The fact that they were finally this close to recovering Kala was almost unreal and they were all tense with thoughts of the battle ahead. All three Kents were very aware of what they were potentially walking into. Lois was at the wheel as they drove through the silent desert, with Kal-El in the passenger seat and Jason in the back of the rented car. Their current plan was to pass the facility, letting both sets of x-ray vision check it out, and then they would conceal the car somewhere to figure out a concealed method of approach.
The road they were traveling wound through the low hills covered in desert scrub. Some people enjoyed this kind of landscape, found its stillness and sparseness enthralling, but Lois wasn't one of them. It looked barren and forbidding to her, and the chill air outside didn't help either. Between that, worrying about her husband and her son, and still not knowing if Kala was okay, Lois' anxiety was running at an all-time high. In the end, she spoke because the lack of voices was spooking her. "It should be up ahead." Concentrating on keeping a steady speed, she relied on the other two for visual conformation. She herself couldn't see anything, but the GPS said they were almost there.
As she expected, it was her husband that got the first sighting, a faraway look in his eyes. "You're right. I can see it. On the other side of that hill…"
His voice trailed off, and Jason leaned forward between the two front seats. The teenager squinted as hard as he could, then said, "I see it, too. But I can't see inside the walls."
"Me, neither," Kal-El said in disgust, frowning. "The walls must be lead-lined."
Lois swore under her breath. "Damn Luthor. Then again, are any of us surprised? At least it's a sign we're on to something he doesn't want us to see. Then again, he's just perverse enough to have done it even if there's nothing in there. It shouldn't be a shocker."
The stormy look on Kal-El's face made it very clear exactly how he felt about the situation. "No, it shouldn't, but also means that we'll be going in blind. I don't like it."
Lois reached over and took his hand, willing him to look at her. Putting all of the confidence she had into her voice, she murmured, "Listen, neither do I, but we both know that's just how he wants it. He's had ten years to plan all of this. But right now he has Kala and we don't have much choice. It's not the worst odds we've ever been up against. And we've always beat him, haven't we? Have a little faith in us, okay? We can do this."
Smiling at her, he brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. "You're right, as usual, Lois. And thank you for the encouragement. Looks like I married a cheerleader after all."
She caught his meaning immediately, from the look of the smirk she gave him. Rolling her eyes at the grand gesture, she nevertheless squeezed his hand and there was a hint of pleasure glinting in her eyes. "Oh, give me a break. If you're going to be a dork, never mind. We have better things to be doing than distracting our son from the rescue by grossing him out."
A pointed reply came from the back seat as Jason sighed. "Thank you. Now would one of you please look at the road and not each other?" That got a quiet chuckle from both parents.
They managed to find a place several miles away to leave the car where it wouldn't be too conspicuous, and Kal-El changed into uniform to fly Lois and Jason back to the site. They flew low, skimming the ground in case Luthor was scanning with radar. Jason couldn't help lifting up his feet every time they shot over a cactus. He had never liked flying, and being this close to the ground reminded him why. It was just too out-of-control for him. Not that he didn't trust Dad, but being powerless to steer around the rocks and thorns simply wasn't his idea of fun.
Kal-El landed them all one ridge away from the actual site, and used his x-ray vision to get a thorough look at the building. "That's … actually pretty odd. I'm not seeing any surveillance equipment."
Yeah, right. Lex never did anything without calculating exactly how much damage it would cause and what he would get out of it. Lois gave a soft snort of wry amusement. "We both know better than that. He's just planned better this time for hiding them. How about entrances?"
"There's a loading dock with a pair of roll-up doors, and a locked steel door beside that. There's also what looks like a garage on the side of the building – basically a big shed with another roll-up door."
Jason strained his vision to confirm that. "Not very many cars in the garage, and they're dusty," he offered.
The reporter crossed her arms while she mulled over their options. Not that there were many. "So we're either going through the garage or through the dock," Lois mused aloud. "There's more cover in the garage, I think."
"And I just spotted a surveillance camera at the dock," Kal-El added with a grimace. "It's recessed above the door."
The reporter considered the choices at hand. The dock, for multiple reasons, was out. That left the garage, which had its own reasons to make her leery. Knowing the way Lex's mind worked, and the fact that the place was obviously unused, it might very well be that room that was a trap. Both had their disadvantages, which was the less of the two? "Let's go with the garage. Should be a little easier to spot any of his little surprises. Agreed?"
"Yes," Kal-El replied, only to stop them both when they started to move forward. "Before we do this, there's one thing we need to discuss." Lois shot him an annoyed look; locked into and fully committed to their current plan, the General's Daughter hated deviations. Though the way he was looking at them both did the trick this time.
He had only just gotten the words out when Jason supplied dutifully, "Do as you're told, don't take risks, watch your own back and everyone else's. That much I already figured out."
That brought a surprisingly warm smile from his father. "No, Jason, that wasn't exactly what I had in mind. You've both got your cell phones, right?" When Lois and Jason nodded in reply, he continued, "I'm going to give you the direct number for Oracle. If anything happens to me, I want both of you to get out as fast as you can, and send her a text. We should have enough signal for that."
Jason bit his lip. Could he really leave his father behind if something did happen? Kal-El evidently saw his expression. "I'm giving it to both of you in the hopes that at least one of you will be able to get out. This is Luthor we're talking about. So if you have the chance, take it. That goes for both of you. All right?"
He left unspoken the fact that if his wife or son were trapped, he wouldn't be running for backup. Of all the amazing things Superman could do, that simply wasn't one of them. When Jason and Lois both reluctantly agreed, he gave them the number. "You need to send the message in code. Just send, 'Could you bring a new deck for five card stud? The king of diamonds is missing from this one.' Five card stud means an emergency, and I'm the king of diamonds. She'll be able to track the phone's location and know who it's from, so you don't have to tell her that."
Lois' somber expression grew more grave then. Something about his giving the both of them the code chilled her in ways all of this morning's discussion hadn't. It was the same feeling she'd had before seconding Jason's coming with them. There was no explaining it, just a hunch. One that was growing more unsettling by the second. Her hazel eyes didn't leave Kal-El's, but her words were directed at her son when she said calmly, "Repeat it. I want to know you can remember that if you need it, Jason."
That evoked a confused frown at his mother. It wasn't as if he really needed to remember the code. If anything, she would be the one headed out of trouble while he covered her escape. But Mom was implacable in most things, so he humored her. "Bring a new deck for five card stud. The king of diamonds is missing from this one."
That calmed her heart just enough to get her back under control. Her every maternal instinct was still baying in protest over their bringing him into this, hated having him in the line of fire, but she couldn't ignore whatever warning was being given to her. With Luthor involved, it was better to have him close, and the more to fight against the maniac, the better the result. Facing him, she noticed that he was watching her wonderingly, clearly trying to puzzle out what she was thinking. Seeing his worry, the need to try to fix things, just made her heart clench. "Good," she said gently, coming forward to catch his chin. "Jason, your dad's right. No matter how brave you are or how big a help you could be, none of us know what we're walking into. If we get separated for more than a few minutes or you get in over your head, I want you to run. No acting brave when they outnumber or outclass you. Do you hear me? This man is crazy, he has a lot of money now and a lot of hired hands, and he's tried to kill all of us before. We clear on that?"
He should have felt offended, but he knew what his mother was getting at. She had always been like this, wanting to shield him and Kal from the worst of things in life, even if it meant holding the mirror a little too close to warn you of your lack of experience or ability. Until all of this had happened, he'd never really known how far she would go. Rather than argue, he just nodded and pulled her into a hug. "I know how crazy he is, Mom," Jason replied quietly against her shoulder. "I haven't forgotten that he held a kryptonite shiv to my throat to make you give up your gun." Hopefully that would silence her objections before she realized he hadn't agreed to run. At least she hadn't made him promise.
His mother just watched him for a silent moment once they pulled back. The Tremaine eyes took in everything about him, giving him the impression that she was committing something to memory. It felt like a punch to the gut when he became aware of what she was doing. She's actually scared. Oh, God, we're going to be okay. Don't do this, Mom. The frantic thread of his thoughts must have shown on his face because his mother smiled then, full of warmth. "My brave boy. Just remember that, okay? Things will probably be pretty crazy once this starts."
Afraid to say anything else, he reached out to squeeze her hand. His voice was little more than a whisper, only managing, "Yes, ma'am." She was turning away then, trying to keep her composure when her eyes landed on her husband.
Again, time seemed to stop, narrowed down to the two of them. It wasn't the first time they'd been in a situation like this. And after the events of yesterday, this should be a cake-walk. Lois privately thought that jumping into the fire together willingly had always been one of their strengths. In a moment like this, when your whole world hinged on a series of actions and reactions you had no way of guessing, what could be said? Not willing to let her emotions get away from her in spite of her worry, Lois gave him a challenging smile. He knew how she felt, both of them on the same page now more than ever. Locking her emotions in place and getting her mind set for anything, the General's Daughter turned and started away. Better now than never.
Kal-El caught her hand, tugging gently to turn her back to him. They were locked and loaded, but not quite yet ready. Some things remained to be said, in light of the danger they were all about to face. When her questioning gaze rose to his, he smiled gently. "One last thing." Kal-El turned from her to Jason, making a point of meeting both their gazes. His cerulean eyes were steady and sure. "No matter what happens, I want you to know that I love you, and I am so very proud of both of you. Lois, I was never happier than the day I married you – and Jason, part of the reason I was so happy was that you were finally officially my son."
Jason's throat tightened, and all he could do was hug his father. Why they always like this right before they went into a fight? The way Mom and Dad were talking, they almost sounded like they didn't expect anyone to survive this. Jason privately vowed that he wouldn't let that happen. Mom could be the one to call for backup. If Luthor tried to kill Dad, he would quickly learn that Superman wasn't the only hero in this family.
When they pulled back, Lois was shaking her head at them. If this went on much longer, they'd never leave and it was time to move out. She grinned at the two most important men in her life and jerked her head at their destination. "Come on; enough of that, you two. We've got to stop this. It's not the end of the world. We go in, get Kala, get out. Then we call the League down on his head, if we even need to do that. It's just one more fight to be together. And we've always come out the victors. It's time to bring the battle to him. It's time for Kala to come home."
"Damn right," Jason said, his voice a little rough.
Kal-El pulled Lois to him for a quick hug, then returned his attention to the battle plan. "We'll circle around to the opposite side of the garage. I'll cut a hole in the sheet metal to give us access. Then we can work on getting through the door to the interior. You've got your lock picks, right, Lois?"
With a disbelieving snort of amusement, she grinned at him in that reckless and brilliant way she always did just before doing something insanely dangerous and utterly Lois. "That's like asking if the Star is only good for lining a litter box. Of course. Let's do this."
It was the first time she could ever remember him looking that thrilled that she had instruments totally dedicated to illegal entry in her back pocket. And he seemed rather amused by it, too. "That's my girl." On that note, he led the way to the side of the garage.
She just laughed as she and Jason followed, muttering under her voice, "Guess there's a first time for everything. I'll remind you of this the next time Mags wants to take me in for breaking and entering, hero."
Lana and Richard had taken Elise with them as planned. The car was loaded with their luggage; once they were done at the records office, they were going to head out of the area and get a hotel room somewhere else. Luthor had to know the pressure was on, and he might decide that attacking the three of them was a good way to distract the Lane-Kents. So the less time they spent in one place, the better. The only thing going for their current trip was the fact that Luthor might think they weren't foolish enough to return to a place where he'd caught them before.
They wouldn't have bothered to return at all, except Richard had been in the middle of government records when he and Lana had left yesterday. He had a feeling there was something of importance there; he'd only glanced at the documents, but something kept nagging him about them.
He and Lana had charmed their way back into the files, Elise tagging along, and they were now hunting for that one little point of relevance that Richard had subconsciously noted. Lana was the first to speak up. "Oh, my God," she whispered, her eyes wide. "Richard, there's a decommissioned underground facility out in the hills somewhere."
The pilot sucked in a stunned breath. "He'd have a ready-made base; all he'd have to do is hook it up for power and water. And he's smart enough to do that without the government finding out."
Elise hurried to Lana's side, peering at the documents spread out on the table. The information was scanty, but the land had clearly been sold to a private owner thirteen years ago. Her sharp eyes spotted something Lana and Richard hadn't seen yet. "Hey, guys? This is right off the road Mr. and Mrs. Kent are heading down."
Richard swore under his breath and snatched out his cell phone to call them. "They have no idea what they're walking into. There's probably miles of tunnels underground…"
Even as he dialed, Lana's phone rang, and she answered it. "Kay, we're a bit busy," she said gently.
"Yeah, well, we have a situation," Kay told her. "Thank God you're finally somewhere with cell service. Listen, Luthor's making a bid to take over the Daily Planet."
"He's what?" Lana yelped, startling Elise and Richard.
"Perry and the employees are fighting him, but it's a battle for shares of stock right now," Kay explained. "If Luthor and his cronies get a controlling interest…"
"We can't let that happen," Lana replied instantly.
Kay laughed, an oddly strangled sound. "That's what I thought you'd say. Listen, Laurel just called me and said one of the investors was there making threats. This deal is going down today."
"You've got power of attorney. Call the broker and use my money," Lana told her. She had Richard's full attention, her husband practically leaping out of his shoes with impatience. Elise was watching her too.
"I already did," Kay said meekly. "I'm sorry, Lana, I couldn't reach you…"
Lana stood up very straight. "How much?" she asked, her voice quiet and steady.
"Twenty-five thousand from your checking…" Kay's voice trailed off miserably.
"Well, leave my checking account alone, I might need it soon," Lana replied. "Take it from the savings, instead. Just don't touch the earmarked accounts or the trust funds. That should give you around six hundred thousand to work with."
Kay almost choked. "That ought to do it. Lana, I just…"
"Tell Perry not to thank me. I'm already invested in the paper, I'm just increasing my shares so I can dictate when Lois and Clark get vacation," Lana replied lightly. After a few more minutes of conversation, mostly Kay stammering in relief, she ended the call.
"Six hundred thousand?" Richard said. "For what?"
"Luthor's trying to buy your uncle's paper," Lana replied. "By the time this is over, Perry and I will probably own it jointly. In fact, I'd better call my broker and tell him he can shift some of my investments around."
Richard shook his head, ignoring Elise's shell-shocked look, and went back to trying to reach Lois or Clark to warn them.
As they entered the darkened building, Jason kept close to Mom, trying to watch all sides at once. He focused his hearing to make up for his inability to use the X-ray vision; it had never been his strongest power, but every little bit counted now. Although it did have drawbacks. So riveted was his attention that when Dad cursed under his breath, it startled him. He whipped around wide-eyed; they had only just gotten inside. How could things be going wrong already? From beside him, Lois hissed, "What is it?"
Kal-El's voice was a frustrated growl. "The interior walls are lead-lined, too. No wonder I couldn't find her. He's been keeping her deliberately shielded. Doubly so, if this place is set up the way I think it is."
That was enough to have Jason biting his lip to keep from swearing. Lois, meanwhile, was rolling her eyes. Where Luthor was concerned, nothing surprised her. "About what we expected from him. He's underground." Which just edged her tension up a notch, but that wasn't such a bad thing at a time like this. "Guess we're doing things the old-fashioned way, then. Good thing I'm used to that." She couldn't resist a smirk. Story of my life.
Kal-El caught that, in spite of things, and cut her a look before turning to Jason. "Keep your ears open. Whatever we can't see, we might be able to hear with enough time to prepare for it."
Nodding, Jason strained his hearing to the limit, but all he could catch was three heartbeats – his and his parents'. "Clear," Kal-El murmured in confirmation, and they headed down the long hallway, trying to walk softly. Kal-El went first, alert to any threat. Lois followed, her gun out and pointed safely upward. Jason brought up the rear, watching their backs. All three were on a hair-trigger, expecting violence at any second.
They were met instead by nothing. Not even the faintest echo of a footstep other than their own. The entire facility seemed deserted. There were rooms off the hallway, but after opening each door they found just empty offices. Lois perused some of the papers lying about, but nothing looked particularly interesting. Some bills of lading for various shipments, the contents of which weren't specified, were the only items that could have been considered clues.
Oddly, there were no computers of any sort in any of the rooms. When they found a manual typewriter in one office, Lois snorted. "It's been a long time since I've seen one of those. Guess he hasn't figured out a way to cut down on the interference. The EMPs sure do play hell on any kind of electronics. And I'm sure the crystal would kick up one hell of a fuss if he tried to force the information, which we know he has." She smiled grimly then, Lex's main commercial use of the technology coming to mind. "The KAL chip, anyone?"
There was no missing the way Kal-El's countenance darkened at that. "He called it that just to aggravate me. I know he did. The thieving slimy smug sonofa…" He could feel Lois' eyes on him and let his voice trail off rather than finish the thought. Jason, whose nerves were strung tighter than the wires of his piano, just scoffed under his breath.
That severe look never leaving her face, Lois shook her head. She'd be chasing the ghost of the past just a little bit longer, it seemed, with or without his forgiveness. "He's not worth it. And it wasn't just you he baited with it. He knew just how guilty I'd feel. He knew I'd rise to the bait eventually, if only to get the damned Sword of Damocles out from over my head."
"At least that's over with," Kal-El said with clear finality that was a balm to Lois' still-injured pride. He moved onward then, and soon they reached the end of the hallway. It terminated in a locked door, behind which even Lois could hear the sounds of machinery. Kal-El pressed his ear against the door, listening intently, then withdrew with an exasperated sigh. "It sounds like air-handling equipment, maybe, and some other large motor. The interference is making it hard to get a fix on any subtle noises."
Having his powers lessened clearly annoyed him, but they had expected Luthor to have measures in place to defeat them. That was the problem with your enemy knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Regardless, having Lois and Jason here was hopefully enough of a wild card to work around Luthor's defenses.
Lois came to the front to kneel by the door, maneuvering the locking mechanism with the picks until it gave. Opening it very slowly, she peered into the room before glancing back to the other two. "Not bad, Kal-El. It's what you think it is." She stood aside to let him go first.
All three looked into the room. From the high ceiling above and plain concrete block wall to their right, this space had originally been something like a warehouse. Now it was packed so full of crates that only a narrow aisle was left in which to maneuver. Lois felt a shiver of déjà vu; this was too much like the warehouse in which she'd fought with Mercy. Only this one was much larger, and there was less space between the crates and boxes stacked all the way to the ceiling.
Worse, the aisle made a sharp turn at what had to be the opposite wall of the building. Halfway between there and where they stood was another aisle perpendicular to this one. That made two avenues they would have to explore.
Jason scowled and announced, "Whatever's in those crates, I can't see through it. Those ones on the end there, they're actually made of metal. The wood ones up here have a bunch of metal things in them."
Kal-El looked, too. "Interlocking fittings of some kind. And it's a lead alloy. Wonderful. Whatever's down here, he really doesn't want me to see it."
"Which is good news, right? It means we're on the right track?" The boy looked to his father hopefully.
Lois cut her husband a significant look, the angle of her brows and set of her mouth broadcasting, 'well, shit,' as clearly as if she'd spoken. Her hazel eyes blazed with equal parts irritation and trepidation. He interpreted her expression correctly, his own mouth down-turned. "The bad news is, we've got two aisles. If we choose the wrong one, he could get behind us or even escape. Come on."
Leading them to the first turn, Kal-El listened intently before peering around the edge. He levitated nearly to the ceiling to do so, in case someone was waiting for him to peak around at head-height. But there was nothing to be seen. The aisle ended in another turn. Quickly, Kal-El motioned them to hurry past, and left Jason and Lois guarding that aisle while he checked the other.
He returned to them in seconds. "They both end in turns, and I can't see through the walls. All of the crates are either lead-lined, made of lead alloy, or filled with objects made of lead. He's got this covered."
The three of them glanced from one aisle to the other, knowing the choice had to be made. There was no way to decide which one to choose, though. The sound of the machinery echoed off the bare walls and down the corridors made of metal crates, turning the place into the auditory equivalent of a mirror maze.
In the end, the entire set-up of the room left them with no choice. Knowing that, Kal-El made one of the toughest decisions of his life. "It's obvious. We have to split up."
Jason was the first to speak as Lois stared at him, frowning. "Dad, no. We have to stick together."
"We can't risk picking the wrong aisle. Luthor knows the layout, we don't. That makes it all too easy for him to circle around us. Or he could get out, taking Kala with him. We can't let that happen. The only option left is to split up." Ten years ago, Lois had made the choice no one else could, and now that duty fell to her husband. He looked steadily at both of them, stony-eyed and implacable. If he let the slightest hint of his fear show, neither of them would agree to the plan. Especially since he meant to send them off together and explore the farther passage on his own.
Lois was already shaking her, dark curls flying. "No. I don't like it, not in this close of quarters. Not with your vision and hearing mostly on the blitz. This is a bad idea, Kal-El." Unconsciously, her hand rose to the locket around her neck, rubbing the topaz worriedly.
He overrode her, inexorably patient. "You two take the nearer corridor. You'll be safer together. I'll take the far one. It's the only logical choice."
"Screw logic," Jason snapped. "How about we knock down a few of these walls so we can actually see around here?"
"Look up. Do you see what's not there?" When Jason scowled at his father's question, Kal-El explained. "The roof structure looks normal for a building this size. But that doesn't account for the weight of the lead shielding it. The cross-braces I see aren't adequate to bear the load. If we move too many of the crates, or the wrong ones, we could bring the whole roof down on our heads."
Stymied, Jason turned a look of mute pleading on his mother. Surely if anyone could talk Kal-El out of this, it was her. And Lois was decidedly unhappy about it. "So we have no choice, huh? He knows the two of you could do it and probably survive, but the debris would crush me," she muttered bitterly, tightening her jaw. "That sonofabitch. He's going to split us up whether we like it or not." She took a deep breath then, bracing herself. "There's no other way around it? You're sure? Because I don't like this."
He only nodded, feeling certainty like an iron weight in his heart. With a troubled expression, she finally acquiesced. "All right. God, it's déjà vu all over again. But you be careful, Kal-El. I don't want another replay of last time." Her voice had begun soft and hesitant, but turned fierce again at the end.
"I will." Kal-El spoke the words in spite of the growing chill in his soul. Then he turned his attention to Jason. "Your mother has more experience with this sort of thing than you do, so listen to her, and watch her back."
Jason's hatred of this idea could not be adequately expressed in words, but he seemed to be outvoted. All he could manage to say was, "Yes, sir." Kal-El turned and walked away, and Jason swallowed the lump in his throat as he watched him go.
Trying to quell the loop this had thrown her for, Lois watched his back for a minute before catching Jason's sleeve. "C'mon," Lois murmured gently. "Besides, I plan to give your Dad about ten minutes to investigate his side and if he doesn't come back, we're going after him. Luthor does have kryptonite around here, I'm sure, and I'm not willing to lose either of you. The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can get the hell out of here. All four of us."
Jason heartily agreed to that. He followed close behind her as they continued down the aisle, straining his vision and hearing to the limit. All he got for his efforts was a headache.
Soon they came to another branching, with turns in both corridors. Lois eyed both paths, then turned to Jason. Before she could speak, he muttered, "No way, Mom. You stay right here, I'll check out both options and see what's around the bend."
That earned him a black look, the reporter glaring at him. "You're expecting me to let my son walk straight into what could be a trap? When I'm the one holding a gun? Uh-huh, nope. I didn't bring you down here so you could get ambushed. I'll go." She was already shouldering him aside when he caught her arm.
"Mom? You don't have any invulnerability. At least I have a little of it." Jason's earnest expression pleaded with her. "I won't be out of your sight. And if there's someone around the corner, I've got enough powers to deal with them – assuming I don't hear them before I see them."
It was a situation she had never wanted to be in: either she allowed Jason to do this, let him go ahead into almost certain danger with his powers to protect him. Or take the second tunnel and have him distracted by worry for her. There had to be a third option. He was right, truth be told, but she couldn't let him do it. This was worse than any blackmail Luthor had ever had on her and she had no doubt that he's known they would be forced to make these decisions when he designed it. The heartless bastard. "No, sweetheart, I can't let you…"
Jason was torn. He had been a mostly obedient child all of his life, but he could not hang back and let his mother walk into danger. Neither option would let his heart rest easy. When in doubt, Jason could only choose the path that kept his mother safe, no matter how wrong it felt to disobey her. "Mom, stay here," he said, and the words had barely left his mouth before he dashed to the corner of the first passageway.
His heart was hammering in his ears, but he could still hear Lois' shocked gasp. And he could also hear nothing but echoes around the corner. Jason peeked out carefully, wishing he had more of his father's speed. He was quicker than any human, but Dad could have done this and been back before Lois' mouth began to frame the first startled exclamation.
Nothing around this corner; it dead-ended into the exterior wall of the building. Jason wasted no more time on it, racing back past Lois and to the end of the other turnoff. Again, he peered around the corner, making sure to keep his body hidden behind the stacks of crates. That corridor continued to yet another turn, and the sound of machinery was louder, but it was just as deserted.
Jason was back at Lois side in a handful of heartbeats, reporting his findings. "The first one's a dead end, the second continues. Both are deserted. Let's go."
Before he could even take a step further, Mom had the front of his shirt and had pulled him down to her level. Her breath was coming quick and fast, hazel eyes wide when she hissed in frightened anger, her voice breaking. "Don't you ever do that again! Don't you dare just speed off face-first into whatever could be lying in wait for you, especially not when I'm in mid-sentence! Jason, I'm your mother! I'm supposed to be protecting you! That's my job! I did a bad enough job with Kala and now I'm paying for it. I'm not letting him get you, too!"
Jason caught her hands, his blue eyes full of compassion. But there was a hint of something else there, a sternness she'd never seen in him before. "Mom. We have to protect each other. Because you are my mother and I'm not going to let Luthor corner you again. So I'll look after you, and you'll look after me, and we both do a pretty darn good job of it." He paused, and smiled sadly. "Kala's not your fault. You know that, right? It's not your fault or hers that Luthor has her. Blame the person who deserves it. He's the one who started all of this."
In that moment, Lois could only stare up at him with swell of affection only a mother could know. She'd never known a moment when she was more proud of him, even if she could just shake him for scaring her. Looking back at her was the man – the hero – she had always known that he'd eventually become. And seeing that made her heart ache for her daughter all the more.
But now wasn't the time for a panic-attack. The General's Daughter didn't break down on the battlefield. Kala was somewhere in this facility and they had to get her out. Despite her anxiety, maybe Jason was right; they needed to work together. Her hands slowly released his shirt, Lois heaving a heavy sigh. "Jason, it really is at least somewhat my fault; neither of us can change the reality of that. But you're right. We should be working together. Besides, we have to track your dad down before long." Drawing away and getting herself under control, she jerked her head the why he had returned. "Let's go."
Jason fell in behind her, alert to any slightest sound of a threat. Once more, they came to a fork in the path. This time when Jason moved to look before her, Lois bit her lip against a protest and only whispered to him to crouch down. He saw the sense in that; anyone looking for them would expect someone to peer around at head height, and might miss movement closer to the ground. With his powers and her wisdom, they made a good team.
The sound of machinery was getting louder the further they went. Jason figured they were roughly in the center of the building. Around one more corner, the space suddenly opened up. Jason peeked to make sure it was safe, and saw nothing but a series of air-handling machines with ducts leading to vents in the floor. "You were right," he murmured. "Everything's underground. This is where they're pumping air down to whatever's under the floor." He remembered noticing vents along the roofline of the building, but had thought nothing of it at the time.
Lois only nodded. They moved cautiously into the space, wary of any potential trap. "We need to get down there," the reporter muttered. "All of this is just stage-dressing. Wherever he has Kala, it's down there somewhere." She and Jason looked for an access panel, but couldn't find any such thing. It seemed that the only way to get down from here was through the vents themselves, and the openings were far too narrow for a person to pass through.
Glancing at her watch, Lois was surprised to realize they had only used up a few minutes of the time she'd allowed them before they went in search of Kal-El. She knew that the wisest course was to return to him and see if the route he'd chosen through this maze led to a better access point. But a part of her would not let her turn back. Kala could be only a few feet away at this point. What if Luthor was holding her right there, beneath the air ducts, and all of his attention was focused on Kal-El? She and Jason could spirit Kala out before anyone even knew they were here…
Lois lost all chance of squashing that wild hope when Jason knelt beside one of the vents and looked at it thoughtfully. "Mom, I bet I could widen this with heat-vision. We could pull the duct aside and slip in the air shaft. The space below is big enough for you to stand, even though I'm gonna have to duck."
She couldn't turn away. Part of her hated leaving Kal-El alone to face whatever waited down his path. The rest of her, however, couldn't resist the possibility of getting this over with. They had to find Kala. There was no time to waste. Lois hadn't forgotten Mercy's snide comments about Stockholm Syndrome, and knew that they had to get to Kala before she broke under the mental strain of captivity.
"Do it," Lois told her son, and stood nearby, gun at the ready in case they were discovered. He wasted no time, pulling the duct out and catching hold of the edge of the floor. His heat vision sizzled through concrete, with an occasional pause to cut the rebar that supported the structure. Lois saw that they would be through the widened hole in seconds, and took a deep breath, hoping Kal-El was okay. She'd had a bad feeling about this from the moment they started discussing it.
Kal-El found himself having to stop and figure out where he was in relation to the overall layout of the building. The twists and turns of the corridors had been designed to confuse anyone who came here by accident. At least he could keep track of Lois and Jason's heartbeats. The familiar rhythms were hard to catch in the cacophony of overlapping machinery noises, but he knew them so well he could still lock on to them – just barely.
He eventually came to a wider area somewhere in the back of the building. A large freight elevator, just a hydraulic platform with a single guard rail, stood in the middle of the floor. So there was something beneath this level. Kal-El peered downward, but his vision was oddly grainy. Furrowing his brow, he rested his eyes by looking around the space.
Ah, that explained things. Sitting on the elevator platform was a bucket of paint. It looked ancient, the metal lid rusting and the label faded. When Kal-El focused on it, the contents were semi-opaque. Trust Luthor to have found a source of leaded paint – the stuff had been outlawed in the U.S. for years due to the danger of children ingesting it. It had just enough lead to slightly cloud Kal-El's vision. The ceiling of the level below was probably painted.
But Luthor had made a single mistake, and Kal-El grinned fiercely. The upper surface was bare concrete, and the elevator was bare metal. X-Ray vision worked just fine on it, giving him a window into the room below. Kal-El circled the elevator, not wanting to step on it until he'd made sure it wasn't booby-trapped.
It seemed to lead to another stockroom, this one filled with more ordinary supplies. Kal-El remembered the strange thefts of medical equipment years ago when his gaze lit on some of the crates down there. Entire cases of laboratory glassware, protective goggles and clothing, Bunsen burners, and various chemicals lined the walls. Kal-El wouldn't let himself wonder exactly why Luthor needed those items, not when his daughter was captive somewhere below.
What seemed stranger was the amount of salt. There were huge boxes labeled NaCl, which was ordinary table salt. Why on earth would Luthor need great quantities of salt? Kal-El could imagine no use for it.
He shrugged it off. The room below wasn't wired for traps, but he had no intention of using the lift anyway. He didn't want to announce his presence. Instead, he used another trick, and spun in place. The friction of his boots, which were protected by his invulnerability, wore away the concrete. Soon he standing in a drift of pale dust, looking around the room below.
A long hall led off in two directions, which weren't marked. Kal-El chose the right, sidling quietly along with his ears straining in two directions. He was seeking both information about his surroundings and trying to keep tabs on Lois and Jason. Unfortunately, the huge motor that powered the lift was in this room, and its idle cycle sounded much like a great heart throbbing right beside him. Kal-El was almost deafened by it, and increased his pace to get some distance from the sound that echoed fiercely off the concrete walls.
Once he was gone, Zod rose from behind the massive piece of machinery, and set off down the other hall to intercept his target at the intersection of the two paths.
Lois hated the air ducts. She and Jason were in the center hub of a network of radiating ducts, and the force of the air blowing down them wrecked both her hair and her nerves. It could be worse, she told herself firmly. At least she could stand and walk easily. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to do this in the kind of narrow metal ventilation ducts common in buildings. The reporter had crawled through them a time or two while chasing a story, but it wasn't her idea of fun.
Jason stood beside her, looking worriedly around the area. He had set down the piece of concrete his heat vision had carved out from around the duct, placing it where it would make a good step for Lois to get back out quickly. But now he was somewhat at a loss. They had six passageways to choose from, leading in all different directions. The air handling machinery was so loud that he couldn't even listen for potential leads at the entrance of each path.
The reporter swore under her breath. Lois saw how this had to work, but she didn't have to like it. All of the tunnels were slightly curved, so the noise might fade out a little around the bend. One of them would have to go down each shaft and listen for any hint of where the tunnel might lead. The other would have to guard this central hub so no one could creep up on them. And Lois knew Jason's hearing was better than hers, just as her fast reflexes and loaded gun were better suited to guard duty.
But she hated it, every maternal instinct in her body screaming No! Still, she gritted her teeth and forced herself to speak calmly. "Jason, you'll have to go a little ways down each of these. Just far enough so the machinery isn't blocking your hearing. Listen, then come back and tell me what you heard before going to the next. It's the only way we can figure out which one to follow."
The thought of giving up and going back to Dad didn't even occur to Jason. He could feel Kala's presence somewhere. She was further away than he'd hoped, but she was much closer than she had been for days, and his heart hammered. He nodded to Lois and headed down the first tunnel.
He had to go quite a ways before the roar of the air handlers faded enough, and then he heard nothing of interest. Jason had hoped for a snippet of conversation, something to indicate where people were, but so far this place seemed deserted. If not for that strange sense of empathy between himself and Kala, he would have given up. But he knew she was here, and he came out of the first tunnel to plunge directly into the second. That one ran much straighter, and he had to go even further before he could get a clear reading of the sounds. It too was disappointingly quiet.
When he came out of that one, Jason saw that Mom had wisely positioned herself with her back to the first, empty tunnel. He had never been more glad of her vast experience and sharp mind. She thought of everything. "Love you, Mom," he said with a grin, and ducked down the third passageway. He was no longer surprised to find it blank as well. Perhaps only one of the air shafts was useful.
Jason popped out of the third tunnel and Lois winked at him bravely. "Love you too," she called, her keen gaze never leaving the unexplored areas as he dove down the fourth passage. This was another long one, and he was quite some distance from the center when he heard the first faint sound of a voice.
He froze, the hair on the nape of his neck standing up. It wasn't clear at all, but he knew that tone. It was Kala's voice, raised in anger, and it electrified him. "Mom, she's here!" he called back down the tunnel to Lois, and took off in the direction of his twin's voice.
Lois, meanwhile, heard something behind her. Jason had already checked that tunnel, and she whirled, her gun aimed and her heart pounding. She heard Jason shout, but couldn't make out the words because of the echoes.
Before she could turn and run to him she heard another voice, much closer. Lois' heart turned to ice. She had been listening to that voice for sixteen years, from the first colicky cries to the sarcastic remarks of Kala's adolescence. It didn't matter that she couldn't understand the words. That was her baby, her finicky, frustrating, forever-beloved little girl, and Lois ran, calling over her shoulder, "Jason, come on!"
Not waiting for him to catch up, Lois pursued the echo of her daughter's voice down the tunnel. At one point it began to slope downwards, and Lois scrambled to keep from falling. She ended up at a t-junction, holding her breath to hear better.
There. To her left, Kala called out for her mother, fear and pain mingled in her voice. The ice melted, Lois' heart burning like a miniature sun in her chest. She'd come to Nevada knowing she would have to kill Luthor to end this. Hearing Kala cry out just made it easier to do. You'll never hurt her again, she thought furiously, and ran headlong toward the sound.
At the next turn Lois checked herself more out of habit than anything else. She was too well-trained, by her father and Maggie, to simply burst around a corner while in enemy territory. She paused to listen, heard Kala whimper, and flung herself around the corner with the gun in front of her.
Her instant of hesitation saved her. She didn't even know she was under fire until she saw concrete chips fly up from the wall in front of her. Lois' finger was already inside the trigger guard when she saw that, and her sharp eyes flew toward movement up the hall. Even with adrenaline roaring through her veins, Lois recognized Luthor's bald head, and she fired while she was still in motion.
Luthor ducked around a corner, and Lois hurriedly flung herself behind the only cover available: the same corner she'd just darted out from. Her hands were shaking, her mind racing; she was so close, Kala was right nearby, and here was her chance to end this nightmare forever. She slid down the wall and peered around.
Her own Ladysmith, the one Luthor had stolen from her aboard the yacht ten years ago, was aimed at her. The first bullet had missed her by only inches, but Luthor wasn't a practiced shooter, and his next shot was off by a foot or more. That heartened Lois, and she snapped off two return shots that drove him back behind his own corner. The first was wide, but at the second one Lois saw paint chips fly up right where Luthor's head had been a moment ago.
Her head rang with gunfire and the echoes thereof. Lois pressed herself against the wall, forcing herself to breathe slowly and quietly. Right now they were in deadlock, both of them sticking to cover. Someone had to break it, and Lois waited for Luthor to make the first move. The scene around the corner was fixed in her mind, and her entire being was focused on swinging around to bring her gun to bear on Luthor's chest. She only had to wait for his impatience to force him to break cover. He didn't have her training, he wouldn't be able to wait.
Lois heard a shoe scuff, and launched herself. In a single smooth motion she whipped around the corner, gun at the ready, finger already squeezing the trigger. But the corridor was empty except for a single shoe lying a few feet out from the wall.
Oh, fuck! She saw the trap and skidded, diving back under cover. But something caught her shoulder and spun her in midair. Lois slammed against the wall behind her, the gun clattering from her numb hand. Her whole arm was hot and distant.
That didn't matter, she had to get up, had to move, get out of the line of fire before he managed to hit her. Only when she tried to use her right hand to rise did the pain come, blooming like fire in her should. Lois cried out and fell, realizing the sleeve of her dark blue shirt had gone black. I'm hit, she thought dazedly, still trying to struggle back to her feet.
A sudden impact to her midsection flung her against the wall again, and Lois pressed her hand against her stomach. Hot blood spilled over her fingers as she stared down at herself. Her mind had vapor-locked. This wasn't supposed to happen. This wasn't supposed to be. Luthor was the one who would die here, not her.
A shadow fell over her, and Lois looked up dazedly. Luthor stood there, a hard, triumphant smile on his face. "Hello, Lois," he said, his voice rough. That jump-started her brain, and Lois tried to reach for her gun with her left hand. He had kicked it away, though, and blood loss was already making her too weak to do anything more than stare up at him in disbelief. It couldn't end like this…
He bent down, grabbed the locket from around her neck, and yanked it off. The sting as the chain snapped barely registered to Lois. "I think I'll keep this," he mused, his greedy eyes drinking in every drop of her pain and helplessness.
I'm not gonna die here, at your hands, Lois thought rebelliously, while a part of her knew better. And she knew that if she died – she would never reconcile with Kala, never see her sweet boy again, never get to enjoy her reunion with Kal-El – but they would never stop hunting Luthor. She could only pray as she'd never prayed in all her life, that her death wouldn't drive them both to recklessness.
This close to the edge, Lois didn't feel fear, only hatred. All the defiant words she couldn't speak were expressed by the fury of her stare. She would not grovel before Luthor, not even as the barrel of her own gun filled her vision.