|How I Spent My Christmas Vacation
Author: Nan Smith PM
HG Wells and Alt-Clark travel to the Congo in 1993 to save Lois Lane from Tempus.Rated: Fiction K - English - Sci-Fi/Romance - Words: 19,444 - Reviews: 10 - Favs: 12 - Follows: 3 - Published: 01-30-05 - id: 2241837
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
By Nan Smith
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are not mine. They are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else can legally claim them, nor am I profiting from their use. Any dialogue from any episode of the series used in this story is hereby credited to the writers of "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman". Any new characters, scenes, dialogue and the story itself belong to me.
The Presidential election in "Meet John Doe" and "Lois and Clarks", oddly enough, seemed to occur after Christmas in our Lois and Clark's Metropolis. For the purpose of this story, I'm simply going to assume that the episodes were shown out of sequence, and that Christmas actually occurred after the election, which, in the normal course of events, it would have.
How I Spent My Christmas Vacation: An Alt-World Story By Nan Smith
It was that time of year again, Clark Kent thought. Christmas. Outside, the bells were chiming and he could hear the distant sound of some department store sound system playing "Sleigh Ride".
He'd loved Christmas as a child, until that fateful day when he was ten that had put an end to the Christmases of childhood. The magic had died with his mother and father, and never come back. He'd told himself that a marriage to Lana, and a family of his own, would bring back the joy he had known, but underneath he hadn't believed it. Lana, his childhood friend and eventual fiancee, just hadn't looked at it the same way. Christmas at the Lang's home was a giant social occasion that must look just right. The Langs had a snow-white tree that came out of a box every year, decorated with blue Christmas balls and tiny blue lights, and glittering glass icicles, with a satin angel that sat on the top. There would be no room for clumsily carved wooden reindeer or lopsided cookies decorated with icing and sprinkles like the ones that had hung on the Kent tree along with the more traditional ornaments. He'd found it a sharp contrast to the fresh fir tree that his dad had cut every year, and the old and loved Christmas decorations, each with its own history and meaning, that had adorned the Kent tree. The manger scene would be new and perfect, not the ancient but lovingly preserved china pieces that his mother had brought out of a shoebox every Christmas and that he and she had arranged on a table near the tree. One of the donkeys had a broken leg that had been glued carefully back together years before he had come to be their son. After their deaths, before he had been taken from the farm, he had taken the shoebox and hidden it in the trunk of a hollow tree near the creek. He hadn't known what would happen to his parents' possessions, but that was one memory that had been too precious to risk. After his breakup with Lana last year he had retrieved it, and now it resided on the shelf in his closet but he hadn't had the heart to take it out and set it up at Christmas. It just seemed to be the kind of task that was meant for two people, where you discussed exactly how to position each piece. That had been the ritual and part of the fun. So the pieces stayed in the box.
His apartment looked just as it always did, except for the Christmas shrub - it was too small to call it a tree - with the tiny, cheap decorations that it had come with, sitting in the center of his coffee table. He'd bought that from one of the kids from the local junior high school, who had been raising funds for their school choir or some such thing.
Come to think of it, it was looking a little dry. He took the tiny tree over to his kitchen sink and carefully watered it, then decided that it would undoubtedly benefit the plant to give it some sunlight, so he relocated it onto the windowsill.
It was snowing again, the big puffy flakes drifting down unendingly. Probably he should go out on patrol. The Christmas season just seemed to invite the accidents during people's final rush to complete their Christmas shopping, and the last minute discovery that no one had remembered to buy something for Aunt Edna, or Uncle Calvin.
He had almost decided to do just that, when the doorbell rang.
Who would be calling today? He had the day off from the Planet, and there really wasn't anyone to send him gifts or anything. Perry and Alice had dropped off a box of cheese and sausages yesterday, and James had handed out the Christmas bonuses on Friday. People sometimes sent Superman letters, but this was Sunday, and besides, the Post Office collected those for him and he picked them up once a week.
He'd given up wearing glasses regularly some time ago. He glanced at his door and sighed heavily. H.G. Wells. This was just what he needed to make his day complete.
Wells rang again, and after an instant's debate about whether to answer, Clark mounted the steps to the door and pulled it open.
Wells was just as he had been the last time Clark had seen him. They had returned from the alternate universe where Lois was married to his counterpart and the little man had left him with a smile and a wink, and a reminder that "impossible" was all relative. Clark hadn't held out much hope. He'd searched the world over, and there had been no trace of the Lois of his universe. Her trail had led to the Congo and disappeared four years before, and that was all there was to it.
"Hello, Mr. Kent." The time-traveler removed his hat. "May I come in?"
Clark stepped back and Wells accepted the silent invitation. He rubbed his hands briskly together as Clark closed the door behind him. "Quite cold today."
"I hadn't noticed," Clark said.
"No, I suppose not." The other man frowned at him with a look of concern. "You don't look well."
"I'm fine," Clark said.
"No, I phrased that badly," Wells said. "I meant, you don't look happy."
Clark shrugged. "I'm all right."
"Hmm." Wells fiddled with his hat. "I wondered if you were free today."
"More or less," Clark said. He sighed. "What is it? Don't tell me Lois and Clark need my help again."
"No, of course not. But someone else does. Do you remember, I said that 'impossible' was a relative term?"
"Yes." Clark felt a faint spark of interest. "Do you have some information for me?"
Wells nodded. "I trust you remember Tempus, Mr. Kent."
"How could I forget him? But isn't he in jail in the other universe?"
"Not anymore. His ... people apparently came for him and took him back to his own time. The important thing is that, like me, he is a time traveler. He can be anywhere in time at any given moment, and four years ago he was in the Congo."
Clark could feel every muscle in his body stiffening. "Lois?"
"You must remember, Mr. Kent, his ultimate goal is to prevent the coming of Utopia in his own universe, and in this one. Lois Lane is as necessary to Utopia as Superman. Just before he came to Metropolis to destroy you, he apparently went to the Congo to dispose of this universe's Lois Lane."
"What did he do to her?"
Wells fiddled with the brim of his hat. "If you do nothing, he will cause her death. But you can save her."
"By coming with me. We have to be there four years ago when Tempus makes the attempt. If you save her -"
"I thought you told me it was dangerous to tamper with time."
The little man shrugged. "In this case, it's more dangerous not to tamper with it. It has already been tampered with by Tempus, and if we leave it as is, drastic consequences will ensue farther down the line. We can't undo the events that her absence has caused, but we can still repair the future timeline, at least to the point where the difference will not matter."
Timelines. As if the timeline mattered to him at this moment. "You mean, we can save her?"
"You can not only save her, you must. As it is now, if there is no Lois Lane, the future of this world is very dark indeed. The presence of Superman may delay the evil, but will not prevent it. To succeed, both of you must contribute." The little man paused. "There is one caveat, however. If you save her life, she cannot be in the time period between the time she would have died and the time you go to rescue her."
Wells looked at him with both eyebrows raised. "Because, if she exists in that time period, history will completely change. More importantly, your history will change, Mr. Kent. You will have no need to search for her and find her, thereby preventing that very history from happening. It could very well set up an alternating time loop that would mean disaster for this universe. No, there's only one thing to do."
"We shall have to bring her back to today."
Clark was still mulling that remark over as he climbed into H.G. Wells's time machine ten minutes later. The oddly antiquated device with such incredible futuristic abilities cranked up with a whine and a blast of air, and then the world around him dissolved into a formless haze. The only things that were solid and identifiable were H.G. Wells and the machine itself. Outside was ... nothing.
The counter on the dashboard was whirling backwards towards a date he knew well - April 21, 1993 - the date of the last communication sent by Lois Lane before she vanished. Then the world re-materialized around them, and they were in a nondescript alley. Trash and garbage littered the surface, and the air around them was hot and humid.
"We're here," Wells announced, unnecessarily. "Brazzaville, in the heart of the Republic of the Congo."
"And Lois is here?"
"She is indeed." Wells took the key to his machine and tucked it into a pocket. "Here, Mr. Kent. Take this." He was holding out what appeared to be a small, gold button. Clark took it.
"What is it?"
"It's a device by which I may track you if we should become separated," Wells explained. "It has a temporal beacon as well as a locational one, just on the chance that we might become separated by time as well as space. One never knows what may happen during time travel - especially when a time-traveling criminal is involved."
That made sense, Clark thought. Being marooned in time wouldn't be something that he would care for. He tucked the device into the back pocket of his jeans. "What now?"
"Tempus's time machine is parked in a warehouse on the other side of town," Wells said. "I thought ours would be safer some distance from his. I've given us some leeway, but we should certainly be going."
Wells glanced at the sun, which, Clark noted, was sinking toward the west. "Perhaps we should utilize one of Superman's talents. We should be on the west side of town before sunset."
"One question," Clark said. "Why can't we just find Lois and warn her?"
H.G. Wells clutched his hat against the wind of their flight. The western sky was ablaze with the pink, orange and gold of sunset, but to the east the brightest stars had begun to make their appearance, and a crescent moon was riding low on the horizon. Below them, here and there, the lights of the city had begun to come on.
"You met the other-world Lois," Wells said after a pause. "Considering that, and what you've learned since about the Lois Lane of your universe, how do you think she would react to such a warning?"
He had a point. Clark had read everything Lois had ever written at the Daily Planet and had even dug up many of the things she had produced for her college and high school papers, and since he'd gotten to know Mayor White better, he'd listened to every story the former editor could think of about her. Lois's reaction to a warning like that was completely predictable, now that he considered it. She would think that she was getting close to something big and that he was trying to scare her off. She would simply be more determined than ever to discover what it was that she thought they were trying to hide. No, the only way they were going to be able to save her life was to be there when the attempt to kill her was made.
"The warehouse is slightly to the north," Wells said, apparently feeling that no further elaboration was needed. Clark obediently changed course.
The warehouse was old and dilapidated. Clark touched down in the shadows next to it and the slight application of super-strength opened a side door to give them a way in.
The place was dark and smelled of must and mildew. Treading softly, they entered. Clark, with his keen night vision, led the way with Wells holding onto the back of his shirt.
The big storage place was half full, but that left a huge, echoing cavity toward the rear of the building, and Clark could hear the sound of static and a voice issuing from what must be a small room at the very back. He scanned in the direction of the sound and immediately spotted a room where a lone man played a listless game of solitaire on a folding table, and a portable radio gave out static-ridden music. Beer cans littered the room and half a sandwich on the foot of the narrow cot was crawling with flies.
Voices were approaching from somewhere to the right. He looked that way and his hand closed on Wells's shoulder, pushing him down behind a dusty, wooden crate. "Quiet!" he whispered, although the little man had not made a sound. "They're coming!"
They crouched behind their shelter, trying to breathe quietly. Clark watched the approach of three persons. One was the man he had seen a year before in Metropolis. Tempus, the time traveler whose goal was to destroy the future of his world, a second man that he had never seen before, and a woman. Clark's heart lunged into his throat and stayed there. It was Lois Lane.
There was a rattle and a scraping of wood, and a door in the opposite wall opened. Watching through the barrier of row upon row of crates stacked higher than his head, Clark saw them step inside. The unidentified man switched on a flashlight, and the light reflected off the familiar silhouette of a time machine.
"Well, Ms. Lane," Tempus said. "We're here."
"That's great," Lois's familiar voice said impatiently, "but I came to see something more than a circus car. Where is this evidence that you were going to show me?"
"Oh, that." Tempus's voice had the same mocking sneer that Clark remembered from that day in Metropolis, when his secret was laid bare to the world, and the man looked just the same, neither older nor younger. "I'm afraid that was a slight untruth. Get in."
"Just what are you up to, Mr. Temple?" Lois asked, sounding annoyed. "There has to be some reason you wanted me here."
"There is," Tempus said. A handgun made its appearance. "Get in."
Clark started to stand up. The door in the back of the warehouse burst open suddenly and the man he had seen playing cards there appeared. "Police!" he squeaked. "It's a setup!"
There came the sound of a heavy body hitting the door through which the three persons had just entered, and wood splintered. Tempus seized Lois by the arm and thrust her toward the time machine. "Get in!"
Faced with the muzzle of his weapon jammed into her ribs, Lois obeyed. The familiar whine of the machine's power began.
Clark moved. In an instant, he had reached the rear of the time machine and grasped a piece of protruding metal. Then the temporal field closed around him and he was forced to stay where he was, clutching onto the thing with one hand as the formless haze of the time stream swirled lazily past.
Clark lost track of how long he hung on to the rear of the time machine. He wasn't really sure if time had any meaning in this strange place, but eventually it seemed as if they were slowing down. Then, with a suddenness that left him momentarily disoriented, they burst into reality again, fifty feet in the air, and Clark heard a scream as Tempus hurled Lois free of the craft.
Instinctively, Clark released his hold. Perhaps it was his imagination, or perhaps it was a lingering effect of being so near to the edge of the time field, but his movements seemed painfully slow. Free of the machine at last, he dived after Lois as she hit the water with a massive splash. He barely noticed when the time machine popped into nothingness over his head.
He struck the water in a dive and plunged beneath the surface. The lingering slowness was vanishing. He no longer felt as if he were swimming through glue. He could see Lois in the water some twenty feet away, kicking her way back toward the surface.
She was treading water when his head broke the surface. She eyed him warily, but he made no attempt to come closer. Well aware that after the events of the last few minutes, she was certainly going to regard him with deep suspicion, he turned his head, taking in their position.
No land in any direction. Tempus had apparently dropped them in some very large body of water and judging by the salt they were in the ocean, very far from land. The water was moderately warm; they must be either in tropical latitudes or in a warm current of some sort.
A splash brought his attention back to Lois. She was engaged in removing her jogging shoes. As he watched, she tied the laces together and slung the footwear around her neck. She still hadn't taken her eyes off of him.
"Uh ... hi," he said, somewhat lamely.
She didn't answer. He tried again. "Are you all right?"
She glanced around, apparently really taking in their situation for the first time, but her attention returned quickly to him. "Who are you?"
He decided to evade the question for the moment. "I was in the warehouse when those guys brought you in," he said. "I heard you call him Mr. Temple. Do you know who he is?"
He resisted the urge to shrug. "Sort of. His name isn't Temple. It's Tempus. He's a criminal."
"I figured that part out," she said. "What were you doing there ... and how did we get here?"
"I saw him haul you into that machine of his," Clark said. "I tried to get to you before he started it up, but I'm afraid I didn't quite make it."
She was staring at him. "What were you doing there?"
Clark shrugged. "I was looking for you."
Again the wary look. "Why?"
"I'd had information you were in danger. My name is Clark Kent."
She studied him, still with that wary expression, but seemed to shelve the obvious follow-up questions for the moment. "How did we get here?"
"If I told you, I don't think you'd believe me," he said. "That machine of his is something straight out of Star Trek."
"Later. I think we'd better get out of here." Clark glanced down into the water. If they were indeed in the tropics as he suspected, the shark population in the vicinity could be considerably more concentrated than in more northern climes and he was hearing suspicious noises below, still some way off but growing nearer.
"I'm all for that," she said. "I just don't have any idea how. There's no sign of land anywhere."
"I can get us out of here, but you'll have to let me get closer to you. I promise, no funny stuff."
She wiped water from her eyes. "What are you - some kind of cop or something, or are you just a nut?"
"Actually," he said, "I'm a reporter like you." He turned his head. There was motion somewhere beneath them now, and a glance into the watery depths revealed an eight-foot predator shape moving rapidly toward them, drawn by the splashing they were producing. "I really don't have the time to explain," he said. "There's a shark coming to investigate us." Without allowing her time to protest or ask how he knew, he moved toward her through the water and grasped her about the waist. Her instinctive protest was cut off in a strangled gasp as he rose straight up until they hovered twenty feet in the air. Beneath them a long, fishlike shape with a mouthful of teeth broke the surface and fell back.
Her instinctive attempt to escape ceased suddenly. He saw her looking down as the shark disappeared under the water again.
"Great White," he said offhandedly. "It was attracted by the splashing. To a shark, that's an indication of a wounded fish or sea mammal."
She looked back at him, and he could see that her cheeks were definitely pale, but she was looking from his face to the slowly rolling water below them, and then back to his face again. Slowly, she raised a hand and waved it over his head.
"No wires," he said, helpfully. "Besides, what would I fasten them to?"
"What the hell are you?" she whispered.
"Well," he said, "back in Metropolis, they call me Superman."
The ocean went on for miles. Tempus must have taken Lois right into the middle of the ocean, just to make sure that, even with the famous Lane luck, she wouldn't have a chance to make it back to shore. Clark was in no real hurry to reach land anyhow. He was doing something that he'd almost lost hope of ever doing again - flying with Lois Lane held securely in his arms, and this time it was a Lois Lane who was free; the Lois Lane of his own universe; the Lois that was meant for him.
Of course, she didn't know that, or anything else about him, and telling her that would almost certainly come across the wrong way. If he had learned anything about her from the other Lois and from what he had been told of her by others, Lois Lane depended on no one, and the very thought of anyone - or anything, even Fate itself - directing the course of her life was likely to cause her to declare war. No, he was going to have to go about this with extreme caution. Still, just the fact that he could plan a campaign to win her for his own was a heady feeling. Yesterday at this time, he couldn't have imagined the possibility of anything like it. Finally, finally his one real chance at happiness had arrived, and he wasn't going to do anything to risk it. It was too important.
Speaking of time, that was another problem. Where - and when - the heck were they? Tempus had jumped into time to escape the Brazzaville police and to kidnap Lois. They could have emerged in any year. He hoped that Wells had managed to escape the police raid or they might be marooned here for longer than they wanted. Hopefully the temporal beacon that still resided in his back pocket was still working and would allow the little man to track them, but of course he couldn't count on being found at once.
He glanced at Lois. She was staring down at the waves rushing below them, trying to look blase about the whole business, but he could hear her pulse still racing, although it had slowed somewhat from ten minutes before. Still, if he knew anything about Lois Lane, it wouldn't be long before she started asking questions. He'd better be ready to answer them - as directly and truthfully as possible.
As he had expected, after a few minutes she pulled her attention from the water and asked, "Do you have the time now?"
He glanced down. "I guess so."
"So, who are you, Clark Kent-Superman, and why were you looking for me- and how did you manage to turn up when you did? And what the devil was that machine?"
"Well ... maybe it would help if I started at the beginning - wherever that is," he said. Where was the beginning, after all, when time travel was involved? "For starters, that machine was a time travel device, and Tempus is a time-traveler."
"Yeah, right. And I'm the editor of the Daily Planet."
"I said you wouldn't believe it," he said mildly. "Think about it for a minute, though. How did we get out of that warehouse in Brazzaville into the middle of the ocean in such a short time, without flying over a lot of territory?"
She was silent for a long moment. "I guess you've got a point," she finally admitted, somewhat grudgingly. "What about you, though? Are you a time traveler too? I'd say you must be, if you've got some kind of anti-gravity device or something on you."
"Well," he said, "I guess I am in a way, but I don't have a time travel machine, and I definitely don't have an anti-gravity device on me."
"Right! Like you can fly under your own power."
"Actually, I can," he said with a smile. "I'm only from four years in your future, and we haven't invented anti-gravity yet. It's just that I'm not from Earth."
"An alien, too?" she said. "You're right. This is straight out of Star Trek."
"No, but it's almost as fantastic," he said. "I'm really not from Earth. I'm from a planet called Krypton that blew up when I was a baby. My parents apparently sent me to Earth because I look like a human and could fit in. And I came back in time to find you and save your life. In my time, everyone thinks you're dead - killed in the Congo."
"I would have been," she said. "I guess I should say thanks, anyway."
"Don't strain yourself," he said dryly.
"I don't mean it like that," she protested. "This is just a lot to take in. I guess I have to accept the stuff about time travel, since I saw this Tempus guy's time machine in person. But why would you come back to save me? You don't even know me!"
"Well, I don't understand all of it, either," he said, "but would you like to suspend belief for a bit and hear the Reader's Digest version?"
She cocked her head, looking at him measuringly. "All right, go ahead."
"Okay. Tempus is a criminal from a couple of centuries in the future. From what I've gathered, the time that he comes from is kind of a Utopia. It has little or no crime or violence. Tempus is kind of a misfit. He wants to destroy that future and produce one that he's happier in, so he came back to attack the source: the people ultimately responsible for it."
"Don't tell me. I'm one of them?"
"So you came back to save me?"
He nodded. "Herb - my time-traveling companion - has been hunting for you for some time, because without you the future is apparently pretty much a mess a hundred years or so down the line. We knew you disappeared in the Congo in 1993. Anyhow, he showed up this afternoon with the information that he'd discovered what had happened to you and that we had to go back and undo it, or else."
"So you did."
"Yeah. So far. Now we have to find out where we are, and hope Herb can locate us."
"What do you mean?"
"When Tempus kidnapped you, he ducked into whatever dimension he uses to time travel in. I have no idea where we came out - or maybe I should say 'when' we came out."
"You mean we're lost?"
"Maybe, maybe not. I'm carrying a beacon that Herb can use to track me."
"Then he can find us?"
"I hope so. It's probably waterproof. The only thing that worries me is that he was in the warehouse with me when it got raided. I hope the police don't find him - or if they do, that he can talk them out of arresting him. If he can't, then it may be a while before he can come get us."
"But if he can go anywhere in time, it shouldn't matter how long he's locked up," Lois said with surprising practicality. "He should be able to come to whenever we are without it seeming long to us."
"I sure hope so," Clark said. "I'm not very experienced with this time traveling stuff. I was thinking that if they keep him too long, someone's going to find his time machine, and then we could be in real trouble."
"Oh." Lois glanced around. "Do you have any idea where we are - except that we're over ocean?"
"I think we're in tropical waters," Clark said. "Other than that, we'll find out when we reach land."
Lois pointed. "Is that land?"
He followed her pointing finger, a little surprised that she had noticed before he had. "It's an island. Let's take a look."
He poured on the speed and the ocean became a blur under them. A few seconds later, they were hovering over a very small, very tropical island.
But not uninhabited. Scanning it with his enhanced vision, he could see grass huts and brown-skinned people wearing clothing that obviously hadn't come from Saks Fifth Avenue or any other retail outfit that he knew of. What there was of it. And these people obviously had never heard of a prohibition on the killing of endangered species of birds or anything else ...
"Oh boy," he said.
"That island. It's inhabited by what looks like Polynesian Islanders. Primitive ones."
"How can you tell?" she asked.
"The grass huts, spears and animal skins kind of gave it away," he said.
"No, I mean how can you see anything? All I see is a bunch of green stuff."
"Oh. X-ray vision and telescopic vision. I told you I'm not from Earth."
""Really?" She stared at him with wide eyes. "What else can you do?"
"Well, I'm a lot stronger than a normal human man, and pretty fast. I can hear very well, and - well, a lot of things. I'll tell you later. The question is, what should we do now?"
"Do you know what island that is?" she asked.
He shrugged. "No. Just one of a hundred little islands in this area. I think we're in the South Pacific, though."
"Well, if you know that, then you should know which way to go to get us to the States," Lois said.
"If there even is a United States at this time in history," Clark said. "All right; the States it is. If we wait for Herb in Metropolis - or where Metropolis should be -he can probably find us without too much trouble."
"Assuming he does find us, of course," Lois said. "I don't suppose you have the stuff you need to build a time machine, do you?"
He shook his head regretfully. "I'm afraid not."
"That's what I was afraid of," Lois said. She sighed. "Oh well. At least I'm alive, and that's a lot better than the alternative."
"I know you said we're in the tropics," Lois said a short time later, "but I wish my clothes would get dry. I guess it's taking a while because of the humidity."
"Why didn't you say so?" Clark asked instantly. "Just a minute while I find another island and I'll take care of it."
"You've got a disguised clothes dryer in your pocket?" she asked.
"No, but I can dry your clothes," he said, grinning slightly. "There's one a little off to the right."
The island was tiny, no more than ten acres of ground, but even here plants grew abundantly. He touched down and set her on her feet.
"Now what?" she asked, the wary look returning. "If you think I'm going to take off my clothes so you can hang them up to dry, think again, pal."
"Wouldn't dream of it," he assured her. "Raise your arms from your sides and hold still."
Casting him a dubious look, she obeyed and he fanned his heat vision over her, concentrating on the clothing. He saw her eyes widen as steam began to rise from the cloth but she didn't move as he walked slowly around her, drying her clothes.
When he had finished he stood back, trying not to grin. "How's that?"
"How did you do that?" she demanded.
"Heat vision," he said. "Remember, I'm not ..."
"From Earth," she finished for him. "You've convinced me, but you still look like a man to me."
"I am a man," he said. "Just like you're a woman."
She flushed. "I feel like a pretty scruffy woman right now," she said. "I don't suppose you have a hairbrush in that bag of tricks of yours."
"No, but I have a pocket comb." He produced it. "Will this help?"
"It sure will." She took the offering and he waited while she tugged the comb through her hair. "Ugh," she added. "The salt water sure makes it sticky."
"If we come across a larger island with a lake or something, we can stop while you rinse off the salt," he suggested. "I promise not to peek."
He watched her cheeks darken. "No, really, my parents taught me better than that. I promise, you're safe with me."
"I'm beginning to realize that," she said. "Here's your comb," she added, returning the item to him. "I've done about all I can do until we get somewhere a little more civilized."
"Don't worry," he told her. "You look pretty decent, actually."
"That's reassuring. As for your offer, I'd like that - if you can be sure there aren't any natives around. I don't fancy being captured and made to marry the tribal chief or something."
He laughed. "You can count on me. Shall we go?"
They had been flying for another five minutes when Lois asked suddenly, "Who are the others?"
That one was out of left field. "What others?"
"The others necessary for this Utopia you talked about to happen? You said this Tempus guy came back to attack the people responsible for making the future into a kind of Utopia. That means I wasn't the only one. Who else did he attack?"
"Oh." He hesitated and had to remind himself sharply of what his father used to say. "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember which lies you told. Honesty is the best policy." He drew a breath. "He attacked me."
"You?" she stared at him. After a moment, she nodded. "Yes, I guess I can see that. A man with your powers ..." She hesitated. "But if he attacked you, why did you come back to help me? Weren't you afraid he'd go after you again?"
Clark shrugged. "It all has to do with time. He came here first to attack you, then he apparently came to 1996 to attack me, after he disposed of you - or so he thought. This time travel thing is confusing. Anyway, in my timeline, he attacked me last year. If he'd succeeded in taking me out, the chaotic future he was trying to create would have happened a lot sooner, or so Herb told me. My presence delayed it, but to prevent it from happening, we needed you, too - so Herb and I came after you."
"I guess I see," she said. "You're right. Time travel is confusing. So, what happens after this Herb finds us? How do you know Tempus won't attack me again when he realizes he's failed?"
"Well ..." he bit his lip, trying to think of an easy way to explain it. "You have to come back to 1997."
"What? Now just a minute ..."
"Look, Lois," Clark said, patiently, "you can get Herb to explain it to you, assuming he finds us, but there's a good reason why it has to be that way. Where I come from, you've been missing for four years. That's why we searched for you and stopped Tempus from killing you. If you aren't missing then we won't search for you - and by not searching for you, we allow Tempus to kill you, which starts up this timeline again. Herb told me that it might set up an alternating time loop that would cause disaster for the whole world. Do you want to risk that?"
She was silent for a long time when he finished speaking. "No," she said finally, in a small voice.
"No, I don't want to risk it. What you're saying is that I'd be doing this forever, over and over again, wouldn't I?"
"I guess so," he said. "I'm just repeating what Herb told me. He knows a lot more about this time travel stuff than I do. I never read much science fiction when I was a kid."
She had turned her face away, and after a few seconds, he realized she was crying and didn't want him to see it.
"Lois," he said softly.
She didn't answer. He tried again. "Lois, I know it's a little scary, but there's an up side to this, too. Think about the people who will be glad to know that you're alive."
"Perry, for one. I think it nearly broke his heart when he thought you'd been killed."
"Okay, one person. Big deal."
"Your sister, Lucy. I've talked to her a little. She misses you more than you think. She told me a little about your family, too. Your mother started drinking again after you disappeared, you know. She's dried out now, but I think knowing you're alive will make a big difference."
Lois sighed, turning her head to look at him. "I know. I guess I do know that she loves Lucy and me. She just doesn't know how to show it."
"Just keep that in mind," he said. "And there's this too." He grinned at her. "Now you'll be younger than your sister."
"This is a good thing?"
"Well, a lot of women might think so. In the course of things, you'd be thirty in 1997. Instead, you'll be twenty-five, going on twenty-six, since it's nearly Christmas there, and you went to the Congo in early '93. Is that so bad?"
Now she was looking thoughtful. "Actually, it isn't," she admitted. "You're right; this time travel stuff is confusing as heck. But how did you know my age?"
He hesitated again. The truth. "I read the date you were born on your tombstone, but I'm happy to say the rumors of your death were greatly exaggerated. I think everyone else will be, too."
"Well, maybe a few," she admitted somewhat grudgingly. "I don't have many friends around the newsroom."
"Perry's talked about you, a lot," he said. "From everything he's said, he thought the world of you. I have to admit, I wanted to meet you."
"You know Perry?"
"Sure. I told you I'm a reporter, remember? I work for the Daily Planet. I joined the staff a few months after you disappeared."
She was silent for several minutes after that revelation. The blue water rolled past beneath. Once they passed a school of dolphins, leaping and cavorting in the waves, and here and there he could see the occasional seagull. There had to be land not too far away if there were gulls.
"Island coming up," he announced as a land mass loomed on the horizon. "Looks too small to have what we want, but I think ..." He focused his enhanced vision on it. "That's Niihau."
"Nii - what?"
"It's a little island in the Pacific Ocean with very little rainfall, but the good news is that it's the farthest west of the Hawaiian Island chain - which means that what we're looking for is coming up in a minute." He smiled at her. "How does Kauai sound for a bath- minus any Twentieth Century amenities, of course."
"Are there people?" she asked.
"Yes, but I think we can avoid them."
"It sounds good to me," Lois said.
Clark stood on the riverbank, keeping his eyes away from the water where Lois was currently bathing. Her clothing, newly rinsed and dried, courtesy of his heat vision, was spread over several bushes, waiting for their owner to reclaim them.
The sound of splashing behind him increased. Lois said, "I feel like Jane in the old Tarzan movies. Any sign of the owners of this place?"
While floating over the island, looking for a place for Lois to bathe, they had spotted not only a village populated by Polynesians dressed in feathers and animal skins, but quite a few groups of muscular, scantily-clad, golden-skinned men, apparently fishing with woven nets in the aquamarine waters that surrounded the island. In the village, they had seen small, naked children playing, and women dressed in grass skirts, not in the least like the commercial grass skirts he had seen on hula dancers of modern day Hawaii. These were made of the natural grasses native to the island, and the women wore nothing at all above the waist. Lois had looked down at the village and its inhabitants in silence, and admitted, as they soared over the waving fields of island grasses, that she was now completely convinced that this was not the Hawaii she had visited some years ago.
"Nobody nearby," he reported. "Are you done?"
"I feel much better," Lois said. "Just keep your back turned while I get dressed."
More splashing as she climbed from the water, and then the rustle of foliage as she reclaimed her clothing. He resolutely didn't look around.
There was a slap. "Missed," she said. "I guess they had mosquitoes here, even way back whenever we are."
"Or biting insects of some kind," Clark agreed. "I'm afraid even paradise has those."
"It's the tropics," she said. "I've gotten used to them, unfortunately." More rustling as she pulled up her jeans. "They don't seem to bother you, though."
"They can't bite me," he explained.
"What do you mean? Do you taste bad to them or something?"
"My skin is impenetrable," he said.
"You mean you can't be hurt?"
"Not by ordinary means," he said.
"Oh." The sound of a zipper. "But if you can't be hurt, how could Tempus attack you?"
He had to grin. Trust Lois to pick right up on that little discrepancy. "I said I can't be hurt by ordinary means. Remind me to tell you about a certain glowing green rock sometime. That's a whole other story. Let's say, he knows exactly what will harm me, but I made sure he didn't see that I was here. I didn't want to tip him off that I'd come to help you until it was too late."
"You can turn around now," Lois said. "And may I borrow your comb again?"
He turned, fishing the comb out of his pocket once more. Lois took it and began to tug it through her hair. Fortunately, he thought, she didn't have one of those overly complicated hairdos like a perm or something. Her hair was a simply styled and flattering page-boy cut that just brushed her shoulders, and probably wasn't particularly difficult to care for. When they had first met, the Lois from the other universe had favored a shorter and more intricate arrangement that would certainly be impossible to do much with in the circumstances they now faced. By their second meeting the style had softened somewhat, but he still preferred the one the Lois of his universe wore. As a matter of fact, there wasn't anything about her that he didn't like, from her sharp, practical observations, to the way she seemed, at least according to Perry White, to defy the universe on a regular basis, and somehow come out more or less unscathed. And the incredibly familiar way she fit in his arms when he carried her. It was exactly as if he had known how it would feel and had expected it. And it felt right.
"Are you there?" She waved a hand in front of his face.
He blinked. "Sure. Why?"
"The way you were staring at me. You kind of zoned out on me."
He could feel his cheeks burning. "Sorry. I guess I've heard so much about you from Perry that I keep expecting you to pull the solution to this mess out of thin air. You kind of have this reputation."
"Oh, that," Lois said. "The reputation of plunging head first into dangerous situations and somehow walking away from them?"
He shrugged. "Kind of."
She gave a short laugh, handing him back his comb. "Clark, I have that kind of reputation because I get involved with my stories a lot more than a good journalist should. I have this habit of jumping in headfirst without checking the water level." She ran a hand over her hair. "I had the feeling I shouldn't meet Mr. Temple at the warehouse tonight, but my informant said that he had a tip for me about the gunrunners, and I couldn't resist - and look where it got me. If it hadn't been for you, I'd have been shark bait. Perry used to claim that I was making him old before his time, but he loved the stories I brought in." She shrugged. "I should know better by now, but it's the only way I know how to do it, and so I keep jumping in without checking first. One of these days my luck is going to run out."
"Not if I can help it." The words were out before he could stop them.
She laughed dryly. "In that case, you've just acquired a 24/7 job."
"If that's what it takes." He shrugged. "You're worth it."
"If you think so, then you're the only one who does," she said.
He tucked the comb into his back pocket and stepped forward to lift her from the ground. A moment later, they were soaring over the island in a warm, rising current.
"Why do you say that?" he asked. "I can't believe I'm the only one who ever noticed what a remarkable person you are."
"If anyone did, they were good at keeping it secret." She turned her head to look down at the greenery passing under them. "I'm not anything special, Clark. I never was."
He couldn't believe what he was hearing. This woman was everything he'd dreamed of, and yet she had no idea how unbelievably special she really was. "Don't you think you should let me decide without trying to prejudice me?" he asked, trying not to smile.
She shrugged. "What I don't understand is why I'm so important to the future. What is it about me that makes the difference? If anyone could make a difference, I'd think it would be someone like you, not me."
"Well ..." He hesitated. How could he explain it without ruining his chances with her? "According to the little that Herb told me, the key is the two of us together. In the future, you and I apparently promote certain principles that the people in future generations use as the foundation of their society. That's a pretty big job. Neither one of us can accomplish it alone - not even Superman."
"I guess not." She had turned to look at him again. "You know," she said with forced lightness, "it isn't really fair."
"That you know so much about me and I don't know anything about you except your name, and a little of what you can do. Tell me about yourself."
He'd known it was coming, of course, ever since he'd saved her life. It couldn't be avoided, and in a way he was just as happy that she had asked now, while they were still just acquaintances. If the subject of the other Lois had come up after they became closer, she might very well have formed the wrong ideas about the whole episode. Now it was just part of the whole story. He hoped.
"Where should I start?" he asked.
"How about where you were sent to Earth?" she asked. "Or don't you know much about it?"
"Not a whole lot," he said. "Apparently Krypton, the planet I came from, was going to explode, so my parents built me a ship and sent me to Earth because the people here look like me - or I look like them. They wanted me to be able to live like everyone else. Of course, I suspect they didn't realize that I'd have these incredible powers after I grew up. At least if they did, they didn't mention it."
"I'd think that would be something they would think was important enough to warn you about," Lois said. "But if they were able to build space ships, why couldn't they save themselves?"
"I don't know, but I suspect the technology may have been pretty new. The fact that the planet was going to explode might not have been known until it was too late to do much. I can't really answer that, except as an educated guess, because the message they sent with me was pretty short and specific. Naturally, I don't remember anything about it."
"Message? How old were you?"
He shrugged. "Mom and Dad found me when I was somewhere around two or three months old. Anyway, they convinced the town's doctor that I was the illegitimate child of one of her cousins, so he produced a birth certificate for me and I became their son, Clark. From what I understand, that was done a lot at that time, for the sake of the baby. Illegitimate kids had a harder time back then than they do now."
"I know. Go on."
"Well, I was about ten when Mom and Dad were killed in a car accident. I saw it happen, but there wasn't anything I could do about it. I was pretty fast even then, but not fast enough."
"I'm sorry," she said.
He shrugged. "It was a long time ago. After that, I kind of bounced around between various foster homes. It was kind of difficult because all these weird things were happening to me when my powers were coming in, and I couldn't talk about them to anyone. The only person I told was a girl I went to school with - Lana Lang. She told me to hide them, or the government would take me away to some laboratory and dissect me like a frog to find out why I could do these things - so I kept it quiet. When I graduated from high school I won a bunch of scholarships and went to Midwestern State, with a major in journalism. After that, I worked for the Smallville Press for a while, and eventually became the editor. About that time, I asked Lana to marry me." He shook his head. "That was probably one of the worst mistakes of my life. She accepted, and then kind of took over. Her father was a pretty influential businessman, and made us promise to wait until I was established in a better career, and I agreed. I think Lana was kind of relieved that it wasn't going to happen right away, anyhow. Eventually, her dad used his contacts to get me a spot at the Daily Planet. I'd been there about three years when things went crazy."
"That would have been in 1996, right?" Lois had obviously been putting the timeline together from everything he had told her.
"That's right. Lana and her dad were pressuring me to go into her Dad's business at that point. I guess I'd shown that I didn't intend to try to live off her family's money, and that I could hold down a responsible job. Lana had finally set the wedding date, and we were in the middle of all the preparations for the wedding in Metropolis." He shrugged. "I know I sound like kind of a wimp, but you have to know Lana. She's one of these people who manage everything, and I kind of got swept along."
"I think I get the picture," Lois said, and he could swear that she was trying not to grin. "Go on."
"Well, I'd been out talking to her dad at lunch, while he was trying to talk me into coming to work for him. I was resisting, a bit feebly, but I hadn't agreed yet, anyway. I walked back into the newsroom and this absolutely stunning woman, that I'd never seen before in my life, called out my name and came running across the room, threw her arms around me and kissed me." He grinned a little. "If I'd had my wits about me I might have taken more advantage of the situation, but I didn't."
"Who was she?" Lois asked.
"Well, I had no idea, but then Perry introduced her as Lois Lane, who had disappeared in the Congo in 1993 and been presumed dead."
"Yeah. Anyway, she had this little man with her, that she called Herb. She'd just appeared a few minutes before, and Perry was so overjoyed that he could hardly see straight." Clark cast her a quick glance, trying to judge her reaction. She was looking at him with a slight frown, but he thought she looked more as if she were trying to figure out what had happened rather than angry. "Lana showed up somewhere about then and was a little upset to see this unknown woman with me who apparently knew me pretty well. It wasn't until later that I got the whole story."
"And what was the story?"
He gave a faint grin and shook his head. "It's a weird one, but it was true. I saw the proof. You see, she really was Lois Lane. She looked like you, only a little bit older, and the man she was with was my friend Herb - only his name is really Herbert George Wells."
"Herbert George ... HG Wells? The writer?"
"That's the one. Apparently Mr. Wells did more than write early science fiction in the late 1800s."
"I guess so! On the other hand," Lois said, "I guess it's no weirder than everything else that's happened today. Go on."
"You're taking this better than I was afraid you would," he said, "but it gets even weirder. It turned out that she was the Lois Lane from a parallel universe - don't ask me, I told you I never read science fiction as a kid - where things were sort of the same, but not quite. There's another Clark Kent there, too, and another Perry White, and even another James Olsen - only there he's Jimmy Olsen, the Planet's junior photographer and computer whiz, not a business genius. Go figure."
"I don't know," Lois said. "After what's happened today, I'm not sure there could be anything much weirder, but at least I've heard of parallel universes. It's a pretty common concept in science fiction. I guess it's just another kind of time travel. So then what happened?"
"Well," Clark said, "it all ties in with Tempus."
"I figured it had to." She shook her head. "The guy sounds like a real nutcase."
"I think the term is megalomaniac," Clark said. "It turned out that Tempus had grabbed up Herb and Lois and dropped them in our universe without a way back in an attempt to destroy the Utopia of their universe as well as ours."
Lois was frowning. "Why would he bring a copy of me here after he'd gone to so much trouble to get rid of me?"
"That, of course, is the big question," Clark said. "I'm not explaining it very well, but it seems that he needed you to help create Superman in our universe so he could characterize me as the enemy and destroy me. Tempus has lots of grandiose plans and a nasty sense of humor, but I suspect he's not as smart as he'd like to think he is. He hadn't realized until after he'd disposed of you that apparently Lois Lane is the critical factor - at least according to Herb - in the creation of Superman. In both universes. You weren't there, so he had to come up with a substitute."
"But if he was trying to destroy this utopian future, why did he want to create Superman?"
"You're asking me to think like him," Clark said, "which is twisted thinking at best, but apparently in the other universe, that Clark Kent and Lois Lane work as partners, and they have this habit of coming back from certain defeat, no matter what he or anybody else does. I suspect he wanted to be sure both his worst opponents were dead, and put himself in the position of a hero to the people of Metropolis. You might have noticed his tendency to overkill earlier today."
"Dumping me in the past, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and, of course, the shark," Lois said. "It hadn't completely escaped my attention. Anyway, I take it his scheme backfired."
"It did," Clark said. "Lois created Superman as Tempus had intended. Tempus exposed Superman as Clark Kent - me - but then things blew up on him. She saved me from him, exposed Tempus for the criminal that he was, and it turned out that people didn't want to dissect me after all. The only thing was, Lana didn't want me to be Superman and told me that it was Superman or her. That was when we broke up."
"She broke up with you?" She asked the question with what sounded more like curiosity than any stronger emotion. "Why?"
He bit his lip. "She didn't want me to be different. She wanted me to join her father's business and not get my hands dirty helping out other people. I think the whole idea of all the public attention scared her." He sighed almost inaudibly. "It scared me too, a little, but I couldn't not be Superman, Lois. Once the secret was out, I realized that it was something that I'd wanted all my life - to be able to use what I could do to help people. Your duplicate helped me to see that, but Lana wasn't willing to accept those conditions - so she gave me back my ring."
She nodded, her expression impossible to read. "So then what happened?"
"Not much. Wells found Tempus's time machine, and he and the alternate Lois went back to their own universe. Herb came back, though - once to bring me to the other universe to help when Tempus almost managed to destroy my counterpart there - and then to help me find you. He'd been responsible for Tempus finding out how to build a time machine in the first place, and so he felt obligated to help undo all the damage Tempus has tried to do since - in both our universes. And that brings us to where we are now."
Lois was silent a moment, apparently digesting what he'd told her. "Wow," she said at last. "That's some story. If all this stuff hadn't happened today, I wouldn't believe a word of it."
"Do you?" he asked.
"Surprisingly, yes. I kind of feel like I've stepped through the looking glass, and the Red Queen's going to show up any moment, but I actually do believe you - but tell me this doesn't happen to you very often."
He snorted. "If I have any say, I'll never do this time traveling thing again, after we get back to 1997."
"Let's hope not," she said. "I do have a question, though."
"Why did she kiss you?"
He'd forgotten her talent for picking up on details like that. The truth, Clark, and just hope she doesn't get mad. "It turned out that in the alternate universe, that Lois Lane and Clark Kent were engaged to be married, and she'd sort of mistaken me for him."
Her eyes widened slightly. "Married? I guess that's one difference, then. I tend to scare men away."
"Well, they worked pretty closely together," he remarked. "The two universes are similar but not identical. In that one, for instance, my duplicate's parents are still alive. I met them when I was there. By that time Lois was married to the other Clark. I met him, too. That was a really strange experience."
"I guess so," she said. "Did you like her?"
Jealousy, he wondered, or just curiosity? He hoped it was at least a little of the former. "Well, sure." He found that she was studying the hands clasped tightly in her lap, and all he could see was the top of her head. The truth, buddy. Nothing else will do for this lady. "I liked her a lot. I only knew her for a couple of days, but she completely changed my life. If it hadn't been for her, I'd have married Lana and spent the rest of my life trying to hide what I can do. As it was, she turned my entire world upside down, but she motivated me to become something a lot more, and I'll always be grateful to her."
She nodded. "I can understand that. I'm glad to know that if we have to work together that there's a good chance we'll like each other."
"Me, too," he said. "Anyhow, after they left, I started asking questions and trying to find out what had happened to you. Perry said you'd disappeared in the Congo in 1993 while trying to track down the source of the guns flooding Metropolis, but I couldn't find any trace of you. Herb guessed that Tempus might be behind your disappearance, since he'd tried so hard to destroy me." He shifted his grip on her slightly. "The other Lois was a very sharp lady. After meeting her, I really wanted to meet the original. I'm not disappointed, either."
"Am I like her?"
He nodded. "In a lot of ways, you are. She looked like you, only a few years older. You're obviously just as intelligent, and you've got courage to spare. I guess there have to be certain qualities that both of you have, or your influence in the creation of the future societies wouldn't be so critical. Still, I can see differences, too. I think you're less high strung than she was, for one. You don't seem to get upset easily, which can't be a bad thing." He grinned. "You don't seem as stubborn, either."
She smacked his hand lightly. "I'll have you know I've won prizes for stubbornness, Kent. It's just a matter of picking the right things to be stubborn about."
"True," he agreed, trying to keep his face straight.
She laughed, too. "I never thought I'd be bragging about being stubborn!"
"That's okay. I'd say it's useful in your job. One thing's for sure, Perry will be happy to see you when we get back, assuming we don't have to become colonists at Plymouth Rock."
"There's that," she agreed. "I don't think I'd make a very good Puritan."
"Neither would I," he said. "In any case, I'm not giving up on Herb. He can be exasperating at times, but he's surprisingly good at getting himself out of trouble. For one thing, people tend to underestimate him."
"That's always useful," Lois said. "How is Perry these days? I know he and Alice were going through a rough spot in their marriage when I left for the Congo. Are they still married?"
"Yes, actually they are - but he's not the editor of the Planet anymore."
"You mean he retired? He'd be bored stiff!"
"Well, yes and no. A few months after I came to the Planet, there was some kind of corporate scandal and the owner had to sell. You know who James Olsen is, don't you?"
"Sure. The boy genius. He made a fortune in the computer field."
"Well, he bought the Planet from Lex Luthor. He and Luthor have been business rivals for several years, I guess. Anyway, when all that stuff happened, Mr. Olsen convinced Perry to run for Mayor against Tempus. After Lois exposed Tempus, Perry won hands down, and he's the Mayor. Alice has turned into a terrific political hostess. I have dinner with them about once a month."
"Wow," Lois said. She turned her head. "Hey, it's starting to get dark."
"It's night on the west coast of North America," Clark said. "The mainland is coming over the horizon now."
Any remaining hope that Clark might have harbored, that somehow he had been wrong about the time period in which Tempus had dropped them, was extinguished as they approached the coast of California - or the place that would be California who knew how far in the future. In their century, the southern coastline would have been ablaze with lights, but here all he could see was wilderness and dark. The sun had set behind them as they continued their eastward flight, and only the faintest pink haze remained in the western sky. Above them, the stars blazed brilliantly, brighter than he had ever seen them before. The moon had not yet risen and below them the sea was faintly luminous with sparks of starlight dancing from the tips of the wavelets. Scanning the landmass ahead of them, he could see only darkness ... no, there, some miles inland, he could see the light of a small campfire. Dark muscular figures moved around it. Native Americans, he thought. This was definitely not the California he knew.
"It's all dark," Lois said. "I've never seen California like this."
"Neither have I," Clark said. "It pretty much confirms what we thought might be true."
"Great," Lois said. "I believed you, but I was hoping you were wrong about when we are. When are we?"
"Your guess is at least as good as mine. All I can see are a few little cooking fires a ways inland, and native people. I'd say the Europeans haven't got here yet."
"Terrific." Lois's tone said she didn't think it was terrific at all. "What's next on the agenda?"
"I guess we head for the east coast," Clark said. "It's possible there are some colonies there. Hopefully, we didn't beat Columbus here, anyway. In any case, we should find a relatively safe spot to wait for Herb. Maybe we should just go and find a deserted tropical island and stay there instead. You'd probably be more comfortable."
"Yeah. I'm not exactly dressed for cold weather," Lois said, "and winters in Metropolis are pretty cold."
"Say the word and that's what we'll do," he said.
"I think we should at least go look. Besides, do you have any idea what season we're in right now?"
Clark glanced up, scanning the heavens. There was Gemini, Leo, and Canis Major and Minor. Prominent in the eastern sky where it was darkest, the constellation of Orion shone down. "Winter."
"How can you tell? It's not that cold."
"Depending on the time of year, there are different constellations in the night sky. If you look east and south you can see Canis Major. A little north of it and not quite so far to the east is Orion. Orion shows up at night at the beginning of December, and he's right there. It's winter, all right."
"What did you do? Memorize an astronomy book?" she asked. "It doesn't feel that cold to me."
"Don't forget, we're off the coast of what will eventually be Los Angeles. Southern California. Also, I'm carrying you. I found out a while back that something about my super powers seems to protect anyone I'm carrying from the wind and extremes of temperature." Clark resisted the temptation to hold her closer. They hadn't reached that stage of their new relationship yet, but he was already sure that this Lois was even more suited to him than the woman he had first met. She felt incredibly good in his arms, and her scent - which no one but he would even have noticed - nearly made him dizzy. She might think she frightened men off, but maybe he could surprise her. Right now, however, rushing her was the last thing he needed to do.
"Really?" she said. "That's incredible! Do you know why it works like that?"
"There's a scientist at STAR Labs who's been studying it," he explained. "He says it's some kind of energy field that I produce. It's why my costume doesn't get shredded when I'm holding a bomb and it explodes or something."
"You can actually do that? I mean, I know you said that nothing can hurt you, but I sort of didn't connect it to bombs or anything."
"Sure. The only thing that I've found that can hurt me, at least so far, is a rock. Actually it's a crystal, from - we think - my home planet. It produces radiation that apparently doesn't hurt humans, but can kill me. It's easy to spot, though, because it's bright green and glows. I've only seen one piece. It was the one Tempus had when he used it on me in front of everyone. The scientist I mentioned has that one, and has been studying it practically ever since it happened."
"You're sure you can trust this guy?"
He nodded. "Bernie is a good friend of mine. He wouldn't do anything to hurt me"
"But I bet a lot of other people would," Lois said. "Especially if you should happen to get in the way of their business, and it's my guess you do. How many people know about this stuff?"
"Well," Clark said, wondering where this was going, "A lot of people saw the broadcast, but after Lois threw it to get it away from me, Perry found it and asked me what he should do with it. I didn't know, but Mr. Olsen suggested Dr. Klein. They were very careful not to let the information get out. A few people asked about it but since no one but Lois knew anything about it until later, no one got any answers."
"But this Tempus guy knows about it?"
"Unfortunately, he does," Clark admitted. "Bernie is trying to come up with some kind of antidote, or maybe a vaccine for it, so I won't have to worry about it in the future, but he hasn't had much luck so far."
"Hmmph. Well, if you and I both have to be present for this Utopia to come about, we'd better figure out what to do if that Tempus joker shows up again," Lois said firmly. "Isn't there anything that will protect you from this green stuff?"
"It's called Kryptonite," Clark said. "Lead blocks the radiation, or that's what Lois told me. I guess she had reason to know."
"But nothing else?"
He shook his head. "Not that I know of."
"Well, where did he get it? Did the other Lois have any idea?"
"If she did, she didn't say," Clark said. "I just assumed he brought it from the other universe."
Lois snorted. "You know what they say about assumptions! There may be a Superman there, but there's also one here, so that means there's probably Kryptonite here too, no matter if Tempus got his from the other universe or not! We need to sit down and figure out where it might have come from in our world!"
"It was a meteorite," Clark said. "I don't know that there's any way to tell where he might have found it."
"Don't be silly. If there was no way, it's not that likely that Tempus would have found it in either universe. How many rocks are there on Earth, anyway? Zillions! Think about it a minute. Your home planet wasn't anywhere close to Earth, was it?"
"I don't think so," Clark said. "My father - my Kryptonian father, that is - talked about searching a long time for a world that was suitable for me. That doesn't sound like it was exactly next door."
"Okay, then how did it get here within our lifetime? Meteors don't usually travel faster than light."
He found himself staring at her in amazement. She had known him only a few hours and she had already figured out things that had never occurred to him about himself. "It had to have somehow come in with my ship. There wasn't any other way it could have gotten here so fast. He must have found it near Shuster's Field, where the ship landed."
"That's what I think. When we get back to 1997, if we do, then we need to go look. It might not have been the only piece that got here."
"Wow," he said softly. "You are incredible!"
He couldn't help a slightly incredulous laugh at her obvious confusion. "Now I understand why you're so indispensable to the future," he said, "even if you don't."
She was staring at him as if he had two heads. "What brought this on?"
"I know why you're essential," he said, and he could feel his face almost cracking with the broad grin that was impossible to suppress. "It's obvious that you're the brains of this outfit, Ms. Lane."
"Did I miss a step somewhere?" she asked, "because I haven't got a clue what you're talking about."
"I just had one of those dramatic revelations they talk about in books," he said. "You know - the kind where the scales fall from the hero's eyes and he sees everything clearly? I just figured it all out."
"Then I wish you'd explain it to me," she said, sounding faintly exasperated, "besides, I don't read those kind of cheesy stories. I'm a science fiction junkie from way back."
He laughed outright. "That figures. That's probably why you were even willing to listen to the whole crazy story. Lois, it's obvious to me that Superman needs you more than I had any idea of, super powers or not. You're brilliant! It never even occurred to me to think about how Tempus got the Kryptonite, or where it might have come from. You've known me about four hours and you've already figured it out. That's why we're both necessary for the future. Neither one of us can do it alone, but together we can be a formidable team - just like the Lois and Clark in the alternate universe."
She was nodding. "I think I get it. You did say that Tempus wanted to get rid of you because he was afraid we'd come back from certain defeat, just like they do."
"Exactly." The grin still wouldn't go away, and slowly her mouth curved in an answering smile.
"I guess we're partners then," she said. "One way or another."
"I guess so." They grinned at each other like a pair of mischievous children.
While they had been speaking, they crossed the line from water to land. The sandy beach beneath them was pristine and unpopulated by humans. Clark could never recall seeing a beach completely uncluttered by litter or the signs of human occupation. No beer bottles, no fast food wrappers, no aluminum soda cans. Not even a lost beach towel or flip-flop. It was a surprisingly lonely feeling.
"That's kind of scary," Lois said at the same instant.
"All that wide open land underneath us, and not a city to be seen," she said. "No lights, no freeways, no cars ... nothing."
"No towns, no tilled fields," Clark said. "We're back before the United States existed."
"Do you really think your friend Herb can find us?" Lois asked. "I really don't fancy being stuck here for the rest of my life."
"I think he can," Clark said. "We'd better hope so."
"I'm beginning to think more seriously about that tropical island," Lois said. "This is spooky. Could Mr. Wells find us if we were on some little island somewhere, do you think?"
"That machine of his can take us anywhere is space and time," Clark said. "If he can use it, he can find us. Assuming he's alive."
"I'd still like to find out when we are," Lois said.
"We're headed east," Clark said. "We'll find out pretty soon."
The dark countryside below them swept smoothly past. Clark flew east and slightly north, and the air grew thinner and colder as they crossed the Sierra Nevada range, with its crown of snow glowing palely in the starlight. The moon was rising as they progressed, huge, round and milky white, flooding the landscape with ghostly radiance.
They crossed the wide desert of the North American southwest, angling north. Clark flew faster now, holding Lois more closely as they rose to cross the Rocky Mountains. She yawned, looking down at the snow-covered peaks. "Would you mind very much if I try to get some sleep?" She glanced at her watch. "No wonder I'm tired. I've been up for nearly twenty hours. Maybe we should stop and find a place to sleep. We could probably make a fire to keep warm."
"Are you warm enough now?"
"Then try to get some sleep. I'm going to keep going."
"Aren't you tired?"
"No. I don't need as much sleep as ordinary people."
"Naturally. How ..." The sentence was interrupted by a wide yawn. "How am I supposed to keep up with you?"
He grinned. "Somehow, I don't think you'll have nearly as much trouble as you think you will."
"Lois," Clark said, "wake up."
Lois stirred in his arms, and then her eyelids flew open. "Who ... Oh, it's you."
"Who else did you think it would be?" he asked.
"I was dreaming. I was back in Metropolis, having dinner at the Fudge Castle, and somebody brought in this huge turkey all made out of chocolate. That was when you woke me up."
"I guess you like chocolate, huh?" Clark said, deadpan.
"I'd kill for a double fudge crunch bar right now," she said, wistfully. "They weren't available in Brazzaville and my supply ran out last week."
He chuckled. "If we manage to get back, I promise to take you to visit my favorite chocolate source in Switzerland. Will that help?"
"It will if we make it back. Looking forward to the rest of my life without chocolate is downright torture. Where are we?"
"Well ..." Clark hadn't put her down. The air temperature was several degrees below freezing and she was dressed for a tropical climate. "We're standing on the location that will eventually be Metropolis's City Hall."
Lois looked around. "All I see are trees ... and snow."
"Yeah, I know. I flew over the whole coast. There's nothing here except some Native American encampments. There aren't any colonies here yet. Not even at Plymouth Rock."
"You mean this is before ..."
"You know how we were saying how we might have beat Columbus? I think we have."
"Well, I think we need to find some place warmer, and wait for Herb to appear," Clark said. "No matter how pleasant carrying you is, I think you'd get tired of it after while."
"Definitely." She glanced up at him. "Not that I don't like it when you carry me, but I can't do this for the next few months. Eventually I'm going to have to walk around on my own. It doesn't feel like it to me right now, but it has to be below freezing."
"Well, how about a small, tropical island?" he suggested. "One with fruit trees and stuff. We don't know how long we may have to wait."
Lois gave their surroundings another long look. "Much as I like snow, enough is enough. Let's get out of here."
"You got it." Clark took off in a flurry of snowflakes.
They headed south. What they needed to find, Clark thought, was a small island located in a tropical clime, too small to interest any of the local inhabitants.
Lois was silent as the forests of pre-colonial America rolled by beneath. To the east, the sky had begun to brighten with the faintest hint of dawn.
"Clark," she said finally, "what are we going to do if Herb never comes?"
"If he doesn't," Clark said, "I guess we'll have to figure out how to live here. At least we have the advantage of my powers to help us. I'm not giving up yet, though."
"Neither am I. I just wish we had more say in what happens. I hate having to rely on other people."
"The only thing we can do right now is rely on each other," Clark said. "I promise you I'll do my best."
"I know you will," she said. "I don't doubt that at all."
The sun crept slowly over the horizon as they flew south. The snowy landscape below changed gradually to wet greenery, and the clear sky became cloudy.
"Great," Lois said. "Rain."
"No problem." Clark gained altitude until they were flying above the clouds. "How's that?"
"Wow," Lois said. "You're better than an umbrella."
He grinned. "Any time."
She cocked her head at him. "You know, I don't make friends very easily, but I feel like I've known you all my life. I wonder why that is."
"Mutual bad situation?" he suggested. "That will usually either make people enemies or good friends."
"No, it's more than that," she said, a little uncertainly. "I'm more comfortable with you than I am with my own sister - and you don't look anything like my sister," she added.
He laughed. "I'm glad of that! Maybe it's because we both know we may have to work together in the future - assuming we manage to get back to 1997. I'm a reporter at the Planet, remember."
"If you knew how I got along with most of my co-workers at the Planet, you wouldn't say that," she said, grimacing a little. "There was a reason they called me Mad Dog Lane. None of them would work with me - not that I wanted them to, anyway."
He laughed. "That's their problem. Since I started trying to find you, last year, I've read most of your work. Personally, I'm in awe of you as a journalist. Still, I know what you mean. I feel like I've known you for years, and it isn't just because I've read your articles."
"You knew the other Lois," she said. "Could that be part of it?"
He shook his head. "I knew Lois for barely two days in our world and for about three when I went to hers. I know almost as much about you as I do about her, but I'm much more comfortable with you. Don't misunderstand me; she was a wonderful person. It's just that - I don't know what it is, really. Maybe it's because the only persons from our time here are us, but -"
She patted his arm. "Maybe it's because you and I belong in this universe and she didn't."
"Could be," he said, trying to keep his own voice light, but underneath he was sure that there was something else involved. Somewhere deep inside, some part of him knew that this was the woman meant for him alone, the one woman who held the key to his future happiness, whether or not they ever made it back to 1997. But that wasn't anything he would ever say to her. He had the time now to spend in slowly developing a relationship with her based on mutual trust and friendship. He couldn't tell her that, in the hours since he had first seen her in a dirty warehouse in Brazzaville, he had discovered that the feelings he had harbored for the other Lois were a pale shadow of what he felt for the Lois Lane of his own world. That Lois had been right after all, as might have been expected, when she had suggested that such a thing might be so. In the two days that the otherworld Lois Lane had spent disrupting his future life, he had begun to fall in love with her. It had taken him perhaps two minutes with the Lois Lane of his own universe. Now all he could do was to hope and pray that she would do as her counterpart had for her own Clark, and come to care for him as well.
"You're awfully quiet," she said.
"Just thinking how we're going to manage," he said. "I suppose if Herb doesn't show up, we could go over to England or Europe. There's certainly a civilization there. I'm just wondering how safe it will be. They've got all kinds of diseases that you're not immune to running around - smallpox, bubonic plague, and so forth, and no vaccines or antibiotics. I can't catch any of that stuff, but you can."
"Let's not rush into anything," Lois said. "If we can find a comfortable place to wait for a few days, that would be ideal. Then, if he doesn't appear after a little while, we can decide what to do."
"You're probably right," he said. "What I'm looking for is an uninhabited island somewhere in the Caribbean that we can set up a camp on - preferably with its own supply of fruit and so forth. I can bring in water if necessary, and I'm pretty good at catching fish. We could live in a place like that indefinitely."
"Sounds good," she said. "You know, I'm getting sort of hungry, actually."
"I thought maybe you were." The clouds were no barrier to his x-ray vision, and as he spoke he was scanning the area below. "Hang on, I think I see what we need." He headed downward.
It had started to rain, a typically heavy tropical rainstorm with big globs of water that splatted against them as they descended, but the water was almost warm, and the air definitely was. Lois shielded her face from the raindrops with one hand as they descended toward a white, sandy beach and waving tropical foliage.
The island was fairly small, with a rocky central core surrounded by rainforest, descending to sandy beaches bordering the sea, and far enough from the mainland that they probably didn't need to worry about stray passers-by. Clark brought them to a landing and set her down with a flourish next to a piece of the rock that must form the island's base, thrusting upward like a white tooth from the soil.
"Just a second," he said. "Let's see what I can do to turn this into a cave."
He went into action that probably looked like a blur to her, but when he finished, he had hollowed out a good portion of the rock to make a serviceable shelter, and the area to the right had acquired a large pile of sand that hadn't been there before. "How's that?"
Her eyes had gone wide. "I thought I'd seen it all when you flew!" she said.
"Come on, let's get inside and I'll dry you off," he said.
She hesitated. "Is it safe?"
"Yes," he told her, reaching out a hand. "I was very careful not to crack anything that I didn't intend to."
"Wow." She took his hand. "That was incredible."
He led her into the cave. "Stand still and I'll have you dry in a minute." He proceeded dry her clothing. "Home sweet home. Let me get you something to eat. I'll be right back."
She opened her mouth, but he whizzed away to return a moment later with an armful of fruit that he set on the floor of their cave. "Here you go."
Lois stared at him for several seconds and began to smile. "Wow," she said again. "What is all this stuff?"
"Well -" He separated out the different items he had brought. "These red things that look like little bananas really are bananas - just not the kind we see in the States. These are mangoes and guavas, and these are rose apples. This is a coconut - I'll have to husk it for you - but I'm not really sure what these are called." He held up a small, round, green globe. "The natives of Panama call them ginnups, but I don't think that's their real name. You bite through the skin - it's fairly thick, and there's a big pit inside, but the edible part is really good - sweet and tart, and definitely worth eating. You have to eat them fresh, though, because they don't keep well."
"This is all growing wild out there?" she asked.
He nodded. "Practically on our doorstep. We're in the tropics, remember."
"How could I forget? I guess this is as good a breakfast as I've had in some time." She seated herself on the floor of the cave. "I'm hungry; let's eat."
"There's more where that came from," Clark said. He seated himself beside her. "I guess we can hold out here until Herb shows up or until we're sure he's not going to."
"Yeah," she said, beginning to peel one of the bananas. "You're sure this is really a banana? I've never seen red ones before. I don't want to poison myself."
He nodded. "I'm sure."
"Okay, I'll trust you." She began to eat. Clark munched slowly on one of the mangoes, watching her go through his offerings. He fervently hoped that now that they were stationary, Herb would make an appearance. Living the rest of his life in a tropical paradise might sound romantic, but it would almost certainly get old fast. Where the devil was Wells?
"It's pretty easy to pick up a burn in this tropical sun," Lois remarked. She was sitting in the sand under a canopy of palm leaves that Clark had constructed - after several false starts - and examining her slightly reddened shoulders ruefully. "I wish I had some sunscreen."
He nodded. "I don't blame you. They talk about the past being the 'good old days', but when you think about it, how many people would actually want to live in the 'good old days'? No phones, no cars, no television, no computers, no kitchen ranges, no refrigerators -"
"No sunscreen," Lois added. "No stuff to put on your sunburns, no electric lights, no silverware, not even any Band-aids when you get a cut - this 'good old days' stuff is a lot of nonsense. Give me a cell phone and a fast food restaurant any day of the week! And to think I wanted to vacation in Tahiti!"
"Well," Clark said, "the modern Tahiti has all that stuff."
"Yeah," Lois said, wistfully. "That's the kind of vacation I'd like to take. One with saunas and swimming pools, and massages ..."
Clark grinned. Lois was certainly a city girl, but he didn't care. Besides, he had to admit that she was right. Roughing it on a camping trip was one thing. Being thrown back before the discovery of America was something else. "I've collected plenty of mussels and clams in that tide pool," he said helpfully. "I'm sorry there's no beer, but we can at least have a barbecue tonight."
"That's all right," she said. "I can live without beer. That tropical fruit juice you squeezed was great. It'll do for dinner."
"I got the recipe from a guy I met in the Bahamas," Clark said, "after I became Superman." He glanced at the sun that was now sinking toward the west and dropped the last piece of driftwood on the pile he had been collecting for the campfire. "The worst of the ultra violet will be down to decent levels in an hour or so. Then if you want to go swimming, I think it's safe to go ahead."
"I don't know. My clothes are going to wear out fast enough as it is. Besides, I'm not really anxious to go swimming with the sharks again today."
"I'll check for them," he said. "As for clothes, I can probably fly over to Europe for some if we're here more than a few days."
"Clark, do you know the kind of things women in Europe wore before Columbus discovered America? There's no way I'm going to wear that stuff!"
"Well, I can probably find some trousers and shirts," Clark said, dropping beside her on the warm sand. "Maybe we can improvise."
"We're going to have to. And we're going to soak it in salt water and scrub it good before I put any of it on. It's probably loaded with fleas!"
"Just about everybody had fleas back then," Clark said. "If somebody didn't, it usually meant that they were sick, because all their fleas had died."
"Well, I'm going to be the exception," Lois said firmly. "As far as I'm concerned, fleas are not a fashion accessory that I'm willing to wear! The heck with the 'good old days'!"
"I can't say that the idea is very appealing, even if they can't bite me," Clark agreed. He stretched out in the sand next to the spot where Lois sat and put his hands behind his head. After all the activity of the holidays, all the Superman rescues, and the stress of the current situation that Tempus had put them in, even Superman was feeling tired, and lying in the warm sand with the indirect rays of the sun warming him was very relaxing. Besides, he'd just spent nearly two days wide-awake, and even he needed some rest.
He awoke to a cool breeze and a brilliant tropical sunset. Lois was lying beside him in the sand, sound asleep, and he found himself gazing at her and marveling at her beauty. Even with all of her makeup long since washed away, he knew beyond a doubt that he had never seen a more beautiful woman in his life.
Her eyes flickered open as he watched her and he hastily averted his gaze. She yawned. "What time is it?"
He glanced automatically at his watch, which said it was two AM and shrugged. "Probably about seven or eight or so," he said. He nodded to the west. "The sun is just setting. Are you ready for the barbecue?"
"Let's do it tomorrow," she said. "I think I just want fruit tonight."
"Your wish is my com ..." He broke off and lifted his head at the sound of a sudden, very familiar reverberating hum.
"What is it?" Lois asked.
"The time machine! I hear it!"
"You mean Wells is here?"
Clark got to his feet, giving Lois a hand up. "It sure sounds like it!"
"Well, lead the way!"
He nodded. "Sure. It's inland. Come on."
She hesitated. "You're sure it's Mr. Wells? It can't be Tempus, can it?"
He paused, considering. "I don't think so. Herb said that he'd been picked up by the police from his time."
Lois shook her head. "That doesn't make a difference with time travelers, Clark. You know, you'd really benefit from reading some science fiction, if you're going to be dealing with time travel. His people could keep him in jail twenty years, and when he got out he could come back to this point and it wouldn't matter how long he'd been locked up. You said yourself that Mr. Wells's machine could take him anywhere in time and space."
"Yeah." He ran her argument over in his mind. "I guess you could be right, and if he has some way to track us, he might just come to where we are to try to finish the job. It's probably Herb, but we'll be careful anyway."
They hurried across the sand toward the canopy of tropical plants. The sound of the time machine had come from a spot near the cave that Clark had dug for Lois some hours before. As they approached, they slowed their steps and Clark probed with his enhanced vision, trying to tell who had piloted the time machine now sitting in the sandy soil by their cave.
The machine was clearly there, he saw, but of its passenger he could see no sign, and the circumstance worried him. If it were Wells, wouldn't he let them know at once that he was here to rescue them?
Clark stopped, listening intently.
"What is it?" Lois whispered.
"Shh." Quickly, he put his arm around her and pulled her down as quietly as possible into the undergrowth. In spite of the warm night air, she shivered a little.
He put his lips next to her ear. "Something's wrong. Herb wouldn't hide from us."
She nodded, and he saw her look cautiously right and left. His own scalp prickled as he tried to look in all directions at once with his enhanced vision.
No one was visible, but the jungle sounds were missing - a sure sign that the animal life that inhabited their unnamed island had sensed the presence of intruders. He strained his ears, trying to hear anything hidden that didn't wish to be seen.
He picked up the heartbeat almost at once.
It was a single human being, he was sure of that. He had tuned out Lois's heartbeat and his own, the whisper of the night breeze and the sound of the surf, and the throb of the intruder's heart was loud and distinct in the unnatural quiet of the tropical night.
If his hearing were to be trusted, the person was about twenty feet away, right at the entrance to their cave. He closed his eyes and listened more intently. There was no question about the location of the man, but if someone was there, then he was invisible.
But there was no such thing as an invisible man, and he had never heard of the technology to mimic such a state. What was going on here?
He opened his eyes and looked again. Nothing, and yet the sound of the heartbeat was loud and clear.
Lois rose on her hands and knees to peer through the brush at the time machine.
"What is it?" she breathed against his ear.
"Heartbeat," he whispered. "There's someone, but I can't see him."
"Tempus," Lois whispered back.
There was a soft click from the location of the heartbeat, and a green glow became abruptly visible. Clark couldn't restrain a gasp as the strength began to leach from his muscles and the pain of Kryptonite radiation burned its way through his body.
There was a rustle of motion, and suddenly Lois was nowhere to be seen. He struggled to stay on hands and knees, to crawl away from the lethal stuff, but footsteps were crunching toward him through the underbrush, and the green glow grew stronger.
"Ah." The mocking voice that he had learned to hate spoke from thin air. "There you are. I thought maybe you and Herb had managed to sabotage my efforts to rid the world of Lois Lane when I discovered that your world's future was the same dull soap opera that it was when I left. As bad as my own. Do you have any idea how boring it is to do the same thing day after day, day in and day out, in the sickeningly cheerful setting of a Utopian prison?"
Clark bit his lip. There was a shoe-shaped depression in the soil next to his face. He could feel the faint warmth of the man's body, but the time traveler was still completely invisible. A chunk of Kryptonite hung apparently suspended in mid-air. Lois had been right, he thought vaguely as he slipped toward unconsciousness, he should have read science fiction if he was going to be dealing with time travelers ...
"No, I suppose you don't know," the mocking voice continued. "Well, no matter. I can still remedy my oversight and change things around a bit. You see," it continued with cheerful irony, "I'm afraid I'm gonna have to kill you, and Miss Lane, too. There's too much chance that do-gooder Herb will manage to find you and bring you back to your time, and I'm fed up with the prosperous, peaceful future. There's no excitement. No war, no crime, only peaceful commerce between Earth and the other inhabited planets. It's up to me to stop that. I'm trying to do humanity a favor," Tempus's voice said, almost plaintively. "They'll thank me for it some day ..."
Where the branch came from Clark wasn't sure, as the person who wielded it was outside his limited range of vision, but one moment Tempus was standing beside him, invisible to the eye, and the next a thick branch, swung like a baseball bat, struck the invisible man amidships. He didn't even cry out, but crashed to the ground. The shape of a human being became translucently visible, clad in some kind of shapeless, all-encompassing body suit. Clark didn't have much time to observe it because Lois Lane stepped between him and the fallen criminal, and struck the man again with her branch - one of the pieces of driftwood that he had collected for the campfire, he saw now. Then she was kneeling, and abruptly the pain of the radiation lessened. The relief from the effects of the Kryptonite was so sudden that it left him slightly disoriented. Lois knelt beside him, and he could see she was clutching some kind of metal box in her hand. "Clark? Can you hear me?"
"Yeah," he mumbled.
"Can you stand if I help you? I want to get out of here."
With her help, he made it first to his knees and then to his feet. Together, they stumbled past the figure of Tempus huddled in a ball on the ground, and Lois guided his wavering steps toward the time machine.
"Can you run this thing?" she asked, urgently.
He nodded shakily and she half-pushed him into one of the seats.
With trembling hands, he typed in the time and location. Lois grabbed the lever that protruded from the floorboard. With care, she pulled it slowly back, and reality dissolved around them.
The greyness of the time stream solidified into the real world again: an unlit alley behind a brick building that Clark belatedly recognized as the one where his apartment was located. When the hum of the time machine had faded into silence, he slid his feet to the ground. Most of the weakness had departed. He released his grip on the time machine cautiously, but his surroundings remained steady.
"Where are we?" Lois asked.
"Metropolis," he said. "December twenty-third, 1997. I've been gone two days. This is my apartment house. We're home."
He nodded. "I'm sure. Can I invite you in? Especially since it's pretty late?"
She hesitated. "I'm not sure I should. I ought to get home."
He gave her a hand from the machine. "There are other people living in your place, Lois. All your stuff is stored in your sister's attic, in Texas. If you like, I can take you to Perry's, but I promise you're safe with me for a little longer."
Her hand tightened around his. "I know that. I just didn't want to inconvenience you. All right, why not?"
"Good." He led the way around to the entrance to his apartment and unlocked the door.
At his invitation, Lois went in first and stopped, looking around. "Nice place."
"Thank you." He closed the door and turned up the heater. "Let me get you a blanket until this place warms up." He hurried into the bedroom and returned with the top quilt from his bed. "Here you go."
Lois took it and wrapped it around her shoulders. "Brr! Talk about temperature extremes! One minute we're in the tropics and the next we're stepping into winter. What do you suppose happened to Tempus?"
"I guess he's still back on the island," Clark said. "I don't think he'll be able to build himself another time machine, even if he does manage to escape from it. I'd say he's pretty much stuck unless someone goes back for him."
"Well, if you ask me, I think he should stay right where he is," Lois said. "If he's stranded, he won't be able to cause you any more trouble."
"I hate to say it, but I think you're right," Clark said.
"Your friend Mr. Wells is another story," she said. "What are you going to do about him?"
Clark led her to the sofa. "Why don't you sit down and I'll make some coffee," he said. "As soon as my powers come back, I guess I'll have to go back and get him."
"In that case, I'm going with you," she announced in no uncertain terms. "I owe him something, too. If he hadn't brought you along, I'd have been shark food."
He found himself smiling. His Lois had more courage than any three men that he could name. "Why am I not surprised? All right. As soon as my powers come back, we'll go after him, together."
She nodded. "But I don't think you or I should ever tell anyone - even Mr. Wells - what happened to Tempus."
"Because," she said, "the more people who know, the more likely it is that the people in the future will find out and decide to go get him. If anyone does, he has a chance of escaping and coming after us again - and risking the future. I think this is something we should keep just between the two of us."
He nodded. "I agree. It'll be our secret." He extended a hand and she took it. They exchanged grins and a handshake.
"Deal." Lois held out the metal box that she had brought from the island. "You'd better get rid of this. It's the rock he was holding when I hit him."
He took it. "When my super-strength comes back completely, I'll throw this into space. It was smart of you to grab it."
"Reflex," she said. "I don't like to leave dangerous weapons in the hands of bad guys."
"It was still smart," Clark said. He thrust the box into the drawer of the nearest side table. "It'll be safe there until then."
There was a knock on the door.
Clark turned to look through the curtains. "It's Herb!" He opened the door.
The little man stood on the doorstep. Clark almost pulled him inside and shut the panel behind him. Wells took in the sight of Lois and removed his hat. "Miss Lane. I see that Mr. Kent managed to rescue you after all."
She nodded, looking him over critically. "You must be Mr. Wells."
"Herbert George Wells, at your service, Miss Lane."
She smiled suddenly. "I'm glad Clark and I didn't have to go looking for you after all. Thanks for helping him find me, though. I appreciate it."
"The pleasure is all mine," he said.
"What happened to you?" Clark asked. "Lois and I thought we were going to have to rescue you."
"The Brazzaville police," Wells said, "believed me when I told them that I'd just crept into the warehouse for shelter, and was an innocent observer to the events there. When I returned to my time machine, the tracker told me that you were back in Metropolis. Where is Tempus?"
"Lois overpowered him," Clark said. "We took over the time machine and came back here. We figured we'd wait until morning and then go after you."
"We dropped Tempus in the middle of the Amazon jungle," Lois said. "With a little luck, it will be a while before he can get himself another time machine."
Wells nodded. "I'll inform the police of his time," he said. "Unfortunately, Mr. Tempus is hard to track, but at least they'll be on the alert for him." He took Lois's hand. "You must be careful, Miss Lane. Mr. Kent will tell you more about it, but your survival is absolutely critical to the future."
"Clark already explained," she said.
"Excellent," he said. "Well, in that case, my task is done. I must be going, but before I do, may I wish you and Mr. Kent a very merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year."
"Thanks," Clark said. "The same to you, Herb. You've done more for us than I can tell you."
"I'm very happy to have been of service." The little man set his bowler hat neatly on his head. "Good night Mr. Kent; Miss Lane." A minute later, he was gone.
Clark closed the door. "I guess in the morning, I'd better go get rid of the time machine," he said. "We don't want anyone else taking it and messing with history."
"They won't," Lois said. She held up a small, metal object. "I took the keys."
Clark chuckled. "I never even thought of that." He glanced at his watch. "I guess I need to reset this." He looked at the clock on the mantle. "It's nearly midnight, and tomorrow is Christmas Eve." He smiled suddenly. "Perry and Alice invited me to Christmas dinner tomorrow, and Alice told me I could bring a date. How would you like to go to Christmas dinner at the Mayor's house, tomorrow?"
She looked down at herself. "If I can get hold of some decent clothes."
"I think I can find you some," he said.
"Clark, I don't want to borrow from you."
"Consider it a Christmas gift," he said. "Or maybe an investment in the future."
She hesitated and then nodded. "I guess that would be fair. I'm probably going to have to borrow some money until I can collect on my back salary, anyway."
He laughed. "That's quite a bit of back salary - on the other hand, you've been gone for several hundred years, if you count the world tour and our side trip to the Caribbean, so I'd say they were getting a bargain."
"I wish I knew what I was going to tell them," she said, "not to mention my family."
"We'll think of something," he told her. "It can wait another day or two, anyway. Maybe you could call them on Christmas." He took her hand. "Lois, we'll work it out. The important thing is, you're back alive. All the rest is just details."
She snorted. "Some details! Still, I guess you're right."
"Of course I am," he said. "Let me find you something to wear to sleep in, and you can have first dibs on the shower. You also get the bed tonight. I'll take the couch."
"Clark, I can't take your bed!"
"Sure you can," he said. "You have a big debut to make tomorrow."
An hour later, Clark was stretching out on his sofa. The piece of furniture had come from his parents' farmhouse in Kansas, and held a great many fond memories, but for once, he wasn't thinking of the past. His mind was on the future and the limitless possibilities that had opened up before him.
He had seen how the other Lois and her Clark worked together as an unbeatable team. Whether or not that happened to them at once wasn't an issue; it was what they had the potential to be. He had the time now to make it happen, and the time to win Lois for his own. Tempus had said that Utopia was intact, and that meant that somehow things would work out.
He would get a full-sized Christmas tree tomorrow, he thought, and maybe - just maybe - he would take the china figurines out of their box in the closet and set them up on the windowsill next to the Christmas shrub.
The real future was finally beginning for him - for both of them. It was going to be the adventure of a lifetime.
He could hardly wait.