World Shaking Down 1.1/21

by Meredith Bronwen Mallory

From the Monday Edition of THE DAILY PLANET:

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA-- The eyes of the world rest on NASA headquarters as the much-anticipated launch date of The Wayfarer nears. The Wayfarer, a four-person vessel of completely revolutionary design, will be the first manned mission to Mars, and is scheduled to launch at the end of next month. The six-month voyage will be headed by American astronaut Roger Cohen, who's illustrious career includes the dark-side moon landing. His copilot will be British astronaut and physicist Kirstanne Pergrove, who contributed significantly to the design of the Wayfarer itself. The rest of the crew is comprised of Daniel Edgar, another accomplished astronaut, and China's ManBun Wang. Metropolis University's own Sissy Towers (Physics and Archaeology, Class of 2003), slated for the second mission, will be assisting her fellow astronauts from mission control.

The Wayfarer mission was suffering heavy delays and underfunding, prior to the generous donations of Lex Luthor last spring. LexCorp also landed the multibillion dollar contract to construct the skeleton and hull of the ship. Said Mr. Luthor in an exclusive press conference last Sunday, "I can think of few causes more worthy than that of furthering human knowledge and exploration. The Wayfarer project is a crucial step forward in our understanding of the solar system, and our own place within it. NASA has the full support of both LexCorp and LuthorCorp, and I think I speak for everyone when I say that the future looks very bright indeed." Luthor took over commercial giant LuthorCorp in addition to his own renowned LexCorp enterprise when his father-- Lionel Luthor-- passed away last year. While still a powerful player in the corporate world, the younger Luthor has distinguished himself as a ardent supporter of scientific and humanitarian efforts, both in Metropolis and beyond. In addition to the Wayfarer mission he has also. . . .

Morning in Metropolis is gray, the sky a sterling pearl dome beyond the towering skyscrapers. Every now and then, there's a fissure, a tiny silver of yellow sunlight, but on the whole it is one of those endless, diffusely bright days where time seems languid and slow. Suitcase in hand, Clark Kent trots down the steps of Unity Station, out into the chilly, early Spring air. For a moment, the world seems too vivid, everything etched in too-stark contrast, but the feeling passes, banished to the recesses of his mind with the remnants of his dreams. The energy of the city fills him, jazzed and impersonal, whispering to go and do and see. A glance at his worn wrist-watch tells him it's six am; the streets are sparsely populated, sidewalks occasionally dotted with vendors of hot-dogs, newspapers, and fruit. In two hours, Clark has an appointment with Perry White, the graying, still-enthused editor of the Daily Planet. The very thought seems to make time slow, jittering like sharp, short bursts along Clark's nerves. He walks-- slowly, even for human speed-- down toward the end of the street, trying to get his bearings.

At the corner of Prospect and Carlton, he spots a small park, perching himself on one of the stone benches beside the fluttering, unimpressed birds. Plump pigeons eye him with knowledgeable red gazes, hoping a short distance away. The park itself is spartan, tulips and pansies just beginning to rise from their slumber, fountain calming but unadorned. With a sigh, Clark hoists his suitcase onto his lap, and flips the latches. On the very top of his clothes and other sundries lies his cellphone, mute green screen admonishing him with TWO MISSED CALLS. The first is from his mother-- hesitant and yet soothing, asking him to call when he makes it in to town. He replays the message twice, just to hear her voice, knowing he won't actually call her until after the interview. While his late-blooming powers of flight have never allowed time between visits to stretch too far, he has always needed to be careful.

There's an odd sort of ritual to it, now, landing out behind the barn in the dark Kansas night, seeing the lights in his mother's kitchen burning when the rest of the town is sleepy and dim. She's always there, in her blue nightgown and comfortable flowered robe, offering him pie and coffee as if it's afternoon, instead of just after midnight. Dad's there too, sometimes working away at an engine bit, other times dozing in front of the flickering, insomniac TV. Clark aches, just a little, because though home never changes, there are little things that creep in. Dad moves gingerly, left hand slow to uncurl, and sometimes standing brings a grimace to his face has drawn new lines and grooves. Mom's hair, still a brilliant blaze of trapped flame, silvers a little at her temples, and in her soft hands the veins are more pronounced. Slowly, casually, time is working on his parents, without malice or determination, the way a stream erodes a stone. And there, behind his eyes, flash the flutter and rhythm of the scythe, Cassandra's dream of endless tombstones, stretching out into a waste. Not always, just perhaps when he spots the growing collection of pill bottles by the sink, or helps Dad out with a chore that never needed aid before.

('You're going to be alone,' a voice says to him, the sound of brittle leaves on stone. The music of clattering skeleton bones. A skull without skin, jaw endlessly open, breathing forth eons.

The names went on forever, stone words, sounds to conjure the faces of family and friends.

All but one.)

Clark shakes himself, almost violently, and a few of the younger pigeons do take flight. The others call out, annoyed, coos the sound of village women grumbling, low in their throats. Purposefully, Clark focuses back on the cellphone, scrolling to the next message. It's Chloe, voice high and excited, never having lost that squeaky edge of girlish youth.

'The point,' her recording informs Clark, 'of having a cellphone is to turn it on. Honestly. But!' Clark shudders at her sentence fragments, smiling at the same time. Chloe is all declarative, everything new and hot off the press. 'I'm following this story on Wayne Industries loosing the contract on Wayfarer, you know? And I've definitely got some hot stuff. Very hush-hush, you understand, but I might be coming to Metropolis to do a little digging. It's still up in the air. So!" She laughs a little, and Clark laughs with her, caught up in the enthusiasm that always made her such a good partner in crime. "That means you have to get an apartment, so I can crash there. The Gotham Herald doesn't do expense accounts. Email me-- something that's longer than three sentences, if you please. Bye!'

Smiling, Clark saves the message as a purposeful reminder, knowing full well that, if feeling slighted, Chloe has no reservations about tracking him down. Slipping the cellphone back in his suitcase, he tilts his head back. He's just breathing, listening to the sound of some woman's distant heels on the concrete, when the squeal of tires lances through his ears.

Clark doesn't think about it-- he never does. He's moving before he realizes it, the world slowed around him, birds frozen statues of flight. Down the street, an old woman in a long pink coat is just stepping off the curb, precariously balancing a grocery bag in one arm, ringed hands clutching a cane. A few scant feet away is a car, some red sporty model, the youthful face of the driver a comical 'o' under his Met Sharks baseball cap. Clark's arms are around the woman, inertia pulling backwards, and he braces himself against the lamppost easily. The woman gives a soft 'oof' and the world slips back into real time, a single can of peaches rolling under the speeding car. The driver is too stunned-- or too drunk-- and too focused on controlling the vehicle to look back, and Clark swallows hard in relief. The woman's face is moon round under her thirties-style felt cap, a long, silver chair of hair braided down her back. Her dark eyes are wide, wide.

"It's alright," he says needlessly, setting her back on her feet. She speaks to him in astonishment, Chinese syllables flowing together. Too fast, too accented for Clark to pick out every word, but he gets the general meaning.

'Impossible,' she says, 'who's ghost are you?'

"Mei wen ti," he tells her, carefully watching her face. Sometimes there's fear creeping in, or disgust, eyes that take him in and say 'other, other, what are you'. But this woman smiles at him, patting his cheek with one jade-ringed hand.

"Xiexie," she says earnestly. "I thank you." He just smiles brilliantly, helping her cross to the other side of the street then watching as she delicately, determinedly makes her way home. At the top of the hill, she stops, waving briefly, and Clark waves easily in return.

He goes back for his suitcase, which is mercifully unmolested, pushing his glasses back up on his nose. The instinct for rescue is a part of him, almost as unconscious as breathing, but quite suddenly he feels watched. Off down Regent Parkway, the LexCorp towers hover over the city, always visible, twins lifting their arms up to the sky. The feeling runs down Clark's spine, coils intimately around his shoulders, delight hand in hand with fear. The memory of Lex's eyes on him, watching from some threshold, from across the Talon, burning cold fire and the gentle tilt of his half-smile, as if he and Clark were privy to some mutual secret that dwarfed Clark's own. He continues walking, forcing his back to the glass-and-steel giants, down towards the south side.

'It's his city, Clark,' Dad's voice cautioned, heavy on the nonspecific pronoun. No one in the Kent household ever says 'Lex' anymore. No one save Clark, who occasionally forces that treacherous, precious syllable past his lips, as if afraid enough silence can make a person disappear. 'You're going to have to be careful.'

Careful. Careful is fine, Clark tells himself-- it doesn't mean not helping, doesn't didn't mean standing by. In the most populous city in the state, he is just a dark-haired young man in glasses and an ill-fitting suit. No one important, no one of note. For all his running, for all his half-haunted dreams, perhaps the most painful thought was the idea that Lex had forgotten him altogether. The thought works at him, like a splinter of bone working free of flesh, driving him at times to take out those few treasures and hold them, make them visceral and real. Who knows what it all means.

'Memory is perspective.' Lex's voice-- for all his calculating brain and well-disciplined mind, Clark sometimes thinks his friend had possessed the soul of a poet. 'What I see, what you see-- it's all colored by who we are. By what we want to believe.'

'I want to believe you were my friend,' Clark thinks at Lex, pulling his suit jacket tight against a nonexistent chill. 'That between all those wires and monitors was a truth somewhere, an explanation that doesn't end with just wanting my secret. I want to believe that someday, I'll regret not giving you a chance to talk to me... in the end, I want to believe I was wrong.' Head down, Clark crosses the street with the rest of the growing early morning traffic. Near the edge of the sidewalk, he discovers a dirt-caked penny, worrying it clean with one large, powerful thumb. He pockets it superstitiously, looking up to find he's one block away from his goal. Even from here, he can see the massive, silver skeleton of the Daily Planet Globe, spinning slowly, glinting in the barest hint of sun. A feeling sweeps through him, a sort of boyish excitement and he knows-- deep in a heart that differs from human construction-- that he's come to the right place.

By six am, Lex has already been out of the penthouse for hours, now reclining in the back of his black limousine as it pulls away from LuthorCorp towers. He has every intention of someday doing away with this commute, the ridiculous shuffle back and forth between the throne he inherited, and the one he has made for himself. Managing LuthorCorp after his father's death, however, has been a complicated process-- or rather, the clean up has. Lex no longer forces himself to adhere to the world's sense of ethics, but he does possess a system of his own. Lionel, moldering in the grave, has left a legacy of things that turn even Lex's stomach. Twitching, warped fetuses in solutions that grow faintly green, men fused together by unexpected bursts of electric and radiation. Three, doll-like copies of Emily Dinsmore, filled with false memories but somehow empty of soul. Research is what interests him, not prolonged suffering, and he knows for a fact his father took pleasure in twisting life, making it a parody of itself. Lex has kept many of his father's questionable contacts and acidic deals, but there are some levels of LuthorCorp warehouses that have been, and will be, cemented shut for good.

The drive back to LexCorp irritates him, an emotion he forces aside as he works at his laptop. On either side, Hope and Mercy sit with elegantly curved spines, like polished ying-yang bookends. Two beautiful faces with high cheekbones and wide eyes-- one ivory, the other ebony, fine and rich hair twisted in identical french buns. Silence with his two bodyguards is never uncomfortable-- they don't look at him, but inwards towards themselves, examining protocols and itineraries for the day. In the garage, Mercy rises smoothly, holding open the door, Hope crossing to inform the guard. There are times Lex wonders at their ability to go unremarked upon-- to pass for human. Like any artist, he is both pleased and satisfied with their design; intellectually astonishing, physically beautiful. Their emotions, however, are faint flickers, extremely rudimentary, and the programming for expressions leaves their faces most often lax, like blank mirrors. Still, he has seen the barest twitch from Hope's lips when he praises her, has seen Mercy tilt her head when something he does can not be logically understood. And yet, he has never once detected any suspicion in regards to their behavior, their single minded attitude.

At the top floor, they are greeted by his secretary, Sanae Yamamoto, and Lex has to duck his head against his smirk. Sanae is young but extremely capable-- there is little he's found that can dislodge her polite, charming hostess' smile. She's practical and economic, even under the oddest of circumstances. The daughter of a Kyoto business man, Lex met her at a luncheon, one which would have been any other woman's nightmare. When a severely allergic young attorney vomited all over the shoes of Lex and three other corporate moguls, she handled it calmly, without flinching, saving not only three pairs of expensive Italian leather, but several business deals and the luncheon as well. He hired her on the spot. She's a smart girl, so it amuses Lex to watch her attempts to draw Mercy out.

"Did you have a nice night, Mercy?" Always the same every morning, that light, lilting voice.

"The evening progressed precisely as Mr. Luthor anticipated," Mercy informs her, not so much cool as factual.

"Don't you ever take the night off?" Sanae inquires, not missing a beat, only smiling at Mercy's expressionless face. The secretary changes tracks seamlessly. "Mr. Luthor, there's a Dr. Towers waiting for you in your office. She was very insistent, and her name was on the list."

"Don't worry about it, Miss Yamamoto," Lex assures her, taking the stack of spreadsheets she hands him. "I've been expecting her, and shall see to it right away." He nods at Hope and Mercy, who fade off into the corridor, intent on the tasks they've been assigned.

Sissy Towers is waiting in the outer office, seated primly on the edge of the leather couch. She has the look of a woman who, while not conventionally beautiful, could be pretty with the right amount of animation in her face. Her pale features, however, show no indication that she has ever smiled, mouth tightened into a little red pinch. She's brushing a bit of invisible dust off her sky blue pants-suit when Lex enters, and her eyes snap up, gaze the color and texture of petrified wood. She does not stand when he enters, only eyeing him like a particularly cagey feline.

"Good Morning, Dr. Towers." He does not smile, and neither does she. Finally, she does stand, crossing to place her palms flat on his desk.

"I thought you said you were going to take care of things with Pergrove," Towers hisses, short nails tapping. "The launch is in two weeks, we don't have much time!"

"I must ask that you relax, Dr. Towers," Lex smiles faintly, "things will be taken care of."

"Relax?" There's a toss of Towers' short, crimpy black hair. "I did not spend the last decade of my life studying and training, practically sweating blood, only to be upstaged by that Pergrove bitch! You need to do something-- if you wait too long, they'll delay the mission, instead of just moving me up."

"The Pergrove situation will be remedied," Lex soothes, knowing the tone rankles her even more. "But first, I believe you have something of interest for me."

Towers nods tersely, reaching for a leather portfolio stashed near the couch. She practically rips at the zipper before handing it to him, the contents face-up inside.

"The Achilles lander was quite a bit more sophisticated than NASA let on-- it found this at the mouth of a cave near Arisia Mons. There's a good chance there's more inside, but terrain was too difficult for the probe to navigate. Still, this was enough to make the government light a fire under the space program again," her laugh is brittle. "It's a heck of a lot scarier than some Russian tin can."

Lex nods, eyes riveted on the eight-by-ten glossy in his hands. The wall of the cave is a deep rust-riddled brown and the lighting is poor, but it is still quite easy to make out the symbol etched into Martian stone. A circular glyph, with several triangles and a very straight line.

"Too precise to be natural," he says, fighting to keep the awe out of his voice.

"By far," Towers whispers, and he knows she too is struck weak. "The chances of there having been a civilization on Mars are small, but someone was there, and they sure as hell weren't--"

"Weren't human," Lex finishes. "Thank you, Dr. Towers. This is certainly worth a little career insurance."

"If I'm on the Wayfarer crew," she says, only a slight trembling in her voice, "I'll be able to get you access to anything we find a hell of a lot faster than the spies you have in place right now. Out of context, this," she gestures to the photo, "is just a humbling mystery, but if we can find more, there may be a chance of translation."

Lex smirks, raising an eyebrow, "And it bothers you not at all that the government is hiding this-- and will continue to hide this-- for decades to come?"

"The government always lies," Towers says with a roll of her shoulders. "As long as I'm in on the secret, I could care less about the rest of the world."

Lex laughs, just once and very brief. "In that, Dr. Towers, you and I completely agree."

They shake on it.

With Towers gone and Sanae holding his calls, Lex feels no need to curtail his curiosity. Going directly to his inner office, Lex puts some slight pressure on one of the bookcase's seemingly decorative knobs. A panel slides aside, revealing a lead file cabinet and keypad. He removes a single, unmarked folder and-- knowing there is no one around to see-- impulsively seats himself on the floor. The contents of the folder are terrestrial reflections of the new Martian photo-- geometric glyphs on cave walls, all taken at the Indian site in Smallville. At the very back, however, is a newspaper clipping-- the Smallville High Torch, with a tacky headline about little green men. It's the picture he's interested in, though-- the symbol, identical to the one Towers has just given him.

The symbol burned on to a barn belonging to one Jonathan Kent.