Author's Notes:

Thanks again to the beta team of htbthomas and Shado Librarian, a.k.a. dandello.

Chapter 46 – Battle of Wits

Thursday, October 5, 2006 4:55PM EDT
General George Matthews tried to sort through the information he was bombarded with and felt a headache coming on. It seemed that for every step forward they took two steps back. They found Sam's daughter, but lost the yacht. They found Luthor's helicopter, but the slippery felon gave the local forces the slip, though they never really lost him on satellite. Now they found what appeared to be the Kryptonian control center, but had no way of controlling it – the local commander was reporting that the interface was verbal and was talking to them in an alien language that was probably known to only one man on the planet. Unfortunately, that man had fallen into the sea after getting poisoned by kryptonite and beaten half to death. It was not a good afternoon.

Matthews looked up at the clock and confirmed that they had only fifty-five minutes remaining before Luthor's horror crashed into the East Coast, and just under half an hour before the president's imposed deadline for exercising the nuclear option. As catastrophic as that would be to the coastal cities, it would be better than losing the whole continent – if it worked. Matthews prayed it wouldn't come to that, but couldn't imagine how they would avoid it with so little time left.

"General Matthews!" a voice called out. He looked over towards the voice and found a very excited Hannah Daggett flagging him down.

"Yes, Petty Officer?" Matthews replied impatiently.

"Sir, the SEAL commanders at ground zero are reporting that they have urgent new information from Superman and are insisting on speaking with you directly," Daggett informed him.

Matthews motioned to Colonel Johnson for him to join him and then jogged over the Hannah's station. The two men plugged headsets into spare jacks on the comm set.

"Lieutenants Daniels and Marufo are on the line now," Hannah informed them.

Matthews activated his headset and spoke into the mouthpiece, "This is General Matthews. Report."

"Lieutenant Alex Daniels, sir. General, Superman is requesting that we clear the airspace over the land mass. He's planning to throw it into space," Daniels informed him.

"You're not serious," Matthews said incredulously. "I thought Luthor took him down."

"He did, sir, but Superman recovered rather quickly after we pulled the kryptonite blade out of his back," Daniels told him. "He said there's no way to stop this thing from expanding once it's started. The only solution is to send the entire thing into space. He needs to spend a few minutes in the sun before he does that, but that still only gives us about twenty minutes max to get everything clear before it gets trapped on top."

"What about the missing crystals and the command center we found?" Matthews prodded.

"Superman reports that he's recovered the crystals. With all due respect, sir, we need to get the evacuation order out while there's still time," Daniels said insistently. "The helos in particular could have trouble making the deadline if we don't get them moving now. I can wait."

Matthews covered his mouthpiece and turned to Johnson. "What do you think, Mike?"

"I recommend that we issue the order, sir," Johnson replied adamantly. "At the very least, we should recall our subsonic assets. The way things are going, we'll probably end up nuking that thing in another half hour anyway."

"Don't remind me. All right, recall everything subsonic. But blow that command center before pulling the men out – I don't want to leave anything useful there if Luthor somehow finds his way back."

"Yes, sir," Johnson replied. "And what shall we do with Luthor?"

"Don't worry about him, just get the evac order out," Matthews replied urgently. Johnson nodded and rushed over to the adjacent station.

Matthews took his hand away from his mouthpiece and said, "Daniels, roger that. Matthews out." He then unplugged his headset and joined Johnson at the other workstation.

"Bring all the Blackhawks in now! We'll get the rangers out on the Osprey once they've set the charges," Johnson was telling a young soldier.

"Yes, sir," the soldier told him.

Johnson turned his attention back to Mathews and said, "Sir, the order is out… General, may I have a word?"

"Follow me," Matthews replied. He led the way to an empty situation room at the periphery of the command center, and turned to face Johnson after entering the room.

"Permission to speak freely, sir?" Johnson asked tentatively.

"Go ahead, Johnson."

"Given that the Kryptonian command center is a bust and Luthor no longer has the crystals, we should take the bastard out." Johnson looked through the room's window at the overhead display showing the infrared image of Luthor's helicopter and added, "It'll be an easy kill."

Matthews sighed and said, "There is nothing I'd like better, but you know the rules of engagement as well as I do and that's still an unarmed civilian aircraft carrying American citizens."

"They're unlawful combatants, sir," Johnson said adamantly. "I'd also point out that this is the same man who nuked Southern California a decade ago."

"And he still found a loophole to get out of jail through," Matthews added in disgust. He softened his tone and added, "I'd gladly take one for the team and give the kill order, if I thought it was necessary and if I knew the witch hunt would end with me. But you know as well as I do that we've got some bozos in Congress that would absolutely love an excuse to rake us over the coals."

"Surely they understand the threat Luthor represents," Johnson objected.

"Most of them probably do – maybe they all do. But some of them never understood the need for us. Others aren't about to let inconvenient things like facts stop them from playing politics and using some arbitrary incident as an hammer to try to force our supporters in Congress to capitulate on their arguments. They'd probably even try to raid our budget and divert it to their pet projects. And the biggest problem I have with all that is that it would prematurely end the promising careers of some of the brightest men and women in this organization... Besides, we don't need to shoot Luthor down. All we have to do is let him go back to his rat hole and keep him there, and this little problem will go away on its own."

-o-o-o-

"Metropolis Tower, this is seaplane November seven two four one Hotel. Do you copy?" Richard said urgently into the microphone. After a momentary pause, he repeated the call, "Metropolis Tower, this is seaplane November seven two four one Hotel. Please respond… Damn it! They're still not answering."

"The EMP probably knocked out their comm systems," Lois commented numbly.

"I hate flying in there without air traffic control, but it probably won't be as bad over the river," Richard replied worriedly. "We should be back at the house in another ten or fifteen minutes and we'll finally be able to change into something dry."

"We can't go back to the house!" Lois said insistently. "Luthor could still have men out there, waiting to ambush us. We were targets even before he found out about the kids."

"Well, I'm open to ideas, but it'll have to be somewhere close," Richard replied sternly. "I never got the chance to refuel after the Chicago trip."

Lois' brow furrowed while she worked out the math in her head: Chicago was a little over seven hundred miles away, and the plane had a range of just over nine hundred fifty miles, leaving two hundred fifty miles to work with to get to Luthor's horrors and back, which was almost a hundred miles out to sea. "So that gives us what? Maybe fifty miles before we're out of gas?" she wondered.

Richard checked his instruments and said pensively, "Sounds about right. Maybe a little more if you factor in the reduced load while Clark and Kara were giving us a push. But anything in range would still have been caught in the EMP and I really don't like flying in blind. I still think that the river's our best bet."

Lois frowned and after a moment's thought, she looked over her shoulder at the kids and said, "Not necessarily. If you can get us to the Planet, I think I know a way for us to land on the roof."

Richard followed her gaze back to Kara and muttered incredulously, "Oh, you've got to kidding. How do you expect to pull that off without anyone seeing her?"

"She'll lift from inside," Lois declared.

Richard made the course correction and quietly mumbled, "I don't believe I'm doing this."

It was quiet in the plane for few minutes before Richard broke the silence and cautiously asked, "So… Jason's got superpowers now? When did that happen? He was so fragile for the longest time…"

"I thought he still was, until he threw that piano earlier today," Lois admitted. "His powers weren't supposed to come in until puberty. Looks like Jor-El was wrong about that."

"Jor-El?"

"Superman's father," Lois explained. "He examined Jason last Friday."

"But Martha said that Clark's dad passed away when he was a teenager," Richard pointed out.

"Wrong father," Lois explained. "Jonathan and Martha adopted Clark when he was three, shortly after his escape ship crashed in their corn field. Jor-El is his birth father."

"If Jor-El's here, how come we've never seen him? Why isn't he out there helping?" Richard asked irritably.

"Our Jor-El is a holographic A.I. facsimile of the man who died when Clark was a baby," Lois explained. "Superman's parents weren't allowed to make the trip with him because of the political situation there, so they did the next best thing – they downloaded their memories and personalities into the crystals they sent to Earth with him. Clark can still interact with them but they're not really alive."

"Oh," Richard said quietly. After a momentary pause, he added, "So I guess that means he can't help us."

Lois shook her head absently, but after a moment, her eyes grew large and she exclaimed, "Maybe he can! Quick, give me your phone!"

"What? Oh, here," Richard replied uncertainly, handing her the satellite phone.

"No, the other one – you know, the Kryptonian communicator," Lois said irritably. She reached over, pulled the cell phone from Richard's belt, and punched in the four digits of Jason's birthday, which was the code Clark had set up to provide her with access to Jor-El – Clark assumed that even she'd be able to remember that number. A moment later, a short tone signaled acceptance of the code, but it still required voiceprint identification to complete the connection. She calmly said into the mouthpiece, "Lois Lane."

Lois pulled the phone away from her ear and set it to speakerphone mode as the image of a white-haired man appeared on the phone's small display screen. "How may I help you, Lois?" Jor-El asked her.

"Luthor finally used the crystals to launch an attack and it's unleashed something horrible," Lois informed him.

"Yes, I know. I have been monitoring the situation ever since detecting the electromagnetic pulse. I was able to trace it back to his sea vessel and the computer systems there revealed the astonishing depths of his depravity."

"No surprise there," Lois commented. "But we still have a problem to solve."

"Unfortunately, the growth reaction cannot be stopped once it has started. The only solution is to remove that… abomination… from your world."

"That's what Kal-El said and he's getting ready to do that," Lois informed him. "The problem is that Luthor's already hurt him and may have something else up his sleeve that could sabotage Kal-El's plan. And we can't let that madman get away – he knows about the kids. None of us are safe while he's loose."

"It seems likely that the criminal is aboard the small aircraft heading back to his recreation of the Council Chamber at the center of the abomination," Jor-El informed her. "The same craft left the Council Plaza after Kal-El was injured there and picked up two passengers near the original location of the sea vessel. It now appears to be on its way back. Assuming they hold their course, they shall arrive in approximately three minutes."

"Is that the same place where all those solders were?" Richard asked.

"That is correct, Mister White," Jor-El answered. "The soldiers have now departed and remotely detonated the explosives they had placed around the control console."

"They blew it up?" Lois asked incredulously.

"The damage was limited to the console. I was able to erect force fields to protect everything else."

"Why bother?" Lois asked curiously.

"I require the control systems in order to maintain a structural integrity field throughout the crystal lattice and enforce cohesion while Kal-El lifts that abomination into space," Jor-El explained. "Otherwise, the structure would break apart from the stresses."

"Does that mean you now control the 'abomination'?" Lois asked pensively.

"Yes, to the extent that it can be controlled," Jor-El answered. "I cannot halt the expansion of the mass, but I control the automated systems and can make adjustments to its configuration."

"Then that means you can broadcast into that command center," Lois stated enigmatically. "We can talk to Luthor."

"You want to talk to Luthor?" Richard asked in disbelief.

"Oh, hell no – not me," Lois replied distastefully. "I have something much better in mind – something guaranteed to keep him out of Clark's hair until it's too late."

-o-o-o-

Luthor was in a sour mood when they finally landed back at the plateau. He climbed out of the helicopter and stalked up the stairs to the crystal chamber, with the others in step behind him. However, he stopped abruptly at the entrance when the sooty smell hit his nostrils. He scanned the smoky interior and his eyes locked onto the charred and scattered remains of the control console. "No," he said hoarsely as he hurried over to the carnage. He sifted through the shards, looking for the crystal that he had unintentionally left behind in his haste to return to the yacht.

The others walked into the chamber behind him and Grant muttered, "Jesus, what happened here?"

"The soldiers who were here detonated explosives around the console," a disembodied voice answered.

Luthor looked up and witnessed the greenish glow in the center of the column opposite the console as it coalesced into the familiar face of Jor-El. Luthor smiled evilly and thought, Well, things are finally going my way. That data must have already been in the system – it just wasn't active yet. It probably wasn't supposed to come online until after the continent was completed, but came up early when the army's assault triggered the defense systems.

Luthor spread his arms in a welcoming gesture towards Jor-El and said dramatically, "Father, our enemies are upon us. They've stolen the crystals and seek to impose their will on us. We must destroy them!"

"You are no child of mine, Lex Luthor," Jor-El replied sternly.

"Impossible," Luthor mumbled in surprise.

"Did you really think that we would fail to anticipate this abomination, after discovering the burglary at the Fortress and your deformed prototype in the city?" Jor-El asked condescendingly. "We expected this and we were well prepared for it."

"Your preparation didn't help Kal-El much," Luthor replied angrily. "He's dead now, you know. So are his bastards."

"The facts of the matter do not support your claim," Jor-El stated calmly. "Not only did Kal-El survive your brutal attack, but you've defeated yourself by your obsessive hatred and your lust for wealth and power. Perhaps we overestimated you. But then again, one would not expect that someone so boastful of his own intelligence would engage in a battle of wits unarmed."

"How dare you!" Luthor raged. "I'm the most brilliant criminal mind this world has ever known."

"Lex," Kitty whined fearfully.

"Shut up!" Luthor snapped.

"I'm afraid your declaration is inconsistent with the available evidence," Jor-El told him. "I must say, it was quite foolish of you to disable the safety protocols in the seed crystal…"

"Foolish?" Luthor echoed angrily.

"…It enabled us to quickly assume control of this place, once we were alerted by the electromagnetic pulse," Jor-El continued, ignoring the interruption. "Though it is hardly surprising, given your consistent pattern of failure."

"Lex Luthor never fails!" Luthor screamed. "I am betrayed by the fools around me!"

"Apparently, you never assume responsibility for your mistakes, either," Jor-El commented. "I have now had the opportunity to examine both the programming from the seed crystal as well as the computer systems aboard your sea vessel and I must say I found no shortage of errors in your design. In fact, it is quite short-sighted."

"Short-sighted!" Luthor fumed. "It was brilliant! If not for the idiots around me incapable of following simple instructions–"

"The most egregious errors were the flawed assumptions the design was based on, which demonstrate both an ignorance of…"

"Ignorance! You dare!" Luthor interrupted indignantly.

"…the most fundamental basics of Kryptonian construction and a profound lack of understanding of human nature," Jor-El continued, again ignoring Luthor's interruption. "Did you really believe that anyone would pay you for the privilege of living on this poison?"

"Poison to your kind, not mine!" Luthor yelled defiantly.

"Again, you are mistaken," Jor-El told him dispassionately. "While the radiation may not be as immediately debilitating to humans as it is to Kryptonians, it is just as deadly in the end. Under constant exposure to the radiation, the first cancerous tumors would appear in a matter of weeks, and it's unlikely that any human could survive here for even a single year."

"You never told us this place was radioactive," Grant hissed.

"Shut up! He's bluffing," Luthor yelled.

"And what possible motivation would I have for that?" Jor-El asked. "I do not need to trick you into leaving. You will do that of you own accord once you get hungry enough. You see, the same radiation that causes cancer in humans inhibits the growth of vegetation. No crops will grow here."

"We don't need crops, we have replicators," Luthor pointed out.

"Replicators require power and the contaminants that you introduced into the matrix interfere with the collection of solar energy," Jor-El explained patiently. "The collectors are barely generating enough power for me to sustain this image."

"But the fusion reactors–" Lex began.

"The reactors require fuel and there was less than two kilograms of that fuel at the Fortress when you stole it from us," Jor-El explained. "Much of that original mass was consumed initiating the growth reaction. That only leaves enough to sustain this facility under full load for approximately ninety minutes. Even with the most stringent energy conservation protocols, you would exhaust the fuel in just a few weeks, leaving you without food or fresh water."

"Boss?" Stanford ventured cautiously.

"Quiet!" Luthor snapped.

"Your assumptions on human nature also demonstrate a gross misunderstanding of the subject," Jor-El added.

"I misunderstand humans? You're not even from this planet and you've been dead for, what, almost four thousand years?" Luthor shouted.

"My point precisely. One would think that you would have a better understanding."

"Meaningless words spoken by a dead man from a dead people," Luthor retorted furiously.

"You would do well to listen, but that is not one of your strengths, now is it?" Jor-El asked neutrally. "You fail to understand that modern humans fiercely resist tyrants. They would fiercely resist you. The surviving nations of this world would embargo this place and you would starve to death before they ever paid you the tribute you seek."

"The advanced weapons here would bring them to their knees!" Luthor argued.

"Had Kal-El not yet returned from his mission or if we had remained unaware of this horror, the safety protocols encoded in the security systems would still not have permitted an offensive strike," Jor-El informed him. "Perhaps if you had spent more than the single day studying the crystals that your ship's log indicates, you would have realized that."

"Why, you!"

"Even without our intervention, you still would have failed and the surviving people of this world would never have bowed to your demands," Jor-El declared.

"You'd be surprised what people are willing to do when they fear for their lives," Luthor countered.

"And you would be surprised how quickly they band together when faced with an existential threat," Jor-El countered. "The genocide that you intended would mobilize them against you."

"There won't be anyone left to mobilize. Once the mightiest of them falls, the rest will fall in line," Luthor insisted.

"Again, your overconfidence defeats you," Jor-El noted. "As I informed you, we have been expecting this. We planned for it. And this abomination will not threaten the people of this world for much longer." Jor-El paused and glared at Luthor before he added coldly, "Predictably, your latest criminal endeavor has now ended in failure and you shall be forced to answer for your crimes."

Jor-El's last comment sent a wave of terror through Luthor and he bolted for the door. The other men made it out the door ahead of him, and Kitty had apparently already snuck out while he was arguing with Jor-El. She was down on the plateau, clutching the Pomeranian to her chest and staring out over the edge.

Luthor ran down the stairs and discovered that he was quickly out of breath. He realized with a start that the air was thin. They were at a much higher elevation than they were supposed to be at. He looked back down at the plateau and was horrified to recognize the Eastern Seaboard through a break in the clouds, miles below them.

He continued his sprint down the stairs and when he finally reached the helicopter, Kitty turned to him and asked fearfully, "Why are we so high up?"

"Shut up… and get in!" Luthor wheezed. He climbed into the helicopter and tried starting it up. The engine sputtered, barely turning the rotors a dozen times before it died out. He tried starting it again and again the engine failed to turn over.

"The old man… must have sabotaged it!" Stanford declared nervously from the seat behind him.

"What have you done to us, Luthor?" Reilly demanded angrily.

Luthor recognized the murderous rage in Reilly's eyes and jumped out the door just as the felon lunged for him. He sluggishly ran back up the stairs, feeling surprisingly heavy as he struggled up the path. What's going on? he wondered. He glanced behind him and was relieved to see that the men were struggling just as much as he was. Kitty was faring better, having not just exerted herself on the way down.

Luthor pushed forward, slowly making his way up the remaining stairs and into the chamber. He fought for his breath, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, wheezing as he demanded, "What… have you… done?"

"We cannot allow this abomination to threaten the people of this world," Jor-El stated calmly.

Luthor glanced nervously behind him as Kitty and the men filtered in through the door. They all collapsed on the stools a short distance behind him, with the exception of Reilly, who hovered menacingly near the doorway. Luthor kept his gaze on the impudent employee as he angrily reminded Jor-El, "You didn't… answer… the question."

"Kal-El is ejecting this abomination from the Earth and sending it out among the outer planets where it can do no harm," Jor-El explained.

"No!" Kitty cried out fearfully. "That'll kill us!"

"So much… for Kryptonian… passivism," Luthor taunted. "The first time… you face someone… you fear… your first instinct… is murder."

"Once again, you are mistaken, though that seems to be quite a pattern with you." Jor-El replied condescendingly. "I have, in fact, made arrangements for your survival." As he finished speaking, six opaque blue white crystal cylinders rose from the floor along the wall to the left of the console. Five of them were eight feet tall and three feet across, while the sixth was two feet high and sitting on a raised pedestal. In front of each cylinder was an oval opening, which revealed the empty interior.

"What… the hell?" Luthor asked in confusion.

"There is enough energy from the fusion reactors to sustain you in stasis until Kal-El can retrieve you. The small chamber is obviously for the animal."

"You don't honestly… believe that… we'll just… walk in… those things?" Luthor asked incredulously.

"If you choose to instead confront the deadly environment of space, then I will respect your decision," Jor-El declared neutrally. "However, I suggest you choose quickly. There is little time remaining."

Luthor stared furiously at Jor-El. But before he could put voice to his rage, he heard Kitty sadly declare, "We're ready."

Luthor looked over and saw that Kitty had already placed the dog in the small chamber and had climbed into the full size cylinder next to it.

"Et tu, Kitty?" Luthor asked disappointedly.

Kitty looked back at him silently as the openings of the two chambers sealed shut, obscuring their contents behind the opaque shell.

Stanford was the next to approach the row of stasis chambers and Luthor angrily hissed, "It's a trick, you idiot!"

"Is it?" Stanford asked skeptically. "Like the thin air... and seeing the… East Coast… through the clouds? I don't think so… and I'm not… dying up here." Stanford then stepped into the chamber next to Kitty, turned around to face the opening, and calmly said, "Go ahead." The chamber opening immediately closed and he was also obscured from view.

Grant and Reilly only hesitated a moment before they also sought refuge in the stasis chambers, leaving Luthor alone before Jor-El. "Cowards," Luthor hissed.

"You need not insult them. They can no longer hear you," Jor-El pointed out.

"Do I look… like I care?" Luthor asked weakly.

"Mister Luthor, it is unwise to remain out here," Jor-El pointed out dispassionately. "Are you certain of your choice?"

"I won't… submit… to you!" Luthor declared defiantly.

"As you wish," Jor-El replied and the crystal displaying his image went dark.

Luthor smiled triumphantly and opened his mouth to declare his victory, but his words died as he found himself gasping for breath. Can't breathe, he thought and a wave a terror went through him when he finally acknowledged the danger. He staggered towards the remaining open stasis chamber, but only made it half way across when he tripped and fell to his hands and knees.

Lacking the energy to stand and still fighting for the remaining air, Luthor crawled desperately towards the chamber. He felt himself grow heavier with every movement and by the time he reached the threshold of the stasis chamber, he could barely hold himself above the floor. It seemed to take a small eternity for him to pull his head and arms over the threshold and awkwardly roll over before pushing himself up into a sitting position against the back wall. Finally, he pulled his leaden legs through the opening and the door closed to seal him in. It's not over he thought, as consciousness fled him. I'll still find a way to destroy you…

-o-o-o-

The occupants of the seaplane parked on the roof of the Daily Planet building refused to budge from the aircraft while they watched the scene between Jor-El and Luthor unfold on the small two-inch wide cell phone screen. Lois had been feeding Jor-El insults to hurl at Luthor as they watched the scene and it looked like things were finally drawing to a conclusion. "There is enough energy from the fusion reactors to sustain you in stasis until Kal-El can retrieve you," Jor-El was saying. "The small chamber is obviously for the animal."

"Stasis?" Lois questioned irritably. "Why do that for them after what they did to Kal-El?"

"Because that is our way," Jor-El's voice answered softly. "As undeniable as their guilt may be, we cannot arbitrarily condemn them. Under Kryptonian law, they have the right of due process but we lack the time for a tribunal. I am obliged to offer them an option for survival, but I cannot force it upon them. They must freely make that choice."

"How long can you keep them there?" Richard asked. "You said there wasn't enough to keep things running."

"Once we clear Earth's atmosphere, there will be plenty of energy from the solar wind to sustain them in stasis and to power the transformation."

"Transformation?" Lois wondered.

"It is my intention to purge the radioactive poison from the matrix," Jor-El explained. "It is a time consuming and energy intensive process, but it must be done."

"How time consuming?" Lois asked.

"It will take several decades," Jor-El declared.

"And then this starts all over again? With Luthor knowing about our family?" Lois objected vociferously.

"They will not emerge from stasis with that knowledge intact," Jor-El assured her. "We also need not leave them there long – we can use the starships to remotely extract them, without risk to Kal-El."

Lois nodded absently and the group resumed their silent observation of the scene on Richard's cell phone, as Luthor's crew abandoned him, choosing stasis over the path to oblivion that he had led them on. Finally, Luthor realized his folly and also abandoned that path, struggling to make his way to the remaining stasis chamber. Eventually, he made it inside, sitting on the bottom and pulling his legs in before being sealed within.

"It's finally over," Lois declared quietly.

"Not quite yet," Jor-El corrected. "It will still take several more minutes for Kal-El to eject that abomination from this world."

"Understood," Lois acknowledged. "Thank you, Jor-El." Lois switched off the phone, turned to the others and wearily said, "Are you guys ready to go back to Grandma's?"

-o-o-o-

Superman continued to drive the land mass upwards into the mesosphere while his muscles protested with a sharp burning pain. The wound in his back was particularly excruciating, feeling as though the kryptonite shiv were still there with Luthor still turning it. He tried to block out the pain and pushed against the impossible load, which weighed down heavily on the one hundred foot thick layer of bedrock above his shoulders that provided a buffer against the lethal radiation from the mass above. However, its cover was incomplete, as he knew it would be. There was too much of Luthor's abomination radiating its poison, the anchoring spikes still growing downward, penetrating his shield and bathing him in their radiation.

He realized that he no longer felt the empowering tingle of the sun and he should have felt something – even if it was just energy reflected off the clouds. That could only mean that the kryptonite was already interfering with his organelles' ability to process the solar power, leaving him with only his residual energy to complete the task. He was certain that his strength would have already failed him had he not supercharged under an unfiltered sun prior to beginning the lift. He prayed it would be enough. I can't give up now, he told himself. Just need to keep pushing… for a little while longer…

As Superman continued his ascent, his head soon felt as if it were about to split in two from the pounding headache and every cell in his body felt as though it were on fire. Yet, he continued to push against the burden on his shoulders, to move it higher and faster – he couldn't let it fall back to Earth. Fortunately, his supercharged cells had stored up enough power to still answer his call. However, that also made it difficult for him to measure his progress.

Supercharged strength and speed was difficult to judge on the best of days. With the added complications of kryptonite exposure and the throbbing headache it caused, he found himself unable to determine if he was yet going fast enough to eject the monstrosity. It was taking all his concentration to just keep it moving and stay on course. He thus kept pushing himself to fly higher and faster, and for the moment at least, he was still up to the task. However, his strength was quickly waning.

It wasn't until he noticed the International Space Station whiz by as he passed it that he realized he had achieved his objective and was now traveling well past escape velocity. Superman summoned all of his remaining strength and heaved against his burden, letting out a silent scream as he did so and throwing himself away from the abomination. He drifted back and found himself staring at the massive object as it sped away from him, amazed that he had successfully launched it. It's done, he thought. Thank God it's finally over.

Prior to the lift, he had calculated the object's mass to be an incredible four billion tons and though he had faith he'd be able to lift it, he hadn't been entirely convinced that he'd be able to push it to the required escape velocity of twenty-five thousand miles per hour. However, he had to try – there was too much at stake to prematurely surrender to the fates. His determination paid off, simultaneously eliminating the threat from the lethal abomination along with its creator. Luthor would eventually need to be extracted from stasis to stand trial, but that detail seemed suddenly unimportant.

Superman realized with a start that he was cold – colder than he could ever remembered being. His shivering could only mean that he was still too affected by the massive dose of kryptonite radiation for his organelles to properly absorb the solar energy that now washed over him. He was also exhausted and fought desperately to keep his eyes open as he drifted back towards Earth. Consciousness quickly abandoned him, leaving him in a dreamless sleep and oblivious to the scorching heat of atmospheric reentry as gravity finally reasserted itself over him.