I do own any rights to the DC characters named within. I am borrowing them for a work of fiction written for entertainment purposes only.
The crowd watched helplessly as the firemen dug at the rubble that muffled the cries of dozens, if not scores of frantic voices.
The graying brunette stood back, watching sadly as she remembered other times. Other disasters.
"Back up, ma'am," a burly captain in a police uniform ordered her as she moved a little closer. "This area isn't safe."
"Lane. Daily Planet," Lois told him as she held up a plastic ID. "Any truth to the rumor that this is the work of the Anvil terrorist cell as rumors are claiming?"
"Lane. Heard you were in jail. Or dead," the forty-something officer drawled as he eyed the card, his expression far from sympathetic to either scenario.
"And that's why you aren't a reporter," Lois drawled. "So? Anvil?"
"No comment, Ms. Lane," he snapped back. "And move back. You're still just a glorified civilian, and have no place….."
She glared at him, and turned her back on him. "Yeah, yeah. Let me guess, you couldn't meet the high standards for the LexCorp Gestapo, so you joined MPD?"
He glared hard at her, and started to say something when a wail reached them from the nearest pile of rubble as another aftershock rattled the area, and the debris shifted again. Lois turned at the aborted cries for help that ended too quickly, too curtly, and knew she had just heard someone die. Maybe several more than just one someone. Even the fascist officer looked numbed, and Lois found herself missing her once personal guardian just then as she remembered the day she, and the entire world had lost him.
"I don't know if they'll ever trust me again," he had mourned, still shaken by the manipulations of Darkseid who had turned him against his own adopted world for a time.
She had tried to reassure him, but after two weeks of concentrated military assaults whenever he appeared, and an intensely hostile media barrage, Superman just vanished without a word.
Even her longtime rival and ally was never the same after that.
Clark seemed to lose his fervor for life, and the next two years seemed to give essentially lackluster efforts until Perry gave him an ultimatum. Shape up, or get out. Clark went to Iraq to report firsthand on the new terrorist cell Anvil that was first forming at that time. He became one of many that disappeared in the constant attacks on Westerners as the extremists took over the new Iraqi government that proved such a bitter disappointment to many, and the new terror cell forged a greater threat than anything even the experts had predicted.
They never even found Clark's body.
Just a torn, bloody jacket, and his press ID in a mangled pile of flesh that used to be a military unit.
Then, too, it seemed that after Superman's departure, a lot of the heroes scaled back as the government began to actually target their own champions. Several were reportedly slain in open combat with the military, or supporting authorities. Most just vanished. Like the Batman, who was still rumored to be out there somewhere in spite of his obvious age. Quite a few able to so were reported to have left the planet. Kara, the self-styled Supergirl vanished not six months after Superman had disappeared. Supposedly fleeing the planet. By then most people thought he had left the planet, too.
How else could such a man ignore the increasingly desperate cries for help?
Lois spent the next fifteen years in a military prison for treason after her secret arrest and trial for aiding Superman escape a government holding cell. Never mind that she had stopped a xenophobic general from killing him and Kara in the process despite his orders to simply hold them. The man was honored, promoted, and now ran the Pentagon.
It was his guidance and example that led to the virtual eradication of all national super heroes. Of course, there were some rumored metas still out there, but none of them would come forward for fear their own government would target them.
Meanwhile, the world grew worse by the day. Maybe the hour.
Lois was finally released five years ago simply because the military had gotten tired of the black eyes they were taking over her 'martyrdom' when certain elements confirmed she was a prisoner, and why. She continued to publish scathing editorials against Lex-Corp and its military contracts all but handed over by the very general that helped ruin their world, or so Lois felt.
Lex tried to bribe her to buy back her good will not long ago, looking to polish his public image again, and apparently still obsessed with the one woman he had yet to ever really sway to his side in spite of all his supposed charm, and money.
Lois made news herself by spitting in his face, and calling him an American Hitler. Likening his private security forces that ran the city to the Gestapo. It was a name that had stuck. Especially after the slander suit almost made history. Yet oddly enough, Lex couldn't find a single juror in the city, state, or country that would find her guilty.
He knew, because he tried to hire them.
Lois mailed him a Nazi flag after the court threw out the case.
Vandals, inspired by her stunt that Lex reported as further evidence she was 'unhinged,' began painting his property with swastikas every chance they got in spite of his security.
Lex hated them almost as much as the Superman shields that had been cropping up now and then, too.
Especially as whoever painted them also wrote; 'He Lives,' under them whenever they appeared.
Still, in more than twenty-five years, there had not been a single glimpse of red and blue clad hero in all the years since Lois had last seen him fly off, looking as grim as she had ever seen him. She still wished he would come back. If only to her. All her old friends and co-workers were gone now. Perry died at his desk. Cat just moved away, and who knew what happened to her? A lot of the staff had just moved on. Even Jimmy was gone. Shot down in a drive-by during a press conference with gang leaders trying to meet to stop the violence in Suicide Slum while he was trying to take shots of the action.
All she had left was the Planet now.
The new editor didn't know her, but he knew her work. Enough that he had hired her the very day she got out of prison.
It wasn't the same paper, though.
Most of the work was now digital. Online blogs and snappy paragraphs were the news of the day rather than page one stories, and full, detailed accounts of the truth behind the rumors that most accepted as news in this modern era. To most, the Daily Planet was little more than a rag. Just another waste of resources since almost everyone exclusively favored the electronic media now.
Lois stared at the pile of rubble before her as her thoughts whirled, and not for the first time wished she could do something. Anything.
She knew she couldn't. Not at her age.
"Move back," the same cop told her again, this time with far less venom to his tone as he, too, kept staring at the settling rubble as another group of rescuers got to the side door of the collapsed government building stricken by an unlikely earthquake when there were no fault lines in the area. Not three weeks after someone claimed Anvil had stolen the technology from Lex-Corp to create a seismic weapon.
Lois' immediate reaction was Lex had probably sold it to them, then claimed it was stolen.
That was his style. Because no one, not even hardcore extremists, stole from Lex Luthor. Not if they wanted to live.
Lois moved back, but only so she head for the fire captain who was shouting for aid to the first survivors staggering out of the narrow hallway that had miraculously held up. That miracle had kept the thirty-odd men and women alive when the rest of the high-rise came down around them.
"Captain Sanders," she called out, moving as fast as her aging body allowed. "A word?"
"Still at it, Lane," the sandy-haired man grinned. "Shouldn't you be taking it easy on an island beach somewhere about now?"
"Not as long as I've still got a pulse, captain," she grinned, proud of the fact she still had most of her own teeth.
Well, except for those few she lost in prison fighting that bitch they bunked her with.
"There's not much I can tell you, Lois," he told her, pausing to stare back at the battered, but grateful survivors spilling out of the uncovered door.
"We got the call same as the other engines. After the tremor hit."
"You don't find it funny that this so-called quake only dropped one building in this entire neighborhood? And it just happened to be the government building that housed the local homeland security offices?"
"Can't say. I just show up, and do my job, Lois. You know how it is."
Nor could she get a word out of the survivors as they were all rushed off to the hospital. And likely to a private debriefing by Lex-Corp as much as by their own superiors.
Lois grumbled, but stared at the rubble, and shook her head.
"This was easier to cover when Superman was here to help."
"That traitor," the police officer nearest her spat. "We don't need his kind….."
"He was a loser," someone else agreed. "First sign of trouble, and he flew off with his cape between his legs."
"He was an alien. America don't need no more aliens of any kind," someone else commented.
"You ask me….."
"No wonder he left," she glared at them. "He got tired of listening to morons like you."
"Lane," Captain Sanders called as she headed for a local taxi waiting nearby.
"My dad was saved by Supes back in the day. He used to talk about it right up to the day he died. You ask me, it was us who lost out. We took him for granted, and you're right. It would have been lots easier today if someone like him were still here."
"Wouldn't matter," a younger patrolman huffed. "The guy would be ancient. Like her," he snorted as he jerked his head at Lois.
"And people wonder why I never had kids," Lois shot right back at him in contempt.
The man rolled his eyes, and went back to virtual-texting his latest cyber-date. After all, he wasn't going to be doing anything here except standing around the way he viewed the scene.
Lois turned her head in disgust, and headed for the nearest taxi.
"You're really an ass," the patrolman's partner snapped.
"What," the younger man protested.
Lois stared off the balcony of her apartment, seeing only a sea of lights in an otherwise dark expanse. Large as it had been, Metropolis had grown in the more than twenty years since she had been a younger woman, determined and driven, fueled by a sense of idealism and justice that no one seemed to care about any longer.
Three more buildings had fallen this week. All government buildings. All filled to capacity for maximum casualties.
Anvil's usual spokesmen were silent, but everyone was guessing it was them. They liked to wait, and make people anxious before they came out and admitted what they were doing, and offer to stop for a sizeable payoff.
It was the age of concession, and yet for every dollar spent, another life was lost, because they never truly quit. They simply shifted targets.
She looked away from the city, hating what it had become, and what it had made of her. The stars were not even visible any longer beyond the clouds, light pollution, and general haze that covered the sky now.
Once, this high up, she could have at least seen the brighter stars. The moon. A few constellations.
Like the rest of the world around her, it had grown gray and ugly.
Had he seen this coming? Was that part of what made him go?
She wasn't sure why she was feeling so maudlin of late. Or why he was so fresh on her mind. He had been gone for years. A part of her had kept looking for him when she had been locked up, thinking, madly, that he might come for her.
Of course, he never did.
She hated to admit it, but that part of her still looked for him now and then. She still hoped to hear that rush of air, and spot that distinctive blur that represented the melding of his primary color's into a single shade as he virtually out-flew light itself at times. Part of her just wished she could have said…..goodbye.
"Some of us still need you," she had said far too late. "Some of us still love you."
She had said it two days before it became apparent he was gone.
She remembered, because she still recalled the way he looked that last time he flew off right before her arrest. She remembered because she heard that not a day later a 757 went down in the heart of the Midwest, and he was not there to catch it. Later that same week someone blew up a mall in the name of their cause. No one stopped them. Everyone got away, except the innocents.
A month later the then current president was shot down at a rally.
She was in a secret military prison by then.
Things had gone to hell since.
All because that stiff-necked general claimed Superman had nothing to do with their world. Had no place in their nation. Nothing to do with the hope that filled people's hearts.
Without that visible symbol, it seemed as if the world had turned ugly overnight. As if his leaving made them realize just how ugly, and how truly petty human beings were, and are at heart. As if the savage, cruel baseness had overwhelmed all that was good and pure, and driven off God's last angel from their world.
Or that was how she saw it.
She heard the doorbell, her musings interrupted, and sighed as her hands tightened on the balcony railing.
In the years since her freedom, few as they were, she had not had one single visitor. Not one. Someone either had the wrong address, or it was one of those roving youth gangs trying to get her to open her door so they could break in, and rob her. Or worse.
It was a tried but true ploy the kids still used. Ring a bell, and see if someone was dumb enough to open the door.
She ignored it.
The bell rang again.
Let them try breaking in. She had not hung around with some of the smartest and best on the planet as long as she had without learning a few things. Her security would keep her safe enough. And even if it were a legitimate visitor…..
Well, she didn't know anyone worth seeing at this hour.
The bell rang again.
She gave a soft mutter of disgust as she heard it ring the sixth time.
Points for persistence, she thought, and turned back into her apartment to see just who was pushing their luck enough to annoy her. She walked past her visi-phone, and saw it blinking nine messages. All recent. She had turned off the ringers, as she didn't care for messages from spammers or advertisers.
Somehow, answering a phone after midnight that wanted you buy a facelift in a jar was just pushing it.
Someone now knocked.
She might have heard their voice, but she had a insu-shield up that kept her apartment soundproofed. At her age, she couldn't sleep these days without the silence she needed to shut her mind down.
Walking over to the door, she stood to one side out of habit, and touched the security panel to view who was on the other side. Of all the people she expected to see standing outside her door, it was not him. She flipped open the com-switch, and spat, "Go away, baldy, I'm sleeping."
"Lois, while we have had our differences, this is urgent. I need to talk to you."
"Piss off," she glowered.
"Lois, it's about him."
She stood there, eyeing the man on the security screen who didn't seem to age in spite of his slightly wrinkled brow. Two of his ever-present bodyguards who had replaced the long retired Ms. Graves stood behind him.
There were rumors the man everyone knew and hated was another clone.
Or even a cyborg like Metallo.
Some suggested he might even be an alien symbiote of some kind.
When you were dealing with Lex Luthor, you just never knew what you got. But the bastard seemed ageless, and as invulnerable as another man she once loved.
No, there was no kidding herself. She still loved him.
"We both know he's gone, Lex. Why don't you follow his example?"
She switched off the com-panel, and walked away even as the doorbell rang again.
"Note to self. Disconnect the doorbell," she murmured as she headed for her bedroom.
She walked back out on the balcony, and looked up again, ignoring the staccato ringing of the bell now. Definitely going to disconnect that damn thing she thought to herself as she remembered flying, and wished she could fly just one more time. Just to say goodbye.
Just to let him know he was not forgotten.
She sighed, glad the bell had finally stopped ringing.
Turning back to her room, she went to her bed, and lay down, wondering if she would wake up again. Wondering if she wanted to wake up. She was only fifty-three, but the years had really worn on her. Stripped her bare of that hope and optimism she once possessed, and left a tired, old woman that was growing more weary of every day.
Sighing deeply, she closed her eyes.
"To hell with it," she thought, not even considering what Lex was up to this time. "Let someone else chase him." Maybe it was time to retire. She might only be fifty-three, but she felt like twice that. Maybe thrice.
He crept around the corner of an older brick building, staring up at the taller glass spire, and nodded.
Auto-security, and no live guards.
He loved progress.
He opened a small panel on a thick gauntlet, and tapped a few keys on the exposed keyboard he revealed. Tiny lights blinked briefly in the dark, and were the only source of illumination or color around his darkly clad body.
When he stabbed the final key, and closed the gauntlet's protective lid, the spire's glassy façade looked the same. His IFR lenses in the cowl he wore told him that the building's entire security system had just shut down. The local computers, however, were in a viral loop that told the alarm systems that all was well, and nothing was wrong.
That was the problem with machines. They only did what you told them.
He raced across street, a dark blur lost to greater shadows, and waited for the countdown he knew would shut down the last of the lighting for the energy-conservation cycle of the building's computer-driven environment. Right on cue the lights went out, but his cowl's lenses adjusted automatically so that he noticed no change in the world around him. To him, the building was still easily visible.
He reached the main door, knowing he had one hour while the building was dark, and technically vulnerable before the light's came back up, and the change rebooted the disabled security systems.
He had to be in and out inside that time, and couldn't take time for sightseeing, so he simply sliced through the main lock with a laser concealed in his fingertip rather than play at stealth now. They'd know he had been here anyway come morning.
Well, they'd know someone was here. So far, he was still just an urban legend. A ghost of the past. He favored the image. It kept the criminal element guessing, and scared.
He liked them scared.
It made them easy targets.
Much easier than the old days.
He went right though the main lobby, took the private car to the top floor, and soon found the hidden safe that was not even listed in the building's plans. He, however, knew where it was from the start. He believed in preparation, and planning. They were hallmarks to success.
Opening the safe with his laser, he paused to cut a familiar sigil into the wall atop the safe just for the hell of it.
Let them deal with that one, he mused grimly.
"Hello, Lois. Need a lift," a familiar bald billionaire smiled as she came out of her building the next morning holding a cup of coffee in one hand, and her battered briefcase in the other.
"I'd need my head examined if I accepted anything from you," she spat.
"Lois, seriously, we need to talk. It really is urgent. In fact, the fate of the world could depend upon it. Not the nation. Not the governments of the world. The planet itself."
He did seem somber enough.
"What now, Lex? Another of your projects get out of hand? Did your Anvil buddies decide to go it alone? Or did you…..?"
"Lois, will you shut up, and get in," he asked curtly, gesturing to his limo.
She glared for a moment. Leave it to Lex to keep his status symbols in a land that now almost exclusively drove British tini-minis and Chinese Go-bats, as the tiny, glass coffins were called. Americans hadn't built an actual car of their own in decades.
Not since Lex bought out Ford, the last American car-maker, and sold them piecemeal to Japan and China.
"All right. You have until we reach the Planet to make me interested. Then I'm out."
Lex simply nodded, and opened the door for her himself.
He didn't hesitate when he climbed in after her, and shut the door. "Two weeks ago, we thought we found his fortress," he told her bluntly.
"Took you this long," she asked, having been there, seen it, and doubted there was anyway Lex was going to get near it if anything were still active. Not with the Kryptonian security she had seen there.
"Funny. Actually, we have been looking all along, but we could never pin down a real location. The clever bastard….."
"Losing interest," Lois told him instantly.
"All right. Fair enough. The point is that we found a signal, but according to our best estimates, it's focused at a point buried over three hundred feet beneath the ice of the Antarctic. And that is even after all the melting thanks to our global climate shift. What concerns us is the signal was being beamed to the possible fortress location from space. Naturally, being unable to pierce the ice in spite of our technology, we looked up. Something is coming this way, Lois. Something huge."
"Define something," she drawled, a little interested in spite of herself.
"That's just it. We don't know. But we have deciphered enough of the signal to know it's a challenge of some kind. An invitation of sorts, we think, aimed at him. Only we aren't even sure if he's out there to hear, or answer."
"You're coming to a point soon, aren't you," she asked.
"Lois, this….object is twice the size of the state. It's radar invisible, and we only detected it because it blocks out the background starscape, and is steadily transmitting that signal. Considering what we have faced from space in the past, we don't think we can cope with this alone."
Lois burst into laughter.
"Let me get this straight. After all you've done, you're now looking to me to call him up, and ask for help?"
"You were the last to have seen him. The last to speak to him. Did he tell you anything that might help us find him now?" "I get it. You lay on a credible scenario, and try to bring him out of hiding, if he's still on the planet, and then you have some plan to finish him off once and for all. Or you plan to try to con him into opening his fortress to you. Am I right?" "Far from it," he said as the car stopped. "And I can prove it."
"Right," she grumbled as he opened the door, and she saw not the old edifice of the crumbling Planet building, but the steel and glass spire of the Lex-Corp tower.
"Just come to my office for five minutes. That's all. I'll show you the telemetry, visuals, and transmissions we've deciphered to date to prove to you I'm being earnest."
"What about Hardcastle? Is the hotshot general on board with this?"
"He retired four days ago when we translated the first transmission."
"We've kept this covert for now, but we've been trying to find active metas to rebuild our own League, just in case. Only it's…..hard to find anyone."
"Gee, I wonder why? It's not like you and your military buddies weren't so warm and welcoming the last time you invited them to show themselves."
"Look, I'll be the first to admit mistakes were made, and we erred on the side of caution."
"Caution," she spat, but stared at him as he climbed out of the car, and looked back at her.
"Why not. I haven't had a good laugh in years. I'm due."
"You won't find it now. Trust me."
"Lex, I wouldn't believe you if you said the sky was still blue," she said, glancing up at the gray haze overhead.
"Okay, I deserve that. But this is serious, and it's real."
She said nothing as she followed him into the building, and up to his office.
"You see," he said twenty minutes later as he showed her the classified satellite scans, data tapes, and audio transmissions received from the huge, spherical device far out in space, but speeding rapidly toward them even then.
"This could still be one elaborate hoax, but it hardly matters."
"What do you mean?"
"You're supposed to be smart, Lex. Figure it out. He quit on everyone, Lex," he was told. "Even me. You don't think I haven't looked for him, too? You didn't see his face the day he took off when he realized that last rescue was just another elaborate trap. You didn't know him like I did. Hell, I spent fifteen years in a military prison waiting for him to show up."
"I know," he admitted.
"Well, there you go. If you were hoping I had one of Jimmy's secret signal watches….."
"We've already tried that."
She glared at him. "You would. But, guess what? You won. You ran him off. You ran everyone off. Happy," she asked bitterly.
Lex stared at her as he sat back in his chair. "Honestly? No. I've not had a real challenge in decades. And aside from that, we….the planet….really do need him. It….ah, has been theorized this craft might only be an advance scout for a larger party. That if the challenge is unanswered, an entire invasion force might well be imminent."
"Wow. Well, I guess you were right. Earth really is in trouble," she admitted, her smile fading. "But, guess what, Lex. You blew it. You, and Hardcastle. Maybe you can go hold his hand, and make each other feel better before they get here, and start doing what you wanted to blame Superman for all those years ago."
Lex shook his head.
"You will never understand how I truly felt about him," Lex told her.
"Oh, I think I do. I know all about boys, and penis envy. You morons were just marking your territory."
"Really, Lois. You didn't use to be so…. Yes," he snapped, stabbing the emergency line on his desk.
"This is Dr. Yamakiri in Gotham, sir. Sorry to disturb you, but we were robbed last night," the voice on the line told him.
"Robbed! Our buildings are protected by the best….."
"Sir, they got in anyway. I'm sending you something I think you might find interesting."
Lois stared at the holographic image that came through before Lex could think of shunting, or blocking it. She stared at the image, and almost laughed.
"Well, Lex, you come to me looking to resurrect one legend, and end up targeted by another," she told him as she saw the outline of a bat cut into the wall over a gaping safe that had obviously been cut open by a high-powered laser. The small safe was plainly left empty of whatever it contained.
"Dr. Yamakiri, what was in that vault," he demanded, not caring that Lois was standing there just then.
"Everything, sir. Everything."
"Tell me you have something left? Anything?"
"Not a single scrap of DNA, data, or background research. Whoever this was, they took it all. And they touched nothing else, suggesting they obviously knew what they wanted, and where to look before they arrived."
"Yes. They did," he grumbled.
"My backup plan," Lex told her in uncharacteristic honesty. "I had a few samples of Kryptonian DNA leftover from the Cadmus Project I managed to acquire. I was holding onto it until a rainy day, but it seems someone chose to…..steal my umbrella."
"Well, I doubt it's him. He would have to be older than you by now. If he were still alive."
"Unfortunately, I agree, or I'd be trying to recruit him. Equally regrettable, I don't know who it was, or I'd be after him. Extortionists, or profiteers, it hardly matters. Whatever is out there is due to reach Earth inside of two more weeks, Lois. I am asking you, on behalf of our planet, to help me figure out what happened to Superman, and how to contact anyone that might be able to help."
"What about going public," she asked. "Honestly, Lex, don't you think the public has a right to know about this? Besides, it might bring some of those metas out of the closet."
"President Dothan disagrees. He is keeping a lid on this one. I'm breaking a very classified lid just by telling you as much as I have."
"Does that mean I get to go back to prison," she asked sardonically.
"No. It means you leak it all to the public using your underground sources I know you maintain without using a byline to tip off the government," he told her, and handed her a data-chip.
"I did not get to where I am by kidding, or being stupid."
"Neither did I, Lex. What's the catch here? You could leak this yourself a hundred different ways if you wanted."
"Let's just say, I prefer to have the amateurs among us to divest me of any responsibility just in case," he smiled.
"Pull the other one."
He put the chip in her hand, and folded it closed over the device. "Lois, I have been hand-in-hand with the Pentagon too long. They know my secrets, just as I know theirs. Which means that whatever means I used to tip anyone off would be uncovered, and thwarted before I could even put this on the inter-web. You, however, are rumored to maintain ties to known super-hackers, and underground anarchists that still keep the homeland security teams scratching their heads every time they go into action. I'm asking you now, do this….for all of us," he told her. "Just don't ever tell anyone where you got it. I would prefer not to go to prison either," he smiled wanly.
"I'll consider it. After I talk to General Hardcastle myself."
"Does it matter," she challenged him.
"I'll arrange transport myself. I have a private hover-jet at the airport that can take you to him now."
"Will he talk to me?"
"I don't know. I do know I won't be calling to ask. He's as likely to run away as not at this point. A lot of his peers want his head for what they call the anti-meta agenda he encouraged."
"All right. Set up the ride. Whatever happens, though," she told him, sliding the data-chip into her still impressive cleavage. "Don't think this takes me off your back. The day I find the story that will bury you, either figuratively or literally, I'll trumpet it all over the world myself."
"I believe you, my dear," he smiled coolly. "Now, why don't you go downstairs. My car will take you to the airport. I believe you have a plane to catch."
She eyed him for a moment, and paused in the door long enough to ask, "So, what did you do to piss off this junior Batman?"
Lex merely smiled, and shrugged. "I cannot imagine."
"I can," Lois told him curtly, and walked out before he could respond.
He walked past the police car that paused to eye him, feeling the cruiser's com-scan sweep him, seeking the personal identi-chip all citizens were now required by law to wear. His blind read the scan, and presented a suitable bluff to the system that was evidently accepted as the car kept going, and the officer didn't even look his way.
Machinery was so easy to fool.
Sometimes easier than people.
Walking around without the stealth armor he had designed and favored for night use, he looked like anyone else in the city. He even used public transit. Personal vehicles drew a lot of scrutiny in the city these days. More than he wanted.
Of course, the security supposedly kept out the terrorists, and helped monitor crime. A lie, but that was the one sold the public.
He knew the truth.
The identi-scans were set up to find and control metas. A lot had been captured or killed before they learned to go underground. To this day, very few of those captured had ever been seen again. Even children had vanished.
So much for the land of the free.
He used a reflective storefront to track the police cruiser, and the moment it was out of sight, he reached for his buckle.
Or rather the back of it.
Triggering the device built into the innocuous belt, he glanced at his watch that now displayed a GPS grid of the city displayed on it when he pressed a certain toggle. He studied the data being shown him, and gave a grim nod.
It looked like the information was gold.
Someone was underneath the federal building in a closed off storage area where no one should be. Considering the five buildings dropped in Metropolis last month before the mayor bought off the extortionists masquerading as Anvil, he would bet they were now targeting Gotham's elite for their next payday.
It didn't matter that they killed thousands, or that they were not even true Anvil fanatics. They were greedy men that cared nothing for life. That was enough in his book.
Time to drop the hammer on this faux Anvil. And he'd use the city's own tools to do it
Because, after all, machines truly were so easy to fool.
He used his personal computer in the advanced watch he wore to tap in and alter the identi-codes the men were wearing. He brought up their masks, and noted they were using blanks, too. That is, false identities that looked legit, but covered their actual genetic identities. Theirs, however, were not quite as good as his own.
It was the work of three seconds to blank their blanks, and tap into the true identi-chips the men wore. Four hard-timers who had recently escaped prison. Three more on parole, and one madman that should be locked up in New York.
Instead, they had gotten out, and put together a grand scheme to bilk millions from frightened people.
Not today. Not in his city. The irony was that he would stop this bunch without even pulling on his armor.
He sent a directed pulse of EM waves that shorted out the sonic device they were working on according to the building's digital cameras he had accessed, and had just turned back on in the basement. Then he fried their legitimate identi-codes which set off access violations throughout the building's security web when it detected unidentified intruders in the basement area.
Even as he walked on past the federal building, he knew the security team inside was heading for the basement with weapons ready to blast the 'terrorists' their cameras suddenly showed them when they came back online after an unnatural failure.
The few less valuable pieces of LexCorp memoranda he had arranged to have planted in the basement near where he had anticipated the men to show would make the authorities think these men had been in Lex-Tower Two as part of that robbery, as well. It was a blind of his own.
Let them bark up that tree for a while.
Whistling a very old tune as he walked past the federal building, he ignored the look from a young woman that obviously didn't care for the classics as he headed for his nine o'clock appointment at Wayne-Tech.
She was a little surprised to be landing in the middle of the Canadian wilderness somewhere in British Columbia. Not far from where they landed was a small, innocuous cabin. It looked like someone was home judging by the smoke rising from the chimney, but she wasn't crazy enough to just walk up to the front door unannounced.
She stepped off the jet, and adjusted her parka, and then shouted, "General? General Hardcastle? You home?"
A few yards away, a door opened at the front of the cabin, and a thin, gray-haired man on a cane walked out onto the porch. The general, she noted, had aged even worse than she had it seemed.
"Lane. They haven't put you in a hole yet?"
"I could ask the same of you."
He barked sardonic laughter as she eased her way down the jet's steps already icing in the cold temperature, and headed toward the man. She eyed him, then stepped past him into the warm interior of the small cabin.
"I didn't invite you in."
"You don't have to, general. You know how I enjoy inviting myself in," she said, walking past him, and heading for the hearth to drop another log in the low fire before stirring the coals.
"Nice place," she said, looking around as she warmed her hands over the fire.
"Just make yourself at home," he glowered at her.
"I won't be here that long."
"I'm guessing that Lex told you."
"Let's say he seems to think I can help."
"I spent fifteen years in one of your holes. What does that tell you?"
"That your alien friend is long gone," he drawled. "Even Kent gave up on you after the first year of appeals fell flat."
She only glared at him.
She had to read Clark's obit after the fact. Three months after he had died, someone gave her a paper with his last byline, and his obituary in the same issue.
She had cried for days.
"So, why are you here if you can't help?"
"Let's just say Lex thought I needed convincing. I'm still not sure this isn't another con job you people are setting up to use me to hunt down any remaining metas."
James Hardcastle laughed bitterly.
"Do you know how much money, and how many lives we lost hunting the few metas that we knew about? We gave up that chase before you even got out of prison. Even our conservative estimates put metas at fifteen percent of the total population worldwide by now. That was why we went to the identity scans as a measure of checking their growth. The chips, obviously, also identify and track metas. Most, thankfully, are law-abiding. But a significant portion of that estimated percentage in our nation are simply…..missing. That's the help we need, Lane. We need to find them. We need you to get the message out that they're needed. Genuinely needed."
"So you say. I'm still not swayed."
"Listen, if they have half the power the old metas had, they could be all that saves our planet this time around."
Lois walked away from the fire and stared out at the waiting jet on the icy plain outside through the frosted window.
"So far, all I've heard is more paranoia, and dreams of collusion. How do I know this isn't just an elaborate effort to bring them out of hiding just to give your people one more shot at them? It's about your speed," she shot at him.
"And you talk about my paranoia?" "Let's say I had a good teacher," she shot back, her eyes fixed on him as he finally settled into a worn lounger.
"Yet you came here."
"What can I say? I was also always impulsive."
"Don't I know it. Sam always told me….."
"Mentioning my louse of a father won't score you any points."
"Touché," he nodded. "All right. I'm sure you've already checked. I'm really out, Lane. Retired. Only it wasn't my choice, despite what you might have heard. I was….invited to leave. I came here, however, to get away. Maybe whatever is coming won't care about isolated humans. Maybe my own covert teams won't care about me if they see I'm keeping to myself, and not spilling the usual unimportant secrets half the world knows anyway. Whatever, I'm just tired. So I left."
"Am I supposed to care?"
"As to what's up there," he went on. "Yeah, woman, it's real. And it's coming. And, yeah, I'm scared as hell. Just like I was scared of your alien. With good reason, or did you forget he almost turned us into an alien colony."
"At Darkseid's bidding because he was being controlled. But you didn't care about any of the good he did before, or since. To you, he was just an alien, and that was enough."
"I never saw a single alien that did this country any good."
"I know a few Native Americans that probably feel the same way."
"Cute," he grumbled.
"I've heard enough."
"What are you going to do," he asked her as she headed for the door, pulling her parka's hood back up after it had been pushed back when she entered the cabin.
"I'm going to go home, make a cup of hot tea, and watch an old movie."
"And the story? The invaders?"
"Let them come. Or not. I trust you two about as far as I could throw this cabin. Besides, if there is something that big coming, then someone will see it sooner or later. Someone that isn't controlled by the government. They'll announce it, and then the world will know about it without me risking another one of your guest houses. Goodbye, general. Rot in hell."
He said nothing as she walked out of the cabin.
He rose slowly, walked out the door after her, staring up at the jet as it rose into the sky before he reached into his pocket, and flipped open a dedicated line. "It's me. No. She wasn't convinced. If anything, she's more paranoid than I ever was. She won't do anything until she sees the damn thing land in the capitol, and start killing people."
He sighed as he listened a moment.
"I know. Any suggestions," he asked as he heard the reply.
He tracked the departing jet.
"I doubt even that would work. No. No, I am out of this, for good or bad. I'll just watch from here. Good luck. You, too," he added, and closed the communication device.
He looked up again, but the jet was gone. And maybe the last hope of the world with it.
"You're right," Thomas Olsen, Jimmy's son told her as the best hacker on the planet studied the computer chip in a sealed system so it couldn't access any outgoing progs. "This thing is loaded with spyware. Anyone that sent or received this data would be sending an encrypted tracker-worm right back to the originating OS. Maybe LL is legit, but he's got a funny way of showing it. Because if this thing is downloaded, it would infect the web, and track everyone that accessed it."
"And give him and his uniformed cronies the name and location of every hacker in the country. If not the planet. Flush it," she told him. "It's not worth the risk."
"Hey, I didn't say I couldn't crack it. I'll separate the pearls from the slime, and just use the good stuff."
"You can do that?"
Thomas grinned a familiar smile.
"This is me, Lo," he grinned. "Lex might be a mega-brain, but he's still thinking old school. Comes from being a product of the transitional generation. Face it, I was crashing supercomputers when I was three. So give me a break here. Baldy couldn't build a system I can't hack. Or a bug I can't kill."
"Thanks, TJ," she smiled as she turned to go. "I knew I could count on you. Get the word out, but send my warning, too. This could be an elaborate trap for all the genuine nature of the scenario. So tell the shadows to stay shadows for now."
"You know it, grandma," he winked.
"Watch it, kid," she growled, and slammed the door behind her as he laughed at her reaction.
The data swept the intra-web, popping up under several different names, but Lex realized that even a cursory search now brought up his highly classified information that Lois had taken. Somehow, the woman had managed to get it on the net, and even on the under-web, and all without tripping a single alarm, or leaving a single trace.
He had been afraid of that.
He was getting static, and these kids were actually outthinking him.
The greatest genius of his time.
Only that time was passing.
His body was still regenerating, thanks to the singularly unique bio-engineered meta-gene activated in his own DNA, but his brain was aging all the same. His mind was leveling off. Growing static. Clinging to past ways, and not keeping up with progress as much as he once did. It was galling, but the proof was here. He, Lex Luthor, had been blindsided.
Something that had been happening a lot lately.
It seemed that while his body kept him aging at an incredibly reduced rate, keeping him almost, if not quite immortal, his brain was not subject to the same regenerative ability. His brain was lagging, and letting him down. He was not learning as fast as he once had. He was not being as creative as he used to be. He was not…. Not half the man he was just ten years ago.
It was beyond galling.
The truth was, he had once hoped to put his mind in a Kryptonian body, and that was his true rainy-day project. Only now he was seeing the overlooked flaw in that plan. Even with a perfect body, had it worked, his mind would still be degenerating. Still failing him.
It was just not fair.
Especially if half of what he suspected about Kryptonian physiology were true.
If only he could see them one last time. Just one of them. It seemed that Kryptonians had been popping out of dimensions and time warps every other day a few decades ago. Now, they were very hard to find. It seemed they were now just…..gone. Maybe they were truly extinct now. Which left him as just one more mortal who was going the way of all flesh.
Damn it. He should have found a way to keep his mind young and strong, too. Then he wouldn't be in this situation. Even Lane, that annoying, yet still spirited bitch, retained a spark of what made her so attractive to him years ago. Yet his mind was fading as fast as his body now regenerated.
Turning in his chair to stare out at a city and world he had made his in the years since he had conquered so many would-be heroes, he almost expected to see the blue and red alien hovering there before him, a smug sneer on his face, taunting him with his genetic superiority.
Even his clone, the erstwhile Superboy had been hard to bring down, and he wasn't even truly Kryptonian. Just…..a simulacrum.
Yet he had been convincing enough to make an almost indestructible hero. Until his own hormones led him into a trap even he had not seen coming until that rail gun took off his head. One less clone in the world. One less hero.
There was a bitter kind of irony to the fact he had helped eradicate, or drive off Earth's costumed do-gooders just when it seemed they were now needed most.
Not that he wasn't worried about the planet, but he suspected one of them likely had the ability to have aided him in solving his mental degenerative problem. There was the speedster, who mind somehow managed to assimilate and manage input despite racing at speeds that defied imagination. There was that annoying Bat, the real one, whose mind had only seemed to grow sharper and more cunning with the years until he just….disappeared. The Kryptonians themselves, he was convinced, had access to technology that even Hamilton had only glimpsed, and yet saw enough of to still be drooling over the implications and possibilities right up to his own unfortunate end.
The genetic material he harvested from the female Kryptonian might have been promising, but it had disappeared not long after the girl herself recovered from her life-threatening injuries, and broke out of Star Labs to hunt down her cousin. Supposedly to discover just what had been behind the entire invasion he had led. She didn't last either, as in the end, the military finally drove her off, too.
Lex had never doubted Darkseid was behind the alien's apparent defection. He just ignored that to use the situation to his own benefit. And now it had backfired in his face but good.
"So," he sighed, looking out at his world he had helped make. "I did win. I beat the alien, and his League. I beat them all. For what? For what," he demanded of the gray skies beyond his tower as he pondered his own descent in potential dementia more than he pondered the world's end.
The skies, however, did not answer.
The ship was detected by civilians one week from the solar system.
An aging Hubble finally spotted it, and as the decommissioned antique was now in the hands of amateur scientists, its images were immediately beamed around the world as speculation on the massive, rectangular ship that filled the telescope's lenses was added to the initial speculation over data that had first been dismissed as conspiracies and hoaxes when it first hit the global information centers.
The world's governments were still monitoring its flight path, and discovered it was headed not for the Antarctic as first supposed, but for the Arctic. It was still transmitting the same code yet to be fully deciphered, but there was still enough of the comprehensible sections for everyone to agree that it was a challenge of some kind.
Three days passed, and the ship finally became a visible smear in the sky as it loomed close.
Just two more days, and it settled into an orbit around the planet, staying above the north polar cap in geosynchronous orbit.
One more day, and the massive alien craft opened, and a single transport of some kind came down, and landed on the still receding ice cap. The craft sat there, unmoving, not opening, for a full second day. Then what was described as a shuttle when it was first spotted by spy satellites and watched continuously finally opened.
No one could believe what happened next.
The alien was massive. Almost eight feet tall, and stocky and solid with muscle. It was a vaguely bovine creature with spiraling horns curled like a ram's horns on either side of its broad head. It stepped out to stand there unmoving as its breath hung visibly in the air as it ignored the subzero temperatures while it seemed to be waiting.
Speculation ran rampant as the hours passed, and just when some people began to think nothing was going to happen after all, the sleek, black jet appeared to land near the shuttle, and a man in a vaguely familiar costume leapt out of the cockpit to walk over to stand in front of the huge alien.
The alien obviously intended to attack him.
It raised massive fists, bellowing what sounded like a war cry. It charged forward, and seemed ready to crush the smaller man. Just before the man raised a single hand, and a silvery sheen erupted as a burst of energy grew to engulf the alien, causing him to simply vanish when it faded.
Even as the powers-that-be speculated on who this possible meta might be, and where he had come from, he pointed at the shuttle in the same manner as he had the alien, and the shuttle shimmered, too. Just before it, too, disappeared as its owner.
Walking back to the sleek, black craft that had a vague bat-like shape, the costumed man jumped back up into the cockpit, and even as it blasted off the icepack, it went stealth, and simply vanished from both satellite surveillance and tracking.
Still, the world had been watching. The world had seen. And even Lois was convinced. Because she had seen that shimmer before. Whoever this new Batman might be…..he had a phantom zone projector!
And she had a new story.
Meanwhile, the massive craft overhead continued to orbit the planet. The original transmission had finally stopped. The experts, Lex included, continued to monitor it as it simply hung up there over their planet.
Then a new transmission began to cycle. This one in terrestrial languages, and easily understood.
"You have corrupted the terms of battle. Your world will be destroyed," it stated bluntly, and simply. Even as it began to move to target the larger cities, its smooth, glassy surface sprouting gun-like protuberances, several things happened at once.
A series of satellites no one knew existed converged on the spacecraft, forming a series of emitters that were swiftly trained at the vehicle from all sides. To the planet's shock, they saw an entire massive spacecraft vanish. Not, however, before it jettisoned a single craft at the heart of Europe. The ship had not escaped, though. The phantom zone projectors had opened a rift large enough to swallow even that massive vessel.
Meanwhile, all eyes followed the shuttle that fell to Earth from the now apparently neutralized spacecraft. A shuttle that proved to be a simple pod of some kind. It landed just outside Berlin, and cracked on landing.
Men began to die almost instantly.
The creature that came out resembled the now legendary Doomsday the way a chimpanzee resembled a man. It was larger. More massive, and was covered in scales with razor-like protuberances. It was a thing of pure, mindless rage, and it began to tear apart anything and everything around it the moment it was free.
The Germans put out a call on every channel and frequency open to them for the mysterious Bat to aid them.
He did not appear.
He did not have to appear.
The creature had not made three blocks through the city when he appeared.
Tall. Godlike. Clad in black, and yet without that famliar sigil once etched across his chest. His hair was cut short, almost crew-cut, but there was not one doubt in Lex's mind as he watched the satellite feed. He had not aged a day. Not one day. It was him. And he was still magnificent.
He hovered just off the ground a few yards from the beast that now came right at him like a runaway locomotive. He stayed there, letting it come to him. Lex actually tensed as he watched the moment the beast was just inches from him, and the Kryptonian moved in a blur of speed that caught the massive, obviously powerful creature completely off-guard. The destructive power of the alien was already obvious.
Yet that single blow launched that massive creature straight up into the air so far and so fast it was readily apparent that it was not coming back down anytime soon. As soon as the blow landed, and the creature went flying, the Kryptonian launched himself after it.
Neither came down.
They were tracked out of the atmosphere, and vanished. No one spotted a return. He was just gone.
"You….unbelievably…..arrogant…..bastard," Lex murmured, ignoring the commentators now all babbling incoherently as they tried to digest what they had all just watched happen.
"You were here all along."
A few miles away, Lois sat in front of a screen watching the replayed footage, and cried. It was all she could do.
He watched the creature slam into the dark side of the lunar surface, and knew it wasn't getting back up. Its lungs were not capable of holding enough air to keep it going out here. It's face was already paler than before, a slate gray rather than silver, and it lay clutching helplessly at its throat as it stared at him with wild eyes. He saw no intelligence, though. It wasn't quite like the true Doomsday.
It was pure animal.
Likely sent as a spiteful response by the D'x'x'g'gr'n he had repeatedly warned to keep out of his system, and off his world.
He let men run their nations, and cope with their own messes, but he maintained a steady vigilance over the planet itself. He acted only when men truly could not, or would not act to save the globe. As when that asteroid had threatened the world just five years ago. Or when a solar flare could have shut down enough of the planet's systems to have caused catastrophic reactions in more fanatical governments. Not to mention wide scale death and destruction from the intense radiation. He had created a special solar shunt to deflect the massive flare around the planet, sparing it far more than a few minor power fluctuations.
He had not planned to show himself this time either, but Bruce was out of place, and he didn't like daylight as it was. Also, not even the Bat could reach Berlin in time to help as fast as he could. And that thing could have caused genuine ecological damage if it had hit the fusion reactors in the area. Lives aside, he could not have half of the continent devastated by radioactive fallout if those reactors exploded.
So he had acted.
He waited until the creature was completely still, and scanned it with his x-ray vision again.
As he thought. It couldn't breathe in space, or hold air for very long, but it was capable of shutting down until it could be revived in a more hospitable environment. That was likely how its hosts had held it themselves. He doubted it would be safe to bring back to his fortress in spite of his safeguards, but it would have been cruel to this animal to send it to the phantom zone. For now, he dug out a deep pit, and buried it in the lunar soil far beyond the reach of those that might come exploring.
He would seek out a potentially safe haven for the beast later.
For now, he had to return to his own work. Work interrupted by the annoying aliens who picked up dated transmissions of his exploits, and demanded he fight their champion or surrender his planet as their prize. He warned them off, and their reply was to keep beaming the challenge rules at him, and launching an entire ship of 'champions' to test him.
The D'x'x'g'gr'n, he knew by now, were genuinely bull-headed in more than just appearance. Hopefully, the loss of their elite champions would make them have second thoughts about a second attempt on him, or Earth.
Flying back to the world he secretly defended against only global threats now, he flew back under the blue and green world to approach the Antarctic away from the detection of any satellites that might otherwise spot him. So far as they would know, he had kept going. They might wonder if he had come back down. But like before, they would never know.
He preferred it that way.
Of course, the proverbial cat was out of the bag now, especially for Bruce. Not that anyone would believe that it was him. The original, and only Bruce. Or Batman.
Seven years ago, he had faced off against Ras al Ghul yet again, and they had both gone into an unstable Lazarus pit. Bruce had been the only one to come out.
Revitalized, his mind and body once more in his prime, he had returned to his crusade with a new vigor and vengeance. Only he went back with a cunning that was sharper and more clever than ever. He managed to make it seem as if he were not even there, even as he left little hints here and there to suggest otherwise.
His way of taunting the officials still hunting capes, as they once called them. It had been his idea to just use the phantom zone projector he had perfected and miniaturized, and even added to certain protective ghost satellites for global defense. It proved to be a very good idea.
Burrowing back into the thick ice that covered his subterranean fortress, he noted a nearby encampment trapped by a blizzard. A quick peek told him they were LexCorp explorers out hunting him again.
Even if they knew exactly where he was, they could never reach him.
He left them to their folly, having long since left men to do what they wanted with their lives. His concern was for the planet itself. The team was on its own. Like all those before them.
Digging deeper, sealing the tunnel behind him as ever, he left the surface behind, and promptly disregarded the men and women on the icy plain above. A few moments later, he was standing in front of a large row of monitors that displayed not only the planet, but the entire system. Nothing new was coming from the D'x'x'g'gr'n, but it would take a day or two for their ship's last transmission to reach their homeworld. Another day or two to see if they replied. Hopefully, they'd go hunt some other challenge.
They were, after all, more pests than a real threat.
One monitor, he noted, showed a man in a vaguely bat-like stealth uniform.
"Bruce," he said, raising the volume.
"Had to show off, didn't you?"
"I did not have much of a choice this time. The animal was less than a kilometer from one of the larger fusion plants."
"I noticed. You could have just zoned it," he told him.
"It's an animal. It would have been cruel."
The vigilante cocked his head. "Knocking it into orbit was kinder?"
"For it? Yes."
"I'll give you that one. What do you intend to do next?"
"You do know Lane is making noise again?" "She usually does."
"There are federal suggestions that she be permanently silenced this time. They can't prove she was the one that leaked that data, but they know she did it all the same. They don't like it that she seemed to be able to run circles around them. Our appearing on the heels of that feat doesn't make her look very innocent regarding our whereabouts either."
Kal-El, as he now exclusively considered himself, Superman being long dead, said nothing. His impassive expression didn't even falter.
"Are you really that removed from us now, Kent?"
"Kent is dead. Superman is dead. I am Kal-El. I have told you this before now."
"And I'm the Easter Bunny," Bruce snarled. "Are you telling me you're going to just stand there watching the world go merrily to hell, and even let Lois die if they do come after her?"
"She'll die soon anyway."
"You sound certain."
"And you know that how?"
"Like you, I do have my sources."
Bruce snorted again. "And I'm betting that's inoperable by our standards. What about yours?"
Kal-El said nothing.
"You're getting harder to talk to, Kent," he called him again. "Funny, but I can almost see you turning into that godlike monster Lex always feared."
"I am not like that."
"We have had this discussion before many times. It ends the same. As before. Earth's people wished to solve their own problems, and handle it's own affairs. I merely allow them to do so."
"You're as out of step as you ever were. First you were too soft. Now, you're too rigid. You never could find a middle ground. It's always all or nothing with you, Kent. I wonder how your parents would see you these days?"
"While I appreciate your suggestions for dealing with the D'x'x'g'gr'n, this conversation is becoming counterproductive. Goodbye, Bruce."
Bruce didn't reply as the monitor went blank.
He didn't care.
He tuned one of his monitors to Metropolis. A little fine-tuning and he scanned the Daily Planet building. A sad shell of its former self now. Lois, he saw, was no longer there.
He again fine-tuned the monitors studying his former home, and found her in her apartment. Another crumbling structure in a bad part of town. Reporting obviously didn't pay what it once did, and Lois' reputation meant nothing to the young. Or her creditors.
He studied the woman staring blankly at the wall of her own room, and saw the grief in her eyes. He watched her sit there for what seemed hours before she dozed off, slumped on her worn, sprung couch, and looking older than her years. And yet still as beautiful to his eyes as when he first spotted the brash, young woman who dismissed him as hick one moment, and worshipped him as a demigod the next.
Unknowingly, of course, since she didn't know who he had been.
Incredibly enough, that bumbling façade had fooled her for years. Just as it fooled the world.
She was smart, and clever, and hard to deceive, but even she never realized that Clark Kent was her personal Superman. He still sometimes smiled over the way he had been named by the woman even before she knew him.
Sometimes, even he wasn't sure who he truly was at times.
Things got mixed up.
At times, he almost wished he had followed Kara into the future where she had gone to help those self-styled heroes who claimed they required her help, not his. That history demanded she depart at that very point. Seven years, and he had to wonder how she fared.
He had a time machine of his own now. He could check.
He just….didn't bother.
His research, his duty, was still to this world. Here and now. Besides, if his own analysis was correct, he'd be seeing her in about five or six hundred years. It seemed that since he reached twenty-five, his aging had slowed to a virtual crawl, and he had become virtually immortal. Almost like Vandal Savage, who he had finally dropped in the Phantom Zone, too.
That man was too unrelentingly evil to keep risking his planet to any longer.
He took one last look at Lois on the monitor, and forced himself to turn away, tuning the monitor back to its proper perspective.
Then he headed down the corridor to his lab where he was almost finished with a device that Wayne-Tech would soon be marketing to help clean up the atmosphere, and regulate the amount of pollutants in the air without nations like China, or Korea yelling about the right to progress. The device he had created would be able to literally neutralize the heavy gasses and alloys choking the atmosphere for pennies a day, and was of more value than an overly muscled strong man pummeling common thugs any day.
This, he felt, was where he could do far more for his adopted world.
Not chasing criminals who would always be there, and always be replaced. Criminals that could always be handled by their own…..
He frowned as he stopped in the door of his lab. A lab he knew some men, like Luthor, would literally kill to get inside, and realized Bruce was right.
He was starting to think of humans as them. As others. True, he was alien. He was Kryptonian. But he was raised to be human. He was raised to help. When had that really changed? When he had let Lois go to jail?
He tried to follow the letter of the law back then. He rallied their peers as Clark Kent to try to get her an appeal. The military court wouldn't even hear them. She vanished into Guantanamo, and then she was moved by a paranoid military fearing another rescue attempt, and afterward even Bruce couldn't find her for several years.
They virtually buried her.
Clark tried to fight in his journalist's guise another year. Only he had lost interest in the world around him. He lost interest in humanity.
But when had he lost his own humanity?
He frowned at that thought, and looked up.
His unique vision easily detected five men and two women literally freezing to death just a few hundred thousand meters over his head.
Had he truly grown that calloused?
His lips thinned, and he considered his next action as he walked into his lab.
"Lex-One. This is Polar-Three. Do you copy?"
Lex sat up straight in his chair, shocked to hear from the expedition. They had been lost over a week ago, and with unfavorable conditions driving even the hardiest men off the continent for the season, he thought he had lost another team for good.
He spun his chair around, and reached for the communications panel on his desk.
"Go, Polar-Three. What is your status?"
"We are in Argentina, sir," a grinning Dr. Ian told him. "You will not believe who saved us!"
Lex considered what had happened less than two hours ago.
"I think I might," he said. "What happened?"
"It was him, sir," Jessica Sanders, the best guide on the ice appeared on screen. "It was Superman. Just like in the news casts. He came out of nowhere, and lifted our entire camp up out of the ice, and flew us up here in just a few minutes. He was….incredible!" "I recall," he drawled, knowing the team had likely not heard about the aliens. They had been out of touch for a while.
"We never found any new signals, though," Dr. Ian told him, the balding man knowing what Lex would want to hear. "His fortress may be out there, sir, but….I'm afraid we just aren't going to find it with the conventional means available to us at this time."
"I see. Very well, pack up, and come home, Jonathan," he told Jon Ian, the world's leading geologist. "I'll have to consider another…..tact."
"And, Dr. Ian?" "Sir?" "I'm glad you're all okay," he drawled, feeling the need to at least sound concerned.
"Thank you, sir," the man nodded, and closed the channel.
He turned to stare back out at the city, and frowned. Was the alien really back then? Was he going to go back to saving kittens, and annoying him? He almost wished it were so. Maybe he just needed the challenge…..the inspiration of a true rival to restart his mind's creative processes?
Time would tell.
Lois looked up as she realized she fell asleep on the couch.
The daily news blogs were over, and even CNN's digi-screen was blank.
Nothing new was coming anyway.
Superman had come and gone, barely there before he vanished again. It took a monster that made Doomsday look tame to bring him back, and yet he had hammered him like he was hitting a petty thug. She didn't think for one minute that big….thing had hurt him. Not like Doomsday had that time.
God, that had been terrible. Thinking him dead. Grieving over him. As she had when he left.
Then the doorbell rang again, and she realized it had woke her.
She really was going to have to disconnect that thing.
She climbed to her feet, tightening her robe around her thin body, and walked over to see who was there.
If it was Lex again….
It was not Lex.
"Lane," she sighed, staring at the four men in federal uniforms. "Ident number La-98765-L3.
"How can I help you, marshals?"
"Open the door, Ms. Lane," the man in front of the other three demanded with a face that looked like he had stopped a truck with it.
"Is there a reason….?"
"I've a warrant to search your premises, ma'am. Open up, or you will be in violation of several federal statutes, and subject to arrest."
"Fine. Fine. Just wait a damn…. Minute," she gasped, realizing she wasn't in her apartment. Just that suddenly, she was flying out over the city in the arms of a man that did not look a day older than he had when she last saw him. The black bodysuit was different, but it was him. She could tell.
"Superman," she choked, her heart hammering, but her mind soaring as she stared up into her handsome face.
"You didn't want to open that door, Lois," he told her. "Those men were there to kill you."
"I've been expecting them," she admitted.
He said nothing, and she realized he was carrying her away from the city.
"Where are we going?"
"Uh, I know this may sound funny after all this time, but…..why? And why now?"
"You're dying, Lois," he told her.
"I've been dying for years, buster. So what?"
He gave her a faint smile.
"No. You're dying now. Cancer. It's in your brain, and moving into your lymphatic systems by now. It was inoperable, so your doctor chose not to inform you."
"Naturally," she muttered. "Wouldn't want to overtax the health care system. So…..what are you going to do that they can't if it's…..?"
"Operate," he told her as he picked up speed as she realized they were over the ocean, and headed due south.
"Target is gone," Agent Elliot told his superiors as they finished sweeping the apartment, and didn't find a single trace of her. "She seems to have….vanished."
"No, she didn't vanish," the local head of operations spat in disgust. "It's the alien. Back up to his butting in. I suspect she was in touch with him all along. Just as the general suspected. Come back in. We're going to need to outfit you with green k-ammo for this one. They'll reappear, and when they do, I want you to kill them both on sight."
"But, sir…..didn't he just save…..?"
"You have your orders, Elliot. Return for rearming."
Elliot looked at his men, and shook his head. "Looks like we get to go after the biggest target of all."
"Sir," one of his men asked. "This guy just knocked a monster built like a robo-tank into orbit, and flew off like a hypersonic transport. How are we going to stop someone like that?"
"You'll find out, rookie. Let's go."
"Kryptonian science, obviously, was light years ahead of your own," he told her as he walked around where Lois lay in a gown on a table that felt surprisingly warm and comfortable when she expected to be chilled.
The place was like any other operating room she had ever seen. Operating table. Bright light. Weird instruments.
Very weird instruments.
"So, I take it you got a medical degree while you were away?"
He smiled. "Don't worry, Lois. You'll be fine."
She smiled weakly. "Who's worried. I'm just wondering where the hell you've been all this time? They put me in jail, Superman," she told him. "Jail."
"I'm sorry, Lois. Really, I am, but…..I had finally decided to leave human affairs to humans. It seemed like a…..logical decision at the time."
"Yet here I am?"
"Sometimes things just aren't completely logical," he admitted. "Like the way I still feel about you. I just couldn't let you die. Not when I knew there was a chance I could save you. I'm going to put you out, and when you wake up….."
"So…. I really have cancer?"
"And it's killing me?"
"God, no wonder I've been feeling so crappy lately."
He smiled, patting her shoulder.
"You'll feel better soon. I promise."
"Call me Kal-El. It's the name I use now."
"Okay, Kal. Promise me you won't fly off and leave me again? I have some things I really need to tell you. Things that…..need saying."
"You have my word, Lois," he told her.
He came out of the shadows, eyes scanning the darkness, and smirked as he saw the extra patrol cars everywhere. He didn't doubt that police helicopters were up there, their IFR and stealth modes working overtime to try to find and trap him.
The authorities were nothing if not predictable.
Not that it mattered. They couldn't catch him even if they spotted him, which was unlikely with his Kryptonian upgrades and his own tech working so far ahead of the locals. He had been operating over twenty years right under their noses, and they were only certain he existed now because of those out-of-towners that threw a monkey wrench into his usual operations. Still, considering the damage they could have done to his city, not to mention the world, he chose to show himself.
Too bad the 'champion's' friends had to go and be sore losers. He would have favored the scenario where they gave up, and went home. Fortunately, he talked Kent into preparing for the more likely event where they were sore losers, and tried to cheat on their own rules.
Like a blind man wouldn't have seen that coming.
He had to admit, the projector he had fine-tuned with Kent's help made things easier. They got rid of the real madmen and menaces, and left the ordinary thugs to the police. The police were crowing about how they had caught the fake Anvil gang without aid, and that had given them all a real sense of pride. Right up until the Bat was forced to leave the shadows, and show himself.
He wondered what Kent was doing now. His best guess put him back in Metropolis. He might favor the law, and his own self-imposed exile, but he knew the man. He would never just sit back and watch someone he cared about die. Especially not her. The problem was that Lois was not getting any younger, and when she did inevitably die, then who was going to keep the man connected to the world? He might just become Kal-El in truth, and he had already shown Bruce that his Kryptonian genetics made him a very disinterested party when it came to certain matters these days.
Or certain people.
If the situation did not change, he might well become just a shadow in the background, protecting the planet at the cost of its inhabitants. Caring about nothing but his own introspection and science as he impassively watched mankind damn himself.
Because that was where Bruce had to agree with Ra's. Without some kind of hope. Some kind of higher influence. Man was going to drag himself down into the muck and mire, and toss himself as a species right over the cliffs of oblivion. Like amoral lemmings heedlessly rushing headlong to destruction. Unless Kent, as he still considered the man, returned to present them with a visible symbol of hope once more.
Even he could see that had been his greatest power. And mankind's greatest loss when the doomsayers had finally managed to drive him off. He hoped Lois' plight might stir him once more. Just as he hoped the aliens might have spurred him to action. Which they did, in a manner of speaking. Even he was a bit alarmed at how strong he had grown in just twenty-four years, though. He happened to know kryptonite now had about as much chance of slowing him down as a snowball. He had grown too strong, and absorbed too much of the unique radiations from their sun that powered his alien cells.
For all Bruce knew, the man might just be a true god in some respects by now. Powerful beyond imagination, and obviously far more intelligent than he had ever allowed himself to show. And it only made him draw further away from the world that he now called his home.
Still, he was raised as a human. That was what Bruce was counting on when he steered him back to Lois, and her plight. He had hoped to find her earlier, but by the time he had, being diverted by running for his own life, Kent had already gone underground, literally, and it took a few years to reconnect with the man. By the time he found her, Kent was turning his back on everyone, and only a continued haranguing kept him in touch at all.
Now. He would see what happened.
Lois, he knew, though, was integral. He couldn't have created circumstances tailored more to his liking than if he had given the order to kill Lane himself. Some people, he knew, just never learned. That was why he still wore his cape and cowl.
Lois woke instantly, wide awake, and fully alert.
She felt…..energized, and sat up to find herself clad in a smooth, black bodysuit much like Super….
She wore no boots, but even her feet were covered in the same soft, shimmering material that was both comfortable, and warm. And she realized her hands looked…..different even as she held them up, staring at the smooth skin and glossy nails. Not one wrinkle.
She glanced around the room, and felt the weight of her hair move even as she saw a color she had not possessed in years. She tugged at a lock of the thick, dark hair, and pulled it forward.
"I don't believe it. Did he dye….?"
No. Of course not. Why would he? Her hair, however, was dark brown, and did not show a hint of gray.
"Awake already? That's good. It means the genetic infusion is stable, and working."
She turned to stare at him, standing in the door of the operating room, and smiling at her the way he used to smile at her. That secret, patient smile that suggested he found her both amusing, and likeable, but she had never suspected what else it revealed.
Just then, she saw something else.
No. She was imagining that. She was old. Old and dying, and he was…..he was still super.
"Come with me, Lois," he told her, and held out a hand.
"Wait," she frowned as she took a step, and realized she had just jumped up, and taken a step without the usual dizziness, or the usual aches in her joints that had been slowing her for years now. "Did you say genetic infusion?"
"Yes. Essentially, I performed a theoretical procedure on you that I suspected might be capable of saving your life. You see," he told her, taking her hand and leading her out into a corridor where one of his many hovering robot drones floated past on whatever mission it had just then. "Humans seem to have a genetic disposition toward cellular self-destruction. I don't know why. I've been researching it for years, and even my science has yet found a key to explaining it. However, Kryptonian DNA does not have that bent. It, in fact, prevents virtually all disease or illnesses, including cancerous growths."
"So…..this infusion stopped my cancer?"
"Actually, it destroyed it. Technically, you are now a hybrid Kryptonian, and no longer fully human."
"Right," she drawled. "Does that mean I'm going to start jumping over tall buildings, and racing bullet trains now," she teased.
"Actually, many of my powers, such as flight, are far more mental in scope than even I once realized. Which makes flight unlikely for your species as a whole except in rare cases. You simply don't have a sufficient degree of latent psionic abilities that come from our evolved mental capabilities. I suspect, however, that you will share a marked increase in strength, and possibly even speed due to the molecular fusion of the genetic material instilled into your own matrix. Frankly, it's all hypothetical, and even Jor-El didn't know for certain if a human could accept a complete genetic infusion without causing irreparable harm. That's why you are only given enough to jumpstart your own human metabolism enough to fight off your disease, and strengthen you enough to regain your health."
"I feel better than that, Sup…. Kal. I feel better than I did even when I was training with dad's grunts."
He stopped her, and turned her toward a glass wall that was actually smooth ice that nevertheless had a very highly reflective surface. "That is because even a mere fifteen percent infusion had unexpected benefits. You've regenerated far better than anticipated, Lois," he told her as she stared at a face she had not seen since she had been a young woman.
She barely even looked twenty now. Even she wouldn't think she was the same woman if she saw herself on the street looking as she did.
"Wow," was all she could say as her free hand went to her smooth, youthful visage, and just touched her right cheek. "This…..This is like a dream."
"No dream, Lois. You're awake. Alive. And you're going to live a full, long life now without fears of any cancer, or other sicknesses."
"Kal-El," she told him, looking up at him in awe. "This is the kind of thing that could change the world. You could help cure so many….. You aren't going to share this, are you?"
"It's too soon. Do you really want to give this kind of power to Hardcastle, Luthor, or those like them?"
"No. But it would do so much good."
"I know. And maybe some day I can share more than I have, but right now, men are simply not mature enough as a species for many of the things I could offer. I have had to be careful about what I do give them. Considering they are so good at turning even peaceful applications of technology to war."
"You…. You make it sound as if you've…."
"Let's just say I have a silent partner that markets the few bits of technology I've been giving the world over the years."
"He wouldn't happen to have a cape, too, would he?" "I don't wear a cape any longer," he reminded her as she looked away from her incredible reflection, and at him again noting the green toga over his own black bodysuit with his family crest upon it.
"I liked the old costume better."
"I retired it. A long time ago. And I did look for you, Lois," he finally told her, resuming his lead through the fortress corridors, leading her someplace she had not been the last time she had been allowed to visit. "But it was a big world, even for someone with my eyes and ears."
"I waited for you," she said quietly.
"If I had found you, I would have come. Then, I realized the world had outgrown me, and all I used to stand for…."
"Never," she hissed, stopping to bound a fist against his chest. "Don't you see? The world needs you now more than ever. This past week proved it. We were all waiting to die when that ship parked over the planet. A lot of us were even waiting for the end before it got here. Even Lex feared it was all over. Then you and….whoever that was….showed up. You have no idea what you started. Again. People have hope again. People are daring to speak up, and speak out, and take chances again. Just a few hours, and the shock waves you caused are already spreading. The world leaders may hate it, and deny it. But people…..people need you. They need Superman."
"You sound like…..Batman."
"Really? And I thought he was just a….. Wait? So, it's really him? What, did his….son, or something take over?"
"No. It's complicated, but it is still him. The original."
"Great," he asked her as they moved down the corridor again, and this time he stopped them as he opened a panel that revealed a room that looked like a massive gymnasium. "How is it….?"
"Don't you see? You two were part of the first League. Part of the legend. You could be again."
"He would love that. He's all about the mystique these days. Taunting, but denying, and waiting to see what people will, or won't believe."
"So….he's been leaving those tags?"
"A few of them. They caught on with some of the kids, apparently, because they're the only vandals he doesn't bother to bust."
"That would make a heck of a story," she grinned, and then eyed the massive equipment around her. "What is all this?"
"My home gym," he smiled, and led her over to a solid post he tapped, and created a holo-panel that he quickly programmed as she watched the alien glyphs rise and move around at his touch.
"Okay, and we're here why?"
"I want a base to compare to your development, Lois. So you're going to do a very light workout today. This is a holographic imager that will allow you to test your strength without straining you. We'll check your recovery over the next week to determine just how much my Kryptonian DNA is influencing you. I set it for human standards," he pointed at the very realistic punching bag that now dangled before her. "So, let's see how well you do starting with a few of your very infamous jabs and kicks."
"Do you know how rusty I am," she laughed ruefully as she eyed the bag.
"Just do your best. Remember, this is just a starting point," he told her, standing back as the panel floated over with him, and he left her standing before the very convincing holographic leather bag.
"Okay. I just hope I don't break a nail," she teased, both of them knowing she wasn't the type to care either way of such things.
She took a deep breath, curled up her fists, and launched a right at the bag. She could feel the impact. Felt her knuckles compress. Heard the smack of flesh on leather. Then the chain snapped, and the bag went flying to vanish as if flew out of the holographic emitter's range.
"Well, Lois," Kal-El murmured as he glanced up from the panel he was studying. "You are something. Not even up one hour, and you're showing considerable strength."
"Lift that," he said, and tapping a few more keys, a weight bench appeared, and a set of weights with indistinguishable markings on the sides shimmered into being.
"However you want to lift. Just lift it."
"How much is it," she asked, walking around the bench to eye the heavy, steel disks.
"It doesn't matter. I'm starting you fairly light, and I'll increase it once you lift until you tell me when it starts getting heavy."
"Okaaaaay. Why not," she shrugged, smiling a little cockily. "Maybe I can even give Rashimoff a run for his money in the next Olympics," she grinned, naming the Austrian who had won gold in the last games.
She chose to stand behind the bench, reached down, and lifted the bar easily over her head.
"Wow, you weren't kidding when you said you were starting light. So, now what," she asked, standing with the bar held over her head.
"Just keep it up as long as you can. Let me know when you start noticing any appreciable weight," Kal told her as he continued monitor and adjust the readings.
"Sure," she grinned, smiling as she considered her new body was very much something she might get to enjoy this time around.
A few minutes later she told him, "Okay, now I'm feeling some gravity there. "Yes, it is definitely heavier….and…."
She grunted, and had to shift her stance, almost dropping the bar, but holding it up with effort before she finally flung it down.
"Wow. How far did it get? Two hundred, or what?"
"Two hundred? Lois," he told her. "You almost supported a full three tons before you dropped it."
"Three…..tons," she murmured, her blue eyes round with shock. "Me," she squeaked.
"You. You were maybe fifty pounds shy of three tons. You didn't even feel the weight until I added two tons. Apparently, your genetic infusion did more than I hoped. It's possible….."
"It's possible you might have had a dormant meta-gene that my infusion process jump-started."
Lois couldn't help but grin as she flexed her right arm. "Okay, now that's cool. Let Lex's goon squads come after me now."
"Hold on," he laughed lightly, shutting down the virtual equipment. "You're strong, but we don't know what else you can do. Or your true limitations. Let's take this slow. After all, you just woke up after a very complicated, and experimental procedure. Look at your knuckles."
"What?" "I noticed when you hit the bag you still scraped them. So you aren't invulnerable. Something to remember when considering those goons?"
"Okay. So, what next, Kal," she grinned.
"Next. You run. I want to test your speed and endurance."
"It's kind of cramped in here for a run, don't you think?"
"I was thinking we'd go outside and stretch our legs," he told her. "Be right back."
He vanished in a blur of speed, and reappeared before she could miss him, holding out a pair of boots.
"Ready to go," he asked, having also removed his green toga.
"Won't I need a coat? Or something?"
"The bodysuit will keep you warm, or cool as needed. Trust me."
"Really? That's great. You know, this kind of gear could be pretty profitable, too, in the right market. I mean if it protects…."
"Lois. I'll handle the marketing, if you don't mind?"
"Fine, fine," she grumbled. "I'm just saying, there are a lot of people that could use decent clothes in this world. Especially something that would…..keep them warm….."
She stared around her at the icy landscape that extended for miles around them.
"You know, sometimes that really annoys me when you do that," she told him as he set her back down on her feet in the endless icescape.
He only smiled that smile.
"Ready? We'll start slow, and head due east to the coast, and see how far you can manage, as well as how fast."
"To the coast, huh? How far away is that?"
"I'll tell you after we get there," he winked. "If you….."
"If? Okay, mister, you're on. Let's do this."
Kal laughed, remembering Lois' former spirit and daring, and knowing she could never back away from any challenge.
"All right," he said, tapping his belt, and then casing something to beep from her own buckle that carried the same house insignia. "I just synchronized our bio-scans so I can monitor your vitals, and keep an eye on your progress. If you start getting…..winded, or worse, I'll stop you even if you want to be stubborn."
"Yeah, whatever. Just see if you can keep up, hotshot," she grinned. "Because I feel like I could run all day."
And then she turned, and started off at a swift jog, gradually increasing her speed, and before he even moved, Kal-El realized she was already approaching close to sixty miles an hour within the first quarter mile.
"Interesting," he smiled, and raced after her.
"Any sign of the target?"
"Affirmative," came the surprising response. "At least we spotted one of them. The Kryptonian, and he was with another possible meta, but they are currently beyond reach."
"What," the director of homeland security that dealt with metas frowned. "Where are they? Still airborne?"
"No, sir. We detected them on a satellite sweep of Antarctica."
"The South Pole?"
"Yes, sir," the agent told his superior.
"What the devil were they doing down there?"
"Running, sir. The pair were apparently engaged in a footrace across the Wilkes Basin."
"Is it the other Kryptonian?"
"No, sir. While it is a female, she does not match the images from our database for the female Kryptonian."
"Send me the images."
The caught stills were still blurred, suggesting the pair were moving very fast. Faster than humanly possible. Still, it was clearly not the cousin. This woman was a brunette, and more….mature than the skinny blonde that once called herself Supergirl.
"Keep an eye on them. Try to track them if they come back this way. Also, try to spot….."
"Sorry, sir," the man reported even as he spoke. "They just vanished."
"Vanished," he glowered.
"They reached the coast, and…..well…..apparently dove into the water, sir. Considering their speed, they could be anywhere by now."
Simon Parkes said nothing as he closed the channel, and stared at the image. Something was oddly familiar about the brunette. He had studied the tapes of the old metas. The alleged heroes. Even the villains. He knew their backgrounds and profiles, as much as could be known of them. He anticipated who they might marry, or even just mate, and what powers might be passed on. This woman was maddeningly familiar, but he couldn't quite place her.
He needed a clearer image. That her face remained blurred despite the enhancement technology available suggested she had been moving fast. Very fast.
Who else could move like that. Aside from the Kryptonian?
He frowned. Had he reproduced?
That was their worst nightmare.
As long as he had been the last Kryptonian, they had not worried too much about him. When the cousin showed up, a lot of men got worried he might just start breeding little supermen that might just overwhelm the planet. When it didn't immediately happen, it didn't relieve the fears.
He had long wondered himself if the man might not have a secret identity. Once he was made part of the meta task force he began hunting that very possibility that Superman lived among them. With a secret family. Was this some offspring?
She was the right age. She showed the right abilities.
He had best figure out something fast, because he knew President Dothan was going to want to know something. Jabir Dothan was the kind of man that did not like surprises. He tended to punish those that sprang them on him.
He didn't want to be the next scapegoat. Which meant he had to find out what was going on down there. Even if it meant going to the source. Still, there was one man that knew more of the Kryptonian than any man alive.
"Miri," he buzzed his secretary. "Alert my pilot. I am going to Metropolis."
Lois leaned back on the beach of a nameless atoll somewhere in the south Pacific. She smiled up at the sun, and sighed as she glanced over at Kal "I used to dream about this. Well, something like this. It's still feeling like I'm dreaming, though."
"No dream, Lois. You just ran over four hundred miles at nearly ninety miles an hour. Then you swam almost as fast for another two hundred miles."
"I feel like I just took a jog around the park back home," she grinned. "And now that I've caught my breath again, I feel like I could do it again."
"It's possible your cells are acclimating to the use of solar radiation. As mine. If so, you'll find it helps restore your energy faster, and more efficiently. We'll need to test that assertion when we return to the fortress. But it's obvious that you do have a plateau. At least, an initial one. We'll see how you fare in the days to come," he told her. "It's possible you might continue to develop greater reserves as you become more….."
"What is it," she asked, seeing him look up.
"A spy plane. Time to go, Lois," he said, scooping her up, and flying away just inches from the ocean's lapping waves so fast that she barely had time to catch her breath.
"I take it you still aren't ready to put the cape back on?"
"Let's just say I still don't trust them not to try dropping a nuke on me again."
"They tried once. There's a north Atlantic island that still isn't habitable because of their paranoia."
She felt him adjust their flight path, and then the choppy waters gave wave to ice, and she knew they were once more over the continent that shielded his hidden sanctuary.
"Can I ask you something," she asked when she was set down only after they were back inside the fortress again.
"Of course," he nodded.
"Clark. Why…..? Why didn't you try to save him? He was your friend, too. I mean, he….."
"Clark had outlived his usefulness. It was time for me to let him go."
"Let him…..?" She stared up at him, shaking her head. "How could you say something like…..?"
"Well, gee, Lois," he replied in a voice and tone she had not heard in years, but had never forgotten. "What was I supposed to do? Let the world wonder why Clark Kent and Superman weren't aging normally?"
"Smallville," she choked, staring at him.
He gave her that smile again.
"You…..jerk," she screamed, and hit him as hard as she could.
He actually grunted. But he didn't move.
Instead, he chortled.
"I'm sorry, Lois, but….."
"I mourned him. You. Twice! And all this time you were…..sulking down here like a….a…spoiled brat!"
He frowned at her now.
"Lois, you have to know….."
"No, I don't. I only know you left us. Left me. Then you made me grieve for both of you. You have no idea how that felt."
"I have an idea," he told her.
"But even when I first considered coming back. Trying to tell my story as you suggested. That's when they first tried to nuke me. Do you think I wanted to risk them doing that when I was in Metropolis? Or Paris? Or anyplace like that?"
"Oh. Well…..yeah. I can see how that would have worried you."
"Lois. You don't know how many times I wished things could have been different. For both of us. But…..I had to be a realist. For the world's sake."
"Maybe now, as someone recently told me, it's time to show the world there is still hope left," he smiled.
"Care to join me in taking yet another risk?"
She looked up at him. "Always, Smallville," she smiled.
"Call me Kal-El."
"I liked Clark," she told him quietly.
"I'm glad. But I gave the Kent farm over to a certain charity for children, and I'd prefer none of the usual lunatics make the connection, and try going after anyone there thinking they can use them against me. So let's leave Clark buried," he told her gently.
"I can understand that. So….. Superman," she smiled. "How do we start?"
"First, we finish ensuring your system is stable, and you're able to control your new metabolism. I calculate about a week should do it."
"Then you publish the truth about Darkseid, the way I should have let you back then. And you tell it all. Right up to the government attempt to harvest and control metas for their own super-solider programs."
"I had a feeling about that."
"I've got the information. All the proof you'll need," he assured her.
"Then I'll start writing the story now, and I can publish it the minute we get back," she told him with a grim determination that characterized the one woman he had always loved.
"I'll show you what I have, then, and how to work a computer."
"I know how to work…."
"A Kryptonian super-computer?"
"Oh. Right. Okay, let's get to work, Superman, because we're on a deadline."
"You're…..him," Owen Carstairs blinked as the pair appeared in his office. "Him?"
"The one and only," he was told by Lois as just Kal nodded. Owen just gaped as Lois smirked before she set a data-chip on his desk.
"My next Pulitzer, Chief," she called him, as she had once called Perry when he had set in the same chair.
Kal still wore black, but he had added a silver shield to his chest. It was his only concession to the old costume. Lois wore the same bodysuit, unadorned, but had an ivory duster over it she had taken from her closet to hide her new costume when they went out.
"So, you're supposed to be…..Lois? The same Lois that limped out of here over a week ago complaining about…."
"Corrupt government officials who were siphoning off tax monies to support their own lifestyles. But you wouldn't let me go after them. You said it was too dangerous for an old woman."
"Okay, okay," the portly man shook his head. "So…..you got young? How?"
She grinned. "An unsuspected meta-gene that suddenly cranked up," he was told.
"Then you have your identi-chip to prove….?"
"Actually, I removed that," Kal told him. "It was detrimental to her health," he told him. "In fact, you'll note a sidebar in the story that states that identi-chips might well be responsible for a host of health problems that were made worse in the past decade without any other explanation. Data that the government overlooked, purposely, to pursue their true mandate of controlling the population. Not just metas."
"This kind of story is going to rock the nation. Maybe the world," he said, and wasn't sure which he meant himself just then.
The story of Superman's exile. Or the claim of government misconduct on such a monstrous scale. This could destroy the Planet once and for all if he risked running either story. Owen, who dreamed of the glory days of reporting and journalistic integrity nodded at the pair.
"I'll run both. Full spreads, and web-casts. Simultaneously, so no one is warned until the story is out there, and saturating the cyber-media. Will that suit you?"
"It will me," Lois grinned. "Just remember to spell the name right, Chief. And I'd really appreciate a raise."
"Now I know you're my Lois," the balding man chortled.
Lois only grinned.
"I'm going to lay low until this hits, and blows over. But I'll be in touch. You still have my number. Right?"
"I didn't log you off the company register yet, Lane," he told her. "So just remember, you still work for the Planet. That means whatever you come up with next is ours first."
"Sure, Owen. Better hang on, though, because I'm guessing this is going to get really bumpy before it does settle down."
"We'll be in touch," Kal-El, the Superman, nodded at him, and scooped up Lois before turning toward his window. "Be careful, Mr. Carstairs. I think we both know it's still a dangerous business printing the truth."
"Some things are worth the risk," he shot back, watching even as he spoke as the Kryptonian shot out the window as if he had wings.
And was just gone.
He couldn't stop grinning.
Lex stared at the Planet's cyber-headlines.
"Superman Lives! The truth behind his exile!"
And also, "Your Government is Killing You! What they don't tell you about those mandatory chips."
Both bylines were attributed to Lane.
Oddly enough, they showed a photo from her old file. One of a young, vivacious brunette who had first slapped Lex when he tried to proposition her over forty years ago the first time the reporter showed up to question him about allegations he had murdered his own family to gain control of his company.
He almost laughed at the memory.
It seemed that while she had suffered a dry spell, the old Lois was still definitely alive and kicking. Something had jumpstarted her old, abrasive style of reporting, and he could guess what. Or who. When Parkes himself showed up demanding everything he had on the Kryptonian, and potential interbreeding with humans, he had been a little nonplussed. Even he had long since discovered a Kryptonian simply could not reproduce with a human.
Genetic incompatibility aside, a Kryptonian child in a human womb would kill the mother.
It was simply not possible.
What he had not told him was his suspicion, developed long ago, that the Kryptonian himself might be responsible for the meta-gene. That his very presence somehow…..stimulated, and energized the human genome, creating an artificial evolutionary leap that made metas possible in the first place. It was a theory supported by the fact the first metas seemed to come from where the alien was most active. But that everywhere he seemed to light, eventually, metas began to crop up.
Superman, he had come to suspect, might just inspire the next great evolutionary leap in man's development. Which was just one more reason to hate the bastard when you were a self made man and self-styled genius like himself. The idea of owing him anything was anathema to him.
Reading the first story, the one behind Superman's exile, he was not too surprised by the details. Many already known to him. He was surprised to learn NATO had actually continued to try to target him, going so far as to try nuking him in the North Atlantic.
That little fiasco had been blamed on one of his malfunctioning defense drones, and he had been forced to do a lot of PR to keep himself from being blacklisted, or imprisoned. And it hadn't even been his fault?
Damn President Biden anyway. He always had been a self-serving prick.
He read on, learning of the hero's past twenty years as he secretly developed environmental tech to help the planet, if not the people, and defended it against stellar threats they had not even been aware of at the time.
So, he had still been playing hero all along. Just on a grander scale than even Lex could have imagined. Driving off aliens, diverting asteroids, and even preventing their own sun's potential catastrophic touch. And now he was apparently back in earnest. Inspired to do more. And to show people how they could do more.
His first demonstration was the release of what he called an atmospheric scrubber than would reduce, and potentially remove all pollutants from the air to leave the planet's air and water safe and nontoxic once again.
Lex absorbed that one, unable to believe he would just hand out that kind of technology without asking for a single dime. It was…..un-American.
Moving on, he scanned the article about identi-chips, and damned if that old bitch didn't have the complete truth. The very design flaws he himself had pointed out were described in detail, and the truth behind their primary use was revealed once and for all for all the world to read.
The alien might be returning, but he was using Lane to do more than broadcast his return. He was going to turn the status quo on its head, and start a new social upheaval with these revelations.
The soft tapping almost made him jump.
He slowly turned, his composure firmly fixed in place as he looked up to see that smug, arrogant face that looked exactly the same as it had the last time he had seen it. Only he had left the garish clown's outfit at home. He wore a black leotard, with a silver shield, and looked more…..self-possessed than Lex could ever recall seeing him.
Flipping a switch he had not used in years, the wide glass lowered to open, letting the alien in if he wished to enter.
He almost wished he had his kryptonite ring on, but he had retired it years ago. After that first bout with cancer that cost him first a hand. Then a body.
"Long time, no see, Superman," he said blandly as he eyed the alien. "So, to what do I owe this visit?"
"A warning, Lex. Do as you like, but do it honestly."
"Or your heirs will take over after you're gone. And you will be gone. I'm not playing games any longer."
"Even if you have the audacity to kill now, Kryptonian, you couldn't kill me. I've absorbed our mutual friend Vandal Savages's DNA into this body. I'm immortal now. I cannot be hurt."
"Then you can say hello to him. Because if you cross the line this time, I will see you join him. In the phantom zone."
Lex's jaw dropped.
"Metallo. Savage. Even Brainiac. I'm finished playing games, Lex. It's a surprisingly small world in my eyes, and I don't care to waste any more of my time chasing fires, when I can do more good by simply preventing them. Understand?"
"Perfectly. But it's not me you'd better watch out for. Director Parkes of the meta-section of homeland security….."
"Is stepping down even now. Apparently, sanctioning the deaths of American citizens for expediency's sake is still a felony even in this government," Kal told him.
Lex stared at him.
"I hope you have, Lex. Or I will be seeing you again."
He was gone just as fast as ever. Just as arrogant as ever. But in a more mature, and far more….intimidating fashion.
He was what Lex always envisioned for himself.