understand her not having foreseen him wasn’t the same thing as him not having been there or that the wisdom of Solomon was more than good judgment or knowing facts. She also didn’t know that Captain Marvel acted as guardian for an extra-dimensional thing called the Rock of Eternity.
Billy wasn’t the first Captain Marvel to tinker with time. He was just the first one desperate enough to roll back years instead of hours or days and the first one to need to do it repeatedly.
After their fourth attempt to save the world, Billy had decided not to tell the current iterations of Lilith about the Rock. He’d taken her there after their first try fell to pieces, and the intersecting realities of the Rock had ripped her mind open and strewn it across seventeen dimensions.
Billy’d stood on the summit of the mountain that was the rock and watched the pieces falling. None of his mystically granted strengths had kept him from weeping. Then, he’d hovered over the sharp heights where the Rock became a singular point and twisted time back on itself as far as he could manage.
He’d hoped to go back farther, but some part of him must have suspected that he’d need more than one opportunity. Looping time cut his lifethread-- as he’d known it would-- and cost him a portion of what his body had experienced. Each time, he returned to the past, his human body was a few years younger and didn’t age beyond that.
It had been more noticeable at twelve than it had been at thirty.
The first time, he’d been afraid that, when he looped back to the beginning, Lilith would no longer be there, and he’d have to depend entirely on his own memories. That sort of death combined with it having happened at the Rock and so outside of time could have removed her from existence even within the loop.
She had been there, every time, but she remembered nothing at all of the previous iterations.
Billy’d spent a lot of time, during the second and third loops, digging through the mental esoterica that came with the wisdom of Solomon. There were a lot of things about demons and djinni (Billy’d been surprised to realize they weren’t the same thing) and spells that Billy could now look at coldly and conclude that Solomon had been more smart and powerful than wise or compassionate.
Not one of the gifts of the gods that Billy had received came from a being Billy would have wanted as a friend. Possibly as allies. But only if Billy could watch them very, very carefully. He supposed that that was why only certain people should become Captain Marvel.
Black Adam was a more likely course for most people who found themselves with that sort of power.
By the start of the fourth time through, Billy had been able to take Lilith to the Rock of Eternity without destroying her mind. They’d spent years, decades even, looking at and discarding plans while the Earth died slowly. Billy had seen, now, what happened if he and Lilith did nothing.
Superman might try to go back in time and fail. Then Darkseid’s people finished their work of stripping everything useable from the planet.
Superman might go back in time, alone, and change things, but him not having anyone with him meant that nothing he could do made things better. He was smart and capable of ruthlessness. Neither quality, in isolation, would be enough. The two together made a worse world than Darkseid had-- Superman welded the nations of the Earth together for pre-emptive action against Apokolips because he didn’t have time or support for anything subtler.
Which only made Superman into a version of Darkseid, hard and cold and willing to destroy other worlds to maintain his own.
Billy had liked Superman, but Clark Kent wasn’t quite strong enough, not when he had to carry everything alone.
Fourth iteration Lilith had been sitting on the Rock of Eternity ever since and telling Billy what to try each time. Keeping her there had been a gamble because there might not have been a younger version of her in the fifth iteration, but she’d known that Raven was coming and when,
They’d tried everything they could think of to make things work perfectly the fifth time because they knew that Trigon would shatter the loop Billy had managed to create.
Billy hadn’t known enough about what he was doing when he created the loop and had gotten it going mostly by sheer stubbornness and desperation, so it was a lot more fragile than it would be if he built it now with an actual understanding of how the metaphysics worked. He also couldn’t repair that fragility without letting the waters of time flood in. It would be the equivalent of yanking out the bottom of a boat in mid-ocean, a bad idea no matter how many leaks threatened.
That first cataclysm, he’d only thought that they needed another chance, and he’d relied heavily on instinct because he hadn’t realized before that it was a thing he might need to do. It shouldn’t have held together this long because engineering by instinct was a lot like navigating, while blindfolded, based entirely on the position of the sun. It could be done, but there was a long-term risk of wandering off a cliff.
Each time Billy yanked the loop back to where it closed, he invested more of himself in it. Even if Trigon didn’t mean this was their last chance, Billy had already spent most of what he was on holding things together. Nine was about as young as his body could be and still sustain both the loop and Captain Marvel. He’d been a bit more than thirty the first time he yanked time out of its course in an effort to fix things.
Holding Trigon long enough for seventh iteration Lilith to feed his power into the time travel device would burn out everything Billy had left, so, when time finally slipped back to running straight, Billy Batson would vanish entirely. Captain Marvel would exist but he-- or she-- would be someone else entirely. The Rock of Eternity would remember him because it was outside time, but nothing else would.
Even knowing the price, Billy would still have tried looping time after Earth’s first death. He’d have done it better, knowing, but he’d done what needed doing every time through because that was what being Captain Marvel required, the quality that changed a person from a collection of powers to a guardian and a hero.
Possibly, just possibly, there would be a new gift given to the next Captain Marvel. Billy Batson hoped for that much. He wasn’t sure if it would be determination or compassion or creativity in planning or even just pig-headed hope, but he thought that he had learned something that he’d like the next Captain Marvel to have.
The Lilith on the Rock of Eternity sometimes said that the next Captain Marvel would be named Freddy and sometimes said Ruth. Either way, she said, they’d live in a happier world than Billy had.
The fifth iteration, they’d tried the long and steady set up for sending Superman and a team into the past to make changes. The fracture point for the plan turned out to be emotional rather than logistical. Too long planning and training in safety drained the team’s desperation and urgency. More people Billy loved lived in comfort-- relative comfort-- longer, but that created a complacency that made them hesitate at the wrong moments.
The world had ended, and the only one who’d gone back in time was Billy.
The sixth time through, Billy had endured and made some hard decisions about priorities. Some people would be left behind. Some people would die with the old universe, buying the right circumstances to let the Fortress of Solitude escape. Billy had already known exactly how much time they would have, the seventh time, before Raven called Trigon because he knew how long he could delay her and keep her calm.
Three weeks was simultaneously an eternity and not nearly enough time.
Billy had had to stay away from Lilith and her clan until the last six months and let them think that her long timeline plan would work. If he’d been with them too long, they’d all realize that he couldn’t possibly still be nine which might lead to them noticing the other lies and half-truths and not trusting him when he needed them to. It had been easier to hide the not aging part when he’d still been old enough to shave at the start of the new loop.
Not that not aging would seem that weird to the others. Powers were like that sometimes. It was that him staying apparently nine opened up the question of how old he actually was. If Billy might be older than nine, even the most trusting person would wonder why he hadn’t been shoulder to shoulder with Superman at any point during the War. Saying, “I knew it wouldn’t help,” would lead inevitably to a lot of more terrible suspicions about him and his choices, some of which would even be true because Billy Batson had bleaker views on necessity now than he’d had the first time he was nine.
Lying about how long he’d had his powers and about how he’d gotten them was simpler than explaining why Captain Marvel hadn’t lifted a finger to save most lives this iteration.
During the many dark nights before Raven arrived, Billy often stayed awake, hoping that fourth iteration Lilith wasn’t lying about Trigon being usable. She might do so simply so that Billy could die with a little bit of hope that it wasn’t for nothing. He didn’t think she was lying, but he didn’t doubt that she would.
Win or lose, fourth iteration Lilith could outlive Billy, but she’d told him, when he asked, that she wouldn’t make the effort. She’d spent-- and would spend-- as much of herself per iteration as Billy had. She’d just had a little more to start with and had had, as she put it, fewer tolls to pay. “The road ends here,” she’d told him more than once since the seventh iteration started. “Win or lose, there won’t be a place for either of us.”
Billy felt more than a little bad that there was some comfort in not having to go alone.
Trigon was both bigger and uglier than Lilith had expected and exactly what she’d thought he’d be. Power and malevolent appetite roiled through his aura as he turned to look at her.
Lilith hoped that she’d judged things correctly so that her faux-Raven completely hid the real Raven from Trigon. If that deception failed, Trigon would kill everything on the planet and then go on to Apokolips. Raven would not survive.
Raven would have volunteered to stand where Lilith did if anyone had told her what they meant to do. She just wasn’t strong enough yet to control the forces involved.
Lilith wouldn’t have let Raven do it anyway.
She raised her arms and said, in Raven’s voice, “Father, protect me from them. Please.” She let all of her years of fear and despair suffuse the words because Raven would only summon Trigon when she had no other recourse. Lilith held her mental copy of Raven as a shield over her own thoughts and intentions and focused every remaining spark of her power through that, reaching out for Trigon’s energy.
Underneath the mask of Raven, Lilith felt a strength and certainty that was new to her. It was almost as if her power had multiplied in Trigon’s presence the way that Raven’s would have. She always lived in a maze of mirrors, but each reflection had become a window to another Lilith, an older Lilith, who stepped close and put her arms around Lilith’s soul.
It was a gift because she’d expected to be alone with the voices in her head at this point. All she had foreseen of it was herself, standing isolated, with the unknown on one hand and death on the other.
Trigon smiled, and one row of eyes blinked at her. “It is good, daughter.” He laughed so that the ground shook. His breath filled the air around him with sulfur and other things that would destroy Lilith’s all too mortal body in a matter of minutes.
Thus, the other Lilith told her, and thus and thus-- The other Lilith reached out an arm, and Lilith couldn’t tell where it was going, just that it anchored to something-- someone-- they needed. Reach out to the monster and--
And Lilith saw the pattern, the hungry channels waiting to convert Trigon into a moment cut loose from time and space.
Let me touch Trigon, the other Lilith said, me and my friend. We’ll provide the engine and the insulation. You provide the map and make the decisions about speed and direction.
Lilith felt her connections to Leonid and Joseph and Gizmo open and wondered, briefly, why she couldn’t feel Billy. It seemed wrong that he should be alone as the world ended. She widened her awareness to take in more people, more perspectives, in hopes of finding him.
You wouldn’t recognize him if you found him, the other Lilith said. He’s with us-- with you-- seeing it through to the end.
Then power was rushing toward Lilith in streams that wound around each other to make a thread and then a cord and then a rope.
Trigon screamed and blurred. His physical form began to erode.
Lilith fed the power to the device in the Fortress of Solitude. Then she became the device and the data inside it and began to understand about being the map. Figuring out when was easy compared to where and how much.
When needed a little entanglement and twelve percent of Trigon to get the Jor-El AI Lilith had met to the right place and time to deal with the other, less flexible Jor-El AI in Kansas before sending everyone else six months further back to a point before a meteor struck that same Kansas cornfield.
That part was like skipping a flattened pebble across a pond. The Jor-El AI let go of the Fortress as they skimmed the surface of that moment, before everyone else went on to the end of Lilith’s throw.
More than half of Trigon was gone.
The Fortress striking the Earth too fast could be a disaster almost as apocalyptic as Darkseid, so most of the rest of Trigon went for deceleration.
Put the Fortress somewhere with sun. That whisper was tenuous, almost not there, and definitely wasn’t the other Lilith. The words were so soft that Lilith wasn’t completely sure she’d even heard them, but she also thought she knew the voice.
“Billy?” she whispered, but beyond that sense of having someone holding her, no one answered.
There were five atolls in the Pacific big enough and right on the equator. Three of them were uninhabited. Lilith chose the largest of the three and set the Fortress down as gently as she’d touched Karen’s cheek the last time they kissed.
Trigon was entirely gone.
Lilith was dissipating and coalescing simultaneously as the consciousness of her old world passed through her on its way to becoming a might-have-been. She let herself become a particle carried by that flood. Time and space unknotted themselves to release her.
I could not enter in, but I think-- I hope-- I saw the Promised Land.